Don’t underestimate the damage verbal abuse does

The effects of verbal abuse are serious, and like all cases of abuse become more intense over time. Recovery from verbal abuse seems to take much longer than from physical abuse, because the core self is assaulted and wounded. It often happens that the victim becomes used to and adapts to abusive behaviours. Verbal abuse can have physical effects. Sarah Osborn reveals that she developed ulcers and hair loss because of it. On a psychological level, verbal abuse reduces the victims’ self-esteem and makes them feel worthless. Victims often internalise the criticisms, and come to believe that they are true. They begin to accept that they are worthless and unlovable. I sometimes ask my verbally abused clients to draw an ear and write down the negative messages that were directed at them. The results are horrifying, and reflect the actions of unfeeling and distant parents or partners.
Ironically, the more victims see themselves as worthless and unlovable, and the more they feel fearful, sad, powerless, and indecisive, the more they may cling to the abuser because he/she pays some attention to them. They sink into depression and lose their creativity. They feel flawed. They experience a sense of unhappiness and mistrust. People who suffer continuous verbal abuse lose their good judgement, doubt themselves, and wonder what they are missing. Happiness is an elusive dream. They want to escape from their chaotic prison by not living in the present, which is too painful, yet they are unable to trust in future relationships.
Prolonged verbal abuse makes victims feel crazy, partly because the abuser determines their boundaries. They are deprived of ownership of their feelings, thoughts, and behaviours. Confusion is part of feeling crazy and is one of the main results of abuse. In the early days of grieving over my dead child, I experienced what feeling crazy is like. I felt lost, disconnected, restless, disorientated, empty and confused. This is how victims of verbal abuse feel. They also feel cowed and fearful of challenging the abuser to clarify their muddled thoughts. They feel constricted, shackled, and puzzled about what is happening.

Adapted from Jim O’Shea’s book Abuse. Domestic Violence, Workplace and School Bullying published by Cork University Press

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