Emotional Abuse Through Words

Words can be powerful tools or powerful weapons. The weapon of choice for emotional abusers is often verbal. They use their words to control, to wound, to entrap, to humiliate. Through their words and tone of voice, they imprint messages on the minds of those who hear. These messages, repeated often and forcefully, infiltrate to the inner being of their victims, shaping the way they view

While each person is different, there are several distinct methods the emotional abuser can use to dispense his or her abuse. It may be a single form or a combination of forms; however, most are recognizable. As you read through this chapter, think back over people you have known. You probably will be able to come up with at least one name for every pattern of verbal abuse.

The Overbearing Opinion

I once saw a sign that read, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, as long as it agrees with mine!” This is the essence of the overbearing opinion. The sign I saw was in jest, but for the emotional abuser, this is a life statement. It defines how he or she views the world and everyone else in it.

The Person Who Is Always Right

Hand in glove with the overbearing opinion is the person who is always right. Overbearing-opinion abusers have an idea or opinion about everything. People who are always right do not make the same volume of pronouncements, but when they do, they always position themselves in the right and everyone else in the wrong. They will sift through events and information for proof of their rightness, bombarding anyone who questions them with a list of reasons why they are correct in their thinking. There is no room for a second opinion.

Living with a person who is always right produces frustration and anger. Events are constantly being turned around in his or her favor. You begin to think there is no justice in the world, since your abuser never has to admit his or her error. More important, you may also begin to believe that your abuser has been right all along. Like living with an overbearing-opinion abuser, you begin to second-guess your ability to make decisions, for they never seem to be the right ones.


The Judge and Jury

The right or wrong of what judge-and-jury abusers decide is irrelevant. To them the most important thing is their position, to be in control of the people around them. It is their call to make, whether good or bad. Others are to obey them, not because they have rendered a good decision, but because they are the authority.

The Put-Down Artist

Emotional abuse can come from different sources in a variety of ways. Some of the most destructive abusers are people who habitually put down another person through their words. Instead of using their speech to encourage and lift up the other person, they use it to crush and discourage. Their use of language and their tone of voice are purposely chosen to degrade the feelings of the other person, to make them feel valueless. It is almost as if their words become a verbal heel grinding down the self-esteem of the abused.

The Stand-Up Comic

The stand-up comic is just that—only the butt of his jokes is always you. You are his perpetual straight man. He doesn’t laugh with you, he laughs at you. Through sarcasm and exaggeration, he beats down your self-image. Very similar to the put-down artist, the stand-up comic uses twisted humor.

This kind of abuse provides the abuser a way out, an instant excuse for any injury caused. After all, if you are the only one who isn’t laughing, there must be something wrong with you. Everyone else seems to be able to take a joke, so why can’t you? Furthermore, this type of abuse can leave a deep sense of outrage at being used for another person’s pleasure. The abuser gets all the laughs, and you are left to feel humiliated. Often the only defense against this type of abuse is to become a clown yourself, beating your abuser to the punch by beating up on yourself. Better to be the class clown than the verbal punching bag.

The Great Guilt-Giver

While the jokes of the stand-up comic can hit you all of a sudden like a ton of bricks, the weight of the guilt-giver comes on a brick at a time, just long enough for you to adjust to the weight before another one is added. Brick upon brick of guilt, year after year, message after message, remark after remark. Usually not delivered in haste or loudly, but with a sigh, with a sad, disappointed look that communicates that you are the cause of all of his or her problems. If it weren’t for you, life would be so much better.

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If you were emotionally abused in this way, you may feel as if you have no importance to your abuser. In fact, you may feel as if the abuser’s life would be so much better if you weren’t around to mess it up. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Preacher

Preachers have a sermon for everything you do. Preachers are used to controlling and manipulating people by their words. Often they love to hear themselves talk. They don’t so much communicate with other people as preach at them. They can be compelling and charismatic, and often they invoke religious themes in their speeches. They use these “sermons” as a way to pontificate on the faults of the person specifically and the world in general. Any small infraction, to preachers, has earth-shattering implications. Their words and messages are grandiose and meant to make the listener feel contrite and moldable. Invoking the name of God in their speeches reinforces the “rightness” of their point of view. It also makes it impossible to argue with them, for arguing with them equals arguing with God.

The Historian

Historians are a This Is Your Life nightmare. They are people who, remember every bad thing you have ever done or they think you have done. With computer accuracy, all your bad moments are logged and recorded to be brought up in full detail at any future time the historian deems appropriate. There is no getting beyond an event, no putting the past behind you and going forward. Like a heap of heavy luggage, historians drag all of it along with them.

Historians’ view of the past is decidedly one-sided. They never seem to remember their own faults or mistakes with the same clarity they recall yours. If you bring up one event in your defense, they can come up with a multitude of others to bury it in a verbal barrage.

The Silent Treatment Abuser

No discussion of emotional abuse through words would be complete without including the absence of words as a form of abuse. This is commonly known as “the silent treatment.” Abusers punish their victims by refusing to speak to them or even acknowledge their presence. Through silence, the abusers loudly communicate their displeasure, anger, frustration, or disappointment. Depending on the person, this silent treatment can last for hours, days, or weeks. For some abusers, it is a preferred method of communication because of its ability to humiliate and control the victim. It is used most effectively by those in close relationship, such as a spouse, parent, or child. The silence, the loss of verbal relationship, is meant to exact an emotional toll on the other person, who often will go to great lengths to attempt to restore communication with the abuser.

Turn Up the Tape

Verbal abuse is like a tape recorder that never stops playing. On and on the messages run, over and over, year after year. You hear the words in your head whether you want to or not. They repeat themselves softly in the quiet moments when no one else is speaking. Like relentless waves undermining the sand, they steadily wash away the foundations of self-esteem and self-respect. Too often they become the background noise of our lives—too quiet to be clearly heard, too loud to be totally ignored.

As unpleasant as it may seem, the only way to deal with verbal abuse is to turn up the recorder. Really listen to what those messages are saying to you, find out when they were recorded and by whom, and begin to erase them by taping over them with positive, uplifting, encouraging messages of self-esteem and self-worth that come through healthy relationships.

Adapted from Hope and Healing from Emotional Abuse by Gregory L. Jantz

Copyright © 2013 Gregory J. Jantz, Ph.D., Published by Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group, used with permission, all rights reserved