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Defending Yourself Against Verbal and Emotional Abuse

By Kristen
Content Updated on September 17, 2007

Recognize the Abuse

See Recognizing Emotional and Verbal Abuse

Listen to Your Inner Voice, Your Feelings

Abusers try to make you feel guilty, shameful, and helpless, so they can control you, but deep within you is a voice that disagrees. At first, the voice is quite loud, but each session of abuse knocks it down a bit until finally you can barely hear it at all. It's time to start listening to it. The inner voice may say things like: "How can you treat me like this?" "I didn't do anything wrong." "I don't deserve this." "I hate when he/she acts like this."

Your feelings are also indicators of abuse. Feeling afraid, ashamed, ignored, belittled, dominated, or manipulated is like a giant, flashing, warning light with sirens that scream out, "This isn't right!"

Stay Calm! Fighting Doesn't Work

Our first reaction to emotional and verbal abuse is often to fight back. Responding with aggression, though, just escalates the abuse.  If you say "That's not true!" or "Oh yeah, well what about...," you are giving the abuser more ammunition to fire back at you. The abuser wants to push your buttons, affect your emotions, and force you to respond. That's how the abuser knows if their actions are striking a nerve in you.

When you try to fight back by trying to prove the abuser wrong, you're just saying, "Yes, I'm so weak that I will let you push my buttons."

If you want to show strength, stay calm. Keep your composure. Stay in control of yourself.

Compliance Doesn't Work

Abusers want you to comply with them. They want you to say, "You're right, and I'm wrong." It may seem like just giving in is a good idea just to get the whole ordeal over with, but every time that you give in, you are reinforcing the abusers actions and giving the abuser the power to do it again.

If you need to give in for your own safety (such as with an abuser who is violent or in a state of road rage), then do so, and apologize if necessary, but as soon as you can, get out of the situation and out of the relationship.

State the Obvious

If the abuser seems like they're trying to start a fight, the best thing you can do is refuse to fight.

If an abuser wants you to do something that you aren't willing to do, just say, "I know it's frustrating when others don't do what you want them to do."

If an abuser wants you to agree with them, just say, "You could be right." (Keep in mind, they could also be wrong, but don't say it.) You could also say, "That's interesting," or "OK," or "Hmmmm."

The abuser will continue to try to get you to fight back. Don't. Just repeat such responses again and again. Eventually the abuser will become so frustrated that they will stop talking to you or throw a tantrum. If you fear that they will throw a tantrum or become physically abusive, get away from them.

Act Uninterested

If the abuser is trying to make you feel guilty, the best thing you can do is act like you don't care without actually saying that you don't care.

If the abuser says, "After all I've done for you, you owe me," then respond with, "And I appreciate all your help," without acknowledging the "you owe me" statement.

If the abuser says, "You're embarrassing the whole family," then you could say, "I understand," or "Hmmmm."

Acting uninterested also works well for insults.

If the abuser says, "You're butt is huge," you could say, "That's nice," in a bored tone.

Get Away

One of the best things you can do is walk away, leave, when somebody is trying to abuse you. Don't force yourself to put up with it. You shouldn't have to listen to it.

If you have children, teenagers, pets, or vulnerable adults in the situation, be sure to remove them as well. The last thing you would want to do is leave another potential victim with an abuser.

Get a Support System

Let trusted family members, friends, and neighbors know what's going on. Talk to them about how you are feeling, what the abuser is doing, and what you are doing to change the situation. Look for supportive loved ones who will help you out when you need it, such as by giving you a safe place to stay when you're trying to get away from the abuser. Avoid supportive people who also have abusive or manipulative behaviors because depending on them may create a cycle of abuse with a new abuser.

Talk About It When Everyone is Calm

If there is a problem that must be resolved, then talk about it after everybody has calmed down. If you believe this will trigger another attack, then don't do it alone. Make sure you have a trusted friend, a mediator, or a counselor in the room with you.

  1. State how you feel with they [yell, call you names, expect you to do something you don't want to do, etc.]. (e.g. "I feel sad, hurt, and angry when you insult me.")
  2. Set your boundaries; let them know that you will not allow them to treat you this way anymore. (e.g. "I am not going to let anybody treat me like that anymore.")
  3. State how you would like them to treat you instead. (e.g. "I want you to talk to me about problems without calling me names, comparing me to people you don't like, or making fun of me.")
  4. State what you will do if they don't treat you with respect and continue to be abusive. (e.g. "If you insult me and speak to me disrespectfully, I will leave the room. If you follow me, I will leave the house. I will also take the kids with me, so you won't be able to direct your anger toward them while I'm gone. I will not talk to you until you are able to speak to me with respect.")
  5. State what you will do if the behavior continues repeatedly, and be willing to follow through. If you say you're going to end the relationship, then be prepared to do it. (e.g. "If you continue to insult me we will need to either go into counseling or end the relationship.")

Get Counseling for Yourself

Most importantly, you need to get into a counseling program with a licensed therapist. A counselor is like a coach who helps you become the person you want to be and create the life you want to have. A counselor can help you with your self-confidence and self-esteem as well as help you figure out how to handle situations involving your abuser.

Get Counseling for Each Other

If you wish to continue the relationship, it's a good idea to go to counseling together to learn better ways of communicating. If you cannot go into counseling together, then each of you should at least go into counseling individually. Even if your abuser refuses to go into counseling, still go into counseling by yourself, for yourself.

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