Words matter. They can sometimes uplift and motivate you, but in cases of verbal abuse, they can cause you harm.

If someone uses gestures and says things to you that aim to make you feel intimidated, mad, sad, confused, or vulnerable, they’re behaving in an abusive way. Verbal abuse has the potential to impact your mental health. Even if it doesn’t, it’s still considered abuse if the intention was to hurt you.

If you’re on the receiving end of verbal abuse, support is available. You are not alone, and safety is possible.

Verbal abuse is intentionally using gestures and language to cause harm. Like all forms of abuse, the ultimate goal of verbal abuse is to exert power and control over another person. Words are used to threaten, intimidate, confuse, or criticize.

Verbal abuse can look different from person to person. Some of the most common signs include:

  • belittling
  • threatening
  • screaming
  • blaming
  • sarcasm
  • insults
  • gaslighting
  • shaming
  • accusing
  • trivializing

According to research from 2019, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2010, and 2006, being on the receiving end of persistent verbal abuse can lead to mental health challenges, such as:

Is verbal abuse the same as emotional abuse?

Verbal abuse is considered a form of psychological or emotional abuse.

Emotional abuse doesn’t always include abusive words, however. It can also involve isolating and controlling behaviors, like:

  • preventing you from receiving healthcare
  • keeping you from loved ones
  • ignoring your needs
  • making decisions for you

The spectrum of verbal abuse

Yelling and verbal abuse don’t always go hand in hand. Verbal abuse can also be quiet, insidious, and subtle.

For example, verbal abuse can be hurtful comments in the form of jokes or small remarks that make you question your self-worth or abilities. Verbal abuse could even be delivered with a smile and a hug.

Verbal abuse can occur on a spectrum of severity, and you may not realize you’re experiencing this behavior until you’re well into a relationship. In all cases, verbal abuse can affect your mental health.

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Verbal abuse can come from anywhere. It can be from a:

  • partner
  • friend
  • co-worker
  • family member
  • stranger

Receiving abuse is never your fault. There’s nothing you can be, do, or not do that justifies abuse.

Identifying the early signs of verbal abuse can help you stay safe physically and mentally. Developing skills to cope with and stop recurrent verbal abuse can help safeguard your mental well-being.

If you feel your safety is in jeopardy, try asking for support from a trusted relative, friend, or counselor. If you’re experiencing domestic violence, you’re not alone. Support is available, and there are a few ways you can approach the situation.

Here are some tips to deal with verbal abuse:

1. Walking away

If you feel safe doing so, consider walking away when someone is trying to hurt you with words.

“There are a few things you could do in the moment: You could respond by calmly walking away,” says Gayle Weill, a psychotherapist and licensed clinical social worker from Greenwich, Connecticut.

“You could also let the person know in a level tone of voice that how they are speaking is hurtful and not appropriate and that there are different and kinder ways they can express themselves to you,” she says.

Expressing opinions and feelings can be valid and healthy. Doing so in a way that hurts others is not.

2. Taking the high road

Resisting the urge to retaliate when someone has verbally abusive behaviors can be challenging, but it may be an important step to ending the verbal abuse cycle.

“This will have a tendency to escalate,” says Frank Thewes, a licensed clinical social worker in Princeton, New Jersey. “Take deep breaths. Try to regulate your emotional reaction to their abuse. Remind yourself that this isn’t because of you, it’s because of them. Try to ask them to stop.”

3. Being clear to yourself about your boundaries

Boundaries may be difficult to maintain if they are not clear.

Before you engage with someone who you know has a history of verbally abusive behaviors, try actively calming and grounding yourself, recommends Holly Severson Herzog, a licensed psychologist from Bend, Oregon. You can then remind yourself of what your boundaries and “rules” are.

“Tell yourself that you will not continue to engage with this person if they raise their voice, call you names, or manipulate your emotions,” she says. “If this begins, give them a warning about not tolerating the behavior, and then follow through with leaving if they do not stop.”

4. Protecting your self-worth

A 2019 study of college students indicates that verbal abuse aimed at hurting your self-esteem can be particularly damaging to mental health.

“The best way to mentally handle verbal abuse is to not let [ … ] words have power over you,” recommends Weill. “Have a strong sense of self-worth. Know in your heart that this person has no right to speak to you in that way, and that this is a reflection on them, not on you.”

Strategies to boost your sense of self-worth can include:

5. Harnessing empathy

Depending on the nature of the relationship, it’s natural to get defensive or even want to fire back when you feel attacked, hurt, or offended. Protecting yourself is a natural and needed instinct.

But, according to Thewes, understanding where someone is coming from can prevent you from internalizing their abusive behaviors.

“The best way to handle verbal abuse mentally is to use empathy to understand the source,” he says. “What are they going through? What are they feeling? Why are they in so much pain that they want to hurt me and others with their words?”

Thewes points out that your empathy isn’t a gift to them. You’re not rewarding or tolerating their behaviors.

You are, instead, helping build a personal shield against verbal abuse that will allow you to openly share when your boundaries have been crossed.

Relying on empathy can also lower the impact the abuse has on you by switching your focus from pain to understanding. Research shows that reframing worrisome thoughts has benefits for your health.

Practicing compassion and empathy may not be easy to do on your own, particularly if the abuse is severe. Consider discussing this with a therapist.

6. Re-centering

Verbal abuse can end up making you feel flustered and off guard. It’s easy to get swept away in the flurry of words and emotions coming your way. Feeling this way is valid, but it could hurt you if it’s not addressed.

Herzog suggests doing a self-check when things are feeling overwhelming.

Grounding and self-soothing techniques can help you cope.

It’s important to remember that in any case, there’s no reason for you to tolerate toxic behaviors, including verbal abuse.

Do’s and don’ts of dealing with verbal abuse

Thewes, Weill, and Herzog recommend the following do’s and don’ts when dealing with verbal abuse:

  • Don’t retaliate.
  • Don’t believe they have the right to hurt you.
  • Don’t believe you deserve verbal abuse.
  • Do remain calm.
  • Do set the boundary that they can’t talk to you that way.
  • Do keep communication brief, informative, and firm.
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Setting boundaries doesn’t mean the other person will respect them.

If verbal abuse continues, Weill indicates you can seek professional guidance first, but you may ultimately need to end the relationship.

“If verbal abuse doesn’t stop, create distance,” she advises. “You can also go for counseling and encourage the other person to go too. Remember that you don’t have to maintain a relationship that causes you pain. The person needs to either stop their verbal attacks, or you need to stay away from them.”

If you don’t feel safe ending the relationship or exiting the situation, creating an exit plan can help.

Verbal abuse is using words with the intention to hurt or establish power and control over another person.

Verbal abuse doesn’t have to be blatant.

You may not always recognize when you’re experiencing verbal abuse. Having tools on hand to deal with it when it arises can help protect your mental well-being.

Setting boundaries, walking away, and building your self-esteem are all ways to deal with verbal abuse.