No broken bones or bruised black eyes, no visible signs of brute force and no culpability of physical assault; call that violence of a kind; the kind of violence most people label as violence; the kind that can precipitate homicide. It’s how our society understands violence; that it’s purely physical and inflicts injury on its victims. Family violence albeit just one kind of that physical force that causes not just grievous bodily harm, but can also kill. There is, indeed, another kind of violence that is all too prevalent in our social milieu; but it’s out of sight when you look in the mirror; hard even to perceive by any gullible person. Too often it’s perpetrated by people’s unconscious when those perpetrators’ conscious awareness is playing tricks on itself. Usually, it’s verbal; reflecting attitudes, values and perceptions that perpetrators are not familiar with on a conscious level. Often, it can simply be a facial expression; a nasty glare, an unspoken gesture, something almost invisible unless you know what to look for. It’s violence too; albeit psychological; where the hurt goes far beyond the surface to reside within the victim’s psyche, covert and camouflaged and often manifesting in all sorts of other illnesses that seem unrelated to anything specific. Eric Berne, an author who penned a book in the 60s called Games People Play wrote about how people play games; some of these games are conscious while really disturbed people play games they’re not aware of; what comes, perhaps inexplicably, out of their mouths or indeed is witnessed in their behaviour can be valuable clues to their real albeit silent beliefs and feelings. I contend that psychological violence can be just as pernicious, if not even more so, than physical violence as while physical violence can kill, psychological violence can often lead its victim to taking his/her own life as the internal pain is simply too much to bear.
Recent reports indicate that more than 2000 people commit suicide due to workplace bullying in Australia and isn’t the word bullying an interesting one? It’s actually, by my definition, psychological violence, where the victim can be bullied to such extremes there seems no other way out but to sleep forever. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg! Society doesn’t want to call this psychological violence – bullying seems a far less perilous word and one we easily associate with schoolyard pranks; not an act of violence with any physicality. You could also call it emotional violence; mental violence; it’s about minds and how words and demeanour can be more revealing than a slap on the face. Indeed, the perpetrator can be so oblivious to what he/she is really feeling that words come out without any premeditated planning of what is said. Women are too often the greatest champions of this psychological violence, lacking the physical strength of their male counterparts, they can use words to vent their innate jealousy, their supposed superiority, their intrinsic power over someone else they perceive as vulnerable, however unconscious it can all be. It’s played out not just at work, but at home and at play; an insidious violence that cuts across all socio-economic levels and all ages. A four-year-old daughter of one of my former friends told me how a girl at her kindergarten had been nasty to her; so when does it all start? And why? Are people so insecure, so bereft of self-esteem and so malicious (is that the right word?) that what comes out of the mouth of a little girl in pre-school can reduce another little girl to great sadness and even fear of returning to the kindergarten? It’s not just females of course; men do it, too; just men more commonly lash out with their fists or guns or embody other more malevolent behaviour such as alcohol-induced violence (when I believe the alcohol just exacerbates what’s already within these men) or partake of illicit drugs on a regular basis that erases the pain they feel inside; however much they’re not consciously aware of that inner pain.
So how can you understand psychological violence? How can you perceive it or realise that’s what’s going on between people? Sometimes, it’s blatantly obvious; like my ex-friend who told me I was too thin only to add – “it’s ageing” – just a catty remark about how old I looked or was there something more sinister, albeit sadistic, in her comment. Was it jealousy as she is obese? Other times, it’s far harder to read; words just come out (a Freudian slip?) but it’s about a humiliating and demeaning verbal exchange that amounts to put-downs and oppression. Even economic violence when you’re paid a pittance for being good at your job! Power over the victim is paramount; however disguised as care or concern. In a society where too many people NEED to exert power over others in order to feel good about themselves I can only reflect on how pervasive psychological violence is; indeed, an academic, John Clarke, wrote a book called Monsters At Work a few years ago where he outlined the psychopathic antics of many so-called successful people; and I only have to think about the shrinks I’ve consulted to recognise their attempt at power games over me. In the family, it can be even more complex to unravel; we’re supposed to love our families and they’re supposed to love us but what is it when that love simply doesn’t exist? What replaces it? Hate, jealousy, insecurity? Or just a battle for powerful supremacy in the home arena? I once compared my father to Hitler when I was just 13/14 years old: he seemed to want power albeit in his own home not in the world as Hitler did. I was scared of his temper; he never hit us or my mother; but his verbal assaults on the family seemed crazy to me. Only years later did I begin to appreciate his frustration and depression at being unemployed in the so-called Lucky Country of Australia in the 60s. (Why he was unemployed I don’t know). Moreover, he was also too often excluded from any decision-making about what my sisters and I did, and even sadder, I realised, was the manner in which my mother put him down and lied to him. (She seemed to feel an uneasy fear with him, too). One of my sisters did too while my other sister just went her own way and lied to both my mother and father about how she was living her life. It was a very dysfunctional family where I saw psychological violence played out on a daily basis though as an adolescent I didn’t at all understand it. Indeed, I also wrote in my teenage diary that being close, we seemed to destroy one another while the reality was we weren’t close at all. None of us. The irony is that my father’s perception of me was spot on as he told me at 22, that I was a radical and non-conformist and many of his other perceptions of the members of our family were similarly to the point. But it was still a violent household, with too much screaming and yelling and my mother in tears too many times. My father would just walk out, bang the front door to visit some of the extended family only to return a few hours later as if nothing had happened. My older sister is still like that; what I say or what she says, let alone what happens, is forgotten the next time we meet. I find it all frightening; it’s that unconscious verbiage or actions that are buried within and surface in conflict only to be shoved back under that surface when the conflict seems to be over. There is no attempt to comprehend what precipitated those words or actions; no effort to understand why there is a conflict in the first place; just a power game of superiority and arrogance over others. The shrinks do it with years of study; but no less sadistic or power-mongering.. It’s a horrifying reality that’s best encapsulated with one word – PROJECTION! We can project onto others what lies unknown in our unconscious; all our inadequacies; our insecurities and our jealousies et al. It oft manifests itself in a range of eating disorders, psychopathic behaviour in the workplace or on the streets, behind the wheel of a car, on the internet, and so many facets of life that it’s not even spoken about. Violence is just perceived as physical; a black eye when there have been times in my life when I’d rather have had a black eye than live with the emotional pain of psychological violence that’s been perpetrated against me by my family, some of my ex-friends, shrinks (both female and male) and of course, at work and at play.
What can one do to stop it? I only know that I try to be aware of what I’m saying and why I’m saying it; at least I try to understand my unconscious and it was Jung who wrote that one of the greatest challenges we can face is to make the unconscious conscious; that’s my attempt at NOT projecting on to anyone else and claiming for myself all my insecurities and problems. Psychological violence is just a fact of life we all have to live with but at least if we’re aware of it, we can only hope we don’t perpetrate it! We need to be aware of the games we might play in order to learn and educate ourselves about not just our own words and behaviour, but others’ human behaviour, too. Is psychological violence just inevitable in the game of life?