The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

—William Faulkner


I am writing this blog for a client who has been suffering emotional abuse at the hands of a family member they trusted. In my work, I often see signs of abuse in clients, and just as often I refer the serious cases up the ladder to the appropriate mental health or law enforcement professional. Sometimes though, I find people are completely unaware that the dreadful feelings they are grappling with are directly a result of emotional or psychological abuse they experienced at the hands of someone they trust. I hope these words can make a difference for my client and anyone else who is unsure about what emotional abuse is all about.

The effects of physical abuse are obvious to anyone; a black eye, a cut or a bruise. But the effects of emotional abuse are harder to spot. Emotionally abusive family members can affect a person’s mood, sex drive, work, school…all areas of a life.

Don’t doubt it for a second; the effects of emotional abuse

can be just as severe and last much longer

than physical abuse.

I get it; the word abuse quickly produces images associated with the horror stories that we hear or read about, images ranging from physical neglect and beatings, someone locked in a closet or restrained for long periods, to the nightmarish Ariel Castro’s imprisonment of young girls. In reality, however, abuse takes many forms beyond the physical. Recent research finds the effects of emotional abuse insidious and long lasting. Beginning with a child, it can easily continue into adulthood, affecting both one’s physical and mental health.

What is different with emotional abuse, compared to physical abuse, is that victims of emotional abuse often/usually blame themselves and minimize their abuse and abuser. You can find them saying that it was “only” emotional and “at least he/she didn’t hit me,” or worst of all, “they were only trying to help me.” But diminishing the effects of emotional abuse won’t help the abused, and it won’t hide its devastating effects.

Give some thought to these less visible forms of abuse, those beyond the physical. Some examples of emotional abuse might be neglect; indifference to a person’s needs or temperament; outright humiliation; deliberate denigration. The abuser plays on the fears of the abused in their comments or threats, making them all the more real to the abused. Research indicates that these actions can be powered by the abusers own self-hatred, jealousy, narcissism, or just their raw ambition for control.

What Emotional Abuse Is

One definition of emotional abuse is:

“…any act including confinement, isolation, verbal assault, humiliation, intimidation, infantilizing, or other treatment which may diminish the sense of identity, dignity, and self-worth.”

Emotional abuse is also known as psychological abuse or as “chronic verbal aggression” by researchers. People who suffer from emotional abuse tend to develop low self-esteem, present personality changes (such as becoming withdrawn), and may become depressed, anxious, or suicidal.

In short, the abused person often feels “less of a person.” The event, according to Vancouver Coastal Health, suggests that this kind of abuse can make people feel uncertain about themselves and their abilities. In some cases, the threat can include promises to abandon or neglect the person, removal from regular family life. And be quite sure, neglect of this kind, in itself, is a form of psychological abuse. When a person abuses others, they are often mirroring how they feel about themselves.

Emotional Abuse Signs and Symptoms

For this blog, let’s define emotional abuse signs as different from verbal abuse symptoms.

Emotional abuse signs are your observations of person who is being abusive towards you. Things the verbal abuser does and says that affect your thinking, beliefs, or emotions. Verbal abuse symptoms are your reflections on yourself.

Symptoms live inside of you alone

so others may or may not notice them.

 Give yourself a pass. If you have been abused, you may find it difficult to objectively “observe” your abuser and yourself at the same time. Observing implies “stating the facts,” which I’m sure you can do. But observing also implies interpreting those facts, and this is the difficult part for the abuse victim.

You likely as not will second guess your observations because the abuser reliably implants the idea in your mind that you can’t believe your own thoughts, feelings, or desires. They labor to convince you that only their interpretation of events—past present or future—are correct.

Distrust of your own perception (a symptom of verbal abuse) sounds like thinking:

“Oh, she didn’t mean it that way!

His favorite form of humor is sarcasm.”

Or, “He had another bad day; he told me that and I still pressed for conversation.”

So, put aside excuse-making and self-blame and trust your gut instinct as you answer these questions.

