How to Recognize Emotional & Verbal Abuse

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There are several types of abuse. Some are more common and obvious than others. No matter what, emotional & verbal abuse is not your fault.

This month I’m doing something a little different by writing a series of posts under one theme: abuse. There are several types of abuse, and throughout the month of March 2019 you’ll be able to find articles on the following types of abuse (links coming soon!):

But first, let’s define what “abuse” actually means.

The word comes from Latin and Old French words that mean “misused” and “to use wrongly.” Basically, something’s happening that shouldn’t be happening! It’s wrong.

If nothing else, the one thing you should always remember is that abuse is NOT your fault. 


Emotional & Verbal Abuse

“How can you be so stupid? I know we raised you better than that! I can’t believe you actually thought that was a good idea—go to your room. You’re grounded, for life, you worthless, ungrateful fatty.”

What Is It?

Psychologically damaging. Demeaning. Upsetting. Anxiety- and depression-inducing.

Emotional and verbal abuse is insidious and difficult to deal with. It can come from all corners: partners, family members, “friends,” and coworkers or bosses.

It’s an attack on your emotions, especially with words.

You know the saying, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words can never hurt me”?

Yeah, whoever came up with that is responsible for indoctrinating entire generations to believe that “hurt feelings” mean you’re weak.

Emotional and verbal abuse can be subtle. A word here, an eye roll there, pretending that it’s your fault you’re upset by something. If you don’t have a baseline for what a good, healthy relationship looks like, it’s so much easier to get sucked into the trap of thinking you’re the one with the problem.

How to Recognize It

Emotional and verbal abuse come from hurtful words, attempts to scare or isolate, gaslighting, and exacting control… Among others.

Here’s a list of the signs someone might be emotionally abusing you:

  • Calls you names and swears at you.
  • They want to know where you are and who you’re with at all times. They blow up your phone with texts and phone calls if you miss even but one of them.
  • You’re constantly accused of cheating. The jealousy is overwhelming and scary.
  • When they get angry, you get scared.
  • You’re not allowed to spend your money how you want <– also financial abuse.
  • Prevents you from going to appointments, including for doctors.
  • Threatens to call the cops for the most minor of things, and you believe they would lie to get you arrested.
  • Tells you that they’ll kill themselves if you leave.
  • Makes decisions for you when you don’t want them to, like about clothing, what you eat, where you work, when you get home, whether or not you even leave the house, and so on.
  • Threatens to hurt you, your children, your family members, your friends, or your pets.

This is not an all-inclusive list—but it gives you an idea of what to watch out for.

There are several types of abuse. Some are more common and obvious than others. No matter what, emotional & verbal abuse is not your fault.

What to Do About It

Is someone in your life emotionally and verbally abusing you?

If you’ve identified that you’re the victim of this kind of abuse, the first thing you should do is process your circumstances.

Is it likely that the abuse could turn physical? Are you entrenched with this person—can you physically leave or get out?

The best option, by far, is to physically remove yourself from the situation or relationship. But, that’s not always as easy as it sounds. What if your abuser controls the purse strings? What if you really believe the threats they’ve made against you or your family? Many people don’t want to risk the possibility of retribution for leaving if the abuser has demonstrated the capability of doing so in the past.

But maybe you’re not stuck in a worst-case scenario, which eases a bit of the tension, but definitely still needs to be addressed.

In some cases, severing ties with this person can be as painful as dealing with the abuse. What if it’s a sibling you still love, despite the hurtful words? Or a family friend that likely doesn’t realize what they’re doing and you don’t want to completely remove them from your life?

It’s Time for Some Boundaries

Situations like these are ideal for implementing strong boundaries—and not just that, but also sticking to them.

The catch, though, is accepting the possibility that the consequences for crossing those boundaries might lead to low- or no-contact in the future. Are you willing to let go of that relationship in its entirety if they continue to disrespect and abuse you?

If you truly respect yourself and yet still want to give this person second chance, you can’t allow third or fourth chances. Otherwise, you’ll just feel trapped and angry at yourself.

I have set boundaries to deal with emotional and verbal abuse before and while the recipient has toed the line, they have not crossed it. The simple act of communicating the boundary freed me from that abuse.

Boundaries govern my reaction to situations, not the other person’s. It’s important to remember that! Many times, they’ll test your boundaries. If you’ve got a three-strike system, strike one might be physically removing yourself from the situation no matter what. Strike two could be very, very low contact for a pre-established length of time, like a month. And strike three would be total no-contact forever.

When you stick to the consequence of strike one, it makes it clear that you’re not going to tolerate any boundary violations. Once you do, all bets are off and the abuser will know that you’re bluffing.

There are several types of abuse. Some are more common and obvious than others. No matter what, emotional & verbal abuse is not your fault.

Resources & Helplines

Therapy is my #1 tip for those experiencing emotional and verbal abuse. Therapists can lend a new perspective to your situation and be the rock with whom you practice setting boundaries before you actually set them.

Call your insurance carrier to find out if mental health services are covered. If not, many private practices have a sliding scale for income assistance and they will work with you so you can receive the help you need.

Therapy can be scary at first. I was super nervous going in for my first appointment, but every session helped clear things up and get me that much more in control of my emotions.

If you need someone to talk to right now, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or the National Domestic Abuse Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.

Please also check out The Center for Relationship Abuse Awareness.

Call to Action

Identify someone in your life who you know or suspect is emotionally or verbally abusing you or someone you love. Develop your “exit strategy”—do you need to physically leave, or can you simply establish some clear boundaries with the abuser? Clarify just one boundary right now and the associated consequence. Then, practice delivering it with a trusted friend before you communicate it to the abuser.

Have you experienced emotional or verbal abuse from someone? How did you deal with it? What advice do you have for others in your situation?

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  1. I lived with emotional abuse for many years. I didn’t know what it was because I have a caregiver personality that turned into codependency (stemming from the need to try and manage his emotions to prevent myself from becoming subjected to them). It was slow and I was too young at the beginning to realize what was going on because he was a great person in so many other ways. I really recommend talking to people, to therapists, and getting out if you can. Life is too short and they need to have a bottom line so they themselves can get help and become better. Thank you for sharing this.

  2. Excellent post. This is a kind of abuse that is hard to identify because I also think that emotional abuse can go in the opposite direction, through silent treatments and subtle scare tactics. It is insidious. Glad you’re doing a series on this all-important topic.

  3. Working as a counsellor to young women, I often meet women and girls who are not evem aware of the ways they have bene abused
    This is am important topic that we need to keep talking about.