Emotional Pain of Verbal Abuse

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.”

Adults tell children a number of mistruths to help keep the children happy and optimistic, e.g., Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the aforementioned adage. Verbal abuse is real and it has the potential to cause serious, long-term damage.

What is verbal abuse? In a nutshell, verbal abuse is anything that is said with the deliberate intention of undermining and hurting the feelings of another person. People have conflicting opinions and people argue with one another from time to time. This is natural. In the heat of a moment of anger, a person may say something hurtful. This is verbally abusive behavior. It is important to differentiate verbally abusive behavior from a verbally abusive relationship. A verbally abusive relationship, whether between romantic partners, parent and child, or even friends, consists of unbalanced power, with the dominating partner controlling the submissive partner by means of manipulation, undermining the worth of the submissive, or even “gaslighting” by working to convince the weaker partner he or she is insane or unstable.

A significant portion of research done on verbal abuse deals with female victims. This is unfortunate, because verbal abuse knows no gender lines. Despite this unbalance in research, it seems that victims of either gender may be affected in the same ways. The effects of verbal abuse may vary from person to person, but it is rare for a victim of prolonged verbal abuse to remain unscathed. Some effects of verbal abuse on the victim may include:

  • Difficulty making decisions

  • Belief the victim has a fundamental flaw

  • Reliving past instances to  determine where mistakes were made

  • Feeling unable to communicate

  • Self-doubt

  • Decreased self-confidence

  • Justification of cruel behavior

  • Persistent belief things will get better, despite lack of evidence

Beyond these symptoms, verbal abuse leaves a person at increased vulnerability for psychological disorders. Depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, PTSD, memory gap disorders, eating disorders, sleep disorders, anger issues, self-mutilation, substance abuse, and even suicide are all more likely to occur in victims of verbal abuse. Perhaps more surprisingly, verbal abuse may lead to physical problems, such as chronic pain disorders, headaches, stammering, ulcers, recurrent gastrointestinal problems, or even heart conditions.

It may be difficult to recognize when you are the victim of a verbally abusive relationship. Even if you are aware, verbal abuse may be so paralyzing that a victim may not feel he or she has the power to leave the situation. Many organizations exist to help victims in abusive situations. If you need help getting out of an abusive relationship, the YWCA or even nearby college campuses often have affordable or free resources. If you have extracted yourself from an abusive relationship, therapy is often an extremely valuable tool to help people heal. If you expect a loved one is in an abusive relationship, it is important to provide as much emotional support as the victim will allow. Most victims of  abuse become forced into isolation. It may be easy to become frustrated with a friend who is being abused, but it is crucial that he or she is not abandoned and knows they have support if they determine it is time to leave the relationship.


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