Stop minimizing verbal abuse

The fact that emotional abuse has negative effects on people who are abused is not a new revelation. It is apparent that this is the case from the experiences of people working in the mental health and social work fields, from psychological research and most importantly, from the lived experiences of people who have survived abuse.

There are various epidemiological studies that describe the effects of psychological abuse on victims in different demographics. According to a 2007 study in the Journal of Family Psychology, for example, women who have been emotionally abused have both higher rates of physical stress-related illnesses and higher rates of mental illness diagnoses such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than women who have not been psychologically abused.

Looking at this issue only through the lens of mental health statistics trivializes the amount of suffering involved, but the stats are out there to support the idea that it does long-term harm.

In spite of the fact that we know that emotional abuse is extremely psychologically damaging, it is often dismissed and not recognized as being abuse. Many people try to excuse emotional abuse, particularly verbal abuse, as being something that a strong person could just brush off.

Children are taught this early on: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never harm me.”

It is possible that “sticks and stones” may be a mantra that helps some people deal with bullying and abuse, but the corollary of this attitude can be sinister when you try to measure other people to it.

It says that being emotionally affected by verbal abuse makes you weak. It blames victims for suffering the effects of being abused. It also does not hold abusers accountable for their behavior, so the abuse is likely to continue in the future.

These attitudes actually closely resemble a form of emotional abuse called minimization. Minimization is basically telling someone that their emotional response to something is invalid. Minimization can take the form of telling someone that they are exaggerating by being upset by something hurtful, or that they need to be less sensitive and grow a thicker skin.

In the long term, minimization can lead to someone continuing to tolerate escalating abuse because they have been groomed to question their own judgment and perceptions. A person can completely ignore their own legitimate fear responses because they have been taught to see them as irrational.

The process of emotional abuse makes it less likely that the victim will even recognize that they are being abused, which in turn makes it less likely that they will get help or leave an abusive situation. In many cases of domestic violence, emotional abuse is used first to train victims before other forms of abuse are incorporated into the cycle, but it is incredibly damaging to a person’s psyche on its own.

Verbal abuse is abuse because words have power. Words are the most common way that we communicate abstract thoughts to each other. Words can be used to communicate beautiful ideas, to make other people feel positive emotions and to create art. Words can also be used to lie, to manipulate and to abuse people.

When anyone tries to claim that words don’t matter, they are doing it with an ulterior motive: to silence. They are saying that the words that don’t matter are yours.

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