Abuse is a major risk factor for developing mental health issues such as major depression and anxiety and for developing substance use issues. This can happen to both children and adults and while childhood abuse and neglect have a greater effect on people over the lifespan, abuse is a major concern for adults too.
When we think of abuse, physical and sexual abuse are typically the first things to come to mind. However, emotional abuse can be just as damaging and more insidious. While people are typically aware they are being physically or sexually abused, emotional abuse is often more subtle. Part of the power of emotional abuse is its deniability and emotional abusers are often adept at making you doubt your own judgment.
As with physical abuse, the goal of emotional abuse is to control you. However, while physical abuse mainly works through intimidation, emotional abuse gets inside your head and undermines your confidence and judgment. People who are emotionally abused often feel like they are incapable or unworthy of leaving an abusive situation. Although they may know they are unhappy, they may not be aware that what they’re experiencing is emotional abuse. The following are some common signs of emotional abuse and what to do about it.
What It’s Not
First, it’s important to clarify that someone is not being emotionally abusive just because they do something we don’t like or something that makes us feel bad. Arguing, for example, is common in almost every close relationship because it’s normal for people to sometimes have conflicting needs and desires. Even yelling is typically not a sign of emotional abuse. Breaking up with someone or otherwise protecting your own boundaries is not emotional abuse, nor is honest communication. Emotional abuse is done with the intent to make someone feel bad, inadequate, stupid, guilty, or weak and usually for the purposes of control.
Perhaps the most obvious sign of emotional abuse is disparaging behavior. This is an overt assault on your sense of self-worth. Disparaging behavior may include name-calling, such as outright calling you stupid, weak, ugly, hysterical, fat, and so on. A slightly subtler way is to use “pet” names that are played off as playful or affectionate but are really belittling. If you’re the object of such a pet name, you can easily spot it by how it makes you feel. Other ways of disparaging include making sarcastic remarks, making jokes at your expense, or making light of your interests or accomplishments. This is all intended to make you feel worse about yourself so you feel like you need the abuser’s approval and so you don’t think you could do better elsewhere.
Isolating or Controlling Behavior
As noted above, emotional abuse is primarily a means of control and therefore any controlling behavior – overt or covert – is also a form of emotional abuse. Controlling behavior can take many forms. One way that has become disturbingly common is checking your partner’s phone for incriminating texts. This implies your partner is untrustworthy and it makes unfair demands on their privacy. If you believe your partner is cheating on you, you should ask. If you feel like you can’t trust your partner, then break up.
Another common and subtle way to control is withholding affection unless the other person does what you want. This tactic can be used by romantic partners or by parents and it can be especially harmful to children. However, it’s not the same as not being affectionate because you’re arguing or angry about something specific.
Isolating is another common control tactic. The idea is to keep the person dependent. The abuser might try to keep you from interacting with friends and family, for example. They don’t want you to have options they don’t approve of and they don’t want other people filling your head with ideas they don’t like.
Gaslighting is a way of undermining your sense of reality. This is typically done by contradicting things they know to be true. For example, they might spring plans on you at the last minute and when you say you didn’t know anything about it, they might insist you talked about it last week. Over time, you start to doubt your own memory and start to rely on your partner, who seems to remember everything. Often, a gaslighter will lie about things that aren’t important at all just to undermine your confidence.
Having Unrealistic Expectations
Other tactic emotional abusers use to undermine your confidence is to have unreasonably high expectations. These might pertain to them specifically, such as expecting you to spend all your time with them or make unreasonable sacrifices on their behalf. It might also be more general, such as never being satisfied with anything you do, never complimenting you, always finding fault, and generally making you feel like you always fall short. If you set the bar high enough for someone you can always be sure they will fail, or at least feel like they’ve failed. This is especially damaging because it develops a sense of learned helplessness – nothing you do is good enough, so why try? It also keeps you seeking the abuser’s approval.
What to Do
Emotional abuse is hard to escape because much of the time, you’re not even sure it’s happening. Awareness is the first step. Pay attention to the patterns. Your parents, teachers, boss, spouse, or romantic partners aren’t supposed to make you feel bad about yourself. If you’re always walking on eggshells around them, something is wrong. Look out for the behaviors described above.
Next, know it’s not your fault. Emotional abusers often make a good show of being kind and supportive and it’s easy to fall for. If you experienced emotional abuse as a child, you probably just thought that it was normal. The sooner you realize it’s not, the better.
Get away from the abusive situation as soon as possible. If you can’t for some reason, work on setting boundaries. This can be incredibly hard and you may need the help of a therapist and possibly a support structure, which an emotional abuser certainly won’t like. What’s more, don’t fall into the trap of thinking you can fix an emotional abuser. They’re good at making apologies and promises, but they also have their own problems and they aren’t likely to change their behavior for good.
If you’ve been the victim of emotional abuse, it has probably caused you some problems, which might include depression, anxiety, or substance use issues. Of the 10 adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, linked to increased addiction risk, emotional abuse accounts for two, each of which at least doubles your risk of addiction. Awareness is the first step.
At Foundry Treatment Center, we share a commitment to provide a comprehensive, whole-body treatment program that encourages each to seek their values and beliefs through innovative and evidence-based treatment modalities. For more information on how we can help you or a loved one, call us today at 1-844-955-1066.