Emotional abuse, also sometimes called psychological abuse or mental abuse, is difficult to define, recognize, and acknowledge. We’re often left questioning why people who should support us, accept us, and love us make us feel so bad. We know something’s very wrong in what we’re experiencing, but it seems no one around us sees it. Emotional abuse is real, subtle, and destructive and should be taken very seriously.
Emotionally Abusive Behaviors
When it comes to emotionally abusive behaviors, we can look at them from a few different angles. We can identify them as psychological effects on us. Sometimes they’re strictly emotional (worthlessness, shame, etc.), and sometimes they’re more mental (for instance, affecting our beliefs about ourselves and the world around us).
We can also define emotional abuse by the behaviors that our abusers use, which are not overtly physical and not overtly sexual. This can be a little misleading, though, because the boundaries between emotional forms of abuse and physical forms of abuse are sometimes blurred.
For instance, there was a story in the papers a while back of a woman who punished her child by making him eat hot sauce. Would that be considered physical abuse because of the pain the boy suffered, or is it really emotional abuse because he was bullied into doing something that caused him pain?
And when my father would look my body over during puberty and say, with a tone and look of satisfaction, that I was developing the curves of a woman, was that sexual abuse because of the sexual implications, or was it emotional abuse because of the feelings of shame and disgust it caused me?
Researchers and therapists generally agree, though, that emotional abuse includes things like rejection, isolation, oppression, manipulation, ridicule, and neglect of emotional needs. The purpose of all of these is to control us. All make us feel like crap. Emotional abusers beat us emotionally, exhausting our resistances and breaking us down until they control us.
How Can You Tell If It’s Emotional Abuse?
You might have noticed that emotionally abusive behaviors are often behaviors that all of us sometimes do without realizing it. We’ll tease someone in a way that’s degrading to them, though they may never tell us. We’ll put someone down because we’re feeling crappy about ourselves. We’ll want someone to do something so badly that we’ll manipulate them into doing it. Doing these things, though, doesn’t necessarily make us emotional abusers.
Abuse, by definition, is repetitive behavior. This leads to the question “How repetitive does it have to be to be called abuse?” Obviously, if someone engages in some kind of emotionally abusive behavior every time you interact with them then that person is an emotional abuser. But that rarely happens. Life would be easier if it did. It’s the Jekyll-and-Hyde syndrome of abusers that leads to such confusion.
What if that person is emotionally abusive only once a week? Or once a month? Or four times a year? Or only when drunk? Or only when stressed? Or only when you were 12 and hasn’t been since? Is that considered emotional abuse?
I think frequency isn’t a good way to assess emotional abuse unless it’s totally obvious, as when it happens every time you have a conversation with the person. A better way to assess emotional abuse is circumstances. In other words, does the person behave appropriately to the circumstances?
For instance, let’s say you lost your job and you tell your mother. Does she ask you what you did to screw things up at work? Does she tell you that she’s not surprised because you can’t keep a job? Does she say you’re irresponsible, lazy, and stupid? Does she say you’re a loser? Obviously none of these is an appropriate reaction to the situation. She’s coping with her anxiety over your job loss by making you feel bad. She’s emotionally abusing you to make herself feel better.
Another indication that you’re dealing with an emotional abuser is seeing a pattern of hurtful behaviors. I think this is because abuse is a coping mechanism. When an abuser gets into a stressful situation or feels like they’re losing control of themselves or their lives, they abuse. That soothes their feelings of discomfort and makes them feel in control again.
This can also help explain the Jekyll-and-Hyde behavior. Certain situations cause anxiety for certain people but not others. My father, for instance, was just fine if faced with an intellectual challenge. He even enjoyed them. But when faced with an emotional or social situation, he couldn’t get a handle on it and often became abusive.
One final warning sign to consider is the sort of environment the person creates when you’re around them. Abusers often make us feel like we’re in a war zone. In the case of emotional abuse, it’s an emotional war zone. Do you feel like you have to be careful of everything you say and do because it can trigger a hurtful response? Do you monitor the person’s moods because you know that certain ones make that person attack everything you do and say? Even though the abuse may not be active 100% of the time, the danger of it happening at any moment makes that person an emotional abuser because in healthy relationships, you don’t have to be constantly on your guard to being hurt.
Two Other Things to Consider
I want to suggest two other things to watch for when assessing whether you’re dealing with an emotional abuser: emotional invalidation and worldview distortion. I can’t say these are true of all abusers, but they’re definitely true of many.
A fundamental part of interacting in a healthy way with other human beings is recognizing and acknowledging their feelings. As Andrew Seubert tells us in The Courage to Feel, emotions aren’t right or wrong; they just are. The belief behind the emotion may be wrong, but the emotion itself isn’t wrong. An emotion is a physical response and simply exists. A belief or thought is information and so that can be wrong.
