The Oxford Dictionaries website tells us that to degrade means to “[t]reat or regard (someone) with contempt or disrespect.” Degradation is particularly painful when it comes from someone who’s supposed to take care of our needs, such as our parents. We trust them and love them, in spite of the pain they cause us. Even when we’re adults, degradation is one of the most powerful ways emotionally abusive parents have of maintaining control over us.
Overt degradation is possibly one of the most well recognized forms of emotional abuse. It’s hard to deny that calling someone stupid, loser, or bitch is abusive. Even then, however, those who haven’t experienced emotional abuse have a hard time understanding how this kind of name-calling can have lasting effects unless the survivor is weak and over-sensitive. What stays with us is the total rejection that comes from those who should accept us and support us in spite of our mistakes and shortcomings. We feel like there must be something fundamentally wrong with us if they, of all people, are moved to degrade us.
Overt degradation also comes in the form of insults, whether we’re kids or adults. An abusive parent, for instance, may not like our appearance (clothes, hairstyles, piercings, tattoos, etc.) and try to make us feel like we look ridiculous or embarrassing. If abusive parents think their daughter dresses too immodestly, they may compare her to a whore (which is a very different thing from telling her that they think she’s exposing too much of her body). If a man refuses a promotion to a management position, his abusive parents may remind him of all of the benefits he passed up in order to make him feel like he’s an idiot for refusing.
Another overt form of degradation that’s not well recognized, in my opinion, is ridicule. Abusers make jokes at our expense with the underlying motive of making us feel insecure, and we’re expected to take it lightly. For instance, a 35-year-old woman who decides to go back to school and get a psychology degree may be laughed at by her abusive parents. They remind her that she spent more time partying than studying in high school and that they can’t picture her giving up on her favorite TV shows in order to study. These “jokes” likely already tap into some insecurity she’s feeling.
Certain commands from our abusers can be seen as overt degradation. They’re given to us in a way that makes us feel incompetent and stupid. Abusers may, for instance, instruct us on what to say to someone when we meet them or speak with them on the telephone. They tell us what to say or how to act in situations where we should be able to say and act as we feel is natural. The commands are sometimes made even more degrading by being given when someone else is around. For example, you may tell your abusive parents that you’re planning on going on a trip with a friend in that friend’s presence. They’ll then tell you where to go and what to do on the trip as if you’re completely clueless about the place, all in front of your friend.
Degradation, however, doesn’t have to be obvious to be hurtful. Covert degradation can leave us wondering if we’re imaging things because of its subtlety, and we feel helpless to fight against it because it can be so easily denied.
Looks and gestures can be degrading and pass so quickly that we wonder if they were even given. An abusive parent can, for instance, mimic a facial expression or tone of voice you use when you’re excited or distressed in order to minimize it. The look may be given behind your back, making everyone else in the room laugh. You know it was degrading but you never find out how. Degrading gestures include hand motions and postures that reject what we’ve said or done as unimportant or ridiculous or even obscene ones that are insulting.
Behaviors can also be degrading. Sometimes they’re meant to keep us in the place of children and our abusive parents in the place of the dominating adult. For instance, even as a 20-year-old, my mother and father would often reach for my hand whenever we got to a busy intersection, as if I didn’t know how to cross the street by myself. Sometimes the behaviors are disguised as help but really send the message that you don’t know how to take care of yourself or do something right. When my mother would visit me once a year, for instance, she’d wash all of my clothes, as if I didn’t know how to do that myself. Sometimes behaviors degrade us by forcing us to do things their way as a message that their way is better. You might, for instance, tell your abusive parents about the color scheme you plan to remodel your kitchen with only to have them go out and buy materials with a completely different color scheme, implying that your choice was a bad one.
Another way for emotional abusers to degrade us subtly is through comments they make to others. Often these are said behind our back and we hear about them through third parties. Again, we get the double embarrassment of having another person witness our degradation. For instance, when I was 27, I was living with my parents and decided to move to another country. My sister reported to me that our mother said she was glad I was making the move because it might make me “more mature and more normal.” She was essentially saying I was immature (at the age of 27), and worse, abnormal.
Finally, abusive parents can effectively degrade their children by making negative comparisons between them and others. Sometimes the comparisons are to others they know or to other people’s children, and sometimes the comparisons are between their own children. The general message is always that we’re not as good as the other person.
As children, this might have made us dread anything our brother or sister accomplished instead of feeling joy in it because we knew this would start a comparison that would make us feel inadequate. Or we may have dreaded every meeting with another family, knowing that our parents would go on and on about how their kids were great and how we didn’t measure up. This kind of comparison stretches well into adulthood where our brother, sister, or the children of their friends are more successful, smarter, have better marriages, and have more accomplished children than we do.
Degradation is one of the most difficult emotional abuse behaviors we have to deal with because it constantly makes us feel like we’re worthless and stupid. We spend a lot of time and energy trying to prove them wrong. Or we feel defeated no matter what we’ve accomplished. We also learn the degrading messages and play them back to ourselves when they’re not around as well as create new ones. Degradation becomes a way of seeing ourselves.