Defining verbal abuse

Wikipedia has a pretty good definition of verbal abuse:

the act of forcefully criticizing, insulting, or denouncing another person. Characterized by underlying anger and hostility, it is a destructive form of communication intended to harm the self-concept of the other person and produce negative emotions. 

Verbal abuse is a maladaptive mechanism that anyone can display occasionally, such as during times of high stress or physical discomfort. For some people, it is a pattern of behaviors used intentionally to control or manipulate others or to get revenge.

A 2015 Psychiatry Investigation paper on verbal abuse in Korea offers this account of the harmful effects of verbal abuse:

the effects of exposure to verbal aggression on its victims have been commonly overlooked regardless of their seriousness and harmfulness. Young adults with a history of verbal abuse (VA) are susceptible to display various psychiatric symptoms, including depression, anxiety and dissociation; VA can also cause children to display negative cognitive styles including self-criticism and hopelessness, which are related to psychopathology.

The effects of VA on mental health are comparable to those of other types of abuse, sexual or physical, which are more commonly considered to be severe, and these harmful effects are persistent regardless of whether the abuse was perpetrated by parents or peers. Additionally, VA is thought to cause scars on the brain; reduction of fractional anisotropy of white matter tracts in sufferers, including corpus callosum, arcuate fasciculus, cingulum bundle, has been reported.

Verbal abuse is clearly very harmful. But what does it look like? The paper quoted above utilised a Verbal Abuse Questionnaire (VAQ) designed to measure and assess individuals’ experience of verbal abuse. While not exhaustive, it offers clear, practical examples of verbal abuse in action.

The following are the 15 items of verbal abuse from the VAQ.

For people raised in verbally abusive environments, such items can seem like normal components of human interaction. These are in fact extremely harmful, inappropriate, and abusive forms of communication.

Flow State for Swordsmen

The priest Chung-feng said, “Maintain the mind that releases the mind.”

This saying has two levels of meaning.

The practice of the first is as follows: if you “release” the mind, do not allow it to become fixated when it reaches its destination, but unfailingly make it return. If you strike once with your sword, do not let your mind stop at that strike, but bring your mind back securely to yourself.

The deeper meaning is: in releasing the mind, you let it go where it wishes. “Releasing the mind” means letting it go and not letting it stop anywhere.

The Life-Giving Sword, by Yagyu Munenori

Yagyū Munenori was a 17th Century sword instructor and adviser to the Tokugawa shogunate.

His manual for the Yagyū Shinkage-ryu sword style includes numerous passages outlining the correct frame of mind to hold in combat, and the obstacles to this free-flowing state of focus.

The parallels to flow state are obvious. But we don’t need to be swordsmen fighting to the death to cultivate a flow state.

His book contains many admonitions to not obsess, not let the mind stop, not dwell on any particular thought – including the thought of not dwelling!

In everyday life it is the same. We can let go of obsessive focus on any subject and just relax and follow our impulses as they arise and fall seamlessly.

What Abraham-Hicks brings to this equation is that the whole point of flow is to feel good. It’s not meant to feel austere or ponderous. And if it doesn’t feel good to try to flow, then stop trying and just appreciate something in your right-now experience.

Abraham presents alignment as a state where things do flow, but it is nonetheless just a very pleasing point on the spectrum of emotional guidance.

But for some of us it is useful to emphasise the shift in consciousness, not just the improvement in emotion.

So go, feel good, and, if you can, enjoy the lightness and ease of your flow state.

In the zone: autotelic/flow states for anxiety and depression

Flow states are often discussed in terms of peak performance, both individual and group.

Mystical experience is presented as spiritually therapeutic, enlightening, and consciousness-expanding.

The two are closely related – mystical texts often draw on common experiences of flow to engage the reader. Mysticism is flow, and flow psychology seeks to demystify it.

An autotelic state is an end-in-itself. Flow feels so good; yet flow psychology also frames it in terms of performance, encouraging forward-thinking corporations to enact flow-positive policies and practices to enhance productivity.

Crippling anxiety and depression led me to explore mysticism in hopes of understanding the fundamental meaning and purpose of existence, along with the promise of complete freedom from suffering.

Many years later, flow psychology provides an apt mainstream depiction of a better way of being, primed for synthesising with law-of-attraction-based theories and practices.

