Once you see the signs of abuse, it’s almost impossible to unsee them. I was recently party to a conversation between an abuser and someone confronting her intentionally vindictive behavior. The abuser simultaneously denied any wrongdoing, while also claiming she “forgot,” because, you know, she’s so busy and important, and also threw in a heaping dose of blame while calling everyone involved in the incident (except herself) liars. It was the all-you-can-eat buffet of word salad.
Word salad is when an abuser attempts to deny, blame, and deflect responsibility away from their abusive behavior. It’s a form of gaslighting and manipulation designed to throw you off course. It’s when you ask someone a direct question and they give you a five minute rant not answering your question. In other words, they are lying liars caught in their lie. It’s also used in reference to schizophrenics launching into a tirade of nonsensical words. For narcissists, psychopaths, and other cluster B personality disorders, word salad looks more like this. You ask them a question about their intentions regarding their bad behavior, and they get super defensive. They take whatever you said and twist it around to make it your fault. They will use a condescending or patronizing tone. They may pull a Jekyll and Hyde scenario and make you feel like you are suddenly talking to an entirely different person. They will accuse you of doing what they are guilty of doing. They will give you a thousand excuses, none of which have anything to do with what is actually going on. You will walk away feeling confused, thinking “What the hell just happened?”
If someone is trying to serve up some word salad, refuse. Stand your ground. Don’t waste your energy trying to reason with them. Word salad is all the evidence you need to know you are dealing with a disordered individual. Get the heck out of there while you still can. Do whatever you need to do to protect yourself and your loved ones from people like this.
I learned the hard way about trying to engage people who use word salad to deflect and blame. I was raised by parents who refused to take responsibility for their behavior, and doubled down on the emotional abuse whenever their behavior was challenged. As a child, their erratic behavior was scary, but dealing with them as an adult, they took word salad to such extremes that it became comical in a morose sort of way. Still, it’s no fun to talk to people like this, and too much exposure will eventually wear you down. In the case of the person referenced above, measures will have to be taken to prevent from further abuse. Her decision to respond with word salad to a situation where a simple, humble “I’m sorry” could have fixed it now means getting half a dozen professionals involved with the issue in order to keep people safe from her.
As someone recovering from abuse, people like this are beyond exhausting to me. Even though I recognize the pattern for what it is, my brain fires off an extreme stress response. One minute of exposure to word salad can mean two to three days of recovery time for me. Long gone are the days where I would try to reason or argue with someone like this. I know better than to seek to be understood by someone who is pathologically incapable of taking responsibility for her actions. Even so, my previous response would have been to internalize it or try to brush it off. I would shoulder the stress or try to minimize the impact until an “unrelated” migraine or an upset stomach would make me sick. For me, it means being brutally honest with myself about when and how I am hurting, and actually stopping right then and there to take care of myself. I am learning to allow myself some extra grace while I deal with my stress responses out in the open. It can feel tedious. Often, I’d rather pretend that jerks don’t hurt me. But they do. In the same way that a veteran can’t help an extreme stress response to fireworks, I can’t help how my body responds to toxic people. I can only try to avoid the explosives and offer myself a bit more grace and kindness instead.