Sometimes good insights come when you least expect them and from someone who’s cutting your hair. Anna is a lovely, collected lady. Even though she’s good at it, she hates fighting. Her husband is the nicest guy to others, yet he is an Olympian in verbal abuse to her. He never misses an opportunity to pinch her sensitive spots and rubs her nose in every possible flaw a human may have. She feels belittled over pretty much everything under the blue sky. And then there’s the mother in law. If Anna’s daughter showed any lack of manners or basic life skills the monster in law would immediately point out that the girl must have inherited this behavior from her mother.
Naturally, Anna was combative and willing to engage in every fight. She said “I felt like I had to respond to his attacks and respond I did! But the worst came from my mother in law. I felt instantly sucked into all of her attacks, many times engaging in the most pitiful fights. I just felt that if I did not respond to accusations “their” words would be validated. Some of the arguments would drag out for hours. It was exhausting.” She fell a victim to depression and massive headaches.
Enough is Enough When You Say So
Then one day Anna decided enough was enough. She was sick of it all. While drying my ever greying hair she just said: “Then I changed and it was over.” My curiosity was peeked and I almost jumped up from the chair. “Changed what, changed how?!” She said: “I just changed.” This was slowly driving me bonkers. I elevated my voice over the hair blower: “Anna, how did you change?!” “Oh” she said proudly, “I just stopped responding to his verbal abuses. First, it was very difficult; I would turn away and leave the house to cry. I would sit on the street curb and weep. But then it got old and I stopped crying. In fact, I somehow managed to train myself not to respond and was able to keep my calm. Then it hit me: I was validating his rudeness while responding to his every accusation. I was giving him the fuel to elevate his ego. It felt good to have that thought and ever since I feel stronger and more in control of how I feel.”
Naturally, I was curious how did her husband take such a tectonic shift in her demeanor. She said with a small smirk on her face: ”Oh, he’s still grouchy but does not direct it at me. He knows I’m not interested in fighting and I do not intend to to attend every argument I’m invited to. I am still nice to him when he is nice but when he starts belittling me, I write him off as a grumpy old fart and go on about my business.”
“So what about the mother in law?” I wondered. ”Oh its a similar story. One night I just stood up from the dinner table during her usual finger pointing game and said “Your words are bitter; they are hurting me and braking up our family. I will no longer listen or respond to your verbal abuse. You should be paying a closer attention to your son’s behavior anyways,” and then I walked away.” “And….?” I was even more curious what happened next. ”And nothing…, the result was that she doesn’t talk to me as much but then she never did, however she doesn’t insult me anymore either.” I laughed from the bottom of my lungs: “This is awesome!” I said. I was so happy for her.
I used to be an avid fisherman and this was making total sense for me. Let me explain. When you’re out on the lake you have to try casting your bait in various places. If you float in one spot for three hours and do not reel in a single fish you know one of the two things are wrong: either your worm is on the hook looks like deadbeat or there are no fish here! Naturally, you move on and never come back to that place because it’s a waste of time. Verbal insults are something like a bait, honey glazed earth worm. You have to be smart fish and know that even though it looks like a delicacy the moment you bite into it a razor sharp hook will pierce your cheek and you will become a victim of a hungry fisherman.
Eastern Wisdom Traditionss (Buddhism in particular) teaches that all phenomena are arising together in a mutually interdependent web of cause and effect.
In the progress of personality, first comes a declaration of independence, then a recognition of interdependence. – Henry Van Dyke
Anna’s Little Triumph
Not responding to verbal abuse was a simple, yet effective solution in Anna’s circumstances. Instead of becoming defensive or reclusive she became an island. An island that storms can hit but not sink, as its base is deeply rooted in earth’s core. Jennifer Kunst, Ph.D. says it well in her column Headshrinker’s Guide to the Galaxy:
It takes courage to face the truth because the truth comes witl all sorts of anxieties, disappointments, and responsibilities which we would rather avoid. The truth can be painful. It can be challenging. It means we must pull our heads out of the sand and do something to help ourselves—wake up, get up, stand up, pony up, man up, grow up.
Sidenote: Anna’s approach works well if a man is not a violent type. Unfortunately, for way too many women this technique would only expose them to more physical abuse. So my advice would be to carefully asses your situation before trying this at home. If your partner is more like Anna’s then go for it. From now on you don’t take the bait and let the fisherman starve his sorry arse (English term for that fleshy part of the human body that he sits on)!