Dear Imprudence: Just Toughen Up Already!

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.

This week, a high school student writes about a problem she’s experiencing at home:

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)

13 Comments

  1. ARRRRGHHHHH. FAIL FAIL FAIL FAIL FAIL.

    I don’t usually resort to that kind of language, but this really warrants it. Even though I would not consider myself someone who is subjected to verbal abuse (teasing, on the other hand, is something I loathe but my parents do relentlessly), I’m constantly told to “get a thicker skin,” especially by people to whom I’m related. This really offends me, because guess fucking what: I’ve tried that. After I experienced a very cruel betrayal before I started high school, I built a shell around myself. I denied any emotions that made me look vulnerable, I willfully desensitized myself to violent and graphic imagery (I remember in my freshman year of high school we were shown the opening scenes from Saving Private Ryan as part of my world history class’ unit on WWII, and I took pride in the fact that I didn’t even blink) and I generally became a very bitter and caustic person. And what did that get me? A sense of torment and self-doubt that culminated in my emotional meltdown last year and having to painfully learn, little by little, how to express my emotions healthily again. I refuse to suppress anything I feel anymore, since if I hold it in it inevitably turns toxic, so to see anyone giving advice to others to toughen up—in other words, to deny their feelings and let them stew—is like a slap in the face to me.

  2. This, sadly, reminds me all too much of the old ‘ignore them and they’ll go away’ advice bully targets often get. Maybe they will go away, but not before doing a lot of damage. Words have a lot more power than most people realise.

  3. I’m surprised she didn’t say “It’s normal for siblings to tease each other.”

    Of course it is, but this is not teasing.

    A big difference between Hurt Sister and Prudie’s LW is that the LW can leave the situation, but the sister has to wait until he goes to college. And telling the parents, like telling the teacher, can make it worse sometimes. This isn’t a 5 year old, this is a teenager. He’s probably been doing it for a long time and he needs to be told it’s wrong, but there must be more to change his behavior as well.

    And it’s so easy for the outsider to say “you LET the words hurt you” (it’s your fault!) but words are not in some vacuum – verbal abuse is part of an attitude and a total lack of respect for the victim.

  4. this is also my objection to cognitive and cognitive-behavioural schools of psychotherapy (very much including schema therapy) and why i think psychotherapy and psychiatry fails so very many people so dismally. they all say something not unlike this to patients. my therapist finds it frustrating that i am triggered to panic and/or rage by phrases like “we have to get you to where you aren’t hurt by what they do.” i’m supposed to react different when she says it than when my abusers said the exact same thing because she wants to help me, wants what’s best for me.

    that is no help — my abusers said that too.

    anyway the point here being the patient is told — often explicitly — that the people abusing ou will not change so ou must change to become a person who is not harmed by emotional abuse. while it’s true the patient is rarely in a position to change anyone else’s behaviour (i have damned little influence over any of the people who harm me) it’s a dangerous message. it makes the very people to whom the patient has turned to for help party to the harm ou suffered. we’ve already been told it’s our fault we hurt and we just need to buck up. many of us have come from backgrounds where real injustices were perpetrated against us and placing the burden of change on us rather than the people doing harm only tells us this is another person we can’t trust.

    it’s the myth of personal responsibility again; we cannot help being harmed by structures that harm us. being told “it’s only true if you think it is” is wildly unhelpful when, say, it’s perfectly acceptable for people to go on television and claim your family is the same thing as raping children or torturing animals. this really harms real people. it’s far more than just words.

    but damned if i can get most het mental and medical health professionals i interact with to understand that. for some reason they seem to think the words don’t mean what they say. i need to not be harmed by that or somehow stop interacting with a world hostile to my existence.

    so far i haven’t figured out how to do either.
    kaninchenzero´s last blog post ..why share when you can overshare

  5. Politicalguineapig

    Cat: I did that too, only in elementary school- oh, and I stopped hanging out with girls my age for a while. I still feel uneasy in a group of women or girls.It took me a long time to even contemplate lowering the barriers.
    Oh and that old “sticks and stones” thing? I would’ve preferred to be beaten every single day- because Miss Oblivious (my first grade teacher, name changed for liability reasons) would’ve had to act. For most adults, if they don’t see it, it doesn’t exist.

