I have been verbally abused in the past and later on I verbally abused other people. At first it made me feel better, but now I feel really bad that I lowered myself to his or her standards. Now I find myself muttering under my own breath thinking, “did I just say that when I didn’t want to?” How can I stop this muttering under my own breath? I do not want to run anyone down anymore. I can’t keep my lips pressed closed all the time. I do not want to be left thinking, “did I just say that awful thing about someone?”
Our Clinical Psychologist’s Reply
I applaud that you recognize that your behavior may at times be abusive toward those you care about. Any type of abuse can cause lasting negative effects on self-esteem and relationship functioning. Because there are no “visible wounds,” many people underestimate the damage that emotional abuse can have on an individual and their relationships.
Emotional abuse is defined by patterns of behavior meant to maintain power and control over another person, typically through threats and intimidation. Emotionally abusive behaviors include name calling; humiliation; isolation from family and friends; withholding sex, money, etc., as a means of punishment; excessive jealous or possessive behavior; and threats of harm to the partner, their family, their pets, or other loved ones.
As with physical or sexual abuse, those who have been emotionally victimized may also be prone to perpetuating abuse. The good news is that just because someone has been abused does not mean they are destined to become an abuser. Recognizing thoughts, feelings, and behaviors is a critical first step toward change. At first you may only see your negative behaviors after the fact (“I just said something I regret!”); as you pay more attention to thoughts and feelings, you will begin to “catch yourself” when triggers appear that might lead to unwanted behavior. A trigger can be a thought, feeling, or situation that prompts re-experiencing the fight or flight reactions that occurred during experiences of abuse.
During interactions with a relationship partner, pay attention to any negative or angry feelings that arise. For example, when experiencing a trigger to feelings like guilt or shame, the impulse may be to become defensive and lash out at the person you perceive makes you feel that way. When you have identified triggering feelings, reflect on what you want to do with them — do you need to express to your partner how you are feeling? Do you need to take a “time out” from the situation to calm yourself and reflect on your thoughts?
Many people who have experienced abuse in their lives find it helpful to consult with a therapist who specializes in abuse and trauma issues. Treatment for abuse issues often begins with increasing awareness of your own abuse history and the cycles of abuse in your past and current relationships. Depending on the individual’s specific history and current functioning, treatment may focus on developing self-esteem, empathy training, anger management skills, and/or assertiveness and social skills training. Understanding your own feelings and learning to express them more effectively is at the heart of moving out of abusive dynamics. The most important thing to remember is that you can learn new ways to manage both your reactions to your partner and your own behavior choices.