The Signs of Emotional Abuse

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
Abusive Expectations
• 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.
Constant Chaos
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.
Emotional Blackmail
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.
Unpredictable Responses
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.
Verbal Assaults
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
• Fearfulness
• Increased anxiety
• Guilty feeling
• Feeling of shame
• Mood changes
• Nervous feeling
• Nervous feeling
• Not trusting others
• Frequent blaming on others
• Self-blaming
• 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.

15 thoughts on “The Signs of Emotional Abuse

  1. Maryann on said:

    “Denying and other forms of emotional abuse can cause you to lose confidence in your most valuable survival tool: your own mind.” This is a huge statement and captures what was happening to me in a few words. My parents saw a rage experience and were totally stunned by his behavior. I had become convinced that it was all my fault. Great article. Keep spreading the word. Most women/men are afraid and ashamed to talk about it, so this stays hidden. As more articles are written, people will hopefully recognize themselves and the truth. Thanks. MA

  2. I was looking for information on emotional abuse for my daughter. This is a well written and important article, and I hope you keep it here on your site. Other women need to be able to find this and feel validated that what they are going through is real.

    Thank you for writing this,

  3. Good morning, I don’t agree with everything in this write-up, but you do make some very decent points. I’m very serious in this matter and I myself do alot of research as well. Either way it was a well thoughtout and nice read so I figured I would leave you a comment.

  4. I am experiencing a relationship right now that I believe more and more is emotionally abusive. He was (I thought) the love of my life, my soulmate. I’ve never been so in love and was never treated so well. A few months into our relationship things began to change and much of what you have described as abuse I recognize now in my relationship. My problem is that I still am deeply in love with him and cannot break away as much as I know in my head I must, my heart won’t let me. I cling to the loving, good parts of us and have been trying to ignore the bad. He says I’M the abuser, but I truly can’t think of what I’m doing wrong. I need advice on how to get out of this and stop myself from being drawn back into this. I need to know how to stop my heart from loving and yet hurting so much. I just keep trying to figure out what he means by what he says about me and I just can’t.

    This article was the best description I found that really hit home with what I’m going thru. I just don’t know what to do or how to do it.

  5. Dr. Carol on said:

    I just wrote a long detailed response and it some how got lost in translation so I will summarize it here – you deserve so much better – find help to get out of this unhealthy relationship – it will only get much worse and not any better – yes he is emotionally abusive – read my article on Love Addiction and see if anything fits – life is too short to not be loved wholy and completely!!!! Did I say you deserved so very much better – you deserve respect and attention, and tenderness, and kindness, and many other things you are not getting now and which you will forego if you stay in this marriage – We have all loved and lost and we all have gotten over it – So what if you “love” him – how can you love someone who is unkind to you – sorry but this is not love – it is some other kind of need or addiction – please see a counselor so you can understand the difference and so that you can find true love someday!!!!

  6. Isis on said:

    Hi Dr. Carol,
    I totally feel the same as Jo. I thought I had met the love of my life in September 2008 and we had a long distance relationship until June 2009 when he finally moved in with me. He seemingly had it all – looks, wardrobe, personality, intelligence, and had done literally the most romantic things anyone had ever done for me in my entire life, which included telling me that he knew he wanted to marry me and trying on rings within two months of seeing each other. However, there were little signs here and there about his emotionally abusive personality, including him wanting to know where I was at all times, getting overtly jealous when I would go out with friends and accusing me of cheating. Once he moved in with me, he pulled a complete 180 from the dream person I had known – knowing I was paying for almost everything, he never showed the drive required to get a job, belittled me constantly, withheld affection, grabbed me a bunch of times and publicly humiliated me. Whenever I would confront him about anything, he would twist everything I said always and also accuse me of being the abuser, when I was just trying to help him assimilate to life here. When I finally had enough and dumped him in November 2009, he confessed to me that he had felt weird about taking my advice all along because “I was a woman” and I also discovered a hidden camera in my living room – he said he had been videotaping the space with audio included to “monitor his belongings” in case anything happened to them, but I recall seeing it when we moved in and thinking nothing of it because he worked in IT – he obviously was monitoring me! Sorry for the ramble – but Jo, please please get out of this ASAP – it will only get worse!! This is all still eating at me to this day, but I know that I am better and stronger because I don’t have this monster in my life anymore. Thanks Dr. Carol so much for this wonderful, insightful article – any tips that you can provide in terms of recovering from emotional abuse would also be helpful!