In healthy relationships, the people involved get that on some level. When we hurt someone, we should feel bad even if we didn’t mean to. We certainly have an interest in making the person understand what our intentions were and that makes us feel better, but it doesn’t erase the reality that something we did or said hurt someone we care about, have respect for, or at least acknowledge as a human being with feelings. We experience a healthy feeling of responsibility, even if we can justify what we did or said.
Many emotional abusers have a really hard time acknowledging anyone else’s feelings and really mean it. That’s not to say they don’t sometimes apologize and show signs of sincere remorse that they may even believe they really feel. However, when the moment passes, their rational mind takes over and they end up feeling justified for hurting someone else. They go on to repeat the same behavior or worse. They honestly have a hard time empathizing with their victims.
It’s true that we all have episodes where we can’t really empathize with how someone else has been hurt by what we’ve said or done. It may be due to misunderstandings, personality clashes, stress, or multiple other factors that don’t allow us to connect our actions with the effects they’ve had on someone else. But for the non-abuser, this is rare. It’s more common for many emotional abusers not to empathize with the people they’ve hurt.
The other thing to watch for is a distorted worldview. Not all abusers suffer from this, but many do and in my experience, this factor is too often overlooked. Many emotional abusers don’t respond to reality. They have a reality in their minds that controls everything they feel, think, believe, and do. This is part of what provides the rationale for their hurtful behavior. It leaves us scratching our heads, wondering what we said or did to trigger the abusive behavior when in reality we did nothing out of the ordinary. Our abuser’s distorted beliefs twisted everything up and read imaginary things into our behavior.
An example of a worldview distortion that’s been researched is the hostile attribution bias. This is when abusers have a tendency to read hostility into everyone’s intentions. They believe people are always trying to take advantage of them, use them, hurt them, and make them look like idiots. They become defensive at what seems like nothing and combative with everyone. People are left wondering what they did wrong to elicit these people’s resentment.
Abusive parents with a hostile attribution bias typically read these motives into their children’s behavior. They think their kids deliberately misbehave just to challenge them. They think their kids are always trying to get what they can out of them. They may even think their kids look down on them. None of this has anything to do with how their children actually behave. If a girl, for instance, tells her abusive mother about how much she likes her friend’s mother, the mother with the hostile attribution bias may read this as criticism of her mothering skills. If a man plays a one-on-one basketball game with his abusive dad and wins, his dad will read that as an attempt to make a fool of him.
This is just one specific example of a distorted worldview. It can be difficult for us to recognize these things because we’ve been programmed to see their weird beliefs as logical. We often have to be exposed to a different worldview in order to see that something’s wrong. For instance, the way your spouse’s parents react to a specific situation can make you realize that the way your parents are reacting is more than a little weird. Recognizing this can help us realize that it’s not us who did something wrong but them who are seeing it in the wrong light.
Can I Be Wrong?
I believe it’s possible to be wrong in the way you interpret someone’s behavior. You could be assigning ulterior motives where there aren’t any or seeing something your parents say or do as hostile when it’s not.
One way to tell is to assess how the behavior matches the circumstances. The question you have to ask yourself is whether what they say or do makes sense if someone were seeing the situation from an objective point of view. In other words, if someone who wasn’t part of the family but knew you and your parents were observing the conversation or interaction, would what your parents say and do make sense?
Let’s say, for instance, that your mother gives your sister some money, and you think she’s playing favorites. This is a form of emotional abuse to both the favorite and the unfavorite child. But take a close look at the context of the situation. Does your mother often give your sister money? Did she give it to her without expecting to be paid back? Does she give your sister other things besides money? Does she give your sister’s children more money and gifts than she gives your children? All of these are signs of favoritism, but if they’re not happening then you could be misinterpreting your mother’s behavior here.
It’s really important, though, to make an honest assessment of the situation from the point of view of someone who’s completely uninvolved in the relationship but has insight into your parents’ personality. This is because childhood abusers train us to accept circumstances that outsiders would find strange. They make what’s unacceptable to someone who understands what a healthy relationship is all about seem acceptable. They can also fool people who don’t know them into thinking their motives are innocent when they’re not, which is why your point of view has to take their true personality into consideration.
For example, an intrusive mother can make it seem like her monitoring of every decision you make is a sign that she cares. Someone looking from the outside, however, who’s also aware that your mother tries to interfere with everything in your life would be able to see that such a mother is treating her adult son or daughter as if they were an incompetent young child in need to their parent’s constant input.
Identifying emotional abuse is never about just a single behavior. It’s also never just about the behavior. It’s about behavior patterns and circumstances that leave you frequently feeling disempowered and hurt.