What is a word?
According to Dictionary.com, a word is “a unit of language, consisting of one or more spoken sounds or their written representation, that functions as a principal carrier of meaning.”
Words have enormous power. As the “principle carriers of meaning,” words can lift us up or crush us.
They may be no more than sounds uttered from our mouths, but the intention behind the sounds can pack more joy or pain than the most loving touch or the cruelest physical blow.
Some people use words as subtle weapons to hurt, shame, or manipulate others.
These people are verbal abusers and tend to attract people in their lives who are susceptible to their insidious and hurtful use of language.
Verbal abuse can be overtly threatening, frightening, and openly cruel. This kind of verbal abuse involves yelling, cursing, name-calling, bullying, and suggestions of future physical violence. In fact, this verbal battery is often the precursor to physical abuse.
However, many verbal abusers aren’t as direct or threatening. Instead, they twist language and words so the recipient isn’t really sure what’s hit them.
They use a subtle form of verbal abuse that infects people over time and slowly erodes their self-esteem, confidence, and trust.
This kind of verbal abuse is so convoluted and disconcerting that it’s difficult to call it out and take action. Because it can’t be clearly defined, the recipient may believe she’s imagining it, or even worse, the cause of it.
All of us have “abused” others with our words from time to time, especially in the heat of conflict or when we feel hurt or insecure.
But when someone chronically uses their words to put you down, control, or manipulate you — and then they deny it — they become true verbal abusers. The goal, whether or not the abuser recognizes it, is to gain dominance over the other person.
This occurs most often in intimate relationships, but you can also experience verbal abuse at work, with family members, and even with someone who claims to be a friend.
Do you think there’s a person in your life who may be a verbal abuser?
Here are 12 surprising forms of verbal abuse you might recognize:
1. Judging or Criticizing
The verbal abuser is constantly correcting you, telling you what you’re doing wrong or how it could be done better, or subtly suggesting you don’t quite measure up in some way. Sometimes they disguise their critiques or judgment in the form of “helpful” suggestions or sharing their “expert” knowledge when you don’t ask for it.
Then if you call them out, they act hurt that you misunderstood their intentions. “I was only trying to help.” But your intuition tells you clearly they were putting you down.
The abuser might also communicate their disapproval or judgment through their facial expressions, such as eye-rolling, pursed lips, or annoyed looks.
2. Holding Back
The abuser uses words to keep you at arm’s length or prevent closeness and intimacy in order to punish or control you. There may be times of closeness and connection, but if the abuser doesn’t get her way, she might withhold emotional intimacy, making you wonder what’s going on and why the mood has suddenly shifted.
When you ask, “What’s wrong, why are you closing me out?” the abuser pretends she doesn’t know what you’re talking about.
Have you ever had someone make a subtle but unkind joke at your expense? It stings and makes you feel disrespected or embarrassed. A verbal abuser regularly uses “humor” to disguise hurtful comments.
The abuser often makes these jokes in front of other people, getting in a laugh (as well as a dig) at your expense. If you complain, you’ll often hear, “Can’t you take a joke? Don’t be so sensitive — I was just kidding.” These so-called jokes occur often, and rarely do you hear an apology if you express your hurt.
No matter what you say or what ideas you express, the abuser contradicts or undermines you. You simply can’t be right or have a unique point of view. The abuser will argue with you and force the last word to protect his or her dominance over the conversation.
You feel your ideas, feelings, or thoughts are never respected or valued.
The abuser takes countering a step further by letting you know that what you think or say is unimportant or stupid. They may interrupt you, neglect to respond, or talk down to you. They might try to disguise their disrespect by patronizing you and attempting to make you feel like a child.
No matter what you’ve accomplished or how well you’ve done something, . In fact, they diminish your achievements and act as though they are unimportant or much less important than anything the abuser has achieved in the past.
The abuser often finds ways to undermine the praise others might give you or point out a flaw to dilute the praise. They don’t want you to shine and overshadow them in any way.
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When you do express a goal or dream, the abuser tries to get under your skin and make you feel incapable.
He might suggest you’re “in over your head” or maybe “you need more experience to tackle that.” He erodes your self-confidence, as he helpfully suggests you don’t have what it takes.
He might remind you of your lack of education or a past failure, or he simply gives you a doubtful look and refuses to discuss your ideas.
The abuser doesn’t have to say the words, “You’re not good enough to succeed.” But you feel your confidence and self-esteem slipping away, as you receive little reinforcement or support.
Another way a verbal abuser manipulates is by diverting a conversation to something she wants to talk about rather than responding to you.
If she feels uncomfortable about an issue you want to address, she simply steers the conversation in a different direction, or she refuses to talk altogether. She stonewalls you by saying it’s the wrong time to talk, or she doesn’t feel like discussing the matter.
Conversations of importance to you rarely occur, and if they do, it’s always on the abuser’s terms.
The abuser suggests that any verbal abuse is a result of your behavior. You are to blame for whatever negative, hurtful comments might be hurled your way. “If you weren’t so whiny, I might be able to listen to you.” “You need praise all the time. Someone’s got to take you down a rung.”
This is the most bewildering part of verbal abuse, as you begin to feel at fault for what’s happening.
There are regular situations in which the abuser conveniently “forgets” to do something you requested or to show up on time for something important to you. He always has a great reason for not following through or acts as though forgetting is “no big deal.”
He makes you feel bad for suggesting his chronic forgetfulness is a problem. You are too demanding, not understanding enough, or over-blow situations.
Everything has to be done the abuser’s way, and she makes sure she tells you exactly how and when it must be done. She uses words and tone to communicate in no uncertain terms what her expectations are, and you know from experience that it won’t be pleasant if you argue or disagree.
You might try to express your pain and frustration with the verbal abuser’s behavior, but he or she pretends to have no idea what you’re talking about. You must be crazy or overly sensitive because the abuser’s behavior is perfectly normal. If you’d just stop blaming them, everything would be fine.
This denial makes you feel crazy and question yourself. If this person you care about has no idea what you’re talking about, maybe you ARE the one who has the problem.
So often in situations of verbal abuse, you know something feels off, but you just can’t put your finger on it. The abuser does such a good job of masking his or her true intentions that it takes a long time to figure out what’s happening. Once you do, your self-esteem is so low you don’t have the energy to take action or leave the relationship.
Recovering from this kind of verbal abuse begins with awareness and recognition that you are a victim of it.
In some ways, it is more difficult to recognize verbal abuse than it is physical abuse, as you don’t have bruises to show for it.
You aren’t crazy or overly sensitive if you feel verbally abused. Don’t allow it to continue.
If you want to save the relationship, seek out professional counseling — but remember an abuser must be willing to acknowledge their abusive behaviors if there’s a chance of real change.
Have you dealt with a verbally abusive person, or do you recognize these behaviors in yourself?
Which forms of verbal abuse are you seeing in your relationship?
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