Abuse. This word brings images of battered, bruised bodies. You think of physical abuse. You think of sexual abuse. It’s all over the place. Stories all over the news. Stories in our own lives. Somebody knows somebody who might have gone through it.
But, rarely do you think of emotional abuse. There are no bruises out for the world to see. Many victims say that, the scars from it last much longer and are far deeper than the ones left by physical abuse. Before we begin, let’s establish what emotional abuse is not! It is not emotional abuse to fight, argue, disagree, scold for a mistake. It’s not even abusive to yell or raise your voice in an argument, given that’s not the only mode of communication.
Mental or emotional abuse, while most common in dating and married relationships, can occur in any relationship including among friends, family members, and coworkers and even with children (Parents abusing children of any age or adolescent or adults abusing their parents). We will not be going into the details of various relationship dynamics involved in emotional abuse but would be looking at the common features and the tell tale signs.
Emotional abuse is an attempt to control, in just the same way that physical abuse is an attempt to control another person. The only difference is that the emotional abuser does not use physical hitting, kicking, pinching, grabbing, pushing, or other physical forms of harm. Rather the perpetrator of emotional abuse uses emotion as his/her weapon of choice.
It is one of the hardest forms of abuse to recognize. It can be subtle and insidious or overt and manipulative. Either way, it chips away at the victim’s self-esteem and they begin to doubt their perceptions and reality.
Being the Victim
You could be strong, brave, confident and a fighter to the rest of the world. You can end up being a victim no matter what or who you are. It’s just about power. If the one with the power over you in any way, wants to abuse it, you will end up suffering. And that is exactly the case with any kind of abuse. The spouse/partner, the boss, parents, siblings, friends, your children. It can be anyone. You give that person a power over yourself. Power because you care about them and respect them immensely. So, their opinions and point of view mean a lot to you. You could be the best judge of people and character, but in this case you will be blind as a bat. Emotionally blind.
Impact of Emotional Abuse
When emotional abuse is severe and ongoing, a victim may lose their entire sense of self. The wounds are hidden in the self-doubt, worthlessness and self-loathing the victim feels.
Over time, the accusations, verbal abuse, name calling, criticisms, and gaslighting erode a victim’s sense of self so much that they can no longer see themselves realistically. Consequently, the victim begins to agree with the abuser and becomes internally critical. Once this happens, most victims become trapped in the abusive relationship believing that they will never be good enough for anyone else.
Emotional abuse can even impact friendships because emotionally abused people often worry about how people truly see them and if they truly like them. Eventually, victims will pull back from friendships and isolate themselves, convinced that no one likes them. What’s more, emotional abuse can cause a number of health problems including everything from depression and anxiety to stomach ulcers, heart palpitations, eating disorders, and insomnia.
In the end, the victim feels trapped. They are often too wounded to endure the relationship any longer, but also too afraid to leave. So the cycle just repeats itself until something is done.
How to Spot Emotional Abuse
Most interactions leave the victim feeling wounded, frustrated, confused, misunderstood, depressed, anxious or worthless. Which then would lead them to do whatever they can to “redeem” themselves in the abuser’s eyes. Waiting for them to acknowledge or appreciate the victim.
The most insidious aspect of being an emotionally abusive relationship is not the obvious—nervous reactions to shouting, name-calling, criticism or other demeaning behavior. It’s the adaptations you make to try to prevent those episodes. You walk on eggshells to keep the peace, or a semblance of connection.
Women can be especially vulnerable to the negative effects of walking on eggshells due to their greater tendency to be vulnerable to anxiety. Many may engage in constant self-editing and self-criticism to keep from “pushing the buttons.” Emotionally abused women may second-guess themselves so much that they feel as though they have lost themselves in a hole. Emotionally abused men tend to isolate more and more, losing themselves in work or hobbies—anything but family interactions.
The victim is often incapable of seeing the abuse they are going through. Their family/friends, who are not invested in the relationship and hence have a clear 20/20 vision can recognize this toxic and abusive relationship. More often than not, they are treated very unkindly and disrespectfully and they would keep justifying it by saying, “They(the abuser) are going through a hard time.”, ” It’s not that bad.”, “Let me just say sorry.” Eventually one day, the victim would be unable to take it and will decide to withdraw or walk away. And then suddenly there will be an apology, acknowledgement, appreciation, kind words. Or even sometimes declaration of their love and need of the victim. Acting like the victim themselves who needs rescuing. The victims walk back in and the abusive cycle begins again. It’s harder for them to walk out now because they have started believing in the abuser again! The victim starts doubting themselves, holding on to the two nice things the abuser did for them as the definition of the relationship.
The abusers refuse to acknowledge or accept the victim’s feelings and in turn would hold them responsible for their own behavior! The abuser’s own interpretations, perceptions and actions; but no accountability. Or more commonly, the abuser would make the victim feel that they were right in behaving the way they did.
