“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”
If only this were really true. Unfortunately it’s the words that people use to destroy a person’s self-esteem that often go unnoticed or ignored, since there is no outward visual representation of the damage. The scars are there long after the words are spoken.
“He always picks on me. He tells me that I am fat and no one else will ever love me.” “ He said he knows why mom doesn’t love me, because I am worthless and will never make anything of myself.” “She makes fun of my clothing and calls me a loser.” “He said that I was a terrible lover and that it’s a good thing that I pay the bills otherwise he would leave me.”
These are just a few of the statements that I have heard from people who are experiencing verbal and emotional abuse. They often try to minimize the impact of such harmful statements but their facial expressions and tone demonstrate a pain that is real. “Emotional abuse is the repeated use of controlling and harmful behaviors by a partner to control another. As a result of emotional abuse, a person lives their life in fear and repeatedly alters their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and denies their own needs, to avoid further abuse….Emotional abuse is the greatest predictor of physical violence”(Springtide Resources, 2000).
In addition to the above examples, verbal abuse may also include statements that criticize someone’s racial or cultural background or spiritual beliefs. Abusers may blame the victim for all the problems in the relationship, and deny or minimize their negative actions stating that the victim deserves the abuse. The use of the silent treatment (neglect) may also be used to control the victim by withholding affection and attention until the victim becomes submissive to their demands. As the abuser gains further control over the victim they may also use isolation, intimidation and threats to keep the person from finding a way out of the relationship.
The Impact of Emotional/Verbal Abuse on the Human Being
When a person experiences this type of abuse, they begin to question themselves, their values and their overall worth. It is an attack on a person’s self-concept and over time diminishes their self-esteem. Many clients I have worked with state that the initial attack may have been during a conflict or when things were tense, so they attributed it to the situation, not realizing the pattern of behavior until it had been going on for some time. Others say that it started with little comments about things they were already insecure about so they just accepted these ideas as the truth. With each strike the victim believes in themselves less and less and starts to identify with the abuser’s version of them.
As the abuse continues, the victim begins to suffer from feelings of unworthiness and start to question if they deserve happiness, love or affection. They may begin to isolate from others, withdraw from social situations and interaction with loved ones, because they are losing perspective of their value in the world. Symptoms of anxiety and depression may also follow a period of emotional abuse, as the victim begins to doubt or lose trust in anything positive in their life. Consequently, insecurity about themselves and lack of trust in supportive relationships may also occur. Some victims may become aggressive or passive-aggressive due to unresolved feelings of anger related to the abuse. Victims may also engage in impulsive and unhealthy behaviors to maintain these relationships. Extended exposure to verbal and emotional abuse may also lead to substance abuse, as the victim searches for a way to feel better they may self-medicate to avoid the pain. When the victim loses all sense of hope for their life they may attempt suicide to permanently end their suffering.
Helping Someone Deal with Emotional Abuse
In order to help someone cope with and end the cycle emotional/verbal abuse it is necessary to first acknowledge it is happening and that it is serious.
Listen to the victim without judgement and provide positive feedback for seeking help from you.
Ask open ended questions about what has been going on, ask for examples. Review what they have told you so that they may see it from an outside perspective.
Ask if they are being physically abused. If they answer yes, remind them that they deserve better.
Reassure that you will support them and keep their confidence unless they are in danger of further harm.
Encourage them to value themselves and remind them of their positive traits as they may have difficulty seeing their worth.
Ask them what is keeping them in the relationship, and if it is a safety issue suggest that they work with a professional to develop exit strategy and safety plan.
Refer them to local domestic violence crisis center or mental health professional to get further assistance.
Blame the victim for staying in the relationship.
Make excuses for the abuser, such as they are under stress, or abusing substances.
Try to take control of the victim’s decision making process or tell them what to do.
Minimize the abuse (“at least they aren’t hitting you”).
Focus on external factors like victim’s mental status.
With support and information, you can help to end the cycle of emotional abuse. Be aware and practice empathy.
Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or check out their website at www.thehotline.org.