Invisible Abuses: Emotional Abuse

emotional-abuseSomething needs to be said for psychological, verbal, and emotional abuse. These forms of abuse are rarely easy to see. For example, if a person is being physically abused, they sometimes get bruises or cuts. With psychological, verbal, and emotional abuse, the effects are invisible on the outside (in the physical sense). The scars that these forms of abuse leave, however, can and often do last a lifetime.

I was subject to all three of these types of abuse as a child, as well as physical abuse in my younger years. This post will address emotional abuse: what it is, what the effects are (short- and long-term) , and how it has affected me individually.

What is emotional abuse?

Emotional abuse is a form of abuse that involves things like threatening, bullying, constant criticism, shaming, manipulation, and/or intimidation. Simply put, the abuser brain-washes the abused. The abuser will use emotional abuse in an attempt to control another person and manipulate their feelings. Emotional abuse can happen in any relationship, including parent/child relationships, romantic relationships, familial relationships, and even working relationships. Often the abuser has some sort of real or imagined power over the abused and they exploit this in order to continue to exert their control over the other person.

Some people argue that emotional abuse can be even more damaging that physical abuse because it makes victims second-guess themselves and degrades their sense of self-worth, sometimes leading to suicidal thoughts. It can often leave life-long psychological scars and even contribute to the development of mental illnesses.

What are some examples of emotional abuse?

Emotional abuse comes in all shapes, colors, and sizes. Below are some of the signs of emotional abuse. Keep in mind that just because a person does one or two of these behaviors does not make them an emotional abuser. No one is perfect and everyone has their own faults. However, if a person is doing one or more of these behaviors consistently and without acknowledging their harmfulness to you, it is likely emotional abuse or at least an attempt at manipulation.

  • Blaming the victim for their own faults, problems, and/or unhappiness. “It’s your fault I lost my job because you didn’t help me enough at home!” 
  • Calling the victim names, making rude remarks, or labeling the victim. “You’re so stupid! How did you even graduate high school, you moron?”
  • Showing little empathy or compassion for the victim.
  • Constantly pointing out a victim’s flaws or short-comings.
  • Playing the victim themselves instead of taking personal responsibility. “I wouldn’t have gotten a DUI if you had just hidden the keys from me! You should’ve known to hide the keys when I’ve been drinking.”
  • Rarely (if ever) admitting that they are wrong, even when presented with relevant facts.
  • Regularly putting down your opinions. “Really? You think we should go to the mall today? What are you, 12? We’re not in middle school anymore.”
  • Making the victim ask to go anywhere, even to mundane places like the grocery store or the post office. They treat the victim like a child.
  • Trivializing the victim’s hopes and dreams. “You’ll never be good enough to be an artist. You should just give up now.”
  • Continually ignoring the victim’s boundaries or requests. “I know you don’t like me coming into the bathroom while you’re showering, but I needed to grab the nail clippers.”
  • Using sarcasm to make the victim feel bad about themselves.
  • Accusing the victim of being “too sensitive” or “acting like a child” in order to discount their abusive behavior. “Yeah, I called you a bitch, but it was just a joke! Jeeze, don’t be such a baby about it.”

What are the effects of emotional abuse?

Although the short- and long-term effects of emotional abuse can vary from person to person, some of the common effects include physical illness, mental illness, emotional trauma, anxiety, panic attacks, and/or depression.

What should I do if I am in an emotionally abusive situation?

If you think you are in an emotionally abusive situation, you should try to leave if at all possible. You are welcome to try to help the abuser change their behavior but it is uncommon for the abusers to even acknowledge that they have a problem in the first place. If you are unable to leave (because you are a child or there are other issues), try to practice self-care.

