What is Verbal Abuse?
Verbal abuse is the only type of abuse that can affect every single person with any type of communication ability or understanding. You may be assaulted by verbal abuse at work, at home, at school, on the road, or walking through a park, and there is nothing you can do to prevent it. You could even be a victim of verbal abuse if you live alone because if your self-talk, the voice in your head, diminishes you or your belief in yourself in any way, then you subject yourself to verbal abuse when you allow your inner critic to put you down. No one, anywhere, is immune to verbal abuse.
Verbal abuse is the most common way to attempt to control the behavior, thoughts, and feelings of another human being. Controlling behaviors are designed to manipulate people into doing what the abuser wants them to do under the guise of love or respect or abject fear. (See: Why Do Perpetrators of Domestic Violence Hurt People?)
The Definition of Verbal Abuse
If you define verbal abuse as name-calling delivered through speech alone, then you won't recognize it when it happens to you. But if you educate yourself on verbal abuse and its nasty symptoms, you can avoid an avalanche of future emotional pain.
Let's expand our definition of verbal abuse to be any language or behavior that seeks to coerce its victim to doubt their perceptions or their abilities and subjugate themselves to the abuser. That definition of verbal abuse puts us on the right path to understanding its insidious nature.
What Is Considered Verbal Abuse?
Many people consider verbal abuse as blatantly offensive language designed to humiliate and gain power over another person. However, verbal abuse does not only assault us through spoken words. We read body language before we learn to speak, and our minds interpret body language into words that we internally hear, loud and clear. Behaviors unique to an individual and body language understood culture-wide can translate to verbal abuse.
For example, most everyone knows the words behind a blatant middle finger, and any person would interpret a strangling motion directed at them as the threat "I want to choke you." When someone flicks open a knife to intimidate you, the words "I am in danger" flash through your mind. School-yard bullies have "a look" that sends the other kids running away. Veteran verbal abusers (a.k.a. adult bullies) often cultivate tiny "looks" and behaviors, known only to them and their victim, so they don't need to say a word to get what they want. You can read more examples of verbal abuse here.
Verbal abuse can be loud and obnoxious like when the homeless person berates you for not giving her a dollar or when your spouse uses aggressive anger and yelling to silence you. But verbal abuse is also silence, the behavior behind "the silent treatment", which purposefully ignores the needs or communication of another person and quietly says, "You are not important enough to acknowledge".
Verbal abuse, by nature, creates confusion which many call "crazy making" or "gaslighting". According to Patricia Evans, author of five books on verbal abuse, verbal abusers master the art of confusion through using at least fifteen different categories of verbal abuse. Ms. Evans' definition of verbal abuse includes the varied ways verbal abusers use to deflect accountability for their words and actions onto their victims.
To accurately define verbal abuse and understand what is considered verbal abuse, we must be willing to dig a little deeper into the signs, symptoms and effects of verbal abuse in different situations and on all people.
Last Updated: 11 July 2016
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD