Unsolicited advice, prejudices, toxic positivity, or ‘funny' comments are among the many ways in which family, friends, coworkers, or even strangers can verbally hurt us. Even if it was not intended to be offensive, they could feel that way, causing anxiety or anger. It can also trigger past experiences and feelings concerning similar experiences or comments. Hurtful comments often stem from ignorance, fear of the unknown, frustration, or feelings of powerlessness. Here are some practical tips to respond.
Verbal aggression is often viewed as insults, name-calling, or threats. However, there are many more subtle forms of verbal hurt. Both explicit or more subtle forms can have the same effect and cause feelings of confusion, frustration, shame, inadequacy, and anger, leading to aggression. Verbal aggression refers to statements that are unwanted and cross boundaries. Rationalizing such remarks is common; we tell ourselves that maybe it was not ill-intentioned or even question ourselves whether we are being “too sensitive.”
We all make mistakes and occasionally say something that can come off as rude; that is part of the human experience. Especially when emotions are involved, it can lead to raised voices, accusations, and reproaches. However, there is usually more going on for people who frequently or intentionally make hurtful comments. When people are being verbally abusive, they often have a great need for recognition and appreciation. They subconsciously hope to get credit by showing superiority and pointing fingers.
Our intuition is an excellent protection mechanism warning us often occurring as an uneasy gut feeling that indicates when and if someone crosses our boundaries. The response time for that feeling varies per person. For example, someone who experienced repeated criticism, negativity, and hurt in childhood might react faster and stronger to the same comment than someone who may not have had that experience.
How to Recognize: Variations of Verbal Aggression
You can follow your intuition to determine whether you find a comment unacceptable. You can also establish whether such a comment falls into one of the following categories of common forms of verbal aggression:
- Dismissiveness: When the other person does not give you the right to your reaction. For example, with “You are too sensitive/childish,” or “Cheer up.” Thereby, your inner reality is denied, indirectly telling you how you feel and what you experience is wrong.
- Joking as a disguise: Sometimes, a message is disguised as a joke to make you question yourself. For example, constantly saying mean or critical comments followed by, “It was just a joke.” Or bluntly “humorous” statements, such as “You could not find your way to your own home even if you would use a GPS.”
- Blocking: Someone imposes what may and may not be discussed (“Let's stop talking about it.”)
- Swearing: often with ‘soft' swear words, for example, sarcasm: “You are such a victim,” or “You think you are special, don't you?”
- Criticism and Judgement: Someone gives you an unsolicited negative evaluation, for example, as in, “Your problem is that … ” Most “you” statements are judgmental and critical, such as, “You are never satisfied,” or “You always have something to be upset about.”
- Undermining: Someone tries to dampen your enthusiasm and will undermine the most insignificant topics, which can lead to questioning the way you think or your opinions with this form of abuse. For example, “You cannot do that,” or “You do not understand that.”
- Blaming: Being accused or blamed for something out of your control is a form of verbal abuse.
How To React?
What is the best way to deal with hurtful comments? First, try not to blame yourself for not responding immediately or realizing what you “should” have said at the time. Second, responding to a hurtful comment with a joke or passive-aggressively is not a good idea. Chances are that the conversation will turn into a power struggle. Besides, this communication method is technically the same as what the other person just did. We often fear when we feel uncomfortable or attacked by someone's comment. Our natural reaction to fear occurs in a fight, flight, or freeze response. The fight response will express itself in a strong verbal response. Freezing and shutting down in the conversation happens to many people. Others flee – they change the subject or leave the conversation. All three are short-term responses that are usually ineffective.
Ask yourself, “What is this person trying to defend?” This question can give you insight into the thought process of the aggressor, setting yourself up for compassion. As referred to earlier, hurtful comments are made for a reason. People attack you because they are often afraid of losing something. Investigating what the fear is, helps to see through those hurtful comments.
Examples could be:
– They may attack me because they want to prove to themself that they are intelligent and valuable.
– They may be putting me down because they feel it is necessary to maintain their self-esteem.
– Perhaps they fear change, and my behavior means their life will change.
Using compassion first can help you to move on to other techniques.
Through practice, it is possible to become proficient in responding adequately. For example, a well-known assertiveness method is to give feedback. With the feedback method, you must be honest and reflect on the other person and how their comment affected you.
- Start by asking yourself what is happening. What do I feel? This way, you can determine whether the comment crossed a personal boundary.
- If they did cross a boundary, you tell the other person what you observe, for example: “I hear you say …” Then you describe what that does to you: “That hurts me,” or “I find it annoying.”
- You conclude with a question. “Do you understand that?” or “Can you imagine how that comes across?” This way, you give the other person space to respond. Another tactic is that you make a request for the future, as in, “Would you please stop doing that?” In most cases, this approach leads to a constructive conversation, but if it does not, at least you tried, and now you know that this person has no respect for your boundaries, and you can keep an appropriate distance.
The feedback approach can also be used in retrospect. Sometimes, we were too surprised to react or only realize later that something hurtful has been said. Calling the other person after you gave it some thought and telling them in a friendly way how it affected you, gives them a chance to explain or apologize. Such openness often brings people closer together.
Expose the core
Responding to indirectly hurtful comments is challenging because there is no explicit criticism to respond to. A helpful technique to use in these instances is “the inquiry.” The inquiry helps expose the core of the comment. This approach can be practical in situations of indirect verbal aggression. For example, let’s use the variant disguised as a joke or a compliment containing disapproval. Ask for clarification of the remark, expressing the hidden criticism or insult openly. “What do you mean? Are you saying that …?” Often, the offender will quickly back off and say they did not mean it that way. The topic is now on the table for an open and constructive conversation.
Never blame yourself for not standing up for yourself in the moment. It can be challenging to address the hurtful comment right there and then. It can be helpful working on setting boundaries and assertiveness with a professional. Emerald Mental Health (specializing in mental health support for aviation professionals) can help you with that. Contact Emerald Mental Health for a free 15-minute consultation.