“You’re stupid. You’re an idiot.”

“What’s wrong with you? You’re crazy!”

“You’re worthless, you’re nothing.”

“You should never have been born.”

“You don’t shape up, I’m gonna kill you.”

All of these words and phrases constitute verbal abuse. That’s why just seeing them on a computer screen can cause your stomach to twist and your throat to tighten up. Words like these have profoundly harmful effects on your mental health and your quality of life.

What constitutes verbal abuse? What are the negative impacts, and is there a connection between verbal abuse and addiction?

What is Verbal Abuse?

Verbal abuse – also known as verbal bullying – is defined by Wikipedia as “a negative defining statement told to the victim or about the victim, or by withholding any response, thereby defining the target as non-existent.”

This definition encompasses a wide variety of behaviors, from name-calling to threatening to harsh criticism. It also includes more subtle behaviors such as gaslighting and minimizing: “Oh, that didn’t really happen.” “You’re always making up crazy stories.”

(And isn’t it interesting that withholding a response – say, as in the case of chronic forgetting or the silent treatment – can also constitute verbal abuse?)

While the stereotypical form of verbal abuse is screaming insults, verbal abuse often takes place without anyone ever raising their voices.

There is also significant overlap with emotional abuse here, and we’ll dive into that topic in next week’s post.

For now, just know that verbal abuse involves using language – or a purposeful lack of language – in a harmful manner.

It’s one form of psychological aggression, which the CDC defines as “the use of verbal and non-verbal communication with the intent to harm another person mentally or emotionally, and/or to exert control over another person.”

The Damaging Effects of Verbal Abuse

Verbal abuse has the power to destroy your peace of mind. It also has definite potential to escalate into physical abuse.

Check out these alarming statistics:

  • Approximately 160,000 children do not attend school on a given day in order to avoid verbal bullying. Source: NoBullying.com
  • More than 25% of teen girls in relationships report enduring repeated verbal assaults. Source: SafeVoices.org

Verbal abuse – particularly when it occurs in childhood – is harmful on multiple levels.

Since young children’s brains are still developing, hurtful words negatively impact their neurological development. Verbal abuse also increases an individual’s likelihood of developing depression.

There is also more research and evidence that hurtful words and verbal aggressions are associated with elevated psychiatric symptoms.

The Connection Between Verbal Abuse and Addiction

As we’ve discussed in prior posts, abuse of any type is a major risk factor in the development of addiction. Abusive experiences can be traumatic, and trauma and addiction are linked.

That said, when an individual endures verbal abuse for a prolonged period, their brain starts to think of the abuse and trauma as normal. The hurtful words and phrases become part of the individual’s mental atmosphere; they internalize the abuser’s criticisms and judgments.

Thus, the individual who suffered abuse tends to carry those painful words along in their consciousness. They begin to abuse themselves inside, even when their abusers aren’t around!

Verbal abuse also leads to unhealthy anger. Understanding anger and addiction and how they go hand-in-hand is critical.

Point is, it hurts to endure the onslaught of verbal abuse, whether it’s coming from others or from ourselves. We’re in pain, and we want to feel better. So we reach for our favorite addictive substance or compulsive behavior to give us a little relief.

Turning to substances for comfort can unleash a whole new round of verbal abuse from ourselves and others. Then we feel even worse, so we reach for a bottle or our drug of choice …. and the addictive cycle starts up all over again.

How to Heal from Verbal Abuse

There are three steps to healing from verbal abuse:

  1. Stop allowing yourself to be abused by others. Set healthy boundaries, and physically leave situations and relationships where your boundaries aren’t respected.
  2. Stop the verbal self-abuse. Seek help and guidance to rewire your brain and learn to hold onto kinder thoughts. (Our post on The Power of Positive Affirmations can help.)
  3. Offer compassion to the wounded parts of yourself. When we apply love to the parts of ourselves that hurt, we heal.

As Adults, We Decide

As adults, it’s our job to take care of ourselves, to be our own best advocate, protector, and friend. We decide how much we hurt, and how much abuse we allow into our lives.

We have the power to question our thoughts and move toward relationships characterized by mutual love and respect. This doesn’t mean that they’re perfect, but it does exclude ongoing, hurtful, abusive behavior.

Spiritual teacher Byron Katie writes beautifully about this in her book A Thousand Names for Joy:

“If your [relationship] is abusive, question your thoughts about why you stay …. It’s like a yard with a big sign on the gate: THIS DOG BITES. If you walk into the yard once and are bitten, the dog has bitten you. If you walk into the yard a second time and are bitten, you have bitten you. This very awareness can change everything. By questioning your mind, you begin to realize that ultimately no one can hurt you—only you can.”

November is National Runaway Prevention Month, and one major way to help children and teens feel safe in their homes is to stop the harmful cycle of abuse. Stop the physical abuse, of course, but also the verbal abuse … the belittling and insults and slights that sting the psyche.