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Verbal violence doesn’t leave physical traces, but the psychological ones are very deep. A phrase, said at a time when we’re especially vulnerable, can be imprinted with fire in our mind, activated again and again. Words have incredible power. They can calm us down and empower us, but they can also knock us down and hurt us.
We cannot ignore that living together generates conflicts that often leave us emotionally touched. To some extent, conflicts are positive because they represent opportunities of change. But when the discussion goes up in tone and words become offensive, occurs a situation of verbal violence. And “Violence, whatever the way it manifests itself, is always a failure”, in the words of Jean Paul Sartre.
What is verbal violence?
Sometimes, in the middle of a heated discussion, emotions emerge and anger or frustration can push us to say hurtful things. It’s understandable that, in some circumstances, we lose our composure, but if it becomes the norm, we’re facing a situation of verbal abuse.
Verbal violence is a form of destructive communication in which one person damages another. It’s a communicative pattern sustained over time in which, more or less intentionally, is exercised a continuous verbal abuse that affects the self-esteem of the victim causing unpleasant emotions and generating doubts about his worth as a person.
What is the difference between verbal abuse and a heated discussion?
It’s not easy to distinguish a heated argument from verbal abuse. In fact, many people are not even fully aware that they’re being victims of verbal abuse. Victims often downplay what happens or try to justify the other’s behavior by thinking things like “He really didn’t mean that”.
It must be clear that if in a heated discussion one of the person insults, humiliates and/or blames the other, a verbal aggression is taking place. However, a specific situation doesn’t imply that a dynamic of verbal abuse has been established in the relationship. This occurs when there is a recurring pattern; that is, when the screams, insults, threats and humiliations are continually used to subdue the other.
7 signs of verbal abuse: Beyond screams and insults
1.Insults and screams
Insults and shouts are the most obvious expression of verbal abuse. In this case, the person raises continually his voice to try impose himself and doesn’t hesitate to resort to insults and offenses to try to control you instilling fear. As the writer John Frederick Boyes pointed out: “Violence in the voice is often the death of reason in the throat”.
2. Humiliation and destructive criticism
There is a more subtle but very harmful kind of verbal abuse: humiliation and destructive criticism. In this case, the person doesn’t resort to shouting but to sarcasm, shame, disdainful gestures and degradation to exert control. He can use jokes that make you feel bad or words and gestures that belittle you and/or make you feel incompetent.
3. Accusations and guilt trip
In some cases, verbal abuse hides manipulation. The person will make you responsible for all the bad things that happen, shedding his share of responsibility to make you feel bad. That person won’t hesitate to accuse you and make you feel guilty, always blaming you bad intentions or total incompetence.
This type of verbal abuse is more subtle and difficult to detect since it consists of downplaying your opinions and feelings, to the point of making you feel that you’re completely insignificant. That person doesn’t show empathy, he’s continually minimizing your problems and even refusing to address them.
In addition to the typical threats through which a person tries to control your behavior, there are also threats that resort to emotional blackmail. One of the most extreme examples is: “If you leave me, I kill myself”, but there are many other forms of threats and extortion in all kinds of relationships.
In this case, there are usually no insults or shouting, the person simply treats you as if you were an object, which means that he doesn’t pay attention to you or satisfy your emotional needs. That person systematically ignores you, pretending you don’t exist.
7. Blocking the dialogue
We usually identify verbal aggression with shouting and insults, but also silence can be used as a weapon to cause deep wounds. Not talking to a person, with the aim of making him feel bad, preventing dialogue that can solve the conflicts that exist in the relationship, is a form of verbal violence.
The consequences of verbal violence affect your brain and health
The fact that they shout, humiliate or ignore us or our affective needs often ends up changing our mind, brain and even our body. When a fear response is triggered repeatedly due to a hostile environment, such as one marked by shouting or emotional coldness, occur physical and emotional reactions automatic that can cause a psychological trauma. In fact, it’s not unusual for those who have been victims of verbal abuse for years to end up suffering from depression or anxiety.
In addition, verbal violence increases the activity of the amygdala, so that it becomes more reactive and keeps us in a state of constant nervous excitement. It also increases the production of stress hormones and generates muscle tension, which means that it will have negative repercussions on our health in the medium and long term, triggering diseases that have a psychosomatic component.
Verbal abuse also ends up changing what we think and how we feel about ourselves. This is because the neural connections established in our brain depend to a large extent on our experiences. And if those experiences are marked by verbal abuse, it’s difficult to escape from them. In other words: if someone makes us feel that we’re worthless, we are likely to end up believing it.
Research on attachment and motherhood confirms what we all intuitively know: as human beings, we feel better when we’re loved and safe, which means, among other things, receiving a respectful treatment.
How to stop the verbal abuse?
If you’re being victim of verbal aggressions, it’s important that you stop it as soon as possible. Stopping verbal violence is an act of self-defense and self-love, because in the long run that situation will end up damaging your self-esteem deeply and will charge a very high bill on your health.
You have to establish limits, red lines that the other person must not exceed. Make it clear to him that you are not willing to endure certain behaviors.
Since some people are not fully aware of the impact of their words, a good starting point is to make them notice how much their words and attitudes hurt you. In this way you will get them out of their egocentric position and put them in your place.
You can also offer your help to find a solution together. Verbal abuse can be the expression of mental breakdown, the inability to adopt a more assertive relational style or even fear. Finally, as psychologist Marshall Rosenberg said: “All violence is the result of people tricking themselves into believing that their pain derives from other people and that consequently those people deserve to be punished.” The important thing is that the persons recognize they need help to deal with conflicts and relationships in a more constructive and enriching way.
As a last chance, if these strategies don’t work, because it’s not always in our hands to change the other person, we always have the option of getting away from that person who is hurting us.