Emotional Abuse Signs

Did they:

  • Make derogatory comments about a group you belong to (e.g., gender, career, religion, etc.)? This comment might end with “i mean them, not you.”
  • Make fun of or insult your ideas, behaviors, or beliefs?
  • Make negative comments about people, places, or things that you love?
  • Say things that are almost true about you, but leave you wanting to defend yourself?
  • Ask you questions about something that just happened and reply to your answers, saying “Do you care to think about that and answer the question again?” or just sit there, staring at you, in a way that lets you know your answer wasn’t “right”?
  • Engage you in long conversations about things on which you disagree until you reach the point of wanting to say, “Okay. Whatever. You’re right!” or insist that you repeat what they said and then, later, claim, “you agreed with me (then)!”
  • Somehow manage to physically back you into a corner or somewhere you cannot easily escape during intense conversations?

Emotional Abuse Symptoms

Did you feel, or do you now feel:

  • Nervous approaching them to discuss certain topics?
  • Insulted because of their use of language, or does their use of language change the meaning of otherwise normal requests? (e.g., “Could you f*ck*ng tell me how much f*ck*ng longer it will be before you’re ready for dinner?”)
  • A need to “tell on yourself” about innocent events in case the person hears about them later?
  • Yourself questioning firmly held beliefs?
  • Misunderstood, for the most part, in your relationship?

Have you come to doubt:

  • Your sanity, intelligence, or communication skills because of what they said?
  • Your ability to make good decisions for and about yourself?
  • Your memories when it comes to recalling conversations or events with the person because their take on it is so different from your own?

These questions relating to emotional abuse signs and symptoms are examples of how insidiously verbal abuse can sneak inside the framework of your relationship and poison your thoughts with confusion and doubt. It can destroy your life just as easily, leaving you living a life dictated by another rather than selected by yourself.

What Emotionally Abusive People Want

No matter who the emotionally abusive person is, they seek power and control over their victim. Children are the most common—but not nearly the only—victims of emotional abuse for just this reason; parents want to completely dominate and control their children into doing what is “right.” Similarly, adults abuse each other to control them into “behaving correctly, in the mind of the abuser.

Emotional abusers labor to have their way regardless of the needs and desires of those around them. They can be found assuming that their way is “best,” “right,” or simply most convenient for them. Ironically, many people who emotionally abuse do so because they themselves are scared of losing control, or of being controlled.

Examples of Emotional Abuse

The signs of psychological abuse can be seen in many ways and can be manifested in many behaviors. According to Kelly Holly, author of the Verbal Abuse in Relationships Blog, examples of psychological abuse in a relationship include the following statements:

  • That isn’t at all what I meant. You’ll never understand how much I love you.
  • If you don’t train that dog, I’m going to rub your nose in its mess.
  • I am more capable, smarter, and better educated than you. I will take our kids if you leave me.
  • You are old enough to know better.

Taking it a step further, Holly points out that psychological abuse can also include social, financial, spiritual, and sexual components. Examples of these types of psychological abuse might include:

  • Stop acting like such a whore. My friends are asking me if I let you behave that way when I’m around or if it’s just something you do on your own.
  • All you are is arm-candy to him, shame on you.
  • In what world does buying/doing that make sense?
  • You handle the finances for now; I’ll step in when things go to hell.
  • Let me do the talking; you don’t know anything.
  • Keep your stupid beliefs to yourself.
  • There you go again…what were you thinking?

It’s important to remember that any of these examples of psychological abuse can happen to either men or women. Psychological or emotional abuse will eventually affect your inner thoughts as well as exert control over many aspects of your life. You might come to feel uncertain of the world around you and unsafe in your own home. This kind of abuse destroys intimate relationships, friendships, and at times, even your relationship with yourself.

Short-Term Effects of Emotional Abuse

Short-term effects of an emotionally abusive adult usually have to do with the sudden surprise of finding oneself in the situation and/or the questioning of just how the situation arose. Some emotional abusers don’t begin their abuse until well into a relationship and in families, it can come from a trusted authority figure. The abused person may find themselves completely traumatized by the new, emotionally abusive behavior from someone they previously trusted. The behavior and thoughts of the victim then naturally change in response to the emotional abuse.

Short-term effects of emotional abuse include:

  • Surprise and confusion
  • Questioning of your own memory: “Did that really happen?”
  • Anxiety or fear, or hypervigilance
  • Shame and/or guilt
  • Aggression, as a defense to the abuse
  • Becoming overly passive or compliant
  • Frequent crying
  • Avoidance of eye contact
  • Feeling powerless and defeated as nothing you do ever seems to be right—learned helplessness
  • Feeling like you’re “walking on eggshells”
  • Feeling manipulated, used, and controlled
  • Feeling undesirable

In family situations, the abused may find themselves trying to do anything possible to bring the relationship back to the way it was before the abuse.

