What is Emotional Abuse?

“He never hit me or anything.”

“They weren’t that bad.”

Does that sound familiar? If so, you’re not alone. I often hear these statements from my therapy clients.

They might be referencing their parents or a previous partner. The content displays the same thought process:

  1. Abuse means physical harm.
  2. They didn’t hit me.
  3. Therefore, I was not abused.

And if I wasn’t abused then the things my therapist tells me are a result of trauma (like my tendency to minimize my own experiences) are actually just the result of me being bad or broken.

What’s happening?

Emotionally abusive people seek to intimidate, manipulate, control, and have power over their victims. And unfortunately their victims are often their children, spouses, and inner circle.

One of the trickiest experiences I have as a therapist is helping my clients come to see the harm caused by people who should (or do) love them.

Because this is such an intimate form of violence – we don’t as easily get emotionally manipulated by strangers – and it doesn’t involve physical touch, victims of this form of abuse don’t get the benefit of being able to label this experience for what it is: abuse.

And if it’s hard to name it’s hard to figure out exactly what’s happening.

Is my partner trying to make me feel guilty or am I actually guilty?

Are they trying to make me feel bad so that I “owe” them or am I actually bad?

Children are especially vulnerable to believing they are the problem. In the mind of a child, a parent is like a god. And god can’t be wrong. So in order to maintain my relationship with this person I rely on for survival I’m going to work harder and harder to be the kid they want me to be. And if they believe me to be bad then I must be bad.

Signs you’ve experienced emotional abuse

  • Lots of empathy for others but not a lot for myself
  • Imposter syndrome in anything I excel at
  • Feeling like something inside is broken or wrong
  • Depression & anxiety
  • Working too much, playing and taking care of self too little
  • Difficulty with intimacy and trusting others
  • As soon as the cup gets full it gets emptied again
  • Finding it easy to be a “social chameleon”, intuiting other’s needs and desires and seeking to fulfill them
  • Very sensitive to perceived rejection or criticism

Let’s look at some common examples of emotionally abusive behaviors:

Making you responsible for their bad behavior

In the heat of an argument they slam their fist down on a table and immediately blame you for the pain. “Look what you made me do!”

A mom to her adult daughter after a dinner with friends where mom cracked many jokes at the expense of her daughter: “I wouldn’t embarrass you so much in front of your friends if you could at least show me a little affection when we’re in public.”

Cruel, unproductive criticism

You’re walking around the Back Bay in Boston with your partner. He points to a suit on a mannequin in the window of a high-end boutique and says “If you’d go running with me in the mornings I could buy you nice stuff like that and have it fit right.”

Devaluing comparisons with other perceived “better” kid/partner/friend

You’re ten years old and trying to talk your dad into buying you a game you want. Your dad says, “If I had a kid who was actually doing good in school, I’d be happy to buy stuff like that.”

Guilting

Whenever you express feeling hurt by something your primary partner has done, they angrily recount every time you’ve hurt them in the past.

Dismissing

You try to have a heart-to-heart conversation with your mom over how much she hurt you as a kid, referencing specific behaviors that were harmful to you. She rolls her eyes, laughs, and tells you that at some point you “just have to get over the past”.

Accusing

Your spouse constantly accuses you of having an affair whenever you come home late or when they think you are dressed “too nicely” for work.

Past emotional abuse in relationships can impact our relationships now. When you’ve experienced emotional abuse it might make you hypervigilant to any perceived threats of abuse in the present. This can be a great thing because your brain is saying “never again!” However, sometimes we might over-react – our brain starts to perceive non-emotionally abusive behavior as abusive.

For example, if you had a mother who criticized you often in childhood you might have a hard time when a partner validly lets you know something you did hurt their feelings. It might be experienced by you as criticism that reminds you of how you felt when your mom constantly told you what you were doing is wrong. If it hits that bruise it might make you act defensive & protective of yourself rather than being able to listen deeply to your partner and apologize for any harm done.

Sometimes we can also normalize abusive behavior and fail to see the harm it is causing us. We might accept the narrative that “there must be something wrong with me” or “I’m bad” and therefore I deserve to be treated this way. This makes us vulnerable to accepting abusive behavior in current and future relationships.

How do I heal from emotional abuse?

Emotional abuse is a form of trauma. Through methods like EMDR, Progressive Counting, or Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, we can process the memories related to the abusive behaviors in a special way that makes it feel really over. When something feels really over, we don’t get triggered by it anymore. We are able to drop the unhealthy beliefs we formed through trauma. We are better able to accurately assess future behavior as abusive or not.

If you’ve experienced emotional abuse, it’s possible to heal. And you can get help. Learn more about the healing power of EMDR intensives here.