A bit of criticism and a snide remark here and there are often overlooked. However, if these are being directed at you regularly, you are probably a victim of verbal abuse. What constitutes verbal abuse and what are its signs? Here, we elaborate on this very serious, yet often overlooked issue.
The Most Unnoticed Form of Abuse
Because verbal abuse does not leave visible scars or bruises, it is very difficult to identify unless the abused opens up about it. Until it is identified, verbal abuse can cause massive psychological damage.
Contrary to popular belief, verbal abuse is not just name-calling or swearing; nor is it merely restricted to relationships between man and woman. Children, teenagers or employees of an organization may be verbally abused. Masked as humor, sometimes a calm, straightforward remark or a ‘lovable’ “you wouldn’t know, sweetie!” can all constitute verbal abuse.
What is Verbal Abuse?
We can define verbal abuse as words that attack or injure an individual, words that cause one to believe an untrue statement, or words that speak falsely of an individual.
Verbal abuse constitutes psychological violence. Verbal abuse is damaging to the spirit. It takes the joy and vitality out of life.
– Dr. Jay Grady, Ph.D. , You are a Door Prize, Not a Doormat, (Houston, Therepia Publishing 2003), 23-24
Why Does Verbal Abuse Occur?
Perpetrators of verbal abuse are characterized by their need for control in every situation.
This behavior becomes a pattern, where the abused finds her/himself tiptoeing around the abuser’s feelings so as to avoid saying something that will frustrate or anger the abuser. It is important to point out that men are as much victims of verbal abuse as are women.
The effects of verbal abuse are tremendous. Continuous subtle or overt belittling, intimidating, and blaming can erode the victim’s self-esteem and inculcate a sense of worthlessness and insignificance without the realization that her/his personality is undergoing this change.
Established Signs of Verbal Abuse
Often unnoticed how people in authority are ‘expected to behave’, it can take a while to recognize the established pattern that defines verbal abuse. Here are the most definite signs of verbal abuse that you may have noticed if you are a victim.
- Blaming you for all that goes wrong – “It’s all your fault. You can’t do one thing right.”
- Trying to put you down by belittling your achievements – “Anyone could have done that.”
- Trying to prove you wrong, even if she/he is wrong – “Let’s not talk about my project. We know what you’ve done with yours.”
- Ridiculing or rejecting your opinions, choices, and suggestions – “You always find fault with everything. The pace of the movie was just fine!”
- Trivializing your needs or desires – “How can you still be crying about your breakup?”
- Calling you names – “How many times have I told you not to do it that way, you idiot?!”
- Making you out to be the bad guy – “You’re too sensitive!” or “I can’t even joke with you.”
- “Joking” about you privately or publicly – “Wow! You don’t even know the capital of Pakistan. You should get a refund from school.”
- Threatening or intimidating you – “Both of us know what the consequences of THAT will be.”
- Yelling or swearing – “You f****** b******! Don’t you dare talk to me like that!”
- Purposely engaging you in conversations about things you aren’t comfortable with – “So I saw this really creepy scene in this horror movie …”
- Reprimanding you for answering in a manner that isn’t consistent with her/his beliefs – “Do you want to think about what you said?”
- Giving you the silent treatment, or withholding information – “You don’t need to know about this.” or “You won’t be able to help in any way.”
- Changing the topic when confronted – “Why do you always use this tone with me?”
- Ordering you around and not treating you as an equal – “How long does it take to get a glass of water around here?!”
The Effect on the Abused
As mentioned earlier, verbal abuse does not show up in physical being, but it leaves behind emotional scars more often recognized at a point where the damage is extensive and to a certain extent, irreparable. What is the impact of verbal abuse on a victim of this issue?
- If you are a victim of verbal abuse, your self-esteem will slowly weaken because you will be convinced by the abuser that you are always in the wrong.
- You start doubting your own decisions and judgements.
- You may not be able to recognize or celebrate your achievements because they have probably always been undermined.
- You stop reacting to the abuse because every time you do, it escalates into something bigger and is made out to be your fault.
- You begin to feel you are treading on a land mine and try to avoid speaking because it may be twisted into something it is not.
- You begin to feel responsible for everything that is affecting your life and relationship with the abuser. You blame yourself for it.
- Most of your thoughts are focused on whether what you said to the abuser was accepted at face value or was misconstrued as a personal attack. Think carefully before saying anything so that the situation does not escalate.
The most prominent effect of verbal abuse is the distortion of reality and the acceptance of the situation as it is. More often than not, it results in denial, and leaves the victim feeling manipulated, confused, and upset without any obvious reason but the ever-changing behavior of the abuser.
In some cases, verbal abuse may escalate to physical abuse. While there are laws to deal with the latter, the former requires a strict definition of what constitutes it, and what methods may be used to deal with it. If the signs are recognized sooner than later, a long period of trauma can be avoided.
Whether you are the victim or know someone who is, it is essential that the necessary help and support be provided. Always maintain contact with friends and family-do not withdraw into a shell. This is essential so that you have a support system that will encourage you to pay attention to the problem and help you deal with it.
If possible, seek counseling, and don’t give in. As a last resort, it may be essential that you end this relationship. While it may not be easy, it may be the only way to reward yourself a life free of trauma and guilt for events you were rarely responsible for.