Oh, Ask Amy. You’re still on my shit list for your rape apologism, and yet, I keep reading your column. I admit it, I mainly do it so that I can find particularly awful pieces of advice to feature here.
Dear Amy: I’m a high school student and feel like I am being verbally abused by my brother, who constantly tells me that I don’t do things right.
For example, he criticizes me for not putting dishes away after I am done with them.
Whenever he criticizes me, he says things like, “You’re lazy.” Or he’ll say, “If you continue to make these choices then you probably won’t have the greatest path you can have in life.”
Whenever we get into an argument, he says he’s smarter than I am because I have a GPA of 3.85 and his is 4.3 (he’s taken AP classes).
His words hurt me and my self-esteem suffers, even if I know he doesn’t really mean it. I do believe he loves me for who I am, but this bothers me.
I don’t know how to handle this problem.
— Hurt Sister
Let’s be clear here. Hurt Sister is saying that what her brother is doing is actively hurting her. She cites that it’s a blow to her self esteem, and it makes her feel bad. She’s writing to ask for help. It’s worth noting that all over the world, every single day, people experiencing verbal abuse cry out for help, and they often get responses exactly like Amy’s:
Dear Hurt: A big brother riding you about not cleaning up the kitchen, or saying he’s smarter than you, is not verbal abuse.
People have different qualities, strengths and weaknesses. Your brother might have a better GPA, but you might be a compassionate friend (he sounds lacking in the compassion department). He might be good at chemistry but you might be good at languages, art or geometry. Your GPA would put you at the tippy top in my household (and most households).
Words do hurt. But they hurt less if you make a healthy choice to let the stuff roll off you that you know isn’t true. Your parents should nip this in the bud, but you shouldn’t leave your brother in charge of your self-esteem.
Evidently you never learned the comeback to petty sibling badmouthing. The next time he calls you lazy or dumb, you say, “I know you are, but what am I?”
All together now: Wrong! You know what is verbal abuse? Something that someone identifies as abuse because that person is experiencing it. There are definitely degrees of verbal abuse, but they are all abusive. This is a short letter. We don’t know all the details. But it seems to me, reading between the lines, that her brother is constantly hounding her, is constantly making her feel small and worthless, is constantly saying that he is better than her, is constantly reminding her that she is ‘not doing things right’ and, you know what? That can become highly abusive when you are hearing it over and over.
Especially if you are aware of how it is impacting the way you feel about yourself. Hurt Sister is not writing in to say ‘this is annoying and it bugs me,’ she is writing to say this hurts me and I want it to stop.
Amy’s response is the equivalent of the old ‘sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me’ adage, with a side of ‘you shouldn’t let the things that other people say about you affect you.’ Well, guess what. Words hurt people. The things that people say about (and to) you affect you, whether you like it or not. It’s not always possible to make a ‘healthy choice’ to ignore verbal abuse, especially when you are a high school student, in your own home, a place that should be safe, and your family member is subjecting you to it.
Contrast this letter with this week’s Dear Prudence, where a reader writes in about being increasingly afraid of her husband because of verbal abuse and acts of violence. Here’s what Prudie said:
There is no excuse for the kind of assault he is inflicting on you…He sounds potentially dangerous, and just an arm adjustment away from punching your jaw instead of the wall. Stop apologizing and start packing. You may even need someone to accompany you when you get your things and tell him you will no longer live in fear in your own home…Nice line he spewed about not faulting him for your faults. Now he can contemplate how it’s his fault that your marriage is about to come apart.
Verbal abuse is abuse. It’s abusive and it’s hurtful and, as Prudence points out, it can escalate to physical violence. I’m not saying that Hurt Sister is in physical danger from her brother, but I am saying that her feeling, that this is abuse, is valid, because she is experiencing it, and Amy should have recognised that and provided her with some assistance on addressing it, instead of telling her, basically, to toughen up.
There’s a prevailing and extremely dangerous attitude that verbal abuse isn’t ‘real’ abuse, despite ample evidence to the contrary. That attitude manifests in the way that people at all levels deal with abuse, from teachers handling bullying to human resource directors in offices with hostile work environments. If an abuser uses words alone to harm people, that abuser is far more likely to get away with it, and the responsibility for dealing with it will be placed solely on the victim. It’s the victim’s fault for being ‘too sensitive’ and not ‘toughening up.’
I’d hazard that a fair number of FWD readers have probably experienced verbal abuse at some point in their lives, and may even be experiencing it now. How many people are told ‘just toughen up’ or ‘just ignore it’?
Yeah, that’s what I thought.
Suggestions for Dear Imprudence features are always welcome in my inbox! (meloukhia at gmail dot com)