    • Dr. Carol on said:

      Like the comment below, I was just about done with a long response with a number of suggestions when I lost it – gremlins I believe, so until I have a few moments to retype my suggesions, here is a book I’d recommend: “The Woman You Want To Be” is a unique workbook designed to accompany you on a year long journey into emotional health and happiness.

    • Dr. Carol on said:

      Please get yourself some short term counseling to help you learn to trust again. This guy was a sleeze from the start and good at hiding it initially. There are wonderful men out there who want to be in a trusting, respectful, passionate relationship, but you are going to have trouble trusting they are sincere. A counselor can help you put this incident behind you. If you had any other anbandonment in your childhood, then it is much more important. Realize that guys like this are really really good at what they do, so don’t beat yourself up – he would most likely have gotten over on the best of us. But remember, its ok to fall head over heals in love, just don’t lose your head – our brains don’t register a person’s negative characteristics during the “romantic” phaseof a relationship, so you will have to pay close attention and come down from the clouds now and then and do a reality check!

  7. Dr. Carol on said:

    This does not meet the definition of emotional abuse, but I bet it sure does feel like it. There are so many reasons why your wife may not be interested in having an intimate relationship with you, but what she doesn’t seem to understand is that she is condeming you to a life of no intimacy and it is not your choice. When we get marry, the implication is that we will not be intimate with anyone else so the expectation is that our partner will meet our intimacy and sexual needs. When one partner does not follow through, then there is a sense of betrayal. You didn’t say how long you have been married or how your sexual relationship was before you were married, how old you are, what her sexual history is, whether you try to seduce her brain before her body, how many pregnancies she has had, how she feels about her body, whether she is depressed – I could go on – it could also be hormonal – There is so much that can be done for a woman’s low libido now, but she has to put herself out there to find the answer. It is a difficult decision to make, but I don’t believe you can have a full loving relationship without passion and if you think you can you are fooling yourself! If she isn’t willing to do anything about her problem, then you have some tough decisions to make.

    • I am so glad you found it helpful. I hope if you are in an emotionally abusive situation or you know someone else who is, that you or the other will get some counseling and get strong. No one shoulkd have to tolerate anything but respect in this very short life we have on earth – it is our birthright to experience joy everyday of our lives and no one has the right to take that away from us. If you would like to email me directly, please do not hesitate.

  8. Learning... on said:

    I was afraid to even put my email address here in fear that somehow he would find out. I have been going to counseling… and through my professional, i have learned that the relationship i am in is emotionally abusive (with one act that would have turned physical.. he threatened to kill me with a gun.) I am still much in denial. If we go according to the cycles… we are in the honeymoon stage. where last week he “stole” my wedding ring because i hadn’t been wearing it. Placed it by the gun clip… lied… and then said “you got the point didn’t you?” (i asked him if he was trying to teach me a lesson and he said “no. lessons come with vengeance.”) This is hard for me. I hear everything you say about what we deserve… And i knw my counselor is going to help me through this as well… but.. i love this man. and i am so hopeful. (he tells me /I/ need counseling.. and that he doesn’t need it. but if i want him to go with me he will. my counselor will not see us together because he thinks it will put me in an unsafe place.) I just don’t know what to do… and i have a friend and a sister i talk to… and they either say “i don’t know” or “you know you’re never going to leave… why pretend.”…. :( i guess i just need some support. thanks for listening…

  9. Pingback: Feeling Drawn Back to an Emotional Abuser – 2 Tips For Staying Strong, Part 2 » Edna Nicholson

    • Dr. Carol on said:

      I attempted to click on your site to check it out but I received a broken link message – if you would like to send me a corrected one, I would enjoy checking it out.

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