Women As Verbal Abusers
© 2000 Michele Toomey, PhD

Needless to say, gender does not determine whether a person is verbally abusive. It does, however, affect the possibility and the style of abuse that may occur. Since the female stereotype dictates girls and women should be nice, good, pleasant, polite, passive, and conforming, it takes a rebellious girl or woman to become an abusive one. She must rebel against the norm and, unlike boys or men who are expected to use anger to hide what is considered any sign of weakness, such as fear, hurt, disappointment or sadness, girls and women are supposed to express these feelings with vulnerability and hide their anger.

A verbally abusive woman, therefore, is a bold woman who has dared to rebel. How unfortunate that the rebellion tends to take an abusive path. Women need to rebel against the limitation and oppression of the stereotype, they need to dare express anger as anger, but the last thing they need is to become abusive. Yet, very often those women who have the fire to rebel have also had the misfortune of having abuse and violence to rebel against. This is a formula for becoming an abuser as well. Knowing only the pattern of attack or counterattack, rebellious abused women learn the lesson of destroy or be destroyed. Having rejected the role of victim, they frequently take the only other role available in this destructive duel, that of victimizer. Since they are often not the physically strongest opponent, the weapon of choice of abusive women is usually verbal assault, and they often become skilled slashers and crushers of spirits.

Daughters are a major target of abusive women. The anger and resentment that abused women carry in their hearts provide the fuel for directing those feelings at themselves and at their daughters. As women, they are putting themselves at the least risk by targeting their daughters because daughters are the most vulnerable. And as women, it is the most natural outcome of abuse, to be angry at and abuse ourselves for not being able to make others love us enough to treat us well instead of abuse us.

When the question is raised, are women masochistic, I reply vehemently that we were not born masochistic, but we are taught to face in that direction. The trap of the gender stereotype that teaches us to believe that if we are good enough and nice enough, everyone will like us and often even love us, also teaches that if we are mistreated and abused it's our fault because we didn't do it right. Abuse of women is justified by the belief they failed the test of goodness and niceness. It is her fault, somehow, and she is blamed and, in turn, blames herself. If she were only more patient, more giving, more loving, more tolerant, she would be more desired and loved. Masochism is the natural outgrowth of this genderized legitimization of abuse. It, of course, spills over onto daughters of abused women. It is their lot. They represent the failure and the threat.

It is not surprising, therefore, that in some cases, the threat of a daughter is even more damning to a woman than her own perceived failures. If a daughter is prettier, smarter, marries better, is treated better, and, God forbid, is happier, and seen as successful, she represents everything an abused and/or abusive mother wants for herself but feels she can never have. This daughter is, of course, envied and often seen as deserving of anger and abuse. If she fails and is abused by her husband or herself, then she is, of course, deserving of punishment until she changes. The cycle of women as the abused and the abuser is a very painful and tragic one, that goes on basically unnoticed and unattended. Unless physical harm results, psychological battering of and by girls and women is tolerated and often condoned. Sarcasm and ridicule are seen as a natural part of their relationships. Cutting remarks and cruel put-downs are excused, and crushed self- images and bleeding spirits do not count as punishable crimes. There is no public outcry. It's just the way life is. Pretend it doesn't hurt, pretend you don't feel, pretend you didn't see or hear it. Pretend you didn't mean it. Pretend, pretend, pretend.

The acceptance of verbal abuse depends entirely on pretense and self-deception. The corruption of lies and denial is the key to any abuse, but especially of verbal abuse. The only way out of this destructive pattern and the violence it condones, is integrity. Our liberation begins and ends with truth, with integrity. Our oppression is built on lies.

To be liberated:

  • We cannot pretend we have the right to verbally abuse ourselves or each other.
  • We cannot pretend we are justified when we are abusive.
  • We cannot pretend we aren't angry, hurt, humiliated or devastated when we are abused.
  • We cannot pretend we are justified when we retaliate.
  • We cannot pretend we don't care.
  • We cannot pretend we can't help it.
  • We cannot pretend we don't see what's going on and what's happening.
  • We cannot pretend we are powerless.
  • We cannot pretend it doesn't matter.
  • We cannot pretend it's all right to pretend.
If we are to be liberated we cannot pretend.

The first step, therefore, in freeing ourselves is to stop pretending. Whether we are the abused or the abuser we must stop any and all pretending. Our protection is the truth. We must let in the truth and acknowledge our use of pretense as a way of escaping the harsh reality. As this is happening, we must protect ourselves from using the clarity as a weapon, and abusing ourselves for having been a pretender. Liberation must be free of all violence and abuse. Judging and blaming must be transformed into self-reflection and accountability.

This is, of course, where the problem lies. It is easier said than done. A woman who is used to reacting by violating either herself or others, is out of control. She is not reflective, fair and accountable, and to make that shift she must make Herculean effort. To stop herself before she reacts means catching herself while her automatic reaction has taken over, and there seems to be no space or time for reflection. The only way this can occur is by a dramatic intervention within her pre-programmed system. She must place herself on "alert" and every time an assaultive reaction is triggered she must step in front of it and stop it, even if she's in mid- sentence. Only a strong confrontation of herself at that point will stop the verbal abuse and only a willing reactor can be stopped. Rather than a duel, there needs to be a truce, and then the reflective one and the reactive one have to agree on what's fair to say and what has integrity. For this to transpire, she must find the courage to face down the out of control reactor/abuser, she must be committed to the integrity of accountability and fairness, she must marshall the discipline it will take to stop herself from automatically reacting, and finally, she must use her brains to process complex information coming from within herself and from others.

We are not masochistic by nature, but we can learn masochism from the stereotypic lessons on genderized power that we are taught. Women who are verbally abusive of others are first and foremost abusive to themselves. Just as we learned these lessons, however, we can unlearn them, and any woman who is verbally abusive to herself and to others can liberate herself from this destructive pattern. It will take courage, commitment, discipline and brains, but it is not only possible to stop this destructive pattern, it is the greatest accomplishment and most valuable gift you can ever achieve and receive. The best part of this gift is that it is within our power to attain and it doesn't depend on others. Needless to say, it is much easier with the loving support of others, but even if some try to sabotage your efforts, they can never stop them. Only you can stop abusing yourself and others. Psychological liberation is in our own hands, so join a support group, get into therapy, and go for it as if your life depended on it. It does!

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