Q: We live in an age in which using toxic verbiage against others has almost become the norm. How can we help clients deal with these kinds of situations in the moment?
A: I love this question because, as a culture, we seem ready to take on the problem of children being bullied, but all of us get bullied at times. That said, we need to understand the distinction between bullying verbiage and a physical assault that requires legal action. Verbal bullying involves one person trying to establish dominance over another with hostile words and repetition. It can happen between strangers or spouses or siblings or friends, in families or workplaces or grocery-store parking lots. The permutations are endless, as are the psychological effects.
The advice most commonly given to children who experience this kind of bullying on the playground is “just ignore it.” But this doesn’t usually work. Why? Bullies are pursuers. When verbal attacks are met with silence, aggressors will pursue harder to get a reaction, and a pursuing–distancing dance ensues.
In contrast to what we tell children, most adults are encouraged to assert themselves when they’re mistreated. On a social-justice level, this is incredibly important. But in the moment, between individuals, it doesn’t always work. Helen, for example, spent weeks in therapy learning how to deliver the perfect “I” message when her husband made demeaning comments. The night before her next…