When I did my first work as a psychotherapist it was in a practicum setting where I was working as a counselor for a ‘women and violence’ program. Essentially dealing with current and/or past survivors of abuse. One of my focused areas of study was on dealing with and healing from abusive relationships.
Abusive behavior occurs not only in close interpersonal relationships but also in workplaces, schools, and other communities.
Verbal abuse is one of the more common forms of abuse that people face.
Verbal abuse can at times be more damaging than physical abuse, with longer lasting results on the psyches of those involved.
Verbal abuse is often trivialized in society in terms of how harmful it can be to a person’s mental and emotional health over a period of time. People who have experienced verbal abuse often feel deeply hurt, frightened, angered, and at the same time may have self doubt or guilt over their inner emotional reaction to the verbal abuse. They have internalized the idea that something so ‘trivial’ as words shouldn’t hurt them so much. The reality is it is so hurtful because it’s not so trivial.
If you experience hurt and upset over the words of another directed at yourself and/or people you care about, your feelings are valid, and important.
Verbal abuse is something we are all likely to experience at some time or another to some degree or another. Most of us have experienced hurt at the words of another.
There is a difference between verbal abuse and conflict. In conflict, each person wants something different, and in order to resolve the conflict, the people involved in the conflict discuss their wants, needs and reasons while seeking a solution.
Conflict tends to be solution focused, while verbal abuse tends to be about a means to an ends in itself, that of power and control.
Sometimes issues of conflict will devolve into situations of verbal abuse. Verbally abusive situations are not necessarily about one abuser, and one victim. There may be more than two parties involved, and one, two or all involved may be verbally abusive.
In general, laying ‘blame’ is not productive, and can be a form of verbal abuse itself. Focus should be on ending abusive behavior if one is engaging in it, or removing oneself from abusive behavior if one is the victim of it.
Verbal abuse is all about power and control. One person is seeking power and control over another or others, and gains that power by manipulating and controlling communication. Verbal abuse by its very nature, undermines the feelings, beliefs, perceptions and behavior of the victim or victims involved. Verbal abuse is damaging not only to those it is directed towards, but to those engaging in the abusive behaviors, and those not directly involved but witness to the abuse. Ongoing abuse is more damaging than isolated incidences of abuse.
Becoming aware of ongoing abuse issues in your life and taking positive measures to protect yourselves and others is an important step to empowering yourself in living a healthy life.
What is verbal abuse?
If you have been called stupid, a bitch, or any other put-down, you have been verbally abused.
Name calling is the most obvious form of verbal abuse and is not difficult for most of us to recognize, but verbal abuse takes many, more subtle forms as well.
Verbal abuse may be ‘disguised’ as jokes, or a form of humor, teasing, or sarcasm. Teasing can be a strong tactic of control. Even in it’s most innocent application, teasing is designed to trigger shame, to cause others to feel unsure or foolish, especially when the teaser asks “What’s the matter? Can’t you take a joke?”
Verbal abuse may take the form of ‘Withholding’ Essentially refusing to listen or to communicate in a positive fashion.
Verbal abuse may take the form of ‘Countering’ Not allowing you to have a different opinion or point of view. Invalidating your opinion or point of view, refusing to acknowledge your point of view or definitions and constantly countering them with their own.
Verbal abuse may take the form of ‘Discounting’ Treating your experiences and feelings as if they are worthless or meaningless.
Verbal abuse may take the form of ‘Blocking/Diverting’ These are forms of controlling communication by establishing what can/cannot be discussed and/or switching the topic.
Verbal abuse may take the form of ‘Accusing and Blaming’Â Accusing you and/or others of wrongdoing or blaming you for his/her words, feelings or behaviors.
Verbal abuse may take the form of ‘Judging and Criticizing’ Judging you/others and then expressing that judgment in a critical way to you or others.
Verbal abuse may take the form of ‘Trivializing’ Indicating, directly or indirectly, that what you or others have done or said is not important.
Verbal abuse may take the form of ‘Undermining/Sabotaging’ Not only withholding emotional support from others, but making comments that are aimed at undermining self confidence, or implying that others are inadequate or lesser than in some way.
Verbal abuse may take the form of ‘Forgetting/Denial’
Declaring what occurred didn’t occur; denying your and others reality.
Verbal abuse may take the form of ‘Ordering’ Telling others what to do, and giving orders instead of asking respectfully for what he/she/others want. Denying the equality of others.
Verbal abuse may take the form of ‘Abusive Anger’Â Irritable outbursts, sneering, arguing, temper tantrums, shouting, yelling, raging, explosiveness or sarcasm directed at you or others.
Of course we have all experienced these behaviors, and we all at some time or another have acted in such a way that falls under the above definitions. That does not make all of us verbal abusers. The important thing in identifying someone who is verbally abusive is a identifying that they use multiple tactics of verbally abusive controlling behavior, and they have a pattern of doing so consistently and repeatedly over time. Abuse often occurs in cycles.
You cannot resolve conflicts with someone who is abusive and whose agenda is not conflict resolution, but power and control.
The appropriate response to an abuser, is generally to disengage. To not accept abusive behavior from them. You may or may not want to call them on the behavior first. Calling someone on their abusive behavior will not work if they are in denial over their own behavior. It’s only valuable if there is some indication of recognition, responsibilty and willingness to change on the part of the abuser. Remove yourself from the line of fire.
If you recognize these behaviors in yourself or others. If you believe you or others are acting from a place of trying to exact power or control, ‘win’, rather than solve conflict, ask yourself what the results of being the perpetrator or victim of the verbal abuse is. Usually it’s an endless cycle of pain and nonsense. Are you continuing to engage in the cycle of abuse with others, as a victim, as a perpetrator or as both?
Recognize your behavior, accept and forgive yourself, move on and do something different, more productive, positive, and towards healing.
My personal advice. Just stop. Do something else. ‘Playing’ with a verbally abusive person is like playing with fire, the result is you get burned. Anything you do to try to quench the flame is going to be seen as a play at power and control and will just cause more heat and a brighter flame. It doesn’t matter if you feel you are coming from a positive place or not, sticking your hand over a flame will result in injury regardless of your positive attitude.
If you’re worried they or others will see your disengaging as a ‘win’ for them, or that they have gotten the upper hand. They’ve sucked you into their game and mindset of power and control, let it go, let them have it. It’s a fabrication. Real power and control in life is not about abuse, or winning in verbally abusive battles. The people that matter in life, and your own psyche, will recognize that the healthy and strong thing to do, is not engage in the abusive behavior, as a perpetrator, or as a victim.