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  • Writer's pictureKim May

What is Emotional Abuse?

"With emotional abuse, the insults, insinuations, criticism, and accusations slowly eat away at the victim’s self-esteem until he or she is incapable of judging a situation realistically.

He or she may begin to believe that there is something wrong with them or even fear they are losing their mind. They have become so beaten down emotionally that they blame themselves for the abuse.“- Beverly Engel

When our bodies or our property are violated, we tend to know it. Although painful, there is a sense of clarity about what has happened. We know if someone has pushed us, stolen from us. These events are considered crimes and frequently they leave behind physical evidence.

But what about emotional or psychological violations against us? We may still experience a feeling of being violated, or having felt frightened but are we as likely to recognize these experiences as abuse? Unfortunately, all too often we do not.

Emotional abuse happens in all kinds of relationships and with all kinds of people. According to the CDC, over one in four women and one in seven men in the U.S. have experienced severe physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime.

What is emotional abuse?

According to the National Domestic Hotline, “emotional abuse includes non-physical behaviors that are meant to control, isolate, or frighten you. This may present in romantic relationships as threats, insults, constant monitoring, excessive jealousy, manipulation, humiliation, intimidation, dismissiveness, among others”.

People who are being emotionally abused often make excuses for the person’s behavior, with reasons such as ‘he is going through a hard time’, ‘I know she didn’t mean it’, or ‘they were upset because they lost their job.’ Worse, people who are being emotionally abused often begin to blame themselves, thinking that if they hadn’t said the wrong thing or remembered to go to the grocery store, then it would not have happened.

Abuse of any kind is never your fault. Period.

Signs of emotional abuse

Abusive patterns may develop slowly, increasing over time. Other times it begins all at once. Common signs of emotional abuse patterns and behaviors include the following:

  • Purposefully humiliating you in front of other people

  • Calling you demeaning/insulting names, such as “stupid,” “disgusting,” or “worthless”

  • Getting angry in a way that is frightening to you

  • Threatening to hurt you, people you care about, or pets

  • Your partner threatens breaking up or divorce to manipulate an argument

  • Taking actions to get back at you for actions that you may have taken that show self-determination or independence

  • Your partner threatens suicide during arguments

  • Threatens to “out” you to family or co-workers

  • Posts inappropriate or sexually explicit messages on your website/blog/social media

  • Damages, breaks, or steals technology that you need to assist with daily living or to do your schoolwork or job

  • Your partner punishes you by withholding attention or affection

  • Statements like, “If I can’t have you, then no one can”

  • Making decisions on your behalf without your request, like what you wear, eat, or drink

  • Behaving in a jealous manner, including constantly accusing you of cheating

  • Your partner makes you feel guilty or immature for not wanting to have sex

  • Continually pretending to not to understand what you are saying, making you feel stupid, or refusing to listen to your thoughts and opinions

  • Questioning your memory of events or denying that an event happened the way you said it did, even when the abuser knows that you are right

  • Changing the subject whenever you try to start conversations with the abuser and others and questioning your thoughts in a way that makes you feel unworthy

  • Making your needs or feelings seem unimportant or less important than those of the abuser.

  • Stops you from seeing a doctor

  • Your partner blames you for their unhealthy/abusive behaviors

  • Gaslighting

What is gaslighting?

The term “gaslight” originated from a play called Gaslight that was made into a movie in 1944. In the movie, a husband uses trickery to make his wife think that she is mentally unwell so that he can commit her to a mental institution with the ultimate goal of stealing from her.

In psychology, gaslighting is a form of emotional and psychological abuse that tends to happen gradually in a relationship. It describes a patter of behavior in which the abuser may intentionally deny acts or events or twists your words, emotions and experiences to use against you. The result is often a questioning of your own reality, doubting your judgement and memory and/or make you feel like you are going crazy.

Signs of gaslighting include:

  • Feeling confused, “crazy,” and constantly second-guessing yourself

  • Constantly questioning if you are being “too sensitive”

  • Having trouble making simple decisions

  • Constantly apologizing to your partner

  • Frequently making excuses for your partner’s behavior

  • Finding yourself withholding information from loved ones

  • Starting to lie to avoid the put-downs or reality twists

  • Feeling as though you can’t do anything right

  • Wondering if you are a “good enough” partner

What is escalation?

Escalation is when abuse gets worse; this can be sudden or gradual. An example could be going from yelling demeaning language when upset to behaving in aggressive ways such as beginning to throw furniture or punch walls. When escalation is occurring, it can often soon turn physical.

According to the National Domestic Hotline, “Over the course of an abusive relationship, it is common for abuse to escalate, and oftentimes survivors find themselves experiencing something they never thought their partner would, or even could, do”.

Support if you need it

Talking to a professional can be an invaluable source of support, especially if you feel that you have no one else to turn to. Unfortunately, people being emotionally abused often feel ashamed, or embarrassed by their situation. If you need support, Substance Use Therapy is here. Whatever you are facing, you don’t have to face it alone.

If you need immediate support, please visit the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Or you can contact them via phone at 1.800.799.SAFE (7233) or text "START" to 88788.

Austin residents can contact Safe at 24/7 SAFEline 512.267.SAFE (7233) or text 737.888.7233.

If you are in immediate danger, please call 911.


About the Author:

Kimberly May, LPC-S, LMFT is a therapist at Substance Use Therapy in Austin, TX. Kimberly works with individuals, couples and families whose lives have been affected by substance use. By utilizing a harm reduction framework, Kimberly works effectively with people in any stage of use. In addition to substance use, she works with other issues such as anger, burn-out, anxiety and grief. Contact today to schedule a no-charge, 30 minute, in-person consultation. *Note: telephone and telehealth sessions are currently available.

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