All too often clients come in upset and confused by recent conversations with a family member. Much of the time, both my client and their family member have good intentions but are caught up in unproductive communication patterns which can be improved with care and effort. Unfortunately, sometimes clients are experiencing the destabilizing emotional and physical effects of verbal abuse.
What always impresses me is how people attribute the best motivations to their partners, parents, siblings or others. People want to believe the best about others, which is a wonderful and redeeming quality of humankind. However, the flip side of this optimistic view is that sometimes we minimize or deny truly mean-spirited, manipulative or de-humanizing treatment.
Clients who live in an environment with verbal abuse often have trouble trusting their perceptions and wonder if they are “exaggerating”, “making it up” or are “too sensitive”. They also are often blamed for bad moods or problems of their abusive family member or friend, which can make them feel guilty or ashamed for no reason. Often people feel like they are walking on egg shells or have given up in trying to get their needs met in this relationship.
Types of verbal abuse
- Persistent blame and criticism and failing to take personal responsibility for mistakes or behavior.
- Name calling, swearing, yelling, screaming or consistently refusing to allow the victim to state their opinion or feelings.
- Gaslighting; the use of consistent denial, misdirection, contradiction and lying to make the victim question their sanity. For example, when confronted with a statement such as “yesterday you told me you were mad at me and refused to come to my parent’s house”, the abuser might say “I didn’t say that” or “you took it the wrong way”.
- Manipulation. For example, “If you really cared about me you would do this my way”.
- Minimizing the accomplishments of the victim.
Good people with bad communication habits can learn healthier ways to communicate. Therapists can help, but unfortunately abusers usually refuse to seek help. Verbal abuse is extremely detrimental to the physical and mental health of victims, causing maladies such as chronic pain, headaches, TMJ, digestive problems, auto-immune disorders, depression, anxiety or PTSD.
Often, people can’t leave an abusive relationship immediately. If your circumstances require you to interact with a verbal abuser, you can fight back.
Strategies for surviving verbal abuse
- Stick to the facts. Abusers will often try to distract from their bad behavior by changing the subject or getting emotional. Directing the conversation back to the facts can help. In high stakes conversations or meetings, prepare for the conversation with an agenda and notes.
- Call them out. When the abuser calls you a name or blames you for something clearly out of your control, name the behavior: “stop the name-calling”, or “stop blaming me for something out of my control”.
- Don’t get reeled in. Verbal abusers often use guilt to manipulate. If the other person is trying to manipulate you by making you feel guilty, ask them why they are trying to make you feel guilty. Know that abusers often feel powerless and this strategy brings a false sense of power.
- Know yourself. Abusers will often gossip or spread lies about their victims. Know that people who know you well and are strong and caring won’t usually believe the abuser.
- Become a relaxation strategy expert. Yoga, deep belly breathing, meditation, guided imagery, prayer are just some of the things that can hep re-calibrate your nervous system after an interaction with an abuser
- Talk to a trusted friend or professional It is crucial to know that you are not broken or flawed, and informed folks will validate you. In a crisis, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline 800-799-SAFE (7233) or the National Dating Abuse Hotline 866-331-9474 or if you feel at risk of self injury or injury from another call 911.