The Signs of Emotional Abuse
I am seeing more and more clients, both men, women, and even children who are living with emotional abuse. Unfortunately, many do not have a name to put with the pain. They often believe they are the ones who cause the problem – certainly not the abuser. I have decided to bring this often-unrecognized abuse into the open by first describing exactly what it is, then listing the signs and symptoms. If you feel your relationship may be verbally and emotionally abusive, talk to people you trust. Contact me for further information, talk to clergy, call your local battered women’s shelter, educate yourself, but seek professional help. Do not allow verbal and emotional abuse to escalate to battery!
Emotional Abuse is any behavior where the abuser attempts to control and subjugate another human being using fear, humiliation, intimidation, guilt, coercion, manipulation etc. Emotional abuse is any kind of abuse that is emotional rather than physical in nature. It can include anything from verbal abuse and constant criticism to more subtle tactics, such as repeated disapproval or even the refusal to be pleased.
Emotional abuse is like brain washing in that it systematically wears away at victim’s self-confidence, sense of self-worth, trust in his or her own perceptions, and self-concept. Whether it involves constant berating and belittling, by intimidation, or under the guise of “guidance,” “teaching”, or “advice,” the results are similar. Eventually, the recipient of the abuse loses all sense of self and remnants of personal value. Emotional abuse cuts to the very core of a person, creating scars that may be far deeper and more lasting than physical ones. In fact, there is research to this effect. With emotional abuse, the insults, insinuations, criticism and accusations slowly eat away at the victim’s self-esteem until s/he is incapable of judging the situation realistically. The victim takes full responsibility for the abuse. Self-esteem is so low that the victim clings to the abuser.
Victims of emotional abuse can become so convinced they are worthless that they believe that no one else could want them. They stay in abusive situations because they believe they have nowhere else to go. Their ultimate fear is being all alone.
There are ten identified types of abuse. Some abusers fit into a single category, while others may fit into several or all of them
• The other person places unreasonable demands on you and wants you to put everything else aside to tend to their needs. It could be a demand for constant attention, or a requirement that you spend all your free time with the person. The abuser subjects you to constant criticism, and constantly berates you because you do not fulfill all this person’s needs.
Unfortunately, no matter how much you give, it is never enough.
Aggressive forms of abuse include name-calling, accusing, blaming, threatening, and ordering. Aggressing behaviors are generally direct and obvious. The one-up position the abuser assumes by attempting to judge or invalidate the recipient undermines the equality and autonomy that are essential to healthy adult relationships. This parent-child pattern of communication (which is common to all forms of verbal abuse) is most obvious when the abuser takes an aggressive stance.
Aggressive abuse can also take a more indirect form and may even be disguised and “helping.” Criticizing, advising, offering solutions, analyzing, proving, and questioning another person may be a sincere attempt to help. In some instances however, these behaviors may be an attempt to belittle, control, or demean rather than help. The underlying judgmental “I know best” tone the abuser takes in these situations is inappropriate and creates unequal footing in peer relationships. This and other types of emotional abuse leads to what we know as learned helplessness.
The other person may deliberately start arguments and is in constant conflict with others. The person may be “addicted to drama” since it creates excitement.
The abuser denies the victim’s emotional needs with the intent of hurting, punishing or humiliating. The other person may deny that certain events occurred or that they say certain things. If the victim confronts the abuser about an incident of name calling, the abuser may insist, “I never said that,” “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” etc. You know differently. The other person may deny your perceptions, memory and very sanity.
Withholding is another form of denying. Withholding includes refusing to listen, refusing to communicate, and emotionally withdrawing as punishment. We call this the “silent treatment.”
The abuser disallows and overrules any viewpoints, perceptions or feelings that differ from their own. Denying can be particularly damaging. In addition to lowering self-esteem and creating conflict, the invalidation of reality, feelings, and experiences can eventually lead you to question and mistrust your own perceptions and emotional experience. Denying and other forms of emotional abuse can cause you to lose confidence in your most valuable survival tool: your own mind.
In this case, someone wants to control your every action. They have to have their own way, and will resort to threats to get it. When you allow someone else to dominate you, you can lose respect for yourself.
The other person plays on your fear, guilt, compassion, values, or other “hot buttons” to get what they want. This could include threats to end the relationship, totally reject or abandon you, giving you the “cold shoulder,” or using other fear tactics to control you.
The abuser seeks to distort or undermine the recipient’s perceptions of their world. Invalidating occurs when the abuser refuses or fails to acknowledge reality. For example, if the recipient tells the person they felt hurt by something the abuser did or said, the abuser might say, “You are too sensitive. That shouldn’t hurt you.”