The sad part is, most times the abusers aren’t even aware what they are doing. They believe they are good people, they want to be good people. And maybe they are. Who’s to say? After all, good and evil is all relative. Are they like this with everyone in their life? Not at all. They are people who like to project a perfect image out there and so, if you aren’t somebody who deals with them on a close, regular or personal level, you will have no idea.
But, more often that not, during the “honeymoon period” (when the victim starts to walk away and the abuser starts showering them with attention and care) the victim does voice out their feelings and how the abuser makes them feel. So, when the abuser starts the cycle again, ignoring all that was shared and expressed by the victim, the abuse becomes a CHOICE.
Because of this, it is quite common for victims to feel depressed and suicidal.
Angry and abusive partners (single term used here to denote the different kind of relationship dynamics between victim and abuser) tend to be anxious by temperament. They try to control their environment to avoid feelings of failure and inadequacy. The strategy of trying to control others fails to satisfy them for the simple reason that the primary cause of their anxiety is within them. It springs from one of two sources—a heavy dread of failure, or fear of harm, isolation, and deprivation.
Even when they recognize the wrongness of their behavior, resentful, angry, or emotionally abusive people are likely to blame it on their partners: “You push my buttons,” or, “I might have overreacted, but I’m human, and look what you did!” Angry and abusive people feel like victims, which justifies in their minds victimizing others.
If the abuser is in a romantic relationship with the victim, they usually cheat on them multiple times and when caught/confronted, they blame it on the inadequacies of the victim or their relationship OR downright deny that the event ever took place and lie about it.
Emotionally abusive people invalidate you. Some examples include:
- Undermining, dismissing, or distorting your perceptions or your reality
- Refusing to accept your feelings by trying to define how you should feel
- Requiring you to explain and explain and explain how you feel and then disregarding it all
- 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)
Emotionally abusive people use emotional blackmail. Some examples include:
- Manipulating and controlling you by making you feel guilty
- Humiliating you in public or in private
- Using your fears, values, compassion or other hot buttons to control you or the situation
- Exaggerating your flaws or pointing them out in order to deflect attention or to avoid taking responsibility for their poor choices or mistakes
- Denying that an event took place or lying about it
- Punishing you by withholding affection
Emotionally abusive people act superior and entitled. Some examples include:
- Treating you like you are inferior
- Blaming you for their mistakes and shortcomings
- Doubting everything you say and attempting to prove you wrong
- Making jokes at your expense
- Telling you that your opinions, ideas, values and thoughts are stupid, illogical or “do not make sense”
- Talking down to you or being condescending
- Using sarcasm when interacting with you
- Acting like they are always right, knows what is best and is smarter
Not all emotional abuse involves shouting or criticism. More common forms are “disengaging” (a distracted or preoccupied partner) or “stonewalling” (a partner who refuses to accept anyone else’s perspective).
Partners who stonewall may not overtly put anyone down. Nevertheless, they punish by refusing even to think about their partners’ perspectives. If they listen at all, they do so dismissively or impatiently.
Disengaging partners say, “Do whatever you want, just leave me alone.” They’re often workaholics, couch potatoes, flirts, or obsessive about something. They try to deal with their sense of inadequacy about relationships by simply not trying—since no attempt means no failure.
Both stonewalling and disengaging tactics can make you feel:
- Unseen and unheard;
- Like you don’t count
Some quick ways to spot an emotionally abusive person:
- Verbal put downs: They find delight in embarrassing the victim in public/private.
- They are cruel: Very low sense of empathy. If it doesn’t hurt them, they couldn’t be bothered.
- Project a perfect image: They want people to think they are perfect. But, it’s all smoke and mirrors.
- Controlling the finances: In a domestic setting, they would hold onto all the money. In a professional setting and if the abuser is a superior, there would be intimidation with appraisals, salaries etc.
- Constant mood swings: Never knowing what mood they are going to be in, is extremely draining for the victim and this also leads them to do all that they can to keep them in a good mood.
- Initially charming and helpful: One of the reasons the victims gravitate to them.
- They have issues but don’t acknowledge them: It is clear that people who emotionally abuse others often do so because of something that happened to them in their past. When people confront these issues they become healthier human beings, but refusing to accept that anything happened is extremely damaging, not only to that person but those around them.
- They blame the victim for their unhappiness and problems: The abuser will blame all their problems on anyone but their own actions.
- Judgmental about others: Anything can set them off. From the clothes the person is wearing to their choice of music.
- Sulking and withdrawing for days when upset: Victim will realize it is easier to placate the abuser and not upset them in the first place by modifying their own behaviour, rather than put up with days of not speaking.
