The underlying goal of emotional abuse is to control the victim by discrediting, isolating, and silencing.
Emotional abuse creates a clever trap where we feel like we can’t go on living like that any more, but at the same time we are too afraid to leave. It is a cycle of abuse that repeats itself over and over.
Emotional abuse is most common in intimate relationships and family relationships, but it can also happen among friends or in the workplace. It is sometimes hard to tell that you are in an emotionally abusive relationship, because the abuse can be masked as humor or advice. In general, you can think about the relationship and how it makes you feel.
How do emotionally abusive people treat others?
Emotionally abusive people act superior, they make you feel “less than” them or not good enough for them. They can be sadistic and put you in situations that cause you pain, either physical or emotional, and actually enjoy watching you suffer. There are as many ways of being emotionally abusive and as many reasons for this behavior as there are variations in human personalities. Therefore, it is impossible to name a few behaviors and claim to have fully described the strange and twisted ways of an emotionally abusive person. So please take this list as a general attempt to describe emotionally abusive behaviors, and keep a couple of rules in mind:
- Abuse is consistent. Abusive people will almost always use abusive behaviors to manage relationships or deal with others.
- If it doesn’t feel right to you then it probably isn’t. If dealing with this person leaves you feeling hurt, worthless, confused, misunderstood, not good enough, depressed, not loved or respected, sad or unfulfilled in a relationship, chances are high that you are in an emotionally abusive relationship.
In General, emotionally abusive people:
- Act Superior or entitled: For Example:
- They say and do things that make you feel like a loser or a worthless person.
- Make fun of you in private and in public (character assasination.)
- Treat you like you’re inferior or less mature or less intelligent.
- Doubt everything you say and try to prove you wrong all the time.
- Make jokes about you and use sarcasm when they talk to you.
- Make you feel stupid by telling that your ideas, opinions, values are wrong or illogical.
- Talk down to you.
- Act like they are always right and know what’s best, not you.
- Not protecting you or not taking your side when others treat you in similar ways to the ones mentioned above.
- Invalidate you: For Example:
- Undermining, dismissing, or distorting your perceptions of your reality.
- Refusing to accept your feelings by trying to define how you should feel.
- Requiring you to explain how you feel over and over.
- Accusing you of being “too sensitive,” “too emotional,” or “crazy.”
- Refusing to acknowledge or accept your opinions or ideas as valid.
- Dismissing your requests, wants, and needs as ridiculous or unmerited.
- Suggesting that your perceptions are wrong or that you cannot be trusted by saying things like “you’re blowing this out of proportion” or “you exaggerate.”
- Accusing you of being selfish, needy, or materialistic if you express your wants or needs (the expectation is that you should not have any wants or needs.)2
- Behaving in sadistic or chauvinistic ways.
- Constantly criticising you.
- Name calling and verbal abuse, especially using animal names to call you or as nicknames.
- Trivializing your concerns.
- Have Unrealistic Expectations: For Example:
- Making unreasonable demands of you and being angry with you or punishing you or making you feel like a bad person for not meeting their demands.
- Expect you to put everything aside when they need you to do something for them.
- Expecting you to spend a lot of time with them or their family and friends at the expense of your own time or time with your family and friends.
- Making you feel that you are not good enough no matter how hard you try to please them or how much you do for them.
- Constantly evaluate your performance, expressing dissatisfaction if you don’t perform according to their standards.
- Expecting you to share their opinions and interests such as work or hobbies, and expressing disappointment in you if you are not interested.
- Denying any incidents where they behaved in a way that hurt you or accusing you of not fighting hard enough for yourself or demanding that your needs be met.
- Demanding evidence that they said or did something hurtful, and dismissing the whole complaint as invalid because you can’t prove it.
- Create Chaos: For Example:
- Starting arguments for the sake of arguing.
- Making confusing and contradictory statements (sometimes called “crazy-making”.)
- Having drastic mood changes or sudden emotional outbursts.
- Nitpicking at your clothes, your hair, your work, and more.
- Behaving so erratically and unpredictably that you feel like you are “walking on eggshells.”3
- Use Emotional Blackmail: For Example:
- Making you feel guilty all the time, or guilt-tripping you into doing things for them.
- Humiliating you in private or in public (Character assassination.)
- Denying that an event took place or lying about it, gaslighting.
- Punishing you by withholding affection, or not being affectionate or compassionate in general.
- Constantly focusing on your flaws or exaggerating them to control you, not seeing your positive attributes or what you contributed to their lives.
- Using your fears, compassion, or anything that is important to you to control and manipulate you.