  • You are not responsible for the other person’s behavior, no matter how much they try to blame you.
  • You cannot fix the other person. They will change if they want to change. It is not your responsibility to fix them.
  • If the abuser is picking fights, don’t engage. Keep quiet and try to leave the situation. Leave the room, go outside for a walk, or do whatever you can to get out of the way.
  • Do not try to please the abuser. You will never be good enough in their eyes so put your own needs first.
  • Set boundaries. Tell the abuser that they are no longer allowed to call you names, be rude to you, scream at you, etc. and that you will no longer tolerate such behavior.
  • Get support. A licensed therapist or counselor will help you through the healing process.
  • Have a Plan B. You cannot and will not be in an emotionally abusive relationship for the rest of your life. You need an exit plan. Develop a plan for leaving as soon as possible and begin saving money, looking for a new place to live, planning for divorce, or whatever else needs to be done to get out of the situation.

What should I do if I am being emotionally abusive to someone else?

If you truly have a desire to change your behavior, it is possible. A licensed therapist or counselor will help you immensely as change is difficult. Some of the things you can do to start the recovery process are listed below.

  • Apologize and admit fully to emotionally abusing the other person.
  • Stop blaming other people for one’s own mistakes or issues.
  • Identify why you feel the need to control someone via emotional abuse.
  • Accept personal responsibility for the abuse. It is your choice whether to abuse another person or not. Choose not to.
  • Listen to the other person’s feelings on the situation. They will likely be sad, mad, or upset with the emotional abuse. It is completely understandable that they would feel this way. Do not blame them for their feelings.
  • Be kind. This is a simple change that make all the difference if you are sincerely interested in repairing a broken relationship.

Personal Examples of Emotional Abuse

I was often emotionally abused as a child, though at the time I wasn’t aware that it was going on. I thought all parents called their kids stupid or moron or worthless. The biggest problem I see now as I look back on it was that there was no distinction between the action and the self. Say, for example, that I grab a hot plate with my bare hands and then drop it. It shatters on the kitchen floor.

Response Regarding the Action: “Wow, you made a poor decision.”

Response Regarding the Self: “Wow, you’re so stupid. Why would you do that?”

There wasn’t really a distinction between the action (grabbing a hot plate with my bare hands) and the self. Clearly, I made a dumb decision and I fully acknowledge that. However, just because I make a stupid decision does not imply that I am stupid. I just messed up, as everyone does from time-to-time.

Even into adulthood, I often catch myself saying things like, “Wow, I’m dumb.” I have had to re-frame my mind to rather say, “Wow, that was a dumb decision.” The difference is subtle but it changes the way one views themselves; you are not dumb, you just messed up. Everyone makes mistakes, and it’s okay to make mistakes. It took me far too long to learn that.

Beyond that, I was often mocked for showing any sort of emotion save for what was deemed acceptable by my alcoholic mother. I could be happy. That was it. If I ever felt frightened, angry, sad, or any other non-acceptable behavior and showed it, I would be mocked relentlessly until I either stopped crying or left the situation. Showing such emotions was an attempt to manipulate other people, she told me. Of course, now I know that having emotions is completely normal, especially in children, but I didn’t understand that then. I learned to show happiness or nothing, bottling away my inner feelings and putting on a strong, mature, and playful mask when on the inside I was just a frightened little girl.

To this day, I have a hard time admitting if I am feeling anything other than happiness. Someone might ask how my day went, and even if my car broke down and I had to walk ten miles in the rain to a gas station to call for help because my cell phone was dead, I would reply, “Fine. Everything’s good.” Eventually I get to a point where I can no longer hold the stress of my emotions in any longer and I either explode with anger or withdraw with a depressive episode or a panic attack.

I have been working hard on trying to be more honest with myself and others around me when I am not feeling well, but it is a daily struggle. After a lifetime of being told that to show emotion is to manipulate others, it is quite hard to get over that idea. Even so, I try to make some progress every day. Sometimes I mess up, and that’s okay too. Just because I screw up sometimes doesn’t mean that I am a screw up. I learn from my mistake and do better the next time around.


One thought on “Invisible Abuses: Emotional Abuse

  1. Pingback: Setting Boundaries | Reflections of an ACOA

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