Women as Victims of Verbal Abuse
© 2000 Michele Toomey, PhD

As members of the "weaker" sex, women have suffered the violence of physical abuse from the "stronger" sex. They have even suffered it at the hands of stronger women. Although there is not nearly enough of an outcry over this violence against women, at least there is a shared sense that it is wrong. Not so with verbal abuse. It leaves no visible wounds or scars, and can be hidden or denied with hardly a second thought. And, unfortunately, verbal attacks are not predominantly done by men. Since they require no physical prowess (although it helps, since it increases the fear and intimidation), verbal abuse can be as violent and as destructive when done by women as when done by men. And there is no great public outcry against it, and certainly no laws making it illegal to verbally slice another, or especially a woman, to pieces and leave her emotionally bleeding.

Fathers and husbands can roar at daughters and wives, berating, belittling and pounding them into submission without being confronted or jailed. There is also a sad legacy of mothers verbally bullying and deriding daughters that goes virtually unaddressed. It is long overdue that we force ourselves to look at the suffering and devastation that verbal abuse exacts, and draw the line on tolerating it. The fear and pain are not as hidden as we would pretend. It can be seen and felt in the eyes and in the faces of the emotionally abused, without a word being uttered. Imagine what we could know if we actually talked about it.

It is the climate of pretense, denial and hiddenness that fosters the self-abuse that women get caught in when they have been victims of others' verbal abuse. My focus will be on this dangerous side effect, the abused woman's abuse of herself. This is a very deliberate choice on my part, because psychological oppression, unlike physical oppression, only works if we participate in it, and psychological liberation occurs only when we liberate ourselves. We are not in charge of anyone else's liberation, but we are definitely in charge of our own. Sadly, if we are abused in childhood we tend to learn abuse, and imitate the hostility directed at us. We may or may not abuse others, but almost surely we will have learned to abuse ourselves.

We must, therefore, look at the way victims not only become victimized, but victimizers, first of themselves and then, sometimes, of others. As women, we are members of the traditionally viewed "inferior" and "weaker" sex. Verbal abuse directed at girls and women has a greater chance of hurting our self-image and damaging our self-esteem, because we are already coming from a lesser position and a smaller "box". Male approval and male protection is subliminally, or even blatantly, communicated to us as a necessity for a safe and happy life. Even if we know better, we don't tend to want to fail that test. So, abusive men are very dangerous to women. On the other hand, if other women attack, deride or ridicule us, we are left to wonder what is so wrong with us that even women abuse us. We again question our own worth and worthiness. There is no easy escape route for women, out of the low self-esteem even self-hatred pit, when abuse is present.

Women, therefore, are very vulnerable to verbal abuse, and pay a devastatingly high price for it. The inner voice of an emotionally abused woman is not only a voice of pain, suffering and anger, it is also the voice of an alienated woman who blames herself for how she's treated. For every harangue from others, there's most often a matching harangue from herself. Self-loathing becomes the source of her own self-abuse. Violators can die or be divorced or moved away from, and abused women are often still not free. The abuser has become herself.

This is not a new revelation, yet, still we tolerate verbal abuse. Why? Why do we as a society continue to deny the ravaging effects on anyone, but especially for our focus here, on women, of verbal innuendoes, attacks, ridicule and derision? Because we are afraid of exposure and we feel safer with hiddenness. We know so much more about psychological torment than we ever reveal. Coldness and silence, withdrawal and ignoring are not foreign tools of torture either. We know their power to devastate and create a feeling of powerlessness and panic just as we know the power of openly hostile acts.

Workplaces as well as homes can be emotionally abusive, only the style may change. At work, we excuse our tolerance for abuse by saying we fear we'll lose our job if we confront the abuser. At home, we excuse our tolerance because it's none of our business, if we aren't the one being abused, and if we are the target of the abuse, we deny our own power to free ourselves. We have the "someday my prince will come" complex, that looks to another to rescue us or rescue others, but we do not look to ourselves. And herein lies the rub.

The only way for a victim of verbal abuse to be freed is to free herself. Both the victimizing "other" and the victimizing "self" must be confronted. Both must be stopped. If all else fails, separating from the abusive other will stop that abuse. Since we cannot separate from ourselves, we are left to convert the hostile energy directed at and against us, to strong energy working for us. This is a complex process that takes commitment, courage and "know how".

The commitment must be to ourselves and our psychological liberation. The courage must be to face directly the forces within us that believed what was said to us and about us, and confront their hostility and bullying tactics, demanding that they stop. The "know how" is the psychology and the tools needed to convert the hostile energy into excited energy for a life fueled by desire not fear or anger. This is not easy, because victims become believers and imitators of the hostility to such an extent that self-doubt and self-blame, even self-hatred, become second nature. To free themselves, victims must draw upon all three elements: commitment, courage and "know how", with a depth of conviction and determination known only to the violated. Without it, there will be continued whining, complaining, crying, describing, repeating, but never moving and liberation.

Therapy would be my strongest recommendation for the committed, courageous women who want to learn how to free themselves. It would also be a good thing to join a group where discussions and sharing and caring are directed toward freeing yourself. Do not join a group where describing your plight and staying in it brings sympathy without movement. Liberation psychology is designed to teach us the principles of the inner world and how to live with integrity in this world. Reading, studying and discussing what I have written would be a most helpful tool. It is hard work to free ourselves from the emotional attachment to psychological abuse, but it is the greatest gift you could ever give yourself. May you have the necessary commitment and courage needed to do the work required to psychologically liberate yourself.

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