How to Recognize Verbal Abuse

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Most people assume that if they were being verbally abused they would know about it. After all, verbal abuse often involves yelling, put-downs, name-calling, and belittling behaviors. But there is so much more to verbal abuse than people realize. In fact, some people are verbally abused on a regular basis without even recognizing that it’s happening.

What Is Verbal Abuse?

Because verbal abuse isn’t as clear-cut as other forms of abuse and bullying, like physical bullying and sexual bullying, it can be hard to identify. But that doesn’t make it any less real.

Verbal abuse involves some sort of verbal interaction that causes a person emotional harm, often prompting them to question who they are. It is a way for a person to control and maintain power over another person. In fact, it is not uncommon for a victim of verbal abuse to feel inadequate, stupid, and worthless. After all, they are being defined by a verbally abusive person.

If verbal abuse occurs in a dating relationship, it can be particularly confusing because the partner may not be abusive all of the time and their behavior likely emerged slowly over time. Verbal abuse can be insidious and subtle.

As a result, when the abuser is loving and gentle, the victim can forget about the negative behavior. Ultimately, the victim ends up ignoring the pattern of verbal abuse or makes excuses for the behavior, saying that the abuser is just stressed or going through a tough time right now.

Types of Verbal Abuse

When someone is being verbally abused, the person attacking them may use overt forms of abuse like engaging in name-calling and making threats, but also more insidious methods like gaslighting or constantly correcting, interrupting, putting down, and demeaning them. Even prolonged silent treatment is a form of verbal abuse. When this happens, the person is attempting to control and punish the victim by refusing to talk to the other person.

For some people, especially those who either experience verbal abuse in the home or experienced it as a child, it can often be overlooked because the verbal assaults feel like a normal way to communicate. But they are anything but normal and can have lasting consequences.

Verbal abuse can take a number of different forms, including:

  • Blaming: making the victim believe they are responsible for the abusive behavior or that they bring the verbal abuse upon themselves
  • Criticism: harsh and persistent remarks that are meant to make the person feel bad about themselves and are not constructive, but deliberate and hurtful
  • Gaslighting: a type of insidious, and sometimes covert, emotional abuse where the abuser makes the target question their judgments and reality
  • Judging: looking down on the victim, not accepting them for who they are, or holding them to unrealistic expectations
  • Name-calling: abusive, derogatory language, or insults that chip away at the target’s self-esteem, sense of self-worth, and self-concept
  • Threats: statements meant to frighten, control, and manipulate the victim into compliance
  • Withholding: a refusal to give affection or attention, including talking to you, looking at you, or even being in the same room with you

While not an exhaustive list, these are a few examples of the common types of verbal abuse that can occur.

Impact

Verbal abuse can impact every element of life, including academic performance, relationships, and success at work later in life. Just like any other form of abuse or bullying, verbal abuse has both short- and long-term consequences, including the following mental health problems:

  • Anxiety
  • Changes in mood
  • Chronic stress
  • Decreased self-esteem
  • Depression
  • Feelings of shame, guilt, and hopelessness
  • PTSD
  • Social withdrawal and isolation
  • Substance use

When verbal abuse is particularly severe, it can impact whether or not people can see themselves as being successful in any area of life. Those who experience verbal abuse as children may experience feelings of worthlessness, difficulty trusting others, and problems regulating their emotions as adults.

A number of studies have shown that children who are verbally abused, either at home or by their peers at school, are at a greater risk for depression and anxiety as adults.

Signs

When it comes to verbal abuse, victims often question whether or not what they are experiencing is truly abusive. They also wonder whether or not it is a big deal.

Here are some signs that a family member, friend, peer, or dating partner is verbally abusive.

  • They call you names. Anytime someone engages in name-calling, it is a form of verbal abuse. Even if the names are said in a neutral voice, this is not an acceptable treatment of another person.
  • They use words to shame you. Examples include critical, sarcastic, or mocking words that are meant to put you down. These may be comments about the way you dress, talk, or your intelligence. Basically, shaming is any comment that makes you feel inferior or ashamed of who you are. 
  • They make jokes at your expense. Typically, verbally abusive people will make you the butt of their jokes. This can be done in private or in person. But if you don't find it funny, then it is not harmless fun. What's more, verbally abusive people usually select jokes that attack an area where you feel vulnerable or weak.
  • They humiliate you in public. When you are insulted in public by a peer, a friend, a family member, or a dating partner, this can be particularly painful.
  • They criticize you. Whether done in public or in private, criticism can be painful, particularly if the person doing the criticizing is simply being mean and has no intention of being constructive. 
  • They yell, scream, or swear at you. Any time someone yells or curses at you, this is a display of power and the goal is to control and intimidate you into submission. As a result, it is abusive and should not be tolerated or excused. 
  • They make threats. No threat should ever be taken lightly. When people make threats, they are trying to control and manipulate you. Remember, there is no better way to control someone than to make them fearful in some way.

The goal of the abuser is to control you by making you feel bad about who you are.

What to Do About It

The first step in dealing with verbal abuse is to recognize the abuse. If you were able to identify any type of verbal abuse in your relationship, it's important to acknowledge that first and foremost.

By being honest about what you are experiencing, you can begin to take steps to gain back control. While you need to consider your individual situation and circumstances, these tips can help if you find yourself in a verbally abusive relationship.

Set Boundaries

Firmly tell the verbally abusive person that they may no longer criticize, judge or shame you, name-call, threaten you, and so on. Then, tell them what will happen if they continue this abusive behavior.

For instance, tell them that if they scream or swear at you, the conversation will be over and you will leave the room. The key is to follow through; don't set boundaries you have no intention of keeping.

Limit Exposures

If possible, take time away from the verbally abusive person and spend time with people who love and support you. Limiting exposure with the person can give you space to reevaluate your relationship. Surrounding yourself with a network of friends and family will help you feel less lonely and isolated and remind you of what a healthy relationship should look like.

End the Relationship

If there are no signs that the verbal abuse will end, or that the person has any intention of working on their behavior, you will likely need to take steps to end the relationship. Before doing so, share your thoughts and ideas with a trusted friend, family member, or counselor. You may also want to come up with a safety plan in case the abuse escalates when you break things off.

Seek Help

Healing from a verbally abusive relationship may not be something you can do on your own. Reach out to trusted loved ones for support, and consider talking to a therapist who can help you process your emotions and develop healthy coping skills for dealing with the short- and long-term consequences of verbal abuse.

If you or a loved one are a victim of domestic violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for confidential assistance from trained advocates.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.


A Word From Verywell

Although the effects of verbal abuse can be significant, there is still hope. Once a person becomes able to recognize verbal abuse in their lives, they can start making informed decisions about which friendships and dating relationships are healthy and which are toxic, fake, or abusive. They also can learn to stand up to verbal bullying.

Remember, verbal abuse doesn't have to leave a lasting impact. With intervention, victims can overcome and cope with the bullying they have experienced. 

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