Do you remember that nursery rhyme, sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me? Yeah well, that’s bullshit. Words hurt. They hurt so much that the Journal of Child and Adolescent Trauma released a study in 2020, which concluded that those who recounted emotional abuse in childhood had higher scores for depression, anxiety, stress, and neuroticism compared to those who reported only physical, only sexual, or combined physical and sexual abuse1. That’s a significant conclusion.
So, what is emotional abuse?
The American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children defines it as a repeated occurrence in which the caregiver uses their words to convey to a child that they are worthless, flawed, unloved, unwanted, endangered, or only valuable if they meet another person’s needs (Dye, 2019). Even though this definition relates to childhood, we all know that emotional abuse does not solely occur in caregiver-child relationships or during early developmental years. That definition can be broadened to affect any type of relationship and at any age.
Not only does emotional abuse cause low self-esteem, but it also wreaks havoc on the nervous system. It wears down tissue in the brain, specifically the prefrontal cortex and temporal lobe, which affects self-awareness and emotion regulation (Dye, 2019). Emotional abuse may be the most insidious form of abuse because those words, whether they be aggressively yelled, manipulative, demeaning, cruel, controlling, invalidating, or threatening, leave silent traces of transgression that can chip away at our sense of self, becoming internalized and affecting us in unhealthy ways.
Violent communication vs. non-violent communication
Emotional abuse is a violent and pervasive form of communication. Unfortunately, it has been reported that 50-80% of adults have experienced emotional abuse at some point during their lifetimes (Karakurt & Silver, 2013). Therefore, the onus is on us to unlearn maladaptive patterns of communication that might have strong-handed our conversations at some point during our lives. Fortunately, non-violent (safe) communication can take quite diverse forms. Be warned though that non-violent communication might sound easy to learn, but in practice, it takes a lot of effort. Ask me how many times I have been told not to interrupt my family and friends while they’re talking. Kidding don’t ask me. So, I understand firsthand how hard it is to unlearn these behaviors; have patience and compassion with yourself.
A great starting point for non-violent communication: the Imago Dialogue
A favorite method that I like to employ in therapy with individuals, as well as couples and families, is called the Imago Dialogue. The Imago Dialogue breaks down into two parts: the Sender and the Receiver. The Sender is the person who needs to get something off their chest. The Receiver is the one who will be receiving the information in the form of listening, digesting, rephrasing, and eventually responding to all that was said.
My absolute favorite part of the Imago Dialogue is the first step, which encourages the Sender to schedule a time to have this difficult conversation. This step is crucial. If you catch someone off guard or in a foul mood, no matter how thoughtfully and carefully you present your piece, you can throw your productive conversation in the garbage because it’ll be trash. Both parties need to be aware and prepared for the conversation at hand; no surprise attacks allowed. Remember, this is non-violent!
The next steps in the Imago Dialogue encourage the Sender to respectfully share what they have to say, pause so the Receiver can mirror what was said, accept or correct what was previously mirrored, and then keep sending until everything has been said. The Receiver can offer a summary of everything mentioned, confirm (an easy way to communicate validation to the Sender), ask for more information, and empathize with what the Sender might be feeling. The Sender then thanks the Receiver for listening, and then the roles switch so the other person has a chance to speak.
Why “I” statements are helpful
There are a few additional pointers that I empower people to utilize in assertive, safe communication. Use “I” statements as opposed to “You” accusations. This sounds like, “I feel angry when…” instead of “You made me angry because…” It removes the blame and subsequent defensiveness by encouraging a dialogue grounded in mutual respect, connection, and curiosity. You are not claiming that your experience of the situation is the truth.
Here’s a fill-in-the-blank template in case you like things to be laid out explicitly like me:
I feel ___________________ (use an actual feeling word, e.g., hurt, angry, upset, disappointed, rejected) when you ___________________ (give the other person an example of specific actions or behaviors that have affected you) because it seems like ___________________ (tell the person what the behavior meant to you, how you perceived it. Is it possible you misunderstood?). If next time ___________________ (list specific action/behavior, you would like to see in the future).
It takes two to tango
Now if you’d like to level up your communication game and make your therapist proud, I invite you to think about how your own fingerprints taint the situation. How are you a part of the problem? This is always the most challenging part for me, so I understand if this feels icky at first. It gets easier with time, in my experience. Taking ownership of your part in the problem helps with removing the innate defensiveness in conflict and promotes growth and mutual accountability.
Now, remember what I said earlier, communication is hard work. It takes practice. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you mess it up a few or ten times! If you make a concerted effort to work on your communication skills, I have confidence you’ll get there.