When people think of the word “abuse” they oftentimes think of physical or sexual abuse before the idea of emotional abuse comes up in their heads. Unfortunately, though, emotional abuse is actually one of the most common types of abuse, with about 50% of Americans reporting that they have experienced lifetime emotional abuse by an intimate partner.
So what exactly is emotional abuse and what makes it so prevalent in our society? Emotional abuse is a pattern of behavior where the abuser uses insults, humiliation, and many other tactics to instill fear and a sense of worthlessness in the victim in order to control them.
In other words, while there is no form of physical violence needed for emotional abuse, it is still just as (if not more) effective in maintaining power and control over another person. Emotional abuse — like other forms of abuse — centers around control and power. The biggest difference is the methods that are used to gain that power. When it comes to emotional abuse, the abuser uses manipulation, isolation, and threatening or demeaning behavior to abuse their victim.
Emotional abuse is incredibly dangerous because of not only the long-term negative effects that it can have on a person’s mental health but also because it is often accompanied by or used as a precursor to other types of abuse as well.
Types of Emotional Abuse
Emotional abuse is oftentimes more difficult to define and break down into “types” because it can cover such a wide range of behaviors. However, since it centers around using manipulation, control, demeaning behavior, and isolation we will look into each of those categories a little more in-depth here. Keep in mind that while we are presenting these behaviors within different categories, there is a large amount of overlap between them and all of the behaviors listed below are considered signs of emotional abuse.
It is also important to remember that this is by no means a comprehensive list of every single behavior that could suggest emotional abuse and if you are feeling like you are not good enough, questioning your own understanding of things, or otherwise unsafe or unsupported in your relationship, you may be experiencing emotional abuse. If this is the case, know that it is not your fault and it is not acceptable under any circumstances.
So, before we get into some ways that you can deal with this abuse and heal from the negative effects that it brings to our mental health, let’s talk about some examples of emotionally abusive behaviors to keep an eye out for.
Undermining Your Self-Esteem
The first “category” of emotionally abusive behaviors is behaviors that undermine your self-esteem or make you feel worthless or dependent on others.
Some common examples of these behaviors are:
- Constant name-calling and criticism. Constantly being referred to derogatorily or being criticized all the time makes us feel less valuable as human beings and damages our self-esteem.
- Patronizing you. Abusers will often patronize or condescend to their victims because it makes them feel powerless and childlike.
- “Joking.” When something that makes you feel uncomfortable is labeled as a “joke” after you express your discomfort it can leave you wondering if you are being too sensitive.
- Being dismissive. Dismissing the things that you value is a common way that an abuser can make you feel like your values are not important.
- Belittling your interests and accomplishments. Brushing off your achievements, not taking note of your interests, or even claiming your ideas or successes as their own are all tactics that abusers use to undermine your sense of self-worth.
- Yelling. Screaming, swearing, and otherwise being loud and aggressive can be used to intimidate you into feeling small and powerless.
- Pushing your buttons. An abuser may mention something that they know makes you uncomfortable or irritated with the intention of getting under your skin. This can make you feel like your values and beliefs are unimportant.
The second category of behaviors that can show emotional abuse are behaviors that are used to control your thoughts or actions. These behaviors are meant to make you feel ashamed of your own “inadequacies” or otherwise manipulate you into thinking that you need to be dependent on others — namely the abuser.
The idea behind these types of behaviors is to get you to do the things that the abuser wants you to do, rather than what you want to do.
Your partner may try to control you by:
- Monitoring or controlling your actions. This can be from something as “innocent” seeming as checking in on you throughout the day or something as influential as taking over control of your finances.
- Making threats. Threatening you, others, or themselves — whether implied or said outright — is a way to scare you and keep you from leaving.
- Abusing pets. Pets are often considered part of the family, and abusers may threaten or abuse them in order to get their victims to do what they want them to.
- Making all of the decisions. Taking away your right to make decisions — from where to eat dinner to who you are “allowed” to hang out with to withdrawing from school or resigning from work — is an incredibly powerful way for an abuser to show their power over you.
- Emotionally blackmailing you. This is a way of manipulating your feelings in order to get you to do what they want you to.
