What Is Emotional Abuse?

Emotional abuse is any kind of abuse that is psychological rather than physical in nature. It can include anything from verbal abuse, constant criticism, intimidation or more subtle tactics, such as manipulation, or constant displeasure with you. It is an on-going process in which an individual diminishes and erodes the self-esteem of another. Similar to brain-washing, constant abuse can wear away at a victim's self-confidence, sense of self-worth, trust in their own perceptions, and self-concept. It may include belittling, threats of abandonment or harm, or may be more subtle, such as on-going critical “advice” or “guidance.”

The result is that eventually the recipient of the abuse loses all sense of self and feels very vulnerable. Emotional abuse cuts to the core of a person, creating scars that may be far deeper and more lasting that physical ones (Engel.1992).

Emotional abuse can be inflicted by both men and women in relationships. It is about power and control, not about respect and love. Emotional abuse can occur in all types of relationships, but is most frequently seen in caregiver/child relationships and intimate partner relationships.

  • Does someone in your life frequently criticize you, humiliate you, or undermine your self-esteem?
  • Do they ridicule you for expressing yourself?
  • Do they isolate you from friends, family, or groups?
  • Do they limit your access to work, money, or material resources?
  • Do you feel the relationship swings between extreme closeness and emotional distance?
  • Have they ever destroyed things of yours or thrown objects?
  • Do they ever threaten you or threaten to hurt themselves?

Many people assume that if they are not being physically abused, then they are not experiencing abuse. That is not the case. An intimate or familial relationship in which a person consistently behaves in a way that erodes another’s self-esteem and happiness may be an emotionally abusive relationship

Types of Emotional Abuse

Rejecting – Telling someone that they are worthless or that no one else will want them. Telling a child in a variety of ways that he or she is unwanted.

Ignoring – Being physically present but emotionally unavailable or failing to provide nurturance. Denying that both individual’s needs are important in the relationship.

Isolating —  Keeping someone through manipulation or intimidation from friends and family or peers and independent activities.

Humiliation or Degradation – Calling someone names, making fun of them in private or public situations, forcing someone to engage in embarrassing behaviors.

Demonstration of power and threats — Using threats to reinforce control such as threatening to leave, threatening to kill themselves or you. Using intimidation tactics to instill fear, such as pulling the phone out of the wall, punching holes in walls, shaking one’s fist in the other’s face.

Discounting – An abuser may minimize the recipient’s emotional experience or reaction to an event. “You’re too sensitive,” or “You’re blowing this out of proportion.”

Accusing and blaming — Turning something around on the recipient, accusing them or blaming them for causing the abuser’s anger.

Judging/Criticizing — Telling someone how stupid, fat, or ugly they are.

Basic rights in a relationship

In a healthy relationship, you and your partner have the following basic rights (Evans, 1992):

  • The right to good will from the other.
  • The right to emotional support.
  • The right to be heard by the other and to be responded to with courtesy.
  • The right to have your own view, even if your partner has a different view.
  • The right to have your feelings and experience acknowledged as real.
  • The right to receive a sincere apology for any jokes you may find offensive.
  • The right to clear and informative answers to questions that concern what is legitimately your business.
  • The right to live free from accusation and blame.
  • The right to live free from criticism and judgment.
  • The right to have your work and your interests spoken of with respect.
  • The right to encouragement.
  • The right to live free from emotional and physical threat.
  • The right to live free from angry outburst and rage.
  • The right to be called by no name that devalues you.
  • The right to be respectfully asked rather than ordered.

What can you do?

  • Realize that emotional abuse is a serious problem and you can get help.
  • Recognize that emotional abuse is as bad as physical abuse.
  • Take your safety seriously.
  • Know that you are not to blame for someone else’s abusive behavior.
  • Find people to talk to that can support you.
  • Consider seeing a mental health professional.
  • Recognize that you have the right to make your own decisions, in your own time, and that dealing with any form of abuse may take time.
  • Trust yourself and your own experiences and believe in your own strengths.