Would You Recognize Verbal Abuse? Here’s What You Need to Know
By Sarah Fader
Updated August 24, 2019
Reviewer Kelly L. Burns, MA, LPC, ATR-P
Verbal abuse can happen in many different situations. It takes place at work, at school, at home, and at other places. People who commit verbal abuse against others often have their own mental health issues they need to work with. But their problems can become yours when their attacks are aimed at you.
Put simply, verbal abuse is a manipulation tactic used by one person to control another through non-physical means. This may be by controlling their behaviors, feelings, or decisions. Many times, the controlling or coercive behaviors are disguised as love or concern. Other times the abuse of power is more overt. Either way, the abuse can result in fear for the person being bullied-fear of humiliation, fear of failure, or fear of physical violence or abandonment.
Unfortunately, you may not even realize when verbal abuse, or verbal bullying, is taking place. The abuser may tell you that you're being oversensitive or play it off as teasing, "It's just a joke!" Or you may think they sincerely want to help you and are just being tough. But there is a vast difference between true concern for you and someone putting you down and depleting your self-esteem. You need to know the difference so that you can regain confidence in yourself and achieve a better mental state. It's also important for friends, family members, caregivers, and authority figures to recognize verbal abuse in order to be advocates for those being attacked.
The relationship between anger and verbal abuse
Often, abusers are angry individuals. Verbal abuse can be accompanied by scary rages. Other times, the threats and insults are quiet and subtle. But anger may still be behind them. What you need to know is that the anger is not necessarily directed at you. You did not do anything to provoke their outbursts. They are angry about themselves and their own lives, whether the anger is justified or not.
The method of self-soothing these angry people use is to make their victims feel doubt and fear. It gives them power and control over someone, and these feelings make the abuser feel good. That is why it is nearly impossible to stop a verbally abusive person, especially when they are in a rage. They are benefitting from the situation. They don't feel foolish, despite that they would look that way to anyone walking in on the situation from the outside. They feel like they are winning because they have distressed you and gotten a reaction.
But this constant state of wondering when the next rage is coming, or when the next verbal assault is coming, wrecks your health. The effects of self-doubt and fear flood your body with stress hormones and inflammation, affecting both your mental and physical wellbeing.
The abuser, on the other hand, may appear to be out of control, but can actually feel quite calm internally. Their abuse is not a loss of control. It is a choice they make about how to act, a choice they make in order to manipulate and scare you. Many victims of abuse can attest to the fact that their abusers are actually in control because they are able to turn the behavior on and off like a switch.
The abuser is charming and loving in the beginning of a relationship, but then they choose a time to begin the abuse, even if the victim has changed nothing about their thoughts or behaviors. They can be raging and throwing things like a maniac one moment, but after you call the police, they talk to the officers calmly as though nothing happened. The behaviors are very intentional.
What you must understand is that no choice you make about how to react will ever be the right one. What the abuser wants is to continue the argument. They want to escalate it. They want you to lose your control so that they have power over you. If you are silent, they will start yelling questions and insist that you speak and answer them. If you speak and answer, they will talk over you and tell you what your answer is. They will not listen to anything you say, except to pick up the couple of words that give them something to twist and accuse you for.
The only way to stop an abusive rage is to get away from the situation. That being said, leaving an argument with a verbally abusive person is not always easy, depending upon the situation and what your relationship is with the person. If you cannot leave the abuser's proximity, then your best bet is to play along and let the angry individual "win." Do not argue logic because they are not being logical. Do not try to defend yourself because they are not listening. Do not ignore them and hope they will go away because they will only scream louder and possibly resort to physical violence or other emotional abuse and torment
When verbal abuse reaches this point, all that matters is that you protect your own mental and physical health. At this point, it does not matter if you are lying to the abuser. When you are physically stuck with them, cannot leave the situation, and the truth only plays into their desire to rage harder, you become an actor. Try to give them whatever words they need to hear in order to end the episode of verbal abuse, without making it obvious that you are insincere. Do not allow them to get inside your head and make you angry. Keep control of yourself rather than giving it to them. And when you are able to, get away.
It is worth noting that some angry abusers suffer from mental health disorders such as personality disorders. But not all of them do. In fact, the instance of mental health issues among abusers is about the same as the general population. Their abuse is a behavior they continue by choice, unlike mental illness.
