The more you know, the more protected you'll be.
Sure, Dad has a bad temper and Mom has her moods. But when do stormy temperaments cross the line into verbal abuse? Because verbal abuse isn't as clear-cut as other types—like physical or sexual abuse—it can be difficult to precisely define and understand.
Devon MacDermott, PhD, a New York City–based psychologist who specializes in trauma and relationships, defines verbal abuse as "chronic verbal interaction that's unwanted and makes the victim feel some kind of emotional harm, and is typically from a close relation like a partner, parent, or close friend or family member." The effects can be as bad or worse as those from other forms of abuse that tend to be considered more serious.
Here's what you need to know to begin to recognize and heal from verbal abuse.
1. It's not just yelling.
You may think that verbal abuse is just being yelled at, but it's actually characterized by a range of different behaviors. In addition to yelling, MacDermott cites name-calling, threats of harm to you or someone you care about, or gaslighting (where a victim is manipulated into doubting his or her own memory or sanity) as ways that verbal abuse can manifest.
Brian Coughlin, PsyD, a Los Angeles–based psychologist with a focus on trauma and addiction, notes that in verbal abuse, a constructive element to the criticism is missing; someone is being purely critical of another person, acting out in anger, and using words to try to control them.
And someone doesn't have to consistently behave aggressively for it to constitute abuse. Confusingly, an abuser can also act very lovingly at times, which can intensify the impact, MacDermott says, because the abused never knows when they will fly off the handle.
And yes, most people lose their temper and yell from time to time. "But if it's happening regularly and if there's a pattern to the behavior, that's probably a red flag," MacDermott says.
2. It can be very easy to dismiss.
For example, in romantic relationships, people often don't recognize the abuse because they have a fantasy about what they want the relationship to be or who the other person is, Coughlin explains. When the abuse doesn't fit in with their fantasy, they minimize it and make excuses for their partner, telling themselves that they didn't mean it, was just really upset, or is only going through a phase. "We can end up ignoring the fact that it actually has become a pattern and really is an indicator of an unhealthy relationship," he says.
MacDermott adds that, particularly, if you were the victim of verbal abuse as a child or in a previous romantic relationship, that kind of behavior could feel familiar to you and you might think that that's just how people behave when they're angry.
3. You might not even know you've been verbally abused.
It's easy to assume that if you were verbally abused, you'd realize it. But both Coughlin and MacDermott agree that people could have been the victims of verbal abuse in childhood and have no awareness of it. And even if people haven't blocked those memories from childhood altogether, because of the tendency to downplay verbal abuse, they may not fully recognize the impact it could still be having on their adult lives.
Coughlin says that one way childhood verbal abuse can become apparent is if you explore your current beliefs about yourself. "If a person has a deeply rooted belief that they do not deserve love, are worthless, incompetent, ugly, et cetera, then it's definitely worth looking at where these beliefs are coming from. Oftentimes, that means tracing it back to their childhood," he says. In this way, people might begin to realize the impact of their caregivers' words.
4. Verbal abuse can stick with you.
"Your relationship with your caregiver as a child is what forms your blueprint for how to have relationships with other people as you go through the rest of your life," MacDermott explains. "People who have gone through verbal abuse, their blueprint is often askew, and they find themselves in similar relationships later on."
Coughlin also points out that victims of verbal abuse in childhood often experience attachment anxiety in their romantic relationships. "Because there's this mistrust that starts early on, people continue to have that mistrust of others in their adult life," he says. "They're constantly seeking another person who is going to provide fulfillment and get them to stop being anxious, but they're never really able to find that because the anxiety is generated from within."
5. And there are other severe consequences.
Because verbal abuse can cause you to really believe negative things about yourself and other people, Coughlin says, it can impact any element of your life, from your ability to form relationships and your ability to work effectively to your ability to see yourself as having any sort of success.
MacDermott lists depression, anxiety, and PTSD among the potential consequences of verbal abuse. And research backs this up: A 2006 study in the Journal of Affective Disorders found that people who were verbally abused as children are at risk for depression and anxiety as adults.
6. Victims of verbal abuse can become abusers.
Or they can continue being a victim, or both. Basically, the pattern of abuse can be hard to break. "Unless you notice that this blueprint is not working well for you—that there's a problem and you seek some kind of help—it can be difficult for some people to change it," MacDermott says. "And they just continue being the victim or the aggressor or both in an abusive relationship."
Being raised in an environment where a caregiver wasn't able to modulate their emotions, and therefore unable to teach their child to do so, could result in someone becoming verbally abusive later in life because they don't know how to regulate their own emotions, Coughlin explains. On the flip side, they could continue to be the victim of verbal abuse as adult. "It might not register with them in their adult life that verbal abuse is not acceptable and not an OK way to be treated," he says.
7. It can be ongoing by parents to their adult children.
We often think of abuse as something that happens in childhood, and don't consider that it can continue even when the child grows up. But MacDermott says that although she sees some people improve their relationships with their parents, others continue to struggle.
The ongoing abuse can be especially harmful because the person had already gone through it when younger, so it's a sensitive spot, MacDermott explains. "To have those experiences continue often triggers not only what's happening in the present, but also all the memories of what happened to them as children." She says that once people identify that this is a chronic problem, they'll have to put boundaries and limits on their relationship with an abusive parent because they know it's not good for their health. (Here's how to make peace with your mother.)
8. The abuser isn't a "bad person"—rather, they have an underlying problem.
It can be tempting to write the abuser off as a terrible person, but they likely have a deeper problem that is causing them to act out in this way, like depression, substance abuse, or mental health issues, says MacDermott.
And you won't necessarily see a complete lack of remorse, either. MacDermott notes that in most cases, abusers might feel genuinely dreadful about what they've done, but lack the skills and tools to apologize, correct the behavior, and act differently in the future.
9. You can recover and heal from it.
Although the effects of verbal abuse can be dire, its victims aren't doomed to a lifetime of repeating these patterns. As far as developing healthier relationships goes, MacDermott finds that for a lot of people who have been verbally abused in childhood, learning new relationship behaviors can be really helpful, and one of the biggest relationship skills she teaches is noticing when someone else is or is not available. She sees people get stuck in patterns of being involved with others who are not dedicated or compassionate to them, and says that this type of partner may feel exciting at first, but is actually emotionally dangerous in the long run.
"When clients can learn to recognize the telltale signs of someone being open and available—like calling them back consistently, communicating their emotions and needs openly, being willing to be accommodating with the other person's emotions and needs, and being minimally judgmental—then they can start making more informed decisions about partners that are right for them," she says.
10. It needs to be talked about more.
Although there has been increased awareness around verbal abuse lately, MacDermott says that it is still not nearly as researched, talked about, or understood as other forms of abuse. In addition to needing to bring more attention to verbal abuse, she stresses the importance of tackling the shame that can come with it. Shame is a disabling emotion, she says, and it tends to make people shut down, impairing their ability to communicate and making effective behavior less likely.
"One of the best things we can do for people who have endured abuse is to help them realize they're not alone," MacDermott says. "This is something a lot of people have experienced, there are resources available to you, and you don't have to feel ashamed."
This article was originally published at Prevention. Reprinted with permission from the author.