April 29, 2007

Survivors: Does Recovery Change How We Communicate

Posted in abuse, recovery, survivors at 3:07 pm by nevavegan

I was late with last week’s writing assignment from Survivors and hopefully I’m early with this one.

This week’s topic is language and how our perspective on it has changed.

The first part asks if I’ve noticed a change in the language I use. To some extent this is true. I don’t like to use certain words except in their correct context, and when I use analogies I like to be certain they carry enough weight for me. I’m uncomfortable when someone uses the word rape for purposes other than to describe rape, as evidenced in prior entries. I also, though this might not be related, really hate to see terrorism used out of context. It irks me to see it applied to anything except, well, violent terrorists. I recall an acquaintance saying his ex was an “emotional terrorist” because she dumped him, refused to tell him why, and immediately started seeing someone else. No, she hurt you, but she doesn’t appear to killing people and spreading mass panic, so back off the T-word already.

But more than casual use of the language, the thing that really bothers me are the assumptions and misinformation that so often underlie this careless speech. When the office manager screams that he’s being raped because the paper supplier is raising the prices again, you get the impression that he actually has no idea what rape is, or the long-term effects of violent crime. Even with rising paper prices I think he’ll probably get to sleep tonight.

Specific words aside I think the biggest change in me that I notice when it comes to words and communication is that I’m a lot less tolerant of the little word games people play. Because abusers use word games to both abuse and discredit their victims at the same time. The prime example of a stupid word game is that whole Clinton thing with “I did not have sex with that woman,” etc. though I don’t mean to classify that in with verbal abuse. It’s just an example of someone trying to pick apart and manipulate speech to his advantage despite the clarity with which anyone, even a 10 year old, would be able to tell you exactly what that statement meant.

The abuse aspect of word games comes in when the person appears to be “gaslighting” you. You know what you heard, you’re pretty sure you know what was meant, but the other person denies it. I’m wondering how wise it is to give out too many personal details here, but I can’t think of any other way to illustrate this point. When I was growing up my mother was frequently extremely critical of my weight and general appearance. At the same time she would reminisce about her glory days, when she was in college and her nickname was “Miss Petite” (even though she was tall, at least two inches taller than I am, it was in reference to her very low weight), when she did some modeling, when people kept asking her to do more modeling but she turned them down to concentrate on school, when all the boys were so enamored of her beauty that they brought her present after present. Then one day when I was washing dishes she came into the kitchen and made a face like she was smelling something really distasteful and said “Sometimes I just can’t believe that someone who looks like I do could have a daughter that looks like you.”

Now I was pretty sure I knew exactly what she meant by that, with the tone of voice, the look on her face everything. But when I got upset she denied any ill intent. “I’m not being critical of how you look,” she insisted, “I’m just saying that sometimes I can’t believe that MY daughter looks the way you look.”

And then the onus is pushed back on the listener—“It’s not that I said anything wrong, it’s that you listened wrong.”

As I came to realize just how often in my childhood and adolescence these kinds of word games were played at my expense, I now come to a point in my life where I don’t want to play word games anymore. I lose my patience. I want people to say what they mean. I’m probably overly sensitive at this point to any attempt to manipulate me through words.

This brings us to the next aspect of the Survivors writing assignment. Does this new view of words change the way I communicate with others?

Maybe. My tendency is to keep certain things to myself, and while I definitely would prefer to keep damaging, insulting, or hurtful comments to myself, there are times where I should speak up. I’m trying to learn to do that more and to do it more effectively.

Writing about my issues with the rape analogies was part of that. I don’t really know how relevant or valuable my own thoughts are on that issue, but I give myself permission to express my concerns so long as I try to do it in a respectful way. Communicating more doesn’t have to mean just unloading emotions onto other people, but trusting my instincts to the point that I can say something simply because I want to. I don’t need to wait for the perfect opportunity, I don’t need to worry so much that someone will misinterpret what I say, because I can and should communicate.

This also means that I can try to call people on their word games. Sometimes people do things like that without any real clue they’re doing it, it’s just a habit they’ve fallen into. But that doesn’t mean I need to be intimidated or silenced by word games. If I’m dealing with someone who is otherwise well-intentioned, sometimes all it takes to end a word game is to ask “What are you actually trying to say to me?” Because that pushes the other person to be mindful of their words and if they must rephrase their statement sometimes the manipulative aspect of it will necessarily fall away. But if I’m dealing with a pro-manipulator/abuser, the answer to that question will always be an attempt to put the blame back on me. This is still a positive though, because at least the intent is more in the open and I have a better idea of just what I’m dealing with.

And this leads me to some tips on being mindful of our own speech and how to derail manipulative speech from others.

Mindful Speech:
*Say what you mean. This is very difficult for most of us, because we’re really socialized to not say what we mean. A lot of psychological studies show that people will say they agree with statements they clearly know are false (such as calling a red car green or agreeing with a wrong answer on a simple math equation) if everyone else in the room is agreeing with the false statement. We’re smarter than this. We know that speaking with integrity is always the right answer, it’s just some deep instinctive fear in us that urges us to go along with the pack, even when we know the pack is wrong. Say it politely, say it kindly, but say what you mean.
*Try to stick to “I” statements rather than accusing other people
*Be mindful of your mood and try not to push your mood onto others through harsh or loaded words.
*Sometimes mindful speech does mean just walking away from a non-productive discussion.

Stop Playing Games You Don’t Want to Play
*If someone says something inappropriate to you try to call their attention to that without escalating the battle (often people say inappropriate things because they are hoping for a fight). *Examples of this include “Why would you say/ask something like that?” “I think I must be misunderstanding you. What are you really trying to say?” or even “I’m sensing some hostility here, so I have to go now.”
*Don’t take the bait. Sometimes people want to avoid addressing the real issues at hand, so they change the topic to something about you, or just engage in insults. Don’t fall for it. Try to bring the topic back to the appropriate topic and if that fails, simply remove yourself from the situation.
*Don’t always assume. Sometimes people say things that sound loaded, but that wasn’t their intent. Give them a chance to clarify and correct any misstatements.

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