That old saying you don’t have to hit to hurt is not wrong. Abuse doesn’t always involve physicality. Language can be a way for an abuser to hurt and control their victim. Someone who’s verbally abusive might use insults, threats, or other damaging words to inflict harm.
What is verbal abuse, exactly? It’s a form of psychological abuse or emotional abuse that involves spoken and written words and, sometimes, even body language like gestures. These non-physical attacks can result in significant emotional distress. Learn more about the signs, examples, and effects of verbal abuse, and how talking to an online therapist can help if you are experiencing it.
Signs of Verbal Abuse
It’s not always easy to recognize verbal abuse. Many verbally abusive behaviors, such as shouting or name-calling, have historically been downplayed or normalized. Even if a victim of verbal abuse is in pain, they may be told they’re overreacting to the point that they believe it.
If a relationship with someone in your life is consistently making you feel anxious or bad about yourself and the words being used are tearing you down, it’s possible that you’re being verbally abused.
Common verbal abuse signs may include any of the below.
Excessively using insults or calling someone names is an example of abusive behavior. If you’ve asked someone to stop calling you a name and they’ve ignored your request, they’re being verbally abusive.
Example: While an abuser might scream out harsh words like “worthless” or “idiot” during an argument, even supposedly playful nicknames and insults can be abusive if they’re hurtful.
Criticizing and judging
Criticism can be constructive, but it can also be a way for an abuser to damage your self-esteem. It’s common for abusive people to use excessive, harsh criticism toward their target.
Example: An abuser might say that they’re just being honest or blunt or claim that their hurtful remarks are just a joke, but if you’re repeatedly being judged or critiqued, that’s not constructive or kind — it’s abuse.
It’s common for verbal abusers to use demeaning, degrading language to chip away at a victim’s self-esteem. When you feel worthless or ashamed of yourself, it can make you feel like you need your abuser, which is exactly what their goal is.
Example: They might publicly rebuke you for a mistake, embarrass you in private, or spread rumors to intentionally damage your reputation.
Even if an abuser doesn’t hurt you physically, they can use words to make you fear physical harm. Other types of threats, including threats to fire you, leave you, or embarrass you publicly, are also abuses.
Example: An abuser may use threats as a way to manipulate you into behaving a certain way.
Nearly all parents are guilty of yelling at their children at one point or another. While screaming and yelling may be common, when used in excess, it can be a form of abusive behavior, especially if it happens regularly.
Example: Not only can screaming be a form of intimidation, but it can also create a chaotic environment that leaves you feeling constant anxiety.
Abusers may misrepresent or lie about past events to make you question your own memory. This form of abuse is called gaslighting. Over time, it can make you feel as though you’re losing your mind or like you can’t trust your own judgment.
Example: When verbal abuse includes claims that you’re lying, wrong, misunderstanding, or remembering things incorrectly, you might be the victim of gaslighting.
A verbal abuser may use manipulative language to pressure a target into doing things they’re not comfortable with.
Example: Guilt-tripping is a common form of manipulation, and so is the silent treatment. Someone who’s manipulative may also try to blame you for their own hurtful actions.
“Verbal abuse chips away at how you feel about yourself and has a significant impact on your life. In my work with clients over many years, I’ve seen the pain of being criticized, put down, yelled at, subtly manipulated, or threatened take a toll on functioning, mental health, and relationships with family and friends. It’s incredibly confusing and leaves invisible scars. Therapy can help work towards healing from verbal abuse.”
Where Can Verbal Abuse Take Place?
Any relationship — whether it’s familial, professional, or romantic — has the potential to be verbally abusive. Verbal abuse may occur in any of the following places.
Any kind of abuse, even narcissistic abuse, can happen in any relationship. Verbal abuse is common in relationships. While abusive partners are often charming and affectionate when a relationship starts, they may begin to insult, threaten, and yell at their partner as the relationship progresses. If you feel like you have to walk on eggshells around your partner to keep them happy, you should look for verbal abuse signs in your relationship.
“While oftentimes people think of verbal abuse within intimate partner relationships, it’s important to recognize that this occurs within many other relationships. Verbal abuse can occur within families, from friends, or in the workplace, and it is not OK, no matter where it occurs. Abuse is abuse and there is no excuse for it.”
In the workplace
According to studies, approximately 1 in every 5 adults has experienced verbal abuse at work. Verbal abuse in the office might involve workplace bullying, harsh criticism about work performance, harassment, or being humiliated in front of coworkers. This mental abuse could come from your superiors or from the people you work with.