- Refusing to participate in the relationship.
- Control and Isolate you: For Example:
- Controlling who you see or spend time with including friends and family.
- Monitoring you digitally including text messages, social media, and email.
- Accusing you of cheating and being jealous of outside relationships.
- Taking or hiding your car keys.
- Controlling you by shaming and blaming you.
- Demanding to know where you are at all times or using GPS to track your every move.
- Treating you like possession or property.
- Criticizing or making fun of your friends, family, and co-workers.
- Using jealousy and envy as a sign of love and to keep you from being with others.
- Coercing you into spending all of your time together.
- Controlling Finances.4
A relationship may not start out as an abusive relationship. It can be normal and loving in the beginning but evolve over time as the abuser starts to introduce abusive behaviors into the relationship that escalates over time.
The Effects of Emotional Abuse:
Just as it is hard to see or describe emotional abuse, it is hard to see the effects of it, because the scars caused by emotional abuse are invisible. Some studies have shown that the effects of emotional abuse on one’s health are similar to the effects of physical abuse. People who have been emotionally abused can suffer from a variety of ailments ranging from stomach ulcers, to heart palpitations to eating disorders and insomnia. It is quite common for victims of emotional abuse to suffer from depression, anxiety, panic attacks and PTSD.
Furthermore, a person living in an emotionally abusive relationship, whether it is with a parent or a spouse, or any other type of relationship, can lose their sense of self as they suffer from self-doubt, low self esteem and feelings of worthlessness. As the abuse continues, the victim loses the ability to see themselves for who they are and start to believe their abuser. This can cause the victim to become trapped in the abusive relationship because they believe they are not good enough for anyone else. They may experience difficulties in other relationships in their lives such as friendships and work relationships or relationships with their children.
How to Deal with Emotional Abuse:
- Don’t blame yourself: Being in an emotionally abusive relationship can cause the victim to think that there is something wrong with them. The victim can think that they somehow deserve to be treated that way. Remember that to abuse is to make a choice. The abuser is the one with the problem, not the victim. Keep in mind that we can all be abusers and we can all be victims.
- Make your physical and Mental Health a Priority: This sounds simple enough, but it can be quite challenging for someone who is suffering from depression due to abuse, not to mention the daily stress of dealing with abuse. It is important that you get enough sleep, rest during the day, eat healthy satisfying food, and get some exercise. These simple self-care practices will go a long way in helping you deal with your situation. Also, seek help from a therapist, psychiatrist, or life coach to get your mental health needs met.
- Establish Boundaries with the Abuser: This can be hard at first, but as you get support from professionals, you will learn to say NO to inappropriate behaviors and to set boundaries with the abuser. Learning basic communication skills such as I-Messages and active listening can also be tremendously helpful. Make sure you keep the boundaries that you set and follow through on the consequences that the abuser will be faced with if they continue their behavior.
- Know that You Cannot Change an Abuser: Abuse is a choice made by the abuser, probably for reasons they can’t even understand. It could be due to the way they were raised or treated as children or it could be a form of psychopathy. In either case, you can’t change or control them, the only thing you can control is your own reaction to their behaviour.
- Walk away: When an abuser yells at you or starts to criticize or blame you, do not engage them. Do not have a conversation with them, or try to explain or apologize to them. Nothing that you say or do will convince them. Just walk away from the situation.
- Build a support network: Don’t suffer in silence. Talk to friends, family members, or professionals. Spend time with people who love and support you. Don’t allow yourself to be isolated, that is exactly what your abuser wants. Having a network of people you can trust and talk to will help you get some perspective on what is happening in your life.
- Work on an Exit Plan: You could be in a relationship where you and your partner are changing and growing together. In this relationship, the abusive person could be changing their choices of behavior possibly with the help of a therapist or coach or any other professional. If you feel that the relationship is changing and there is hope for it, then you might want to stay and give the relationship a chance. On the other hand, you might see that there is no hope for change on the abuser’s side, and maybe the abuse is escalating over time, in that case, you need to work on an exit plan. Involve friends, family, your therapist or coach, and maybe even the police if you need to, but you can’t stay in an abusive relationship forever. The toll that it will take on your physical and mental health is too grave to allow the relationship to continue.
In summary, emotional abuse is a very serious type of abuse and has long term effects on the victim’s physical and mental health and well being. There are many types of emotional abuse and they can start to show early on in the relationship and escalate over time. One should not stay in an emotionally abusive relationship, especially if there is no hope of change.
- National Network to End Domestic Violence. Forms of Abuse. 2017.
- The National Domestic Violence Hotline. Abuse Defined.