What Abraham-Hicks calls “getting into the vortex”, “alignment with your inner being”, and myriad other wordings, is in essence the same as achieving flow state in everyday life.

What does flow state feel like? Letting go of your sense of self and bringing your focus into the present; allowing impulses and ideas to arise naturally, flowing seamlessly one to the next.

I found my perfect expression of flow state/alignment in the Japanese texts “The Unfettered Mind” and “The Life-Giving Sword”. The former comprised of letters from a Zen monk to a famous samurai on the essential congruity of their mutual professions; the latter comprising the samurai’s personal collation of methods and techniques for combat.

What they describe is a flow state, a state of consciousness where “the mind doesn’t stop” in the sense of getting caught up on any single thought or fear or detail of immediate experience.

But it proved difficult to enter this state while burdened with many negative beliefs and physically ingrained trauma. Difficult to enter and difficult to maintain.

Over the years I let my focus shift to cognitive and finally to somatic methods of releasing past trauma and retraining my body and mind into a more healthy homeostasis.

At the same time, the Abraham-Hicks material completely reframed my understanding of the flow state, what it means, and how to get into it.

Abraham teaches that this state of alignment is simply an “allowing” and “receiving” of everything we have implicitly asked for throughout the contrast of life experience.

Our inner being already knows what we want and how to get it. We don’t need to strive or struggle at all. Simply focus on thoughts that feel better, and when our resistance is low enough “the vortex will take you in” – which is to say, you will naturally enter a state of flow if you aren’t doing something to hold yourself apart from it.

It requires practice and it requires focus. But I discovered for myself that in the context of sparring in a martial art that our body and mind don’t need to be told “don’t get hit”. In a state of flow, if someone throws a punch and the punch is on a trajectory to hit you, your body will naturally respond in the most appropriate way possible.

But if you stand there thinking “I mustn’t get hit! Oh no he looks really quick! Damn that’s a good punch! I should block it with this technique…” your own thoughts will interfere with what your body and deeper mind know to do.

Likewise Abraham teaches that our inner being doesn’t need us to constantly pick at or push for or worry about our desires in life. If we allow ourselves to enter a state of flow, we immediately begin receiving thoughts and ideas that are as naturally our response to life-itself, as an intuitive deflection is to an incoming punch.

This is where the law-of-attraction context is important, because it facilitates in everyday life what the flow psychologists have found predominantly in a goal-oriented context, with unpredictability and risk also contributing to the achievement of flow.

Abraham would tell us that we don’t need risk or unpredictability or big goals. All we need is focus. And the law of attraction gives us a perspective of reality that makes an everyday focus far from “mundane”.

We each create our own reality. Our thoughts and our focus shape what we are able to receive. The flow state is what happens when we allow ourselves to receive thoughts and impulses coming from our inner being without resistance.

Following these thoughts and impulses within a state of flow feels great. It also leads us in the direction of everything we desire. As most of us can attest: strange and miraculous things happen when we let go of our resistance on a subject.

Meaningful coincidences that feel like magic despite our attempts to rationalise them. Feats of timing and the coming together of ideas as if we are being guided by a benevolent and omniscient deity. Subtle shifts in our own and others’ personalities that effortlessly resolve seemingly impossible situations.

Abraham’s teachings give us reason to see each moment of the everyday as an opportunity to enter the flow, not for the sake of these miraculous coincidences, but for the pure appreciation of how good it feels to not resist, and align at last with the deeper, all-powerful part of us.

Flying dragon in the heavens

Life is a flow.

Outcomes are outcomes.

We can look to outcomes, taking stock. But the outcomes are not life as it is lived.

The stream of well-being flows, it is not an outcome.

To manage the flow of life, that is where intentions and feelings come into focus and balance; while fixating on outcomes produces confusion.

Hexagram 1, 5th Line contains the following attributed to Confucius:

Things that accord in tone vibrate together. Things that have affinity in their inmost natures seek one another. Water flows to what is wet, fire turns to what is dry. Clouds (the breath of heaven) follow the dragon, wind (the breath of earth) follows the tiger. Thus the sage arises, and all creatures follow him with their eyes. What is born of heaven feels related to what is above. What is born of earth feels related to what is below. Each follows its kind.

Why is verbal abuse so harmful?