- Gaslighting you. The abuser may deny that something happened even when you are certain it did. This tactic is used to make you question your own memory and can dramatically affect your mental health and well-being in a negative way.
- Ordering you to do things. Abusers will oftentimes expect you to do what they say without question.
- Purposefully hindering your personal or professional goals.
- Showing frequent (and unpredictable) outbursts. These outbursts are often angry, but these outbursts can also be swings between rage and joy with little warning — this can make you unsure of what to expect from the abuser.
- Stonewalling you or walking out. These are ways of making you feel like your needs are not important.
Blame, Accusation, and Denial
The next category we have is accusation, blame, and denial. These three behaviors are used by many emotional abusers to place themselves above you in the hierarchy of power. Essentially, people who abuse others will use these tactics to get their victims to feel like they are beneath them and therefore allow themselves to rise to a more powerful and influential position.
Here are some examples of what this behavior could look like:
- Jealousy. They may accuse you of flirting or cheating and question your love for them.
- Guilt-tripping. Using guilt to get you to do things that they want you to do is a way that a lot of abusers will manipulate their victims into meeting their desires.
- Having unrealistic expectations. They will expect you to do what they want when they want you to do it and to prioritize their needs over your own.
- Trivializing your feelings. An abuser may accuse their victim of overreacting when you are confronting them about how something they said or did affected you.
- Blaming you for their problems. If things are going badly for them, an abuser is likely to blame you for it rather than taking responsibility for themselves.
- Taunting and then blaming. An abuser will likely know just how to upset you, but, once you have gotten upset, they will pin the blame on you rather than themselves.
- Denying their abusive behavior. Abusers will not take responsibility for their actions and may even imply that you are the one who is experiencing anger and control issues.
- Destroying things and denying it. Someone abusing you may break or “lose” items that are yours and then deny that they did it.
The final category of emotionally abusive behaviors is those that isolate you from others. Isolation is incredibly effective in negatively affecting our mental health. Humans are social creatures by default, and isolation can cause our minds and bodies to become unstable and more dependent on those around us. This is exactly what the abuser is going for.
Abusers will oftentimes use isolation as a means to separate us from our supportive loved ones so that we become even more dependent on the abuser. This then leads us to want to make sure the abuser keeps wanting to “support” us and therefore we begin putting the needs and desires of our abusers above our own
An abuser may use tactics like these to isolate you from your support structure:
- Come between you and your loved ones. Abusers may try to tell your family and friends that you do not want to see them or tell you that your friends and family do not want to see them in order to drive you away from them.
- Actively turn others against you. They may tell others that you are no longer emotionally stable or you have had an emotional breakdown. This can make others wearier of listening to you because they think that you may be unstable.
- Withhold their affection until you do what they want. This is a way to manipulate you into doing something that they want you to do that you may not want to do.
- Ignore your attempts at conversation. Giving you the silent treatment whether in-person, over text, or over the phone, is a way for the abuser to isolate you even further.
- Interrupt you. An abuser may interrupt you when you’re doing something else, to show you that they should be paying attention to them rather than other things.
- Shut down communication with you. They may dismiss you, change the subject, or even ignore you when you are talking about important concerns.
- Invalidate your feelings. Abusers may dispute or invalidate any feelings or emotions that you are feeling.
Tips for Dealing with Emotional Abuse
Here are some tips to keep in mind when dealing with (or healing from) emotional abuse:
- Blaming yourself
- Engaging with the abuser
- Trying to “fix” them
Instead, focus on…
- Setting boundaries
- Prioritizing your needs
- Building a support system for yourself
- Giving yourself time
Emotional abuse can be devastating to our mental health, and sometimes these tips may not be enough to help you heal. If this is the case for you or someone you know, you may want to consider seeking professional help.
A therapist can help you to know better what to focus on and how to handle your experience with emotional abuse. Just remember that you are not alone, over half of Americans have reported emotional abuse from a partner. You do not have to go through this alone. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to us at Love Heal Grow if you would like additional and personal guidance to help you navigate how to best deal with any emotional abuse or effects of emotional abuse you may be facing.