How to Recognize Verbal Abuse

Karen Doll, Author
January 7, 2019

Verbal abuse often goes unnoticed and unrecognized. It is more subtle than physical abuse yet can cause similar emotional damage.  Verbal abuse can occur in any relationship:  home, spousal, friendships, or work. It involves using words to hurt, control, or manipulate another person.  It is most commonly addressed in the context of a significant other.

verbal abuse

Verbal abuse may be overt and obvious, such as swearing and name calling. However, much of the time it is insidious and confusing.  Verbal abuse can be hard to recognize and the signs may be more felt than seen.  Verbal abusers also often engage in blame and manipulation tactics, suggesting that it is the victim’s faulty perception. This makes it complicated to understand and address. Victims often doubt themselves, even if their gut tells them the pattern of behavior is dysfunctional.

Verbal abuse can come in the form of manipulation, humiliation, criticism, or discounting the feelings of the other person.  Abusers invalidate the experience of others, often suggesting they are too sensitive, crazy, or confused for feeling how they do.  Abusers do not handle conflict in a healthy way; rather, they will employ hurtful comments. Verbal abuse often comes in the form of anger, shouting, using cruel language, and has an undercurrent of a disrespectful tone.

Here are common types of verbal abuse:

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  • Criticizing
  • Making fun
  • Belittling
  • Being sarcastic
  • Humiliating
  • Blaming
  • Insulting
  • Threatening
  • Shaming
  • Name calling

Other verbally abusive unhealthy behaviors include engaging in the silent treatment or stonewalling. Refusing to discuss issues and shutting the other person out can also be quite damaging.  Creating distance and refusing to engage in discussion to work through problems can have an emotionally abusive impact as well.  Verbal abusers may show tendencies to be argumentative, pick a fight, ridicule or overcontrol a conversation.  Commonly, there is a lack of accountability and blame is often placed on the victim.  Verbal abusers do not take responsibility for their actions and continue to “throw the ball back.”  They often deny that the behavior even occurred.

Impact on the victim

Victims of verbal abuse often feel lonely, unappreciated and humiliated.  The impact of verbal abuse is real and can be devastating. It creates deep emotional wounds, especially when sustained over time. Victims of verbal abuse can experience mental and physical symptoms including depression, anxiety, chronic pain, physical ailments, etc. It will have a negative effect on self-esteem and can often lead to victim’s questioning their own sense of reality.  The manipulative aspect of verbal abuse can cause victims to feel confused about their perception of events.  Victims often learn survival methods such as “walking on eggshells,” to avoid upsetting their partner.

Cycle of abuse

Relationships all experience conflict and people often say things they don’t mean out of anger in the moment.  However, when the behavior is pervasive, consistent, and regularly occurs, this is an abusive cycle.  Often there can be times of loving behavior in between the cycles, but this does not take away from the negative effects of abuse.  Being in a cycle of abuse leads to feelings of guilt, shame, hopelessness, and helplessness.

If your intuition tells you that you are being abused, it is time to seek professional help. Friends and family may have good intentions, but may not have the tools, insight, experience, and resources to help you cope with an abusive situation in a healthy way.  Most victims second guess themselves, often wondering if they are being too sensitive.  Please reach out for help and let objective professionals guide you to health and safety.

Karen Doll, Author

Karen Doll has been a Licensed Psychologist in the Twin Cities for 20 years, working in organizational consulting. She leverages her education in Clinical Psychology with her leadership assessment expertise in her practice. She is an executive coach focusing on helping people maximize their potential.

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