If their behaviors were caused by their mental illness alone, they would not be able to time their attacks, plan them out, and manipulate you beforehand with pleasant behaviors. Whether they have a mental health problem, does not factor into whether you should stay in the situation or how you need to act in order to save your own mental health. Here are a couple of mental illnesses that may have similar behavior patterns to verbal abuse:
Bipolar disorder is characterized by intense mood cycles. The moods can range widely, but that does not mean that all individuals with bipolar disorder experience both extreme mania and extreme depression. They can exist anywhere on the spectrum, fluctuating between mania and a more neutral state, experiencing only depression and neutral states, or going between mania, depression, and neutral emotional states. Rage and irritability can be experienced during manic episodes. Bipolar disorder can even appear similar to the abuse cycle, except that symptoms of bipolar disorder cannot be turned on and off by choice, as is seen in verbal abuse.
So how do you know whether how you are being treated is a result of illness or choice? The cycles of bipolar disorder are lengthy. Manic episodes and depressive episodes alike will last for days or weeks at a time. Verbal abuse characterized by rage, in contrast, can switch on and off in a matter of minutes. Mania and depression cannot be controlled around others. Verbal abusers, however, can be assaulting you one moment and immediately become perfectly calm when someone outside the attack shows up. Again, verbal abusers may also have bipolar disorder, and their mental illness may affect their irritability levels, but that is not an excuse for their abusive behavior.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is another mental illness that can cause increased irritability and anger. If an abuser suffers from PTSD, then they need to enter treatment for their mental health issue. But that doesn't mean that you should endanger your mental and physical well-being in the meantime. You may need to distance yourself (and possibly your children) from the abuser until they are on the road to recovery from their abusive behavior. This does not have to mean total disconnection from them, but it does mean avoiding dangerous situations. You may want to meet only in public or when others are around.
It is important to note that PTSD is not a direct cause of abuse. Many individuals who suffer from PTSD are neither verbally nor physically violent. Although the mental illness may contribute to increased violent behaviors, PTSD and verbal abuse are separate issues. Again, mental illness is not a reason to allow yourself to be subjected to abuse. That road only leads to two or more mentally damaged individuals. And if you are being abused by your partner, and children are witness to the abuse, they are being harmed as well.
Words that indicate abuse
How do you know if you are being verbally abused? This kind of abuse can come out in threats, intimidation, and various forms of manipulation. If the person you suspect of abuse uses the following words towards you, it could be a sign of verbal abuse:
- "You're too sensitive."
- "Can't you take a joke?"
- "Your idea is idiotic."
- "Are you really that naive?"
- "Are you really that dumb?"
- "You're behaving like a child."
- "Anyone else would agree with me."
- "You have a terrible sense of humor."
- "This wouldn't have happened if you…"
- "I never said that," when you know they did.
- "That never happened."
- "That proves that you're crazy."
- Denying any blame.
- Telling you the things that you find important are not.
- Name-calling, profane or otherwise.
Anyone can lose their temper or say something they didn't mean. But when this behavior is abusive, it happens in a fairly regular pattern, not just once. Just remember that periods of loving behavior between verbal assaults does not negate the abuse.
Manifestations of verbal abuse
Are you still not sure if you would recognize verbal abuse? Take a look at some of the many ways this form of abuse can manifest. Just because a scenario is not described here, does not mean it may not be a form of abuse. Trust your instincts about how you and others should be treated.
Being argumentative about ordinary topics
Certain subjects lead themselves to debate, like politics and philosophy. But verbally abusive people may counter opinions you have on ordinary topics, like a movie you watched together, and try to convince you that your opinions are wrong. They dismiss your thoughts and feelings, and make vehement efforts to force you into sharing their thoughts and feelings.
Denying rather than discussing issues with how they treat you
In a good relationship, intimate or otherwise, each person can talk about how they feel and expect the other person to listen sincerely and try to help them solve problems. If the problems are with the relationship, each person makes an earnest effort to improve the situation. In an abusive relationship, the abuser will discount any claims of mistreatment. They deny that they have done anything wrong and instead insist that you are the one with a problem, or that your claims have no grounds in reality; it's all in your head.
Criticism that isn't helpful
There is a big difference between someone making you aware of a space for improvement and someone putting you down just to remind you of "your place." These criticism often come in the form of "you" statements, like "You never do the dishes right," or "You always eat too much." They are negative judgments on you that do nothing to help you or acknowledge your positive efforts.
Jokes that are actually criticism
Some abusers will insult you but insist that they are just joking. By doing this, they get their criticisms of you into your head and make you feel bad, but they can try to defend themselves by saying it was just a joke, and therefore, you have no reason to be mad at them or upset. This is a way for them to twist the abuse and try to make you feel like the one with a problem. If what they are saying is upsetting to you, and you don't find it funny, then an apology is in order, not an excuse stating that it was just a joke.