Minimizing is a less extreme form of denial. When minimizing, the abuser may not deny that a particular event occurred, but they question the recipient’s emotional experience or reaction to an event. Statements such as “You’re too sensitive,” “You’re exaggerating,” or “You’re blowing this out of proportion” all suggest that the recipient’s emotions and perceptions are faulty and not be trusted. Trivializing, is another form and occurs when the abuser suggests that what you have done or communicated is inconsequential or unimportant, is a more subtle form of minimizing.
This involves drastic mood changes or sudden emotional outbursts. Whenever someone in your life reacts very differently at different times to the same behavior from you, tells you one thing one day and the opposite the next, or likes something you do one day and hates it the next, you are being abused with unpredictable responses. This behavior is damaging because it puts you always on edge. You are always waiting for the other shoe to drop, and you never know what the abuser expects of you. You must remain hyper-vigilant, waiting for the other person’s next outburst or change of mood.
An alcoholic or drug abuser is likely to act this way. Living with someone like this is tremendously demanding and anxiety provoking, causing the abused person to feel constantly frightened, unsettled and off balance.
The abuser is consistently berating, belittling, criticizing, name calling, screaming, threatening, using excessive blaming, and sarcasm and humiliation; blowing your flaws out of proportion and making fun of you in front of others. Over time, this type of abuse erodes your sense of self-confidence and self-worth.
Does Your Partner?
• ignore your feelings?
• disrespect you?
• ridicule or insult you then tell you it is a joke, or that you have no sense of humor?
• ridicule your beliefs, religion, race, heritage or class?
• withhold approval, appreciation or affection?
• give you the silent treatment?
• walk away without answering you?
• criticize you, call you names, yell at you?
• humiliate you privately or in public?
• roll his or her eyes when you talk?
• give you a hard time about socializing with your friends or family?
• make you socialize (and keep up appearances) even when you do not feel well?
• seem to make sure that what you really want is exactly what you will not get?
• tell you you are too sensitive?
• hurt you especially when you are down?
• seem energized by fighting, while fighting exhausts you?
• have unpredictable mood swings, alternating from good to bad for no apparent reason?
• present a wonderful face to the world and is well liked by outsiders?
• twist your words, somehow turning what you said against you?
• try to control decisions, money, even the way you style your hair or wear your clothes?
• complain about how badly you treat him or her?
• threaten to leave, or threaten to throw you out?
• say things that make you feel good, but do things that make you feel bad?
• ever left you stranded?
• ever threaten to hurt you or your family?
• ever hit or pushed you, even “accidentally”?
• seem to stir up trouble just when you seem to be getting closer to each other?
• abuse something you love: a pet, a child, an object?
• compliment you enough to keep you happy, yet criticize you enough to keep you insecure?
• promise to never do something hurtful again?
• harass you about imagined affairs?
• manipulate you with lies and contradictions?
• destroy furniture, punch holes in walls, break appliances?
• drive like a road-rage junkie?
• act immature and selfish, yet accuse you of those behaviors?
• question your every move and motive, somehow questioning your competence?
• interrupt you; hear but not really listen?
• make you feel like you cannot win? damned if you do, damned if you don’t?
• use drugs and/or alcohol involved? are things worse then?
• incite you to rage, which is “proof” that you are to blame?
• try to convince you he or she is “right,” while you are “wrong?”
• frequently say things that are later denied or accuse you of misunderstanding?
• treat you like a sex object, or as though sex should be provided on demand regardless of how you feel?
Your situation is critical if you:
• You express your opinions less and less freely
• You find yourself walking on eggshells, careful of when and how to say something.
• You long for that softer, more vulnerable part of your partner to emerge.
• You find yourself making excuses for your partner’s behavior?
• You feel emotionally unsafe.
• You feel it is somehow not OK to talk with others about your relationship.
• You hope things will change…especially through your love and understanding.
• You find yourself doubting your memory or sense of reality.
• You doubt your own judgment.
• You doubt your abilities.
• You feel vulnerable and insecure.
• You are becoming increasingly depressed.
• You feel increasingly trapped and powerless.
• You have been or are afraid of your partner.
• Your partner has physically hurt you, even once.
Following are some of the signs and symptoms of emotional abuse:
• Feelings of depression
• Withdrawal from social interaction
• Isolation from friends and family
• Low self-esteem
• Increased anxiety
• Guilty feeling
• Feeling of shame
• Mood changes
• Nervous feeling
• Nervous feeling
• Not trusting others
• Frequent blaming on others
• Pessimistic behavior
• Substance or drug abuse
• Extreme dependence on others
• Avoiding eye-contact
• Telling lies
• Aggressive behavior
• Emotional instability
• Suicidal attempts
If you are being abused or if you notice that somebody is being abused, consult and seek help from support services like social service agencies, police, legal advisers, and health professionals. Although, we cannot punish some forms of emotional abuse like ignoring, insulting and isolating, you can always consider reporting to your family and friends. Many states have laws to punish emotional abusers. In some jurisdictions, failure to report child abuse cases is punishable either by imprisonment or in the form of fine.