If someone’s words make you feel humiliated, devalued, or dehumanized, they’re communicating harmful intent — an experience known as verbal abuse.
Abuse is any pattern of behavior intended to cause harm.
When it comes to verbal abuse, words, tone, and gestures of communication become the conduit for a broader type of abuse called emotional abuse.
When someone says something hurtful as a means of asserting power or control, even if it doesn’t cause you emotional distress, it’s still considered verbal abuse.
Abuse is not defined by your response to a behavior. It’s defined by the intent of the other person.
Press the “Quick exit” button at any time if you need to quickly exit this page. The button can be found at the end of multiple sections. You’ll be taken to Psych Central’s landing page instead.
Alternatively, if you’re on a computer with an external keyboard and you want to quickly close this tab, try using the following keyboard shortcuts:
- Windows or Linux: Ctrl + W or Ctrl + F4
- Mac: ⌘ + W
For more tips on safety plans and safer browsing, consider visiting the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
Verbal abuse is the use of language and communication to cause harm, and it’s a term often used interchangeably with emotional abuse.
But according to the National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA) emotional abuse isn’t limited to someone’s communication patterns.
Melissa Barsotti, a licensed clinical social worker from Carlsbad, California, explains verbal abuse can be incredibly harmful, especially when experienced in early development.
“Verbal abuse is meant to belittle, humiliate, and psychologically harm an individual,” she says. “Verbal abuse often is manifested as derogatory language, usage of curse words or threats, and use of a harsh tone or voice.”
Types of verbal abuse
Brent Metcalf, a licensed clinical social worker from Johnson City, Tennessee, indicates verbal abuse can be a part of specific emotional abuse tactics such as:
- Blaming: Making you feel as though you did something that deserves verbal abuse.
- Criticizing: Using harsh remarks of judgment that aren’t constructive and are deliberately hurtful.
- Gaslighting: Denying your perceptions to the point where you question your own instincts and reality.
- Humiliating: Insulting, belittling, or embarrassing you in private or public.
- Threatening: Making statements intended to use the fear of consequence as a means of control.
Verbal abuse doesn’t have to be loud, angry, or aggressive. It can be delivered under the guise of concern or care, and it doesn’t have to happen face-to-face.
“Verbal abuse can be experienced in-person or through any form of technology, such as instant messaging, social media, text messages, voice messages, and video games, just to name a few,” says Barsotti.
The signs you may be experiencing verbal abuse
- jealous accusations
- name calling
- making jokes at your expense
- constantly telling you things like “that didn’t happen” or “you’re remembering that wrong”
- telling you not to see friends and family
- harming or threatening the well-being of pets, children, or your possessions
- threatening to harm themselves or leave you if they’re upset
- making cruel and demeaning comments about you to others
- demanding access to your personal accounts or social media
- saying you can’t have access to money or resources
- denying your medical needs
- insisting on knowing where you are and what you’re doing at all times
- mocking you and undermining your efforts
If you or someone you know are experiencing controlling behavior or domestic violence, you can:
“Verbal abuse results in low self-esteem, self-criticism and self-loathing, and overwhelming shame,” Barsotti states. “Individuals who have experienced verbal abuse are likely to also have the unfortunate experience of poor boundaries in childhood/adolescence. As a result, one is more likely to continue to experience some form of abuse in other relationships.”
She adds the internal self-criticism and negative self-perception that results from verbal abuse is also likely to make someone more susceptible to:
- dysphoric mood
- smartphone misuse
- fear of social assertiveness
Verbal abuse isn’t limited to intimate partner relationships. Anyone can display verbally abusive behaviors, and these communication patterns can be persistent throughout adult life.
The negative mental health impacts of verbal abuse have been seen in research across numerous professions, including:
A survey in 2021 from a United Kingdom trade union, the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (USDAW), found as many as 88% of shopworkers in the country reported experiencing workplace verbal abuse.
You never have to tolerate verbal abuse, but recognizing verbal abuse as abuse can be half the battle.
“So many of my clients minimize the impact of verbal abuse, often in an effort to preserve any possible attachment with a caregiver, seeking acceptance, love, and validation,” Barsotti says.
Once you’re able to accept that verbally abusive behaviors are occurring, you can take steps to safeguard yourself.
Self-discovery of boundaries
Barsotti recommends starting a process of self-reflection and discovery, which can help you enforce consistent boundaries in a verbally abusive situation.
This can begin with journaling, and she suggests asking yourself the following questions:
- What is the current situation?
- What belief about myself is present right now, in response to this situation?
- When did I start feeling this belief about myself was true? At what age?
- From whom did I first receive this message about myself?
- What feelings/emotions am I experiencing right now?
- At what other points in my life have I experienced this?
- On a scale of 0 to 10, how much distress am I feeling about this situation?
- Where in my body do I feel this distress?
Once you’re able to answer these questions, they can help you establish your personal criteria for setting boundaries.
This will include your personal “bill of rights,” which Barsotti says may look like:
- I have the right to be in a nonabusive environment.
- I have the right to be treated with dignity and respect.
- I have the right to make mistakes.
After you establish your rights, your non-negotiables make up the rest of your boundaries.
- I will not allow anyone to abuse me.
- I will not knowingly believe or support lies.
- I will not let others spoil my fun; my day; my life.
When it all comes together, it may look like:
When _____ happens I know it will make me feel ______, so I am going to ______.
Example: “When you yell at me it makes me feel uncomfortable, so I’m going to step away and we can talk when we’re both calm.”
“An individual should always try to set boundaries with someone doing verbal abuse,” says Metcalf. “Let the person know you are not okay with the language or conversations being used or had.”
Assertive communication may also help you during a verbally abusive exchange.
Abuse is about power and control, and when you stand your ground and talk calmly, rationally, and firmly, it can make someone think twice about using words to manipulate you.
Sometimes it’s not possible to change someone else’s verbally abusive behaviors, and sometimes it’s safer if you leave a situation rather than try and salvage it.
Speaking with a trained professional can help you get the assistance you need and can help you create a safety plan to exit a situation, if necessary.
You can reach someone any time of day by calling the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or by texting “START” to 88788.
Verbal abuse includes any communication behaviors that are intended to cause harm or assert power and control.
Often used as a means to inflict emotional abuse, verbal abuse can happen to anyone.
You never have to stay in a situation of verbal abuse.
Boundary-setting and assertive communication may help improve your ability to handle a verbally abusive situation, but the other party must take responsibility if a relationship is to improve.