Verbal Abuse and Depression

• Does someone close to you constantly insult you or humiliate you? • Do you feel like you’re always walking on eggshells in an effort to keep that person from blowing up at you? • Are you starting to believe the accusations that person levels at you?

If you answered “yes” to any of the above questions, you may be a victim of verbal abuse. This form of abuse, though it may not leave the easily discernible bruises that we associate with its physical equivalent, should not to be taken lightly. Whether perpetrated by a partner, parent, friend, or boss, verbal assaults can be every bit as devastating as physical battering.

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.

Recognizing Verbal Abuse

Family therapist Bruce Linton of Berkeley, California speculates that we are inclined to underestimate the damage that verbal assaults — harsh words, or even words spoken in a harsh manner — can inflict.

“Many people take to heart the old saying, ‘Sticks and stones can break my bones but names will never hurt me,'” says Linton. “But names can be very injurious, especially when said by someone we love.”

In her book Verbal Abuse Survivors Speak Out: On Relationship and Recovery, Patricia Evans explores the mental anguish caused by unrelieved verbal aggression. Although physical abuse draws attention to itself in unequivocal ways, its spoken counterpart can be quite subtle, says Evans, an author and researcher who reports talking with more than 30,000 victims of verbal abuse. Victims may find it difficult to describe, or even recognize, when it occurs, according to Evans. A particular pattern of verbal assaults may have taken years to evolve, condemning both victim and perpetrator to endless repetitions of the same abuse.

Indeed, as is true of batterers, the verbal abusers’ goal — albeit conscious or not — is to exert exclusive control over the victim, Evans says. When thwarted, verbal abusers may repeatedly remind victims of their shortcomings, make uncalled-for pronouncements as to what they are (or are not) achieving in life, then act out with angry blow-ups or punish with stony silences.

It’s not surprising, then, that victims of verbal abuse often end up depressed, or even questioning their sanity, says Evans, who adds that the literature points to a high correlation between verbal abuse and feelings of powerlessness and depression. Over time, the unremitting assault on individuals’ autonomy and sense of identity can erode their confidence and self-esteem.

When dealing with a verbal abuser, victims may be reminded over and over again that what they believe to be true is not correct. Attempts to explain that the attacks hurt or to counter insults are often met with those time-worn disclaimers, the ones every good verbal manipulator has to excess in his or her ready arsenal: “You’re over-reacting.” “You’re too sensitive.” “Can’t you just take a joke?” When victims are forced to dismiss their own reality at every turn, reality itself can become warped, Evans says.

Types of Verbal Abuse

In her books, Evans defines 15 types of verbal abuse:

Withholding (refusing to talk to or acknowledge the victim)
Countering (always telling the victim that he or she is wrong)
Discounting (not taking into account the victim’s perceptions)
Verbal abuse disguised as a joke
Blocking and diverting (thwarting the victim’s attempts at communication)
Accusing and blaming
Judging and criticizing
Trivializing (telling the victim his or her concerns are inconsequential)
Undermining (eroding the victim’s confidence)
Threatening (implying physical harm through a fit of rage or though an unspoken threat, like punching the wall)
Name calling
Forgetting (regularly “forgetting” appointments, agreements, or incidents)
Ordering and demanding
Denial (denying all abusive behavior)
Abusive anger (frightening the victim with repeated angry outbursts)

Getting Help

If you think you may be a victim of verbal abuse, the most important thing you can do for yourself is get some support and help. Verbal abusers are often charming and gregarious in social situations, so it may be hard for friends and family to see and understand what you’re going through. Lynn Cohen, MA, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Vacaville, California, says verbal abuse victims are often isolated and confused, and may think that they are the problem rather than the abuser.

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