Trivializing your efforts
Trivializing happens when the abuser acts like something you worked hard on isn't a big deal. They minimize your achievements or say that they could have done a better job than you. This kind of verbal abuse can go hand-in-hand with criticism. For instance, you may tell them that you successfully ran a mile today. But they may ignore your statement and, instead, comment on your weight or what you are eating rather than sharing positively in your success. Or you may talk about a difficult task you finished at work, and they respond by saying, it doesn't sound that difficult, or by saying anyone could do that, or by asking why it took you so long.
Controlling the conversation
Verbal abuse is always about control. An abuser may try to stop you from talking about certain topics or tell you it's not your turn to talk. They try to steer the conversation where they want it. Or they may cut you off from discussing the problem by telling you that you complain too much.
Blaming their problems on you
Verbal abusers often try to find a scapegoat for issues that are their own. If they don't get the job they want, they may find a way to blame it on you. If the two of you are having money problems, they may say it's your fault for the career you selected or the degree you chose, even if they are not doing well in their own career and could make improvements. A lack of support and willingness to solve problems together is not a healthy relationship.
Threats come in a variety of forms. Often abusers will use known fears against their victims. Because they make themselves seem indispensable to the other person or make the other individual feel completely dependent upon them, they may threaten to leave, abandon, fire, or divorce the victim in order to cause panic and manipulate the other person into behaving how they want.
When someone tries to tell you that they know you and your thoughts better than you do, you are likely experiencing verbal abuse with the intent to control your feelings and actions. If a particular person is making you feel like you can't trust yourself, you should consider that they are the problem and not you. Ask yourself if you experience these feelings with anyone else. And know that it is possible to experience verbal abuse from more than one person in your life.
Being bullied at work
Verbal abuse does not only take place between people who are in close relationships with each other. It is possible to experience verbal abuse at work from a boss or co-worker. This kind of verbal abuse can be just as damaging as abuse in intimate or family relationships because you may be at work and exposed to the abusive behavior most days for long periods of time.
Verbal abuse at work presents in many of the same ways as any verbal abuse. It can manifest as threats, angry yelling, intimidation, mocking, and other manipulatory behaviors, including spreading false rumors and gossip. And the effects can cause you to be miserable at work, obsessed with thoughts about work, and depressed both in and outside the office.
Continued workplace bullying can affect your future happiness, job security, and financial status. It is a serious situation that needs to be addressed. Do not lash out and retaliate against the abuser. Call them out on their behavior and let them know it is a form of harassment. You can also bring the issue to the attention of a supervisor, but there may be little a supervisor can do or is willing to do. If you ultimately need to look for another job to get away from the abuse, then do so. Your health is more important than one particular job.
When your child resorts to verbal abuse
Children are often targets of bullying and verbal abuse. They are at a point in their lives when they have very little power. And because abuse is at its core an issue of power and control, that unfortunately makes children easy targets. But children are not always the victims of verbal abuse. They can also be the perpetrators. And quite often their verbal assaults are directed at parents, adult relatives, siblings, or teachers.
If you give in to a child's abusive language, you are essentially giving them confirmation that they have power over you and can control you.
Dealing with this behavior is best done through prevention. Children need to be taught problem-solving skills from an early age. When parents take care of everything for children beyond the age they need assistance, the child is being sent the message that they are weak and incapable. They also don't know how to take control of their own lives. All children go through periods of growth where they may feel frustrated by their lack of control or inability to understand changes. And it can be normal for them to lash out occasionally. But a well-adapted child has been taught the skills to solve problems and handle uncomfortable feelings without threatening others or putting them down and trying to badger them.
Getting away from the abusive person or reducing interactions is often a solution for many relationships, but this doesn't work in a relationship between a caregiver and a child. It's the adult's job to continue caring for the child and help them to find a better way to handle their frustrations before the behaviors become a lifelong pattern. If a child's deviance has reached the point of verbal abuse, then it may be time to talk to a professional about your child's behavior.
The effects of abuse on your health
Verbal abuse can present itself in many different ways and different relationships. But the potential effects on your health are similar, regardless of the particulars of the abuse. If you're not sure whether you should address your abuse and seek help , then know that all of the following issues are health problems you are at risk for, as a victim of verbal abuse:
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Increased blood pressure
- Inflammatory diseases, including heart disease
- Social difficulties
- Cognitive difficulties
- Chronic pain
- Headaches and migraines
- Indigestion, diarrhea, or other gastrointestinal problems
- Eating disorders
- Anger issues
Your physical and mental well-being needs to come first. You may still care about your abuser, but you cannot help them while you're their victim. You've taken the first step by learning to recognize the pattern of abuse. You can talk to a therapist about your situation, for advice on how to start healing and prevent future health risks.