The Most Common Form of Abuse
Emotional abuse is the most
common form of abuse - & yet least talked about. Part of the reason it is so easy for people to overlook is that so that
much of what is considered normal & acceptable forms of communication is in fact abusive. Many people don't know that
they have been - or are being - emotionally abused. In addition, a lot of emotional abuse doesn't appear to be severe or dramatic,
although its effects can be.
Emotional Abuse is Characterized by a Climate of Abuse
Unlike physical or sexual
abuse, where a single incident constitutes abuse, emotional abuse is made up of a series of incidents, or a pattern of behavior
that occurs over time. Emotional abuse is more than just verbal insults, the most common definition of emotional abuse. Emotional
abuse is a series of repeated incidents - whether intentional or not - that insults, threatens, isolates, degrades, humiliates
and/or controls another person.
It may include a pattern of one or more of the following abuses: insults,
criticisms, aggressive demands or expectations, threats, rejection, neglect, blame, emotional manipulation & control,
isolation, punishment, terrorizing, ignoring, or teasing.
Harassment, physical & sexual abuse & witnessing abuse of others
are also forms of emotional abuse.
Emotional abuse can take place anywhere: at home, at school, in relationships
& in the workplace. Contrary to popular beliefs that bullies are only found in the school yard, many bullies also exist
in the workplace.
Emotional Abuse & Gender
It's unclear whether males
or females are more emotionally abusive, however, it seems that girls/women are more likely to use emotional abuse to gain
control & power, while boys/men are more likely to use physical intimidation, aggression & violence.
The Effects of Emotional Abuse
Emotional abuse is not only
under-reported, but it's effects are minimized. The famous childhood verse, "Sticks & stones may break my bones, but names
will never hurt me" is simply not true. In fact, many physical & sexual abuse survivors have said that the emotional abuse
was often more devastating & had longer-term effects.
Emotional abuse cuts to the core of a person, attacking their very being.
Emotional abuse, if frequent enough, is usually internalized by the victim & leaves them feeling fearful, insignificant,
unworthy, untrusting, emotionally needy, undeserving & unlovable & as if they were bad, deserving of punishment &
Survivors of emotional abuse often have a hard time understanding why
they feel so bad. The abuse may not sound like much & often people around them will minimize the experience, telling them
it's not so bad. But a climate of disregard for a person's feelings, where one is subjected to constant or frequent criticisms,
being yelled at, or being ignored - has a deep & profound effect, attacking the very self-image & confidence of a
Identifying Emotional Abuse
How do you recognize emotional
abuse? One thing that can help is to step back from your situation & examine the overall climate in your home or your
workplace. Trust your instincts & feelings about people. Sometimes, a person can just look at you & you know that
they are looking down at you. Other times, their words are okay but their tone is mean. Emotional abuse is insidious &
can be very subtle, so trust your gut; it's telling you something.
Because it is harder to
name emotional abuse as abuse, it can be harder to heal from as well. The first step is to name your experience as abuse.
Trust how you feel. Many people can identify the abuse once they know what to look for because they change from being outgoing,
self-confident & care-free to feeling nervous, anxious & fearful in the company of an emotionally abusive person.
Just because you're feeling those feelings doesn't mean that you're being emotionally abused; there could be something else
going on. But, those feelings combined with abusive behavior is convincing evidence that you are being abused.
Try describing to other people how this person behaves. Be honest &
listen to the feedback you receive. If you don't feel good about the feedback, try someone else. Remember that emotional abuse
is frequently minimized.
Overcoming the Dynamic
Emotional abuse sets up
a dynamic where the victim comes to believe that they are to blame & that they must work harder to fix the problems (such
as improving the relationship.) This never works because the problem is not the victim; the abusive behavior is the problem.
Nothing you do will change that. No matter how nice & accommodating you are, nothing that you do will change an emotionally
abusive person's behavior. In fact, many people get even more aggressive when you try to make it better, because they sense
that you think it's your fault & this confirms their own beliefs!
It can be very hard to not fall into the role of being "good girl" or
"good boy" when someone is emotionally abusing you, but it's important to avoid that.
If You're Presently Being Emotionally Abused
If you know that you're
currently being emotionally abused, you'll need to find ways to protect yourself emotionally; to reduce or stop contact with
the abusive person; to find allies; to talk about what is going on & to look into options to keep yourself from being
further abused. This can get complicated, depending on the context, but there are many resources to help you with workplace
bullying & abuse in relationships.
If You've Been Emotionally Abused in the Past
Identifying the abuse as
abuse is an important step in your healing. It means that you recognize that what happened to you was wrong, hurtful &
not your fault. Placing responsibility for the abuse on the abuser is key to healing from abuse.
Countering the negative
messages that you received is also really important. You may need to write down all the insulting things that you learned
about yourself & counter each one with the truth. It may feel unnatural or foreign to counter these messages, but it will
help you to feel better in the long-run. Catch yourself when you find that you are putting yourself down. Take a breath &
remind yourself that you don't want to do that anymore, that you don't deserve to be hurt & that you want to think of
See if you can come up with something that you like about yourself.
If you can't come up with something good, think about how you would like to think about yourself. The idea is to interrupt
the flow of insulting thoughts you have & to find ways to replace those thoughts with self-soothing ones.
By finding ways to be gentle & soothing with yourself, you are directly
countering those messages. Being kind to yourself by asking yourself what you need, what you want to do & letting yourself
do those things are all ways to create a more positive & loving relationship with yourself.
No matter what you've been told or how you've been treated, you are
worthy of love & respect. The more you know this, the less likely you will be to accept disrespectful or abusive behavior
towards yourself or others. You should not have to take emotional abuse from anyone - no matter what the excuse. You deserve
to be treated well.