Protecting Yourself from Emotional Abusers

Emotional abuse is damaging. It has a substantial effect on your emotional, psychological, and physical well-being. It’s something to take seriously, and that means protecting yourself from your emotionally abusive parents. The more they control, manipulate, and degrade you, the more they reinforce your low self-esteem and feelings of worthlessness. It’s very difficult to heal when you’re hearing these messages on a regular basis.

No Contact/Low Contact

The most extreme way to protect yourself from emotionally abusive parents is to go no contact. That means ceasing all contact with them. You don’t talk to them on the phone. You don’t read or respond to text messages. You don’t read their emails or send any. You don’t visit, even when there’s an emergency. You don’t contact them via social networks and block them from contacting you.

Going no contact is a tough decision. I know because I’ve done it. It hurts. You feel awful. There will be times when you want to pick up the phone or send a text message or email. You might get pressure from other family members to “stop this nonsense” because emotionally abusive parents often recruit other family members to do the talking for them. This can make you feel rotten. You’ll see other families where the parents and adult children get along and wonder if you should just give it one more try.

The decision to go no contact is, of course, completely up to you, but there are three things to consider before making this decision:

First, are you willing to live with emotional abuse until they pass away? If they live in another state or country and you don’t have frequent contact with them then you may be willing to put up with it. In such cases, learning more about emotional abuse helps you understand what’s going on and why it goes on, which can help you avoid getting emotionally sucked into their drama.

Second, if your abusive parents live nearby and/or contact you frequently then just putting up with the abuse is very unhealthy. One option is to go low contact rather than no contact. There’s an interesting article about going low-contact with narcissistic mothers at Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers. It suggests a few things for going low-contact which apply to any emotionally abusive parent:

  • You can limit physical interactions with them by deciding you’ll only contact them once a week, once a month, on holidays or special occasions, or whatever feels comfortable to you. You’ll still need to deal with their emotional abuse, but at least it will be less often, which gives you some quiet time to work on your healing.
  • If you don’t think limiting contact will work or if you need to contact them frequently for other reasons (for instance, you must live with them because of financial issues) then you can shut down emotionally. Danu Morrigan at Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers advises to you to “[k]eep conversation very light and superficial and safe.”
  • Morrigan’s article includes commentary from “L.J.” She advises setting clear boundaries and distance yourself emotionally from any backlash you get for doing so. You have to be persistent with these boundaries, even when you get guilt, tears, and anger in return.

The final thing you need to consider before deciding to go no-contact is whether the abusive parent can ever change. This is really difficult to assess sometimes. The only way you may know for certain is to talk to them about how they hurt you (in the present, not in the past) and see how they respond. If they indeed work on the relationship and show a real effort to stop their hurtful behavior then there may be hope.

If, however, they deny they’re doing anything wrong, accuse you of imagining it or being too sensitive, or say they’ll work on themselves but then don’t then you should assume they won’t ever change. (Unfortunately, from the evidence I’ve seen, this is the more usual case.) Whether you decide to maintain the relationship depends on whether you’re willing to live in a battlefield all your life. Frankly, their “attacks” may leave you more drained than any guilt, fear, or grief you may experience from going no contact, so consider this carefully.

If you decide to go no-contact, be open about your intentions. It’s the right thing to do and will cause less headaches with some emotionally abusive parents down the line. I speak from experience. I wasn’t open about it, and my abusive parents pursued me for 10 years through private investigators. Yours may not go to those lengths, but it’s certainly unpleasant to live life wondering whether your abusive parents will ever catch up with you.

If, however, you have enmeshed parents, like I do, take precautions to maintain some privacy. It’s best to move, preferably to another state or country, and change your phone number. Get a new email address. Don’t share that information with people you’re not sure you can trust. If you retain the same job, tell those you work with about your decision and ask them not to transfer your abuser to you if that abuser calls. Be prepared, though, to deal with visits at work if your abusive parent is very enmeshed. Whether you can take legal action against an abusive parent who won’t leave you alone is something you should ask a lawyer about.

In some cases, going no-contact can get messy. If you believe that’s what will happen or see evidence that it is and you’re worried about the well-being of your spouse and children then you might try to shift to a low-contact relationship. The important thing is to minimize your contact with your abusers as much as you’re able to because their destructive ways have a very real effect on you.

Dealing with Emotionally Abusive Parents

If going no contact isn’t an option or it’s not a step you want to take then you’re going to have to deal with your emotionally abusive parents on a regular basis. There are ways to minimize the impact of their hurtful behavior.

Choose your battles carefully. When what they say or do really gets to you, consider carefully whether it’s worth getting into an argument with them over it. For instance, if your mother has to do some medical tests and bullies you to make you go with her, it might not be worth fighting her on it because it’s just for a few visits.

If you decide to fight the insults or manipulation then focus on expressing your feelings. I don’t recommend you try to justify your responses because that opens the door to them making you feel like what you’re doing is wrong. This isn’t about right or wrong; it’s about what you feel. You have the right to say no without explaining why. Likewise, say no to demands without explaining your reasons, which again sucks you into a debate that ignores what you’re feeling, which is what’s really important here.

Also, try not to get sucked into family battles. Emotional abusers are experts at using other family members to get to you. Whether it’s your brother or sister, an aunt or uncle, cousins, or even your own children, you can tell the other family member that it’s an issue between you and your abusive parent and you don’t want to get anyone else involved. This is also courteous to the family member because it’s no fun to get in the middle of a nasty family battle, even if the person appears to want to get involved.

It’s also really important to surround yourself with people who support you, such as your spouse, your children, other family members, and friends. They can bring you down to earth by pointing out the weirdness of what your abusers have said or done. Do be careful, though, not to dump too much on them, particularly if it’s stuff you’ve spoken to them about before. It drains their energy and makes them feel used.

Another source of support is abuse survivor forums (see the Resources page for a list). Survivors on these forums understand the negative nature of interactions with emotional abusers and many have gone through what you’re going through. You can vent as much as you want there and no one will disapprove.

One more way to protect yourself when you absolutely have to interact with your abusers on a regular basis is to keep a journal. This can also help dissipate the negativity that they’ll inevitably create and also gives you a place to express your bad feelings about them and about yourself honestly. It’s really important that you not censor yourself. Don’t try to be “mature” by being fair to them or trying to feel compassion for them. There’s a time and place for that, but I don’t believe your journal should be that time and place.

Going no contact or dealing with emotional abusers on a regular basis is going to be painful. Expect to feel like crap for “abandoning” them or not giving into their demands and being quiet about insults or jokes at your expense. But the boundaries you set are crucial to your healing. Eventually, you’ll find you feel more positive about yourself and your life and can handle the negative feelings better.

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