Psychological violence

The brain is a physical structure which is shaped by what we do with it – learning, practice, habit, life experience, memory – this is all part of the mix. Our minds are not amorphous things separate from our bodies but real, tangible structures that respond to what happens to them. Hit someone in the leg with a hammer and you will get nasty bruises, and possibly a broken bone. As a culture we take that kind of thing seriously. However, we seem to assume the mind is a whole other thing. Violent assaults on the psyche are not assumed to cause breakages in the same way. Now, when it comes to considering criminal damage, it will always be hard to produce evidence of psychological trauma, but I see no reason why that should make it culturally acceptable. I find myself wondering if depression and anxiety are to psychological damage what bruises are to the hammer.

For many the idea of psychological violence will involve really overt forms of torture. In practice we aren’t talking about watching puppies being drowned, or being threatened with death for not complying. Most psychological violence is far more every day. As a child I was taught the rhyme ‘sticks and stones will break my bones but words can never harm me.’ It’s a commonly held idea. Bullying words aren’t causing you real pain, is the theory. We’re taught to accept this kind of bullying and to feel ashamed if we are hurt by it. This only serves the abusers. Humiliation, denigration, ridicule, dismissal, all undermine the sense of self. These things take away self-esteem and your feeling of being a person. The lower key, more mundane stuff is insidious, and can be inflicted daily. I remember a woman whose husband shouted at her all the time. She was a mess, but did not feel she could go to the police because she expected they would tell her she was being silly. He hadn’t laid a finger on her, but her nerves were tattered. I do not know how that one ended.

It’s so easy to make clear to a person that they are worthless, useless, a nuisance, unwanted, unloveable, unacceptable. The martyred air of one who is having to go to some lengths to tolerate you, is soul destroying to encounter. Having holes picked in the smallest things that you say and do, as though your small tastes and preferences are stupid. Being blamed is another one. Having your emotions ridiculed. Try being bullied to the point of tears by a person and then have that same person call you melodramatic and irrational for crying. A bit of you dies on the inside.

Being shouted at, being mocked, being the butt of cruel jokes. Your body treated as a sexual object, not a living expression of yourself. Or, your body treated as disgusting, or as something to laugh at, or as something you should feel ashamed of. Try telling someone they’d look so much better if they wore what you told them to, day after day, and see if their self-esteem holds up… or don’t if you’re any kind of decent human being. Lecture, demand, punish, tell off other adults as though they were especially stupid children. So often the one dishing it out is painfully insecure and only doing it to big themselves up. That flailing, fragile ego can be a source of so much pain and destruction.

Evil is often small. The worst things we do to each other are often mundane. Most of us will not be literally stabbed in the back. It’s that other stuff, the bruising of soul, the cutting up of identity, that causes the damage. The wounding to feelings is not fantasy, it’s not something we *should* be able to shrug off. Emotional experience is no less real than the hammer, and the brain is no less a physical structure than the leg.

What worries me most at the moment is the campaign of psychological violence being deliberately waged. The perpetrators are in the media and in parliament, and the people they are working to destroy, are the poorest and most vulnerable in society. Slackers. Scroungers. Worthless, useless, sponges, waste of space… and who, being presented with that on a daily basis, does not feel themselves dying on the inside? Who can hold out against that and not start to feel that the world might be a better place if they were dead?

Depression kills people. If you bully a person to death with sustained psychological violence, they are no less dead, and you are no less guilty of killing them then if you had done it with the hammer instead. The law might not be able to judge it, but a culture can. We do not have to lie down and take it. We won’t fix it by taking up the same arms and using psychological violence back. That’s just another way of losing. Of course it’s tempting, of course we feel justified, and want to lash out and even the score, but all that gets in the end is more pain, more damage. We can say ‘not good enough’ and we can disagree, non-violently. Not just with the politicians, but anywhere people start taking word-hammers to other people’s minds.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, polyamourous animist, ant-fash, anti-capitalist, bisexual steampunk. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

12 responses to “Psychological violence

  • Robin

    I don’t think the psychobabble insistence (so often heard in mystical circles) that we are all responsible for our reactions to the point where, if we become upset/hurt by something it is implied to be our fault for not shrugging it off with a beatific smile of saintly indifference, really causes far more harm than good. It plays into the thug’s agenda, that they can treat people like shit and it’s the victims “choice” to be hurt by whatever it is that’s said or done.

  • lornasmithers

    I think one of the most frightening things about this is that unlike with physical harm people can hide the effects of psychological violence (be it from bullying or being forced to live in situations irreconcilable with their physical, emotional or spirtiual needs) in public, appearing ‘normal’ in social situations but secretly falling apart behind closed doors. I’ve been there and know countless others who’ve felt the same way including somebody younger than me who commited suicide without showing any outward signs. I think people are afraid of sharing their emotions due to feelings of shame, fear of being labelled mad, being outcast, becoming some ‘thing’ with a label…

    • Nimue Brown

      Good point, at least with the broken leg, people know, it isn’t opn to dispute, or doubt, or disbeleif, and you can’t hide it, and feeling like you should hide the mind-wounds is a big part of the problem for plenty of people.

  • Alex Jones

    This is what happens when the female and male aspect of nature or society becomes fractured.

  • Rosemarie

    Excellent piece. It’s happening in the USA as well. It happens on a micro as well as a macro level, and it is insidious.

  • bittysnitty

    It’s the reason I will no longer have contact with my Mother or sisters.I have been able to get away from the overwhelming depression because after 50 years of bullying by them, I have finally escaped and can work on how I feel about me. Thank you for this post.

  • Esseldub

    Sometimes it’s so subtle you don’t even realise you’re being bullied and I’m not sure the person doing it always realises the effect they’re having either.Took me years to work out that the main reason for my low self-esteem was the way some people treated me, but I’m almost sure they don’t do it on purpose. Almost! It’s very difficult to fight when you can’t find words to express the problems with the behaviour too.

  • helgaleena

    Reblogged this on Helgaleena and commented:
    This is Nimue Brown, novelist and Druid, getting to the heart of a problem. It does not take fisticuffs or weapons to injure another human. It only takes denigration.

  • Emotional Pain and Sanity | Druid Life

    […] recent blog about psychological violence elicited a very good point from Robin Herne – namely the way in which more New Agey approaches to […]

  • Heidi

    Excellent post. Thank you. Imagine how much more human potential could be realised if our culture didn´t tolerate or reward this bully behaviour so easily but instead furthered true stamina (over brute power), largesse of spirit, and creativity, and just generally slowed down a bit. I think this would make the majority of “mood-altering” drugs redundant. IMO, with the non-psychotic conditions like depression and anxiety, I am finding the mantra about “faulty brain chemistry” questionable and a little too convenient. Like the “new agey” point that it is up to the individual to decide how they handle bullying. How about we start questining the source of it all instead.

  • Andrew Smith

    In Tibet, they have a saying which goes something like: sticks and stones can only break bones, but harsh words can tear a heart to pieces.

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