Recognizing

Who’s Been Jerking You Around?

Do your conversations with “Person X” leave you feeling as though your head has been trapped in the “Spin” cycle of your washing machine? Are you too busy trying to keep track of the rapid-fire changes and 180-degree turnarounds to even think of a coherent response? Or maybe whenever you try to have a pleasant exchange with Person X, you find yourself frantically backpedaling to re-do that last thing you said because now they are insisting they said something entirely different and they are… mad. At you. Again. Confused? If not, you will be, because you’ve just entered the arena with a master of verbal whiplash. You will not win. And it will not be pretty.

Example of Verbal Whiplash

I recently had such an exchange with a man I met online. I thought we’d get along well because we were both writers – at least, his screen name and profile strongly suggested he was one. So, my messages focused on “writing.” We discussed it quite pleasantly for a while, then things derailed suddenly:

Me: (going on about how I love writing and how great it is that anyone can become a writer/author).

Him: “Kind of snob about the work, i will admit. Lots of folks talk about [writing] and seem to think that amateur [writing] is the same as the professional world, it's not and I find that interesting.”

Me: I'm aware that professional [writing] and amateur [writing] are two different worlds.

Him: “…the truth of the matter is anyone can say they are a [writer] and there is no real way to say no, you're not. I just read a long stream on facebook by some “writers” who feel the need to justify and tell the world how hard it is and how much work goes into it. I never hear doctors say that because we all know how much work goes into being a doctor and not everyone can do it. But, people are part time “writers” which means … anyone can do it.

Me: None of that is meant to demean anything professionals do, nor imply that you are not a consummate, hard-working artist who brings decades of skill and devotion to your work. Obviously, not anyone could do what you do.

Him: No, I meant what I said, anyone can do it. I started [writing] and then trained and became a professional. We all start somewhere. Anyone can be a [writer]. I am also curious that, without knowing me or even reading my work, you assume that not anyone could do what I do.

Me: (What the heck just happened)??

The conversation got even less civil – at least until I changed the subject to chinchillas, and home brewing.

What just happened here?

Verbal whiplash takes its target by surprise because she doesn’t expect it. It often happens after the target lets his guard down and engages in what seems to be a normal, rational conversation. Then, BAM. Person X will say something exactly the opposite of what she said five minutes earlier. Then, she will insist she said/meant something completely different, and get offended at you for responding to the first thing. Why would anyone do this? Simple: it’s a power play – one that disarms you, leaves you looking and feeling confused (and maybe stupid), and reinforces the abuser’s superior position. So, how do you avoid getting flogged when the verbal whiplash artist is playing her game?

Rules of Disengagement

Whiplash often comes at high speed; abusers don’t give you time to take mental notes and compare their statements. If you can, slow the conversation down enough to figure out what’s going on. If you think whiplash is happening, your best response is to end the discussion and get out of there: “Gee, that was fun, but I’ve got to get my infected toe cleaned out. Catch you later!”

If you’re stuck, follow the rules of disengagement. Refuse to let the abuser suck you in. Don’t try to reiterate their original position; the abuser will just insist that’s not what he said or meant, or that you got it wrong (again). Don’t try to backpedal and fix your response (as I did in the above example); that will just give the whiplasher more ammunition (the “No, I meant what I said, anyone can do it” line). If you’re a captive audience (maybe the whiplasher is your boss), try to have witnesses around, take notes, or give them a neutral response like: “Oh. Thanks for clarifying that.” Even better: “Ah. I see.”

If the whiplasher demands you explain, clarify, or respond in detail, disengage again by using neutral responses, changing the topic, or saying, “I don’t feel like arguing/having a discussion/continuing this conversation.” Wash, rinse, repeat until they leave you alone and go in search of more satisfying targets.

Claire

 

As a naïve 20 year old I received a shock in one of my psychology classes. The topic of the day was rape. I knew that ahead of time, it was listed in the syllabus and the professor had warned us that we were going to be covering a difficult subject. In fact the week before he’d invited any students in the room who’d been victims of rape to talk to him before the lecture so he could help them get through the discussion.

My shock came in the first few minutes of the lecture when the professor said, “Rape has nothing to do with sex.” Seriously? How could forcing a person into any sex act not be about sex? The lecture that followed blew my mind. He waited a few moments and went on to talk about sex. It’s obtainable without assaulting someone. Even the most socially awkward person can hire a prostitute for almost any sex act, no matter how strange it is.