Child abuse is typically framed in terms of physical and sexual abuse. The seriousness of verbal abuse is yet to be popularly acknowledged, despite evidence that:

Scolding, swearing, yelling, blaming, insulting, threatening, ridiculing, demeaning, and criticizing can be as harmful as physical abuse, sexual abuse outside the home, or witnessing physical abuse at home

The original study can be accessed here.

Why is verbal abuse so harmful?

The study authors note that “Verbal abuse may also have more lasting consequences than other forms of abuse, because it’s often more continuous”. Indeed, rampant verbal abuse can be unrelenting and diverse.

But apart from its potential frequency and unrelenting nature, verbal abuse is harmful because it purports to convey the abuser’s perception of reality – their truth – to the detriment of the victim’s own perception of reality.

Children depend entirely on their parents or caregivers for survival, and strong psychological bonds of attachment are formed between children and their caregivers, all things being equal.

All forms of verbal and non-verbal communication are of utmost importance to the attachment bond. The child knows nothing of the attachment figure beyond what is communicated to them, directly or indirectly.

Verbal abuse, when examined in specific forms such as scolding, swearing, yelling, blaming, insulting, threatening, ridiculing, demeaning, and criticizing, communicate supposed “truths” of the caregiver’s reality.

They communicate hostility, negative assessment of the child’s worth and value, and indicate to the child that there is something wrong with the attachment relationship, and that it is the child’s fault.

Verbal abuse says to the child “in my eyes, this is the kind of treatment you deserve”.

In the context of total dependence on the parent or caregiver, the child either takes these communications at face value and internalises their content, or recognises that the person on whom he or she depends is unstable, untrustworthy, and potentially hostile. Neither of these bodes well for the child’s development.





What is CPTSD?

CPTSD and Complex Trauma describe the psychological impact of repeated traumatic experiences over an extended period of time.

Complex PTSD is like regular Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, except…complex. Regular PTSD typically arises in response to one or a small number of distinct traumas. But in CPTSD the adult or, more frequently, child, is exposed to trauma over such a duration of time that they adapt and adjust to the experience of trauma.

For children this exposure to trauma coincides with key developmental milestones, the formation of attachment to caregivers (who may also be perpetrators or enablers of trauma and abuse), and the normal trajectory of becoming an independent person with a sense of self and healthy boundaries.

If a healthy adult were subject to an extended period of imprisonment, abuse, and torture, we would not be surprised to find them “a changed man” by the end of their ordeal. Likewise, children raised in dysfunctional, abusive, and unsafe environments are profoundly changed by their experience.

For a nuanced and in-depth introduction to CPTSD, click here.

being at the complete control of another person (often unable to meet their most basic needs without them), coupled with no foreseeable end in sight, can break down the psyche, the survivor’s sense of self, and affect them on this deeper level. For those who go through this as children, because the brain is still developing and they’re just beginning to learn who they are as an individual, understand the world around them, and build their first relationships – severe trauma interrupts the entire course of their psychologic and neurologic development.

CPTSD is a powerful and important paradigm for sufferers of long-term trauma, and it deserves to be more widely known and understood.

Body image and verbal abuse

One of the biggest obstacles to losing weight is a negative body image. Thinking – and feeling – badly about your own body discourages exercise and encourages escapist eating. It blocks the kinds of positive body images and ideals that inspire us to live differently and appreciate our physical form and enjoy healthy activities.

As a kid I had no thoughts about body weight or body image until about the age of ten.

At that point my father started mocking and ridiculing me, using body image as a theme of attack. I phrase it that way because I don’t know if I was in fact overweight at the time, but more importantly because verbal abuse is about power and control regardless of the theme.

Usually people say they were bullied or harassed “for being overweight” or “about my body”, but this gives too much credit to the perpetrator and implicitly blames the victim. Abusers don’t need any real or significant reason to attack others. The cause of the abuse is entirely in the perpetrator, not the victim.

Abuse is not “about” or “because of” the victim.

Why verbal abuse hurts

I’ve spent every day of my life since then feeling self-conscious of my body-image and how I might appear to others.

Why? Because my father’s ridicule and mockery taught me that my appearance was worthy of ridicule and mockery; and if he could see it, surely everyone else could see it too?

His words were couched as an over-the-top reaction to what he was seeing. I couldn’t see it, but his reaction was so extreme that I began to doubt my own perception and to worry what others might be thinking.