Coping with Emotional abuse
The first step is to realize and accept that you are a victim of emotional abuse. You have to be honest with yourself and walk towards the road of personal healing. You will go through a myriad of emotions. Pain, hurt, a lot of questions, shuffling between past and present wondering what you could have done different. But, the worst would be the anger which comes with the realization that you were played and used. There will be a lot of doubts on your own and the abuser’s real feelings. Did they ever actually care for you? Did you really feel that strongly for them or were you conditioned to feel that because of the abuse? Anger on self for letting yourself be fooled. Wondering how you never saw, what others around you could. Why you never paid attention to the warnings given by your well wishers?
It’s time to be honest to yourself about what you are experiencing and take action to reclaim your life. Here are some strategies that could help you.
- You are the top priority! Make your mental and physical health top priority. Stop thinking about pleasing the abuser. Emotional abuse is extremely stressful and to combat that, start some positive practices including focusing on eating and sleeping well.
- Establish boundaries. Firmly tell the abuser that they may no longer misbehave or ill-treat you. If they are unreasonable, you have to look at the possibility of cutting them out from your life. If you do not live in the same house, it could be by avoiding any kind of communication with them. And in this day and age, it includes if required, unfollow, unfriend and even block. Do not discuss boundaries unless you have no intention of maintaining them.
- Don’t blame yourself. If you have been in an emotionally abusive relationship for any amount of time, you may believe that there is something severely wrong with you. Why else would someone who says they love or care about you act like this, right? But you are not the problem. Abuse is a choice. So stop blaming yourself for something you have no control over.
- You cannot “fix” them. Despite your best efforts, you will never be able to change an emotionally abusive person by doing something different or by being different. An abusive person makes a choice to behave abusively. Remind yourself that you cannot control their actions and that you are not to blame for their choices. The only thing you can fix or control is your response.
- Do not engage. If an abuser tries to start an argument with you, begins insulting you, demands things from you or rages with anger or jealousy, do not try to make explanations, soothe their feelings or make apologies for things you did not do. Simply walk away from the situation if you can. Engaging with an abuser only sets you up for more abuse and heartache. No matter how hard you try, you will not be able to make things right in their eyes. Remember, the rule of three. Do not see, hear or talk anything which would bring you back into the circle of the abuser. No interactions whatsoever. If you have common friends or family members, you have to make sure that, they do not bring you information or try to bring you two together to sort it out. You have to keep your distance till you are strong enough mentally, to never fall in that trap again.
- Build a support network. Stop being silent about the abuse you are experiencing. Talk to a trusted friend, family member or even a counselor about what you are experiencing. Take time away from the abusive person as much as possible and spend time with people who love and support you. This network of healthy friends and confidantes will help you feel less lonely and isolated. They also can speak truth into your life and help you put things into perspective.
- Work on an exit plan. If your partner, friend, or family member has no intention of changing or working on their poor choices, you will not be able to remain in the abusive relationship forever. It will eventually take a toll on you both mentally and physically. Depending on your situation, you may need to take steps to end the relationship. Each situation is different. So it is best to discuss your thoughts and ideas with a trusted friend, family member or counselor.
It is very hard for the victim to come to terms with the fact that they were abused by someone they trusted. And this leads them to go back to the abuser again and again trying and hoping to make it right this time. Refusing to believe that they are being used and ill-treated. Each time they feel like they have hit rock bottom and can’t bear it anymore, they try to withdraw and walk out. The abuser then starts showering them with attention and snags them back in. Each time this happens, the rock bottom shifts a little lower, letting the victim lose even more of their self esteem and confidence.
This cycle can only be broken when the victim reaches their final rock bottom, which leaves them mentally and emotionally devastated. This period and throughout when they are being abused they realize that the abuser has never cared about their well being or safety. This makes their situation extremely dangerous and can lead to a complete breakdown. So, much so that the pain feels more stronger than the resources to combat it. And when they reach this place, it feels easier to let go. If you or your family or friends ever get here and the darkness seems to take over, please call the (India) suicide helpline AASRA at 022 2754 6669.
Some other helplines are:
Sneha Foundation India +914424640050
Vandrevala Foundation for Mental Health 18602662345
In the last few months, due to various reasons I started getting interested in this subtle and silent and most often, very private form of abuse. I spoke to a few victims and my therapist to understand this better. As per their wishes, I have not mentioned their names or their exact stories. I feel everyone needs to be aware of this. A lot of us, heartbroken with our loved one/someone we look up to treating us with so much callousness, have no idea that we are being emotionally abused. It can be your parents, spouse, your partner, brother, son, your friend or even your co-worker. I have put together all of this from what I gathered from them and from a lot of other mental health support portals and scholarly articles on the rehabilitation of victims of emotional abuse.
No matter the kind of relationship or the repercussions of trying to exit, remember everyone deserves to be treated with kindness and respect. And you are no different.