Is There a Verbal Abuser in Your Life?
Five signs of verbal abuse and what you can do about it.
Posted Sep 30, 2020
Do you know someone who’s constantly shaming, blaming, and name-calling? Who judges you and trivializes your efforts and accomplishments? According to communications expert Patricia Evans (2010), this is verbal abuse.
Verbal abusers are emotionally immature people who seek to control others by exercising power over them, whether in personal, professional, or political relationships. As Evans explains, if their “words or attitude disempower, disrespect, or devalue the other, then they are abusive.” (2010, p. 35). Verbal abusers cannot accept other people as equals because that would mean losing their power, so they use words as weapons to maintain dominance. In their exploitation of others, they have much in common with what the DSM-5 calls “narcissistic personality disorder” (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).
Do you know anyone like this? Do these five abusive tactics sound familiar?
- Name-calling. Has anyone called you demeaning names? Evans calls this “an invasion of your boundaries,” maintaining that, “No one ever, for any reason, has a right to call you names” (2010).
- Accusation, shaming, and blaming. Verbal abusers use these tactics to avoid responsibility for their behavior, to make other people feel guilty, insecure, and “responsible for [their] feelings” (Evans, 2010).
- Trivializing your efforts and accomplishments. Verbal abusers are threatened by another’s accomplishments because their self-worth is based on feeling more powerful and remaining dominant (Evans, 2010).
- Inability to accept disagreement. Verbal abusers cannot handle it when you disagree with them because then they no longer feel “in control” (Evans, 2010, p. 171), so they lash out in anger or take punitive action.
- Verbal threats. Verbal abusers threaten people to maintain dominance. In personal relationships, Evans says, they often threaten to leave or “say no to you the next time you ask for something,” undermining their partner’s boundaries and peace of mind (2010).
The result? If we’re in a verbally abusive relationship, we constantly feel anxious, guilty, and on edge. We believe that we’re somehow responsible for the verbal abuser’s outbursts, and we just need to explain ourselves or figure out how to do the right thing next time. But the abuser is not rational. Evans says, “Do not believe that if you are nice enough and give enough, the abuser will be nice to you” (2010, p. 221). We cannot reason with such an irrational person.
Relating to a verbal abuser can make us feel stressed and emotionally off-balance. We can become so focused on reacting to the abusive person that we lose touch with our own feelings, perceptions, and needs. The constant stress of such a relationship can be bad for our health (Brosschot, 1994) and may even escalate into threats to our safety.
Evans recommends that we identify verbal abusers by recognizing their tactics and then taking action to stop the abuse. If someone calls you names, she says, “since name-calling is outrageously abusive, it should be responded to with outrage,” by saying “Stop that! Don’t ever, ever call me names” (2010, p. 143).
If you are physically threatened or feel unsafe, Evans advises to “find support and help as soon as possible,” and “leave the premises.” She recommends that you “call 911 if you are battered or your life is in danger” (2010). Evans offers more advice on her website.
This post is for informational purposes and should not substitute for psychotherapy with a qualified professional.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-5). Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association.
Brosschot, J. F., Benschop, R. J., Godaert, G. L. R., Olff, M., DeSmet, M., Heijnen, C. J., Ballieux, R. E. (1994). Influence of life stress on immunological reactivity to mild psychological stress. Psychosomatic Medicine, 56, 216-224.
Evans, P. (2010). The verbally abusive relationship: How to recognize it and how to respond. New York, NY: Adams Media.