Verbal abuse is an interaction in which a person is harmed by the words of another. It can be overt or subtle and difficult to recognize. Examples of verbal abuse include put-downs and insults, intentionally unhelpful criticism, verbal threats, loud verbal assaults, and gaslighting.
Verbal abuse might not seem like as big a deal as physical abuse, but it can cause long-lasting harm and trauma to its victims. While it may not have physical repercussions, it is no less serious. Verbal abuse can be perpetrated by anyone in your life, from a parent to a co-worker to a friend.
If any of the above is occurring in one of your relationships, you are likely experiencing verbal abuse. The easiest way to tell if you’re being verbally abused is based on how you feel after your interactions with someone.
If when you engage with someone else you leave the situation (whether occasionally or often) feeling put down, sad, ashamed, guilty, or otherwise distressed, that’s a good sign that they aren’t being very kind to you, and may even be behaving in a verbally abusive manner towards you.
It’s important to note that verbal abuse can occur unintentionally. The decision to behave harmfully does not need to be present in order for someone to be abusive. For example, a person might think their words and insults are toughening you up or making you stronger.
They may like you and not know how to deal with those feelings, or they may be envious of you. Or it may have nothing to do with you at all, and you happen to be a verbally abusive person. But, again, the intent is not relevant to the outcome in this situation.
How to Handle Verbal Abuse
Let’s look at how to deal with verbal abuse, whether a person is trying to harm you intentionally or it’s the result of their actions despite it not being their intent. There are a number of ways to handle verbal abuse. It’s helpful to start with the first step here and continue moving through them as needed.
Call Out Abusive Behavior
The first and most important step to take when you are being verbally abused is to name it out loud. This should be done directly with the person if it is safe for you to do so. If the person verbally abusing you is in a position of power over you, such as your boss, it might not be safe to call it out to them directly. In that case, you’ll want to discuss it with a neutral party who is safe, such as a supervisor or other superior who is not your boss.
The easiest way to directly call out abusive behavior, when it is safe to do so, is to calmly let the person know that something they’ve said has landed badly for you. When calling out verbal abuse, you’ll want to be very clear with the person who has hurt you. Letting them know what they said, how it made you feel, and why it wasn’t an acceptable exchange.
Use Clear Language to Demand That the Behavior Stop
It may be tempting to speak gently when asking for abuse to stop, especially if you are afraid of repercussions. Your best bet, though, is to be clear and firm in your request. The clearer you are in your request, the less easy it is for someone else to deny that they are behaving abusively.
Remember, someone who is verbally abusive may have no idea that they’re behaving that way, and it may not be intentional. Calling it out could be an emotional or upsetting experience for them, making it all the more vital that you are in a safe situation and not at risk of bodily harm, losing your job, or anything else.
Don’t Engage With the Abuse
When someone is nasty to us, it’s natural to want to be mean back. This will only serve to escalate verbal abuse, and it will give your abuser a reason to accuse you of being the abusive one. Since you don’t want that, do your best to not engage directly with the abuse.
Remain Calm, If Possible
It’s tough when someone is provoking us to remain calm. But that’s the best way to deal with an abusive person since your being upset (or even emotional) can escalate the situation. If you aren’t sure how to stay calm, you can take deep breaths when engaging with this person, to calm you down before you speak.
Set Firm Boundaries
Boundaries aren’t just a matter of telling someone they can’t behave a certain way towards you. In order for boundaries to be effective at changing behavior, whether your own or anyone else’s, there need to be consequences attached to them. Setting firm boundaries with clear, simple consequences is an important next step when you are dealing with verbal abuse.
Enforce Those Boundaries
When setting boundaries, do not choose any consequences you aren’t fully prepared to stick to. Boundaries are meaningless if they aren’t enforced. When your boundary is crossed, do your best to remain calm as you explain the situation. Actually leaving after saying that, even if the person asks or begs you not to go, is imperative for your boundary to have meaning.
What to Do If Verbal Abuse Doesn’t Stop
In a perfect world, the act of letting someone know their behavior is hurtful to you would be enough to make it stop for good. Unfortunately, this often isn’t the case. Verbal abuse may continue even if you call it out, remain calm, request it not happen, and set and enforce boundaries around it.
Here are your options for what to do in that case.
Walk Away: In the moment of the verbal abuse happening again despite your attempts to make it stop, if you have the option of physically leaving the situation, you should take it. You don’t need to drive off and go home if the circumstances don’t allow for it, but at the very least, you should remove yourself from the other person by taking a short walk. You want to do all you can to remain calm and not engage. However, when you return to the situation, try not to engage with the person again.
End the Relationship If Possible: When boundaries and walking away have had no effect on verbal abuse, if possible, you can simply end the relationship. It might be more difficult to end this if the person verbally abusing you is at your workplace or lives with you. But if it’s a partner, friend, acquaintance, or anyone else that your life or livelihood isn’t depending on, be clear that you are unable to move forward with the relationship due to the verbal abuse.
Seek Help: If you can’t end a relationship with a verbal abuser because of circumstances beyond your control, or if the abuser won’t leave you alone and proceeds to harass or stalk you after you end the relationship, you’ll want to involve outside help.