Worse still, expressing himself in such gleeful ridicule implied that these aspects of my appearance overshadowed any other qualities or value I might have. Even if someone does appear ridiculous to you, your reaction is naturally tempered by other factors: Love and care, respect, appreciation for their other qualities, natural human decency, or at the very least a concern that you yourself might look bad for indulging in mockery of another human being.

That’s why verbal abuse is potentially so hurtful. Shaming, humiliating, or degrading another human being in private or in public is an expression of power, worthiness, and standing within the relationship and beyond it.

For children this kind of abuse can be formative. It can set expectations for how others will treat them into the future, and how they can expect to be treated by the abuser going forward.

Abuse is not a reaction

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”. In theory that may be true. But words are how we communicate our perceptions to others and to ourselves. It is very difficult for children to critically examine the words of a parent and loved-one who consistently uses words to undermine, sow doubt, intimidate and bully.

If words will never hurt me, why does our society have criminal and civil laws against hate-speech, defamation, and threats of violence? Words can cause harm, and the harm can last well after broken bones have healed.

To heal from formative experiences of verbal abuse it is important to recognise that abuse is not a reaction, even if it is presented as a reaction.

Verbal abuse comes from the abuser, and is designed to intimidate, undermine, and destabilise others. Whether fully conscious of it or not, the abuser is motivated by an inner need to feel in control, and one way of feeling in control is to elicit negative reactions from others.

It might be hard to imagine, but certain types of abuser will completely feign their emotional response. They want it to seem as if your appearance or behaviour has caused them to react. They want you to feel that their overreaction is proportional to a defect in you. They want to shame and humiliate you, and leave you focused on your own supposed defects and faults.

Reclaiming your self-image

Honestly it’s a little saddening to realise that my self-image was so significantly distorted by something that was never about me in the first place.

Even when I have been squarely in my healthy BMI range there’s just been something “off” about my appearance that I couldn’t put my finger on.

Now I know why. There was never anything wrong with my appearance to begin with, I just assumed there was some truth to the mockery and ridicule heaped on me by my father as a child.

Ever since, I’ve been looking for something that wasn’t there, keeping an eye out for whatever it was that elicited such a humiliating reaction in the first place.

And while I did gain (and lose) weight through my teenage years, by that stage my negative body image was entrenched with accompanying reluctance to exercise and escapism in overeating.

The good news is that attributing the blame where it belongs – squarely on the abuser – frees us to start afresh and consider the kind of body image and ideal that feels good to us, without the shadow of a nebulous fault or defect that we can’t seem to shake.

What we intrinsically want is a body that feels open, strong, relaxed, and free. That’s what a good physique communicates to us: an open posture, a relaxed and easy attitude, strength and freedom of movement and an overarching self-confidence.

What many of us seek through physical goals are the underlying feelings and attitudes and qualities of spirit that those pleasing body images embody and proclaim.

How hungry is your ideal body?

I’ve been doing a lot of work on body image and beliefs about food and exercise lately.

What I find most empowering is to focus on thoughts and beliefs and how they shape my reality.

For example, my motivation to follow my past approach to diet has been a bit lacking because back then I was inspired and curious to find out what it was like to be in my normal weight range.

Been there, done that. It was good but it didn’t resolve other body issues I had, it just showed they weren’t about weight but about perception and feeling and posture.

How I carry myself, how I feel in my body, how I perceive my body, and my beliefs about myself are all interrelated.

What I’ve noticed just recently is that I can now picture how I want my body to look. It’s a satisfying image that matches feelings of relief, openness, and self-confidence. It’s how I think I would look if I wasn’t weighed down by past experiences and inner critical thoughts.

Reaching for that image and feeling in my mind brings relief. It feels good. It’s like setting down a burden because I suddenly feel clear about who I am.

And surprisingly (or maybe not…) when I feel good as I imagine how my ideal body feels, I no longer have the impulse to eat.

Hence the title. I’m noticing that when I imagine being my ideal self, I feel good. And when I feel good like that, I don’t feel like snacking or overeating.

When I feel good like that I want to carry myself differently. My shoulders relax and drop, my chest opens up, my back engages, my abdomen relaxes and stretches. I feel more connected as various tensions leave my body.

The pleasure and relief of these feelings imply that when I usually snack and overeat I am trying to make up for the tension and displeasure of feeling uncomfortable and burdened in my own body.