7 Signs of Emotional Abuse and ways to begin dealing with it

9 signs of emotional abuse and how to tackle it
Some wounds never show, not even in the mirror, until we see them in the expressions on the faces of people we love.
— Cameron Jace

Sometimes abuse is so subtle, we don’t even see it happening to us. While many of us downplay the significance of emotional abuse, its recipients usually wear the scars. And often, it can take a long time for Sleeping Beauty to wake up and realize she or he is in a relationship that is in fact damaging to their livelihood. Emotional and mental abuse are also referred as psychological abuse.

While it has not yet been given an official definition, I think this best describes the scarring that can be invisible to the naked eye:

"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 intimidation, manipulation, and refusal to ever be pleased. Emotional abuse can take many forms. Three general patterns of abusive behavior include aggressing, denying, and minimizing"; "Withholding is another form of denying. Withholding includes refusing to listen, refusing to communicate, and emotionally withdrawing as punishment."**

Never underestimate the damage abuse can cause, the lives it can wreck and the bones it can break. Signs of emotional abuse can look different in different relationships and is not limited to couples. Co-workers abuse co-workers. Parents abuse children and vice versa. The dynamics of siblings, friendships and peers are unlimited. It so cleverly undermines our dignity and leaves us immobalized.
This is no laughing matter.

Once we learn to identify the way abuse shows up, we can begin to take a stand and gain the know-how to protect ourselves from it happening in our current lives or future situations. There is a big difference between self serving and self respect. Some people stay in relationships that are not respectful to their partner, and rather 90% to 100% self serving to their own needs.

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The effects of any kind of abuse can leave a devastating impact on the human psyche. Whatever insecurities you have are likely to become amplified. If you’re a confident person, over time that confidence can transform into doubt where you find yourself constantly questioning your decisions and reeling in an ocean of uncertainty. If you’re the type of person who thrives on joy, you can soon become emotionally drained and struggle to stay afloat. And if you’re a steady person, it’s easy to find yourself feeling lost and in despair. You get the gist.

Below are 7 signs that if they occur enough, it’s time to realize you may be experiencing some form of abuse:

  1. Guilt

    Also known as emotional blackmail. One of the first manipulation tactics abusers use is guilt. We see the results when, for example, our partner did something to hurt us and later buys flowers as an apology. While this is a lovely gesture, abusers use this technique to serve them in a reversed way. Guilt creates an action that makes us want to right a wrong. So, when we feel wrong we often do things to make the next person feel better. This is especially effective when we’ve been tricked into believing we’re the culprit.

    This causes us to feel bad for the abuser and forgive them for whatever it is they’ve done. In this instance, our sole focus is on comforting and supporting them. With enough practice, the abuser has trained you to put your focus on your seeming instability and off their transgressions. We all want flowers, but there are better ways to get them.

  2. Emotional Neglect

    It’s easy to identify when we’re being bullied, yelled at, when things are being thrown around, but emotional neglect is silent. It’s not as loud or in-your-face as someone losing their temper, for example. The signs can be difficult to pinpoint at first. It’s often when we feel its results that we begin to have a clear picture of what is in front of us. Emotional neglect can look anything like:

    • a partner who does not give you the emotional support you need,

    • being told you’re overreacting or being too sensitive (often, to make you feel wrong),

    • being accused of being too emotional,

    • not validating your feelings.

    This type of behaviour can leave you feeling lonely in your relationship and feeling highly critical of yourself. It causes people to hide their true nature in fear of being hurt or judged. If you’re feeling solo in your love nest, a fundamental piece is probably missing in terms of unmet needs.

  3. Withholding Affection, Sex or Money

    Humans are designed for love and belonging, and your partner most probably knows that. After all, it’s an intrinsic need they have too. Withholding basic needs such as affection, love, caring, and feeling needed is a huge red flag. The same holds for withholding sex or finances. This can be associated with punishment for something you may or may not have done.

    Anyone who withholds our essential human needs is not a good source of developing or growth, but rather crippling our ability to succeed and thrive. This form of punishment is there to control you and plays on you in ways that are damaging to your self-esteem.

  4. Shifting Blame

    Blame and responsibility are not the same thing. When you blame yourself or someone else for something, you’re saying you’re not in charge of your actions. When you take responsibility you’re taking back the steering wheel. Responsibility means we’re accountable for our actions, where blame constantly points the finger and doesn’t show much in the face of acceptance. Blame says, “Look what you did. You made me do it,” where responsibility says, “I should not have yelled at you. I take ownership for the part I played.”

    When a partner continually blames you for their misdeeds, you will always be on the losing end because you are doing something to them and it feels like you can never win or get your point across. Notice the signs of you-you-you being the problem and them being the victim. It’s an everlasting theme you want to pay attention to.

  5. Competitive Conversations

    This one sounds minute because a little competition is good now and then. Here every argument has an underlying context. Healthy relationships are about give and take, and that refers to disagreements and opinions too. When conversations are about winning instead of communicating, it is a clear sign of misuse of power. If you have to lose in order for someone else to come out on top, chances are you’re in an unhealthy dynamic. Healthy relationships learn to compromise and find ways for both parties to win.

    A partner who always has to be right never allows you to be and sets you up to fail each time. Prosperous relationships promote a flow of give and take, compromise, and a platform for both voices to be heard.