Long-Term Effects of Emotional Abuse

In long-term, emotionally abusive situations, the victim can develop such low self-esteem that they often feel they just can’t leave their abuser. They come to feel that they just aren’t worthy of a non-abusive relationship. Adult emotional abuse soon leads to the victim believing the terrible things that the abuser says about him/her. Emotional abuse victims often think they’re “going crazy.”

Effects of long-term emotional abuse by partners, significant others, or family members include:

  • Depression
  • Withdrawal
  • Low self-esteem and self-worth
  • Emotional instability
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Physical pain without cause
  • Suicidal ideation, thoughts, or attempts
  • Extreme dependence on the abuser
  • Underachievement
  • Inability to trust
  • Feeling trapped and alone
  • Substance abuse

In extreme situations, the abused person may find themselves defending their abuser and their abusers emotionally abusive actions criticizing their own actions. They forget this axiom; When you criticize yourself, you are reinforcing negative self-talk. Your brain hears this and believes it.

In the end, it can be a futile effort to try and understand why some people abuse others. It can be tempting to label emotionally abusive people as narcissists or psychopaths, but without the abuser undergoing psychological analysis, it is impossible to know. On top of that, coaches—as well as many counselors—are untrained in the dynamics of abuse and fail to recognize verbal, emotional abuse as a form of violence, or don’t understand patriarchy and gender as components of abuse. If the helping professional isn’t careful, the client can be re-victimized in their session.

So, here are some things that the victim in an emotionally abusive situation can do to change how they respond.

1) All emotionally charged situations include three things:

  • The activating event
  • The victim’s beliefs about the activating event
  • The victim’s resulting feelings or behaviors

People too often jump from the event straight to the feelings/behaviors without considering their beliefs about the event. If victims change their beliefs about the abusive event (e.g., here we go again, look at her trying to control me!), then their emotions and behaviors change, too.

2) Distinguish between healthy negative emotions and unhealthy ones.

Referring back to number one, victims who create beliefs that produce unhealthy negative emotions will feel things like rage, self-hatred, and anxiety. But victims whose beliefs create healthy negative emotions experience feelings like frustration, disappointment, and sadness. The healthy negative feelings are appropriate (no one would be happy about being abused), but the unhealthy feelings spiral the victim into counter-productive behaviors and a feeling of being stuck in a horrible situation.

3) Set personal boundaries on behaviors you will not accept from other people and enforce them.

Personal boundaries erode over the course of a verbally abusive relationship as the abuser gains access to the victim’s “safe zones.” Setting personal boundaries mostly reminds the victim to be on the lookout for abusive behaviors, recognize them, and protect themselves from further emotional or mental harm.

4) Talk to other people.

Victims of verbally abusive relationships who tell other people about the abuse find support and strength and are better able to stay clear-minded when the abuse occurs. Victims must be careful in their selection of support people. If someone in your circle consistently tells you, “You’re making more of this than it is,” or they insist the one who abuses you is a “good person,” then they’re not providing appropriate support.

5) Address it in the moment when possible.

Victims who address the verbal abuse as it occurs have the opportunity to point out behavior the abuser might not realize what they are doing. If nothing else, addressing the abuse in real-time empowers the victim and sets the stage for remembering to do numbers 1-3.

The easiest response to verbal abuse is “Stop it!”

Just say, “Stop IT”

Those five responses alone will go a long way to helping you deal with an emotional abuser. Your next step could easily be taking the issue to your qualified coach or counselor and working from that direction, as well to regain your much-needed balance.

Whatever you do, avoid taking the easy step, which is accepting the perspective the abuser as your truth.

When you accept the truth of another, over your own, you take a dangerous turn that leads directly to unhappiness.

Are you suffering the effects of emotional abuse?  If that’s the case, there are options out there for you.

Give me a call so we can talk about it… schedule a time for a free call and tell me about it and lets see what kind of help you need.


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Psychological Abuse: Definition, Signs and Symptoms

Administration for Children and Families, What is Child Abuse and Neglect:


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