Verbal abuse is cruel and destructive—especially because it can be so subtle that you can go through it for years without realizing that it’s happening. “He’s just in a bad mood,” or “Maybe I did something to set him off.” It can happen at home or at work.
One reason verbal abuse is so dangerous is that we often don’t recognize it. Maybe the abuser is so charming and sweet to everyone else—and gets mean only when he’s with you—that you get the idea that it’s really your fault or you’re just imagining the problem.
Also, verbal abuse tends to intensify over a long period of time. First he just gives a back-handed compliment or gets sarcastic. Then he starts blaming you when there’s a problem. It takes years before the verbal abuse is too frequent or intense to ignore.
The first instinct may be to try to explain yourself or “convince” the other person that what he’s saying is wrong. That’s not the point. He doesn’t want a discussion, he wants control. Don’t get sucked into an exchange of opinions, because for him it’s not about being right it’s about being powerful. So instead set your emotional boundaries. “Stop saying that” or “I am ending this conversation until you can talk to me with more respect.”
You also need to heal yourself. Verbal abuse can cause you to second-guess yourself. Many times the comments start becoming part of your own self-perception. For example, years of hearing her husband tell her, “You’re so stupid!” held Anna F. back from speaking up at the office or even taking on exciting projects. “I was afraid of saying or doing something wrong. Long after we divorced he still ‘controlled’ me through my fear of taking risks.” Therapy may help, but so does forming real and authentic relationships with people who value you. For Anna F., it was a boss who would tell her whenever she did a good job.
But most of all know that verbal abuse is not your fault. You are not the problem, the abuser is. However you are not helpless. Walk away. Refuse to listen. Deprive him of the one thing he wants from you: a submissive audience.
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