  6. Humiliation

    I once knew a married couple. The husband was the breadwinner and the wife didn’t work as she decided to take care of the kids. When the grocery money ran out, her husband would make her do unthinkable things if she needed a few extra dollars. One of those things was performing sexual favours which were humiliating and indignifying. Humiliation can also appear in public. For example, being constantly ridiculed by your partner. I know one man who constantly spoke down to his wife and told her she was uneducated. This all took place at dinner parties with friends and family.

    Shooting devastating daggers at someone, being made the joke of the party, using embarrassment as a form of sarcasm - these are all signs of deep humiliation and it plays on your self worth and dignity. If you are being humiliated in any way, it’s time to start asking whether you’re in the right relationship.

  7. Gaslighting

    Simply put, this is a very creative way of making someone doubt their own sanity. Abusers use manipulation tactics to plant seeds of doubt into your mind. This tactic is often slow and deliberate like a slow-cooker on the boil. Do you remember the story of the frog in the hot pot? The victim becomes so comfortable and trusting, they don’t realize the temperature is changing. By the time you open your eyes, you find yourself questioning if things really did happen at all.

    Gaslighting is all about maintaining control and having the upper hand in the relationship. While the abuser sprints from responsibility, he’s gradually demolishing you and chipping away at your reality. If any of the following resonate with you, it’s time to question whether your relationship resides in this area:

    • You find yourself confused and asking, “Did I really say or do that?” Surely it’s not who you are. Question mark.

    • You constantly make excuses for your partner.

    • He says he told you things you know he never did.

    • He constantly says one thing and does another.

    • You withhold things in order to keep the peace.

    • You stop trusting yourself or relying on your memory.

    • You start writing things down in efforts to remember your truth.

Hold on a second. But it’s not constant.

One of the reasons people grapple with leaving this type of relationship is because the theme may not be Abuse 24/7. It can be very confusing when today you’re in a nightmare [screaming match, being belittled, ghosted] and tomorrow it’s the complete opposite [loving, complimenting you, holding on so tight they don’t want to lose you]. This type of behaviour is perplexing and can make it hard to make a decision on whether to go or stay. Yesterday, you knew for a fact that you were in an unhealthy relationship and had to go. And today, you’re confused because you’re the apple of his eye.

Often times, this emotional roller coaster is all just a strategy to keep you on your toes or confuse you. And at times, your partner may just feel guilty for mistreating you. Whatever the reasons, this behaviour doesn’t make it any easier for the punching bag.

There are many, many, many other forms of abuse. For example:

  • Intimidation

  • Isolation

  • Control

  • Shaming

  • Blaming you for their problems

  • Blatant lies

  • Sarcasm as a weapon

  • Controlling of finances

Where To Begin

The first step is awareness of the abuse. Without awareness, nothing can change. Next, decide if this is how you want to continue. If not, here are some key things that can make a difference to your mental and emotional wellbeing:

  1. Recognize that it is not your fault

    It’s easy to fall into the self blame ditch. You’ve had enough mistreatment in the relationship. What you need is to be a friend to yourself, not join the culprit. Give yourself a moment to breathe and recognize that the abuse is not your making. You are not the abuser. They are.

  2. Establish boundaries

    Accept that you can’t “fix” this person, but you can create personal boundaries. For example, the best thing you can do is not respond to the abuse. Your response is their fuel and evidence that their ill-treatment is working. Let them know that if they name-call, shout, demean you in any way you will leave the room, exit the conversation immediately or go home entirely. Then make sure to stick with your decision. You want to be taken seriously.

    For more severe cases, limit being in the same space as the abuser as much as possible. For some, this will mean exiting the relationship altogether.

  3. Take care of yourself physically and emotionally

    This means enough sleep, proper nourishment, moving your body. Do something for your soul. Reading empowering books on the subject can help educate you on the matter and often makes it easier to make informed decisions. Find a space to make yours and only yours. This will allow you to focus on something other than the abuse and give you some mental nourishment.

  4. Have a support network

    Reaching out can seem daunting and frightening at first. It’s natural to want to hide behind the humiliation, but being isolated only deepens the fear. Reach out to friends. Reconnect with people again. Begin to do things in a social setting to break free from the feeling of solitude, because you are not alone. Join a support group or have a trusted friend who will be a sounding board when you think you’re going insane. You don’t have to go through this solo.

    The more time you spend in these other environments, the more you’ll begin to realize how unhealthy yours is. And perhaps that’s all you need to make a better choice. Perhaps just having support is enough to solidify your sense of worth.

  5. Let yourself heal

    Yes, it will take time, and each person heals on his or her own. Be okay with not being okay and give yourself permission to begin to heal. This is never a rushed job. So, day-by-day and step-by-step. Distract yourself with things that uplift while being patient with the process, because it is a process. Let yourself feel all the deep emotions so they can move through you. Scream, shout, cry, hit a pillow. This is a shitty but necessary part of the healing process. The person you meet on the other side of it will thank you.

If you have been brainwashed into thinking that abuse is normal and belongs in a flourishing relationship, chances are you’ve been exposed to some form of exploitation. This is something that can be unlearned over time. Identifying that these aspects are harmful to our mental health, identity and self esteem could help not only yourself, but a friend, colleague or peer. You are never alone. Reach out.


With love.


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