Sticks and Stones

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“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never break me.”

Well, turns out the old children’s rhyme is sadly not true. Words — when used in an abusive manner — can and do hurt, demean, batter, abuse and even break a person. In psychological circles, the term is verbal abuse, and it’s all too common in a variety of relationships.

A woman with sad eyes

Jennifer Huizen, writing for Medical News Today, says “Verbal abuse is a form of emotional abuse in which a person uses words or threats to gain or maintain power and control over someone. Being on the receiving end of verbal abuse can cause a person to question their own intelligence, value, or self-worth… Verbal abuse normally occurs when two people are alone, or when others cannot see or stop the abuse. Verbal abuse can occur in any kind of relationship, and it is generally a calculating, insidious process that intensifies over time. Sometimes, there may be no warning signs… Once it begins, it tends to become a common form of communication in the relationship. Verbal abuse may also accompany or progress toward other kinds of emotional or psychical abuse.”

Unfortunately, there are all too many types of verbal abuse. Books have been written describing the ways in which one person verbally abuses another:

Discounting and gaslighting: essentially discounting or dismissing another’s feelings.

Judging: Regrettably, this requires no definition.

Blaming & Name-calling: See “Judging” above.

Unhealthy arguments: Disagreements are inevitable. When they devolve into shouting and name-calling, it may be a sign of verbal abuse.

As upsetting as this behavior may be, another danger may be that verbal abuse can lead to mental and physical ailments. Writing for Health Day, Paige Bierma says, “Ongoing, repeated verbal attacks meted out by an intimate, or by someone in a position of authority, can drastically affect self-esteem, give rise to enormous anxiety and periods of confusion, and even lead to clinical depression in susceptible individuals.”

She goes on to say, “Regardless of why verbal abusers do what they do, victims must recognize the toll that the abuse takes on their mental and physical health. Women, in particular, face societal pressure to keep up the facade of the ‘happy home,’ or to avoid confronting a boss, coworker or friend who verbally abuses them.”

There are ways to recognize and combat verbal abuse — without getting angry or going on the attack.

Read the full Medical News Today and Health Day articles for a fuller discussion on verbal abuse.