Understanding Emotional Abuse

We tend to think of abuse in terms of physical abuse. Those instances where you can see the marks on your body. There are bruises, wounds, and even broken bones. And it is truly horrible, but it is not the only form of abuse.

Abuse comes in many different forms and it is terrifying. Some abuse you can see on the outside, even though people try to hide it. There is also abuse that leave invisible scars, emotional and psychological scars. It doesn’t matter if you can see the damage or not, it is still there and it is still terrifying.

Emotional abuse

Emotional abuse, although more common in dating and married relationships, can occur in any relationship including friends, family members, or even colleagues.

Emotional abuse is one of the hardest forms of abuse to recognise. It can be subtle and insidious or overt and manipulative. You might not even realise it is happening to you.

Emotional abuse is a way for an abuser to control, frighten or isolate you by playing on your emotions through their words, actions, and behaviour. They criticize, embarrass, shame, blame, or otherwise manipulate you. In general, a relationship is emotionally abusive when there is a consistent pattern of abusive words and bullying behaviours. This behaviour usually wears you down until you have little self-esteem left and your mental health is seriously affected. For the abuser especially if he or she is a narcissist it is all about power and control.

Signs of emotional abuse:

1. Humiliation, negating, criticizing

Humiliation, negating and criticizing are tactics that an abuser uses to undermine your self-esteem. The abuse is harsh and unrelenting.

Here are a few examples (although there are many more):

  • Name-calling
    They will call you “stupid”, “a loser,” or words to that effect.
  • Character assassination
    You are always late, wrong, screwing up, rude, and so on. Basically, they say you’re not a good person.
  • Yelling
    They will yell, scream, and swear in order to intimidate you and make you feel small and inconsequential. It might be accompanied by fist-pounding, hitting the wall right next to your head or throwing things.
  • Insults on your appearance
    They will tell you, often just before you go out, that your outfit is “ugly” or you look like a “whore”.

2. Accusing, blaming, and denial

Accusing, blaming, and denial is about control. They want to create a hierarchy in which they’re at the top and you’re at the bottom.

Here are a few examples (again by no means extensive):

  • Jealousy
    They accuse you of flirting or cheating on them. You can’t even look at another person or they will think there is something going on.
  • Turning the tables
    They say that your behaviour is what is causing their rage and control issues.
  • Denying something you know is true
    An abuser will deny that an event, like an argument, even took place. This is called gaslighting. It’s meant to make you question your own memory and sanity.
  • Using guilt
    They might say something like, “You owe me this. Look at everything I have done for you”, in an attempt to get their way.
  • Goading then blaming
    Abusers know just how to upset you. But once you react, it’s your fault for getting upset.
  • Trivialising
    When you want to discuss what is happening and talk about your feelings, they accuse you of overreacting and making mountains out of molehills.

3. Control and shame

Making you feel ashamed is just another path to power and control.

Here are a few examples (yes just a few):

  • Monitoring your whereabouts and contact with others
    They want to know where you are all the time. They might show up just to see if you’re where you’re supposed to be and demand access your cell phone and digital platforms.
  • Unilateral decision-making
    They make all the decisions for you or without you. They will do things like selling the house, cancelling your doctor’s appointment, or speaking with your boss without consulting you.
  • Threats
    Saying things like “I’ll take the kids and disappear”, or “If you leave me I will kill myself”.
  • Financial control
    They might keep bank accounts in their name only and make you ask them for money. You might be expected to account for every cent you spend.
  • Treating you like a child
    They might tell you what to wear, what and how much to eat, or with whom you are allowed to be friends.
  • Using others
    They will tell you that “everybody thinks you’re crazy”, or “they all say you’re wrong”.

4. Emotional neglect and isolation

Emotional neglect and isolation is when an abuser places their own emotional needs ahead of yours. Many abusers will try to come between you and people who are supportive of you to make you more dependent on them.

Here are a few examples (again by no means extensive):

  • Keeping you from socializing
    They will tell you that you are not allowed to go out alone.
  • Trying to come between you and your family
    They will tell family members that you don’t want to see them or make excuses why you can’t attend family functions.
  • Withholding affection
    They won’t touch you, not even to hold your hand. They may refuse sexual relations to punish you.
  • Shutting down communication
    They will ignore your attempts at conversation in person or ignore your phone calls or messages.
  • Actively working to turn others against you
    They will tell colleagues, friends, and even your family that you’re unstable and prone to hysterics or exaggeration.
  • Calling you needy
    When you ask for their support, they will tell you you’re too needy or the world can’t stop turning for your little problems.
  • Indifference
    They see you hurting or crying and do nothing to comfort you.
  • Disputing your feelings
    Whatever you feel, they will say that you are wrong to feel that way or that it is not true.

An abuser might use all of these tactics or only some of them, but the result is always devastating. In the end the victim feels trapped. They are often too wounded to endure the relationship any longer, but also too afraid to leave. So the cycle just repeats itself until something is done.

If you are a victim of abuse, no matter who the abuser is, you don’t deserve it and it’s not your fault. Anyone who is seeing the signs of emotional abuse but is not in immediate danger should seek help. Also read this helpful article on How to Deal with Emotional Abuse

If you are in any immediate danger please call the Stop Gender Violence Helpline 0800-150-150 (toll-free). This hotline is available 24/7 and may save your life.

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