Friday, December 11, 2015

Dealing with Verbal Abuse

When someone close to you wounds you with their words, it can be painful, especially when it’s clear they meant to hurt and the cuts go deep. Most of us have been there and some must deal with this on a continuing basis.

Elizabeth Gilbert says, “When someone asks, ‘Can I be brutally honest?’, say ‘No!’, because what they are really asking is if they can brutalize you.”

My friend, Jane (not her real name), has an extended family member (we’ll call her Cruella), who regularly attacks Jane, casts dispersions on her morals and values, her relationship with her spouse and even attacks the core of Jane’s identity with ugly, baseless verbal attacks.

“For a long while,” Jane says, “I just silently took it, trying desperately to win her over. I became a door mat.” She believed that being sweet and kind, in spite of what Cruella said, could win her over.

“That did not happen,” she says “and it continued to get worse. Cruella had no respect for me, and why should she? I was the door mat, where she’d wipe her dirty, muddy feet, walk away and continue with her life.” 

Sometimes, in these cases, the healthiest boundary we can set is to love someone from a distance. We can forgive but we do not have to continue putting ourselves in harm's way. Avoiding situations where we have to be around them helps protect us from unnecessary hurt. Even if we forgive them, forgiveness does not automatically require reconciliation.  Only a positive change in behavior (repentance) can pave the way for a restored relationship.

However, we can’t always avoid the bully. Due to other ongoing relationships within the family, Jane is obliged to stay in relationship with her abusive family member. She explains, “I know it would be unhealthy for my children if I told them anything (about the verbal abuse) - this is between me and her – it has nothing to do with them.” She knows just one conversation about it with her adult children could totally kill their relationship with Cruella, but she chooses not to tell them. “That would be pure hatred on my part and that is not what God would have me do.” 

Jane continues, “Because of my children and their relationship to Cruella, I have to constantly get back into the ‘ring’.” In order to do this without being crushed, she made three rules for herself regarding the ongoing attacks from Cruella, and when she shared them with me, I felt it was something that would helps us all.

So from the personal experience of Jane, here is her loving, wise advice on how you can navigate the territory if you must stay in relationship with an unkind person:

Set safe boundaries, never go into that ring alone and don't go into it very often.

1.  Set Safe Personal Boundaries

This may include speaking gently but firmly to the other party, like you would to any bully: “I am not willing to hear you speak in this way. If you cannot be kind, I will have to leave.”  However, boundaries don’t always have to be shared with the other person. Jane’s boundaries are set in her heart and head when it comes to Cruella – placed there by lots of talking with her supportive spouse.

Consider reading: Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No, to Take Control of Your Life by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend

2.  Never Go Into That Ring Alone

Jane explains that Cruella’s “attacks” always came when they were alone, one-on-one.  There are no witnesses, and that seems to give the other person more liberty to make the attacks deeper and more personal because you have no one in your corner. Never meet your abuser one-on-one. Go with a trusted family member, a loving friend, or meet in a group. At family dinners or social functions, make sure you have a safe, loyal person looking out for you, standing with you always, so that your Cruella cannot corner you.

3.  Don’t Enter That Ring Often 

Make your meetings and get-togethers fewer and farther apart.  You don’t have to attend everything where she’ll be present. Say “No” to certain functions and invitations if you might be forced to be alone with your Cruella.  Delay answering texts, emails and voice messages. Don’t respond immediately. Jane says she’ll sometimes let a few days pass before she answers.  “Depending on the content,” she adds, “if no questions are asked, or if it is just information, I don’t respond to them at all.” Instead of returning a phone call, send an email.

If the abusive person demands immediate replies and you are not yet prepared to reply, defer with a response worded something like, “I can’t answer at this moment, I will take a day (or whatever period of time you need) and get back to you.” Or “I will run this by (my spouse, partner, family) and let you know later today/this week/by X date.”

Jane recommends that you always be kind and gracious but keep an “emotional and mental distance” with your own Cruella. 

“You owe her nothing, except to be polite and respectful,” Jane says, “the way we would be with any person who comes into our life.” You don’t need to apologize or feel obliged to give explanations, as these sometimes provide further fuel for your abuser to twist, take out of context or throw back at you. 

While these guidelines help Jane cope with the unavoidable situations where she must be around Cruella, she says it has not healed the relationship.

“It probably never will,” she says, recognizing that Cruella “has been wounded herself and hurt people hurt people.”

Both Jane and I hope and pray that you find these guidelines helpful. These can be a launching pad for your own healing and self-care when dealing with difficult people.

Wisdom from one wounded warrior to another.

Please note: This blog entry is intended to address your relationships with extended family members, work colleagues or social peer relationships. If your Cruella is a spouse, a boss, or your child, these guidelines may not be possible to enforce. Please seek professional help if you are in a situation where you feel powerless or unsafe.


  1. The first meme caught me and it seems reasonable that one would hurt another because of ones own sufferings, but is that because they don't love themselves? My abuser exalts them-self and is beyond reproach. I have equated that with self love, I could have this wrong. I have noticed if I should show any joy or well-being it is as though I am provoking an attack. I can almost bank on it if I have found a mistake and reveal any truth. Which I don't do if I can help it. Which leads me to another question how do you encourage healthy self love to an individual that cannot?

  2. From this brief description, it sounds like your abuser may exhibit some narcissistic traits. I would not presume to assess your circumstances, but a chartered psychologist could be helpful in dealing with your particular challenge.