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Recognizing and reacting to the signs of verbal abuse
by Sandy Reckert-Reusing

"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me."

Everyone at one time or another has heard this saying. But it isn't true. Words can hurt, leaving emotional scars that undermine self-confidence and self-esteem. There's a name for it: emotional abuse. In worst-case scenarios, victims of emotional abuse may become withdrawn, anxious, depressed or even suicidal. Some victims may even experience sleep disorders, compulsions, panic attacks, obsessions, phobias or self-harming behavior.

The definition of emotional abuse is "to assail with contemptuous, coarse or insulting words" "or "to deceive or trick or to hurt someone emotionally. Sometimes called verbal or psychological abuse, emotional abuse is perhaps the least understood form of violence.

In fact, what you may not know is that many of us are guilty of emotional abuse, even if it is in subtle ways. To see if you are a victim, perpetrator or both, look to the list.

"Verbal abuse can be as unassuming as just not listening to someone," says Daniel Buccino, a clinical supervisor in the Community Psychiatry Program at Hopkins Bayview and a member of the Johns Hopkins Civility Project. "When we choose not to acknowledge another or recognize them, it's considered uncivil behavior."

According to Buccino, we all need to be more mindful of our actions and what we say.

"What I might think is OK and acceptable, may not be OK to other people," Buccino explains. "It all requires living one step beyond the golden rule."

Keep in mind that emotional abuse can occur in the workplace, at home and in social settings. It can affect anyone -- women, children and men. And emotional abuse should not be ignored. Many times it leads to physical abuse.

If you recognize that you exhibit many of the behaviors on the list or are a victim of emotional abuse, you should seek professional help. Call the Community Psychiatry Program at 410-550-0104 to set up an appointment.

Emotional abuse may include:

  • Name-calling
  • Blaming unfairly
  • Shaming unfairly
  • Putting down
  • Ignoring
  • Ridiculing
  • Insulting
  • Constantly criticizing
  • Screaming
  • Shouting
  • Yelling
  • Threatening to hurt someone or damage property
  • Rejection
  • Abandoning
  • Withholding affection as punishment
  • Withholding approval as punishment
  • Repeatedly frightening
  • Repeatedly threatening to leave
  • Manipulating with lies
  • Making you feel guilty
  • Making you feel like you are crazy
  • Telling you that you are worthless
  • Treating you like you are worthless
  • Distorting your reality (mind games)
  • Making you fear for your safety
  • Making you fear for the safety of others
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