Emotional abuse is secretive, dishonest, and sadistic. Lacking emotional and compassionate empathy is the most common and toxic characteristic of an abuser.

Combined with the inflated sense of self-importance and entitlement, these qualities alone can cause someone to inflict emotional abuse on anyone close to them.

But though it is a very common occurrence, it is difficult to understand, especially if you are trying to leave a toxic relationship or witnessing somebody else being abused.

What is emotional abuse?

Emotional abuse, also called psychological abuse*, occurs when one person in the relationship uses physical, sexual, and verbal attacks, threats, and humiliation to control and intimidate the victim.

Emotional abuse can be hard to spot because it can be less obvious than other forms of physical or mental abuse, but it is still just as damaging to your self-esteem and self-confidence.

It’s when someone uses their power or influence over another person to control them emotionally.

Know the Signs of Emotional Abuse.

If you think someone in your life is being emotionally abusive, here are some signs to watch out for:

  • They make you feel bad about things that aren’t your fault, and you willingly accept responsibility to keep the peace.
  • They blame you for every misfortune and failure, so you’ve learned to avoid arguments with them.
  • You do things just to keep the peace instead of standing up for yourself.
  • They consistently pick on your flaws and mock you.
  • Usually, you feel worse about yourself and your life after a conversation with them.
  • They have a history of being abusive toward other people in their lives.
  • You notice a marked change in their behavior or personality. (Often, this is a shift in the cycle of abuse rather than a personality change – they’re showing their true selves).

Recognizing Emotional Abuse in its Many Forms

There are many forms of emotional abuse, some of which might feel like an ordinary conversation to you, especially if you’ve been dealing with toxic people for most of your life.

Often, we notice that people who survive an abusive and/or traumatic childhood end up with emotional abusers as adults in various relationships.

Following are some common examples, though this list is by no means exhaustive.

  • Intimidation – Making threats of self-harm or harm to you (or people you care about) if you don’t do what they want.
  • Humiliation – Making jokes at your expense or putting you down, often in front of others and in private.
  • Controlling behavior – Telling you what to do, trying to make decisions for “both of us,” and not giving you any input or going in the opposite direction of what you want.
  • Gaslighting – Telling you something is true, even when you know it’s not.
  • Stalking – Following you or watching you without your permission.
  • Blackmail – Trying to intimidate you by threatening that they will tell others about something unless you do what they want.

Understanding the Effects of Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse has lifelong devastating effects on anyone who experiences it. Not only does it affect the person being abused, but it may also be the very reason the abuser is behaving this way.

  • Sadly, emotional abusers have often experienced trauma and abuse in their childhoods, just like the people they’re abusing.
  • Victims often suffer shame, guilt, self-doubt, low self-esteem, and fear.
  • They also tend to avoid conflict because they believe they will lose control and become angry.
  • Or, they go the other way and become the abuser, using their lack of self-esteem and their shame to bully their partners, family members, and friends into walking on eggshells to serve their selfish needs, even at their own detriment.
  • Trauma bonding makes victims feel like they can’t get away from their abusers – and the constant intermittent reinforcement given to them will keep them hooked.
  • Because abusers often use emotional manipulation to keep their partners dependent on them, it can seem impossible to leave an abusive relationship.
  • Sometimes it even feels easier just to stick it out and avoid conflict because years of emotional and psychological abuse make the abused person too emotionally exhausted to do anything else.

*Note: WomensLaw.org notes that while there are some small differences between these terms, “There is no clear agreement among experts in the field whether there is a meaningful difference between emotional and psychological abuse.”

Get Help Healing From Emotional Abuse. 

Knowing when to walk away from an emotionally abusive relationship can be difficult, especially if you become so engrossed in the drama that your well-being becomes secondary. This is often the case. But remember: You have a right to be with others who care about you and treat you well or at least don’t abuse you.  If you think you might be being abused, talk to someone who can help.

Emotional Abuse Leaves No Physical Scars You Can See. Quote by Angie Atkinson on confusing and abusive relationships.