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Are you a victim of verbal abuse?

Tips for recognizing the signs of verbal abuse and how to cope

Jen Weigel

Lessons for life

8:20 PM EDT, October 29, 2012

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Have you ever been interrupted in mid-sentence to be told you're "wrong"? Perhaps you're talking to someone and they mock you, or accuse you of not telling the truth. While this might sound like another round of presidential debates, these are actually signs of an emotionally damaging phenomenon known as verbal abuse.

"Many people experience verbal abuse and they have no idea that there's anything wrong with it because it's a part of their everyday life," said Patricia Evans, author of "The Verbally Abusive Relationship: How to Recognize It and How to Respond" (Adams Media). "The most common sentence I hear is, 'I knew something was wrong I just didn't know what.' All they know is that suddenly their mate is rather irritated or angry. It's endemic in our world and it shakes self-esteem, confidence, everything."

Evans, who has written four books on the topic of verbal abuse, says that brain scans of people who are verbally abused "look the same as a scan of someone who was bopped on the head," and that verbal abuse also causes a lack of concentration.

"So many psychologists and psychiatrists I've spoken to say this is really a problem with children who have this happening at home," she said. "They are diagnosed with ADD because the teacher says they can't focus, but many times their brain is conditioned to be on guard, trying to stay safe from being yelled at or hearing verbal abuse. Because when trauma occurs, the brain can't focus."

According to Evans' research, most verbal abusers are men, and this behavior is often caused by an emotionally or physically traumatic childhood.

"Most abusers are told they're 'weak' if they show emotions as a child or (are told), 'You're not hurt — I'll give you something to cry about,' " she said. "Or maybe they aren't nurtured but are yelled at or ignored. They lose the ability to nurture and be receptive to others' needs."

Here are some tips for those who are coping with verbal abuse:

Recognize the signs: Pay attention, Evans said, "if you feel like you're walking on eggshells or you're suffering from a feeling of not being good enough or you're ridiculed or made fun of. Maybe you can't figure out what you've done wrong. These are all signs of verbal abuse. Look at the words you hear. Does someone tell you what you are or try to define you? Do they tell you what you want? No one but you knows what you want, think, feel. When people do it they are saying lies to you. They might as well be saying you're a bank robber or a red fire engine."

Don't blame yourself. "You have to understand that this abuse has nothing to do with you," Evans said. "It's not your fault. It's a psychological problem in the psyche of the abuser. ...People start to internalize the words they keep hearing and then they think, 'Maybe I am stupid?' The abuser is not doing this to neighbors and friends — so neighbors and friends say, 'Look how lucky you are to be with such a nice person.' And with verbal abuse, it's not about a fight or a conflict. It's about control."

Acknowledge that this behavior is not acceptable. "There's no excuse for verbal abuse," Evans said. "There's this misconception from generations of wiring, especially with men, that being strong means not showing emotion or sensitivity, but you can be strong without being abusive, disrespectful or mean."

Find a support system. "I got a call from a woman who was in this relationship where the man would yell and scream at her out of nowhere, and her mom would tell her, 'It must be half your fault. You're half responsible for this crazy man's behavior,' " said Evans. "That mother is completely wrong and by telling her this, she is doing incredible damage." It's important to find support, from a friend or loved one, a member of your community or a professional therapist. Evans offers several resources for verbal abuse on her website, verbalabuse.com.

Know that people can change. "If someone really wants to change, they can, but they need a good trauma therapist," Evans said. "They need to do research and learn about these behaviors. Until 1992, we hadn't heard of anything like a verbally abusive relationship. If people ever did hear that they'd think it was cussing and swearing. It was only in the last 60 to 70 years that anyone even had a name like 'batterer' for people who beat up their wives, so we've been in the dark ages psychologically. We have to set better examples so we can teach the future generations there's a better, healthier way to be."

jweigel@tribune.com

Twitter: @jenweigel