Yes, a rapist does get sexual pleasure from the rape. But the pleasure is not just from sex. It is from the act of controlling another person. No matter how good an actress a prostitute is, the fact that she’s agreed to whatever is occurring prevents that feeling of control for the rapist. This is the nutshell version, of course. There are different types of rapists, yes, anyone who watches modern crime dramas has heard about them. But at the core is the control over another person.

Toward the end of the class the lecture moved on to other forms of control. All abuse, whether physical, emotional or verbal, is about the same desire to control another person. It doesn’t necessarily involve the same kind of pleasure a rapist gets, but there is an aspect of pleasure or reward in the feeling of control over another person.

Verbal abuse is not about what the abuser says you did wrong. It’s not about you not being good enough. It’s not about the spilled milk or being late or the fact that you’ve suddenly turned grass green. It’s about the abuser’s desire for the feeling of being in control.

Why is this important? Because it helps you take the control back. Whatever the abuser says or does is not because you spilled the milk, took ten minutes too long on a project, or suddenly turned a brilliant grass green. It’s about something inside the abuser. That desire for control is something he or she needs to work out. You have no responsibility for that desire being there. You are not responsible for filling this desire. In fact, it is harmful to both of you. Remind yourself of this daily, hourly if needed.

Ginny

There’s a problem, but what – or who – is it?

You know something’s wrong. Your spouse/relative/co-worker/boss/friend is “difficult.” Maybe he randomly explodes in anger. Maybe she constantly accuses you of cheating. Maybe your boss puts you down in front of the entire sales floor. In the beginning, you had a great relationship, but now, not so much – and you can’t figure out what you’ve done wrong, or how to avoid setting him/her off in the future.

Let’s call this individual “Person X.”

You wonder if it’s just you – everyone else might think Person X is wonderful. “What a great person,” they gush. “So sensitive and generous. You are so lucky to have a (fill in the blank) like him/her!”

You’ve cruised the internet and the self-help section of your local bookstore, perusing titles like, Getting Along with the Boss from Hell, Saving the Toxic Marriage, and Women Who Love Men Who Behave like Rabid Weasels. You’ve read advice blogs, attended workshops, and tried every suggestion, yet a normal relationship with Person X has completely eluded you and you’re left with a strong desire to hide on a beach in Cancun. Person X may tell you that you are the problem.

It’s Not You

Someone in your life may have used the word “abuse” to describe your interactions with Person X. You, of course, thought, “That’s crazy! Person X doesn’t hit me/hit me all that often/hit me with a closed fist/send me to the ER regularly. He/she can’t possibly be an abuser!”

We’re reluctant to apply the label “abuse” to whatever it is Person X does. There are good reasons for this:

  • We’ve heard the term used often on The Jerry Springer Show, usually in reference to people clad in wife-beater tees and gold chains.
  • We don’t want to think badly about Person X. Abuse is a serious word.
  • Person X has often told us that we are responsible for the behavior or that we abused him.
  • We’re used to Person X’s behavior, so it seems “normal” (kind of like tornadoes, earthquakes, and tsunamis are normal).

Recognizing the Red Flags

Follow the ABC’s – especially if Person X is unleashing several of these behaviors on you. Abusers:

  • Accuse you
  • Blame you
  • Control youby ordering, decreeing, manipulating, threatening and raging
  • Have Double Standards that benefit them (but not you)
  • Have an Entitlement mentality
  • Use Fear to control you (and then blame you for being afraid).

Abusers want power and control over the relationship and over you. Think back to the last time you interacted with Person X in an unpleasant way. What did Person X get out of it? If Person X walks away from the encounter with a clear victory and you lie on the floor emotionally bleeding, wondering, “What just happened here?” it’s a pretty good bet there’s abuse going on.

Trust Your Gut

Finally, pay attention to your reactions. Do you wince every time Person X enters the room? Do you spend a lot of time trying to figure out what sets him off so you can avoid it next time? Do you mentally relax when she leaves town for a few days? If thinking about Person X leaves your stomach tied in knots, your mind in a fog, and your hands sweating, you can be sure there’s something wrong – and that it’s not you. It’s verbal and emotional abuse.

Claire