Verbal abuse leaves no physical scars, but the psychological damage it causes can last a lifetime. Perhaps that's why it hurts the most when it comes from a family member. Many people think that verbal abuse is limited to yelling and name-calling, but it's often much more subtle. That's why the first step in responding to verbal abuse is learning to recognize it.
Recognizing Verbal Abuse
Pay attention to humiliating or embarrassing comments disguised as jokes. Abusers often wrap their anger in humor, which allows them to claim you are being overly sensitive when you call them on it.
Notice how abusers try to deny your reality, claiming that their abusive behavior is somehow your fault. For example, a husband might tell his wife that if she would just stop nagging him all the time, he wouldn't lose his temper. Abusers want to see themselves as good people, and blaming the victim lets them maintain that illusion.
Understand the damage done when someone trivializes your opinions, your job or anything else that is important to you. Abusers tend to be insecure people who have not learned how to express their emotions in a healthy way. They need to bring others down a peg or two in order to feel superior.
Recognize behavior that undermines your self-confidence and puts obstacles between you and your goals. For example, a mother may try to dissuade her son from staying in college by saying he'll never do well enough to earn a degree, then sabotage his success by manufacturing a family crisis the night before an important exam.
Be aware of a family member who regularly provokes arguments among others in the family. A verbal abuser takes pleasure in the power he feels when manipulating the emotions of other people. This tactic works especially well when he senses others may be recognizing his abusive behavior; the conflict he creates takes the attention off the real problem.
Wait until emotions have calmed down before trying to talk to your abuser about how his behavior affects you. Rather than pointing an accusatory finger, start with "I feel..." Set clear boundaries for unacceptable treatment, and hold him accountable if he crosses them.
Limit your discussion to abusive behavior that is occurring in the present. Rehashing past abuse will put your abuser on the defensive. He's likely to turn the conversation around to indict you: "You're always throwing that stuff in my face. If you would just stop that..." The conversation is no longer about his abuse; it's now about how you are to blame for it.
Expect change, but be prepared for it to come slowly. Abusive behavior develops over a long period, and it will not be healed overnight. Both you and your abuser must be equally committed to improving the relationship.
Seek counseling. Verbally abusive people use their words and actions to keep others confused and off balance. They are often model family members in between verbal assaults, admitting fault and vowing to change. Unfortunately, the cycle soon begins all over again. Victims often need professional help to see the situation clearly and take the steps needed to address it.
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