  6. I did manage to achieve the “sticks and stones” with one person – my father. His insults about me (told to my sister, really nice dad or to the lawyers/judge) just rolled off my back, because they were so ludicrous and removed from reality. But it took a lot of time to remove any feelings I had for him. (Right now, I’m cultivating a new one, but it’s on my terms and I think he knows it – I reached out to him, he only suggests the dates for watching the movies.)

    But words do hurt, even from people you don’t know, especially when you’re an adolescent. In middle school (maybe 6th grade), I had a shirt that said “I will not talk to boys” in Bart Simpson chalkboard-style punishment. The last lines dropped the “not.” As I got on the bus, I heard two boys say “lesbian” when I got on. Never wore that shirt again.

    Words hurt. A lot. The internet has shown that again and again to me.

  7. Never for abuse — I kept that to myself while it was happening, then when I told people about it, I had nothing but support by most people I talked to.

    But when I get upset when broadsided by a trigger? Then I better toughen up. It’s not good for my depression to get triggered, after all!

    Ugh.

  8. Yeah, my family’s given me that line so so many times. Constant bullying at school? Toughen up! You probably provoked it! Father & mother causing me to cry every night? Get over it already! Escalating to violence? Well, that’s not good, but they just lost their temper, that’s all! Still angry several years later? You’re just looking for something to feel victimised by!

  9. And this is why, on some level, I still question whether or not what I experienced at home was truly abuse. It was always implied that I provoked it and it was up to me to fix it. When I got a diagnosis of bipolar, my family was like, “oh, that’s why she was so reactive, emotional and difficult to deal with. She wasn’t in her right mind and so she provoked her abuser.” Other way around people, the extreme stress I experienced at home as a teenager likely contributed to triggering a condition I was predisposed to but wouldn’t necessarily develop. So, thanks for that.

    Sorry if this is only tangential to the original post. I’ve had a very triggering day and needed to get something out. This seems like a safe space to do so. But again, I apologize for the potential thread-jacking.

  10. I feel for hurt sister, I really do. Abusive siblings can really screw you up, as a friend of mine can attest:
    http://onefemalegaze.wordpress.com/2009/07/27/sibling-rivalry/
    Luckily for hurt sister, she is almost in college and can hopefully get away from him soon. Call me cynical, but I doubt they’ll be close when they’re older. His loss.

  11. @ Ami: I can totally relate to you. The verbal and physical hurt I got from my parents (I don’t call it abuse) was always said to be my fault because I had behavior problems. I have a diagnosis of autism so I can be sure my behavior problems preceded the hurt, but that is no excuse for the hurting.

  12. This hit home pretty hard.

    My brother is two years older than me and although I would not call him abusive, verbally or otherwise, interacting with him is really bad for my self-confidence. He’s quite blunt, confrontational, thinks anything and everything should be up for rational debate and delights in playing devil’s advocate (someone once called him “verbally aggressive”; I know what they meant), this does not work very well with someone who has issues with depression, resulting shaky self-esteem, can’t think well in a real-time situation and has other difficulties with verbal communication. Especially when you add in faded hero-worship/my-big-brother-is-always-right on my part. When I was younger he’d take advantage of that, he stopped years ago but still… I love him lots, but I can’t be around him too long because he is bad for my mental health.

    “Toughen up?” Yeah, right. As if it’s that easy. As if nobody has a mental illness that makes “toughening up” pretty much impossible. As if you can shake off a whole life’s worth of patterns of interaction that easily. And that’s in a nonabusive situation!

  13. Kaz: As if no one has a mental illness because of ‘toughening up’. I’m convinced the only reason I didn’t have a breakdown in high school was sheer stubbornness. (Like I didn’t have enough social problems before, lets add depression to the mix!)