From parents and family members
Just as verbal abuse can be a tool for control in romantic relationships, it can also be a way for a parent(s) to control the child. Verbally abusive parents may yell at, bully, or manipulate their kids to get them to behave in a certain way.
Some research suggests that up to 63% of children experience verbal aggression at home. Experiencing verbal abuse, which is a form of psychological abuse or emotional abuse, during childhood can significantly increase the risk of developing mental health conditions in adolescence.
While verbal abuse often comes from parents, it can also come from any other family member too, including grandparents and siblings. These behaviors typically begin when the victim is a child, but they often continue into adulthood.
Friendships can sometimes be frustrating, hurtful, or draining. A verbally abusive friend may try to boss you around or isolate you from others. Your friend might claim that they’re the only person who’s honest with you or say that no one else could put up with you.
What Effects Can Verbal Abuse Have?
While it’s important to recognize the signs of verbal abuse, it’s also crucial to look at the impact that this type of abuse can have on your life.
“The mental health impact of verbal abuse accumulates over time and is often experienced as depression, anxiety, and lowered self-esteem. When not addressed, it can cause someone to doubt themselves and their capabilities. Therapy can help with working through the issues that can come up as a result of verbal abuse.”
Short- and long-term effects of verbal abuse may include:
Insults, humiliation, and other forms of verbal abuse can destroy your sense of self-confidence. Someone who’s experienced verbal abuse might feel like they’re worthless or that they can’t do anything without their abuser.
Verbal abuse is often confusing and can be difficult to predict. After experiencing verbal abuse, you may feel fearful or anxious that other people will hurt you similarly.
Studies have found that verbal abuse can be a significant risk factor for depression. Many people feel sad, hopeless, or struggle with feelings of emptiness after being consistently verbally abused.
It’s common for verbal abusers to isolate victims from sources of support. Even after leaving an abusive relationship, a victim of verbal abuse may not have the confidence to build a new healthy relationship, leaving some feeling lonely or rejected.
Verbal abuse can have a negative impact on mental health, but it can also lead to physical symptoms. The chronic stress of abuse can lead to insomnia, aches and pains, headaches, and other ailments.
What to Do if You’re Being Verbally Abused
The first thing you should do on your journey to healing after emotional abuse from verbal attacks is to stop the actual abuse from happening. If you’ve seen signs of verbal abuse in your life, try to set firm boundaries with your abuser. Make it clear that the way you’re being treated is unacceptable and that you won’t tolerate it anymore. If possible, try spending less time around the person or cutting them out of your life completely.
With this said, we know that sometimes it may not be safe to put your foot down. If you feel unsafe and unable to set firm boundaries, reaching out to a trained professional can be very helpful in identifying a safe way for you to proceed.
Coping with verbal abuse can be difficult, which is why you shouldn’t be afraid to seek help. A mental health professional can help you to work through the trauma you’ve experienced. Although verbal abuse can cause deep and lasting damage, therapy can help you to build back your self-esteem and take control of your life.
Talkspace is an online therapy platform that makes learning to deal with verbal abuse convenient and affordable. Our approach to therapy is simple: it should be effective, easily accessible, and simple. If you need help confronting your verbal abuser or getting out of an abusive relationship, reach out to Talkspace today to learn more.
1. Straus M, Field C. Psychological Aggression by American Parents: National Data on Prevalence, Chronicity, and Severity. Journal of Marriage and Family. 2003;65(4):795-808. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2003.00795.x. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1741-3737.2003.00795.x. Accessed July 19, 2022.
2. Maestas N, Mullen K, Powell D, von Wachter T, Wenger J. Working Conditions in the United States: Results of the 2015 American Working Conditions Survey. Rand.org. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR2014.html. Published 2015. Accessed July 19, 2022.
3. Vissing Y, Straus M, Gelles R, Harrop J. Verbal aggression by parents and psychosocial problems of children. Child Abuse & Neglect. 1991;15(3):223-238. doi:10.1016/0145-2134(91)90067-n. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/2043974/. Accessed July 19, 2022.
4. Iram Rizvi SF, Najam N. Parental Psychological Abuse toward children and Mental Health Problems in adolescence. Pak J Med Sci. 2014;30(2):256-260. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3998989/. Accessed July 19, 2022.
5 Crow T, Cross D, Powers A, Bradley B. Emotion dysregulation as a mediator between childhood emotional abuse and current depression in a low-income African-American sample. Child Abuse & Neglect. 2014;38(10):1590-1598. doi:10.1016/j.chiabu.2014.05.015. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25035171/. Accessed July 19, 2022.