I hear the words slip out before she can censor herself. She’s enraged, which is nothing new, but this time she’s especially hurtful.
This is a child’s attempt to deflect pain, and no longer a child, I know there is no truth in this saying. As often as I observe the way her moods come and go, no matter how many times I tell myself she doesn’t mean it, name-calling stings. The words become a brand, a wound, a definition. The words make me smaller.
My mother couldn’t manage it.
Name-calling is something we all live with to some degree. As children, we may get a taste – the typical jeering or quasi-bullying that kids inflict on one another in thoughtless moments of anger. But we are taught to put ourselves in the other’s shoes, to understand the hurt, to filter or even censor what we might say that can cause harm.
We learn what it is to be kind. We learn about verbal abuse and its impacts. We learn what it is to be politically correct.
Psychologist Carl Pickhardt addresses the especially vulnerable period of time from age 9 to 13, typically in middle school. In “Name-Calling in Middle School” on Psychology Today, he explains:
Name-calling commonly attacks some implied or observable trait with a word meant to hurt—one that is physical (“Fat”), social (“Weird”), or psychological (“Stupid”)—and that can be very hard to shake… When name-calling is continual, and not occasional, the constancy of it can become convincing. With enough repetition the meaning of the name becomes accepted as reality…
It isn’t difficult to imagine the way a pre-teen or adolescent would absorb the full brunt of the embarrassing or denigrating label, especially if name-calling is reinforced by parents or peers, not those who don’t know the child.
The mother or father whose cruel words are not simply teasing? The sibling who is unrelenting in using words like fat, ugly, stupid, clueless?
Shouldn’t family be our closest support system – build us up, not tear us down?
The Name-Calling Spouse
When I think of the name-calling spouse, Archie Bunker comes to mind immediately. This cantankerous and bigoted character was part of our 1970s cultural landscape, as Norman Lear used humor to mirror the colors of our own prejudice.
Sure, we laughed when Archie called his son-in-law Meathead, but what about the way he labeled his wife, Edith, as a dingbat or stupid?
Of course, verbal abuse between spouses is more encompassing than name-calling. It may begin slowly, and a gradual process of putting the other person down becomes the norm. An angry outburst may initially seem like blowing off steam. And we all say things we don’t mean from time to time, right?
Can’t we forgive and forget a few poorly chosen words when a spouse is upset, in pain, overtired, or stressed?
That’s not so simple when demeaning words and tone become a pattern, when the words let loose become barbs that try to take us down, intentionally or not. Inevitably, the person on the receiving end begins to feel more than the sting of the words. He or she begins to believe what they say, and it’s only natural that self-esteem tumbles.
Verbal Abuse: Triggers
Here is an excerpted legal definition of verbal abuse:
“… the use of words to cause harm to the person being spoken to… The most commonly understood form is name-calling. Verbal abuse may consist of shouting, insulting, intimidating, threatening, shaming, demeaning, or derogatory language, among other forms of communication… lead[ing] to stress, depression, physical ailments, and other damage.”
It’s strange how the body may not forget what the mind does, or rather, what the mind is willing to stow on a back shelf so we can “move on.”
When I hear a parent yell at a child in the supermarket, when an incident triggers a memory of my mother calling me terrible names in a fit of rage, when an intimidating tone emerges in argument and I flash to my marriage as well as my childhood, it’s as though decades disappear and I am the preteen wishing I could run away to escape the oncoming tirade: my stomach knots, my fists clench, my chest pounds; my body remembers the sensations of ugly words, with or without malicious intent.
I tell myself one more time: Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names will never hurt me.
And of course, I know this isn’t true.
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