In my practice of mental health counseling I am frequently in contact with family members and supports in my patient’s lives. These family sessions tend to go well, however, once in a blue moon things can go sour, quickly. This conflict can be explained when one or both parties have limited skills in communcation. This leads to people feeling misunderstood and confused. It does not mean these people are inherently bad or wrong; it just means that they may be confused or even oblivious to how they make us feel when they talk to us. These maladaptive communication strategies can put a damper on relationships.
Below are some communication styles that can be harmful to us. The way other people relate to us, and how we relate to the world can get skewed if we constantly feel under attack. Over time, we may even have a lower sense of self-esteem and self-confidence. If left unaddressed, this can lead to significant mental health issues, including depression and anxiety and can even contribute to substance abuse.
In their book “Stop Walking on Eggshells: Taking Your Life Back When Someone You Care About Has Borderline Personality Disorder,” Paul Mason & Randi Kreger talk about defining verbal abuse. (Disclaimer- although the following information was retrieved from a book about BPD, I am merely highlighting applicable points for discussion. If you are in an abusive relationship, it is important to seek help from friends, family or a trained professional!)
Some of the main players include:
- Domination: The person uses threats to get what they want.
- Verbal Assault: This includes reprimanding, humiliating, criticizing, name calling, screaming, excessive blame and sarcasm. This also includes exaggerating your faults and making fun of you in front of other people.
- Abusive Expectations: When one person makes unreasonable demands on your and expects them to be your first/only priority and makes you feel guilty if you need attention.
- Unpredictable Responses: Drastic mood changes or sudden emotional outbursts.
- Gaslighting: The other person denies your perceptions of events and conversations.
- Constant Chaos: Deliberately starting arguments and seems almost addicted to “drama.”
I have included my own list from my experiences as a therapist and human being:
- Martyrdom: The person changes the rules of the argument and makes themselves the victim.
- Responsibility Shifters: You want to confront an issue and the other person turns it around and makes it your fault.
- Overbearers: The person feels it is their right to tell you about yourself, your decisions under the guise of “guidance” even if the comments are unwanted and unsolicited. (Note: these can also be grouped into the verbal assaults, in a sense, because it can feel like you are being put down on a regular basis)
- Projectors: The person places their negative feelings about themselves onto you.
Sound like anyone you know? Dealing with these kinds of people can wear on you after a while. It can feel like a no-win situation. But there is hope.
Taking your life back and setting limits, with love. It is important to get into your own therapy if you need it. Seek out friends or other supports that you can vent to or ask for advice. Next, make sure you are taking care of yourself in all aspects: physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. You have rights as a human being, including feeling respected and supported. You must, MUST, define your personal limits and learn to set boundaries for yourself. Remember that feelings are not facts, and you can choose to reflect back what the person is saying to you without absorbing it. Mason & Kreger call this “sponging versus mirroring.” This means that you can avoid getting sucked in by staying calm and not arguing back. Even if you want to. After all, if their reality is different from yours, and you really did not do anything provoking in the first place, how can you truly make them think otherwise? It’s like trying to convince someone that the sky is blue when they perceive it to be purple. For example, I verbally agree with the person and try to listen their point of view, even if I don’t agree with it.
FEELINGS AND WORDS ARE NOT FACTS! Just because the other person may be telling you what to think or feel does not mean that you have to do that. You can decide not to accept their reality and maintain your composure without saying anything back or even claiming some responsiblity in what’s being discussed. Use “I” messages and learn to listen to the other person without getting defensive. Developing your own assertiveness script can be helpful. Stay objective and nonjudgmental. End or leave the conversation if you have to. Tell the other person that you can continue it at a later time if needed. Or learn to avoid confrontation by staying focused and doing what I call “rolling with the resistance.” I will try my hardest not to get egged on by someone else’s perceptions, and if someone calls me a name or makes a comment about my character, I remember my core beliefs about myself. Then I can do whatever I want with the information but I won’t internalize the criticism or negative comments because I choose not to accept their reality. Everyone is entitled to their opinions but there is certainly a time and a place for it.
Did I mention feelings aren’t facts?