Emotional abuse can be as obvious as name-calling and raging, or it can be so subtle you spend days wondering why you feel so bad. It can happen between intimate partners, parent and child, teacher and student, boss and employee, siblings, co-workers, friends, strangers, any time people are interacting. Usually, but not always, the person in a more powerful position is the aggressor.
Emotional abuse is a kind of bullying. Using words, body language, and other behaviors, the aggressor implies or says directly that the recipient is wrong, bad, defective, shameful, fault-ridden, blame-worthy. If the recipient protests this treatment, the protests themselves are sometimes targeted for further negativity. The aggressor might say, “You’re imagining things,” or “No one else has had that problem with me,” or “Sure, honey, I’ll stop doing that,” but nothing changes. Often, the abuse is intermittent, alternating with more respectful or even charming behavior.
You may be experiencing emotional abuse if you…
- feel unexpectedly shocked or confused by someone’s words or behavior
- spend a lot of time wondering what you did or said wrong
- spend a lot of time worrying about what to do or say next
- question your memory of recent events
- feel fear when someone approaches you, even though superficially you have a positive relationship
- feel shame after interacting with someone, even if you can’t name why
- increasingly think you’re stupid or crazy
- are trying really hard, but the relationship is getting worse, not better
If you notice even one of the above signs, then that environment is toxic for you. Here are some things you can do to get support and start the healing process.
Take a break
If at all possible, take a break from the environment that is hurting you, so that you can get grounded, clear your head, and decide what to do next. In some situations, you may decide you don’t want to interact with that person any more. In other situations, the person might be providing something you need or want. You may decide you want to continue interacting, at least for now, or you may feel powerless to leave. It’s important to get as much support as you can to counteract the toxic environment.
Emotional abuse is corrosive to self-esteem, and it can be hard to be on your own side. As much as you can, gently notice your feelings and thoughts, and tell yourself, “There’s a good reason I feel this way.” “I deserve good treatment.” “Maybe I’m not the problem here.”
Break the silence
Talk about what’s happening. If someone disbelieves, denies, or blames you for the problem, say, “We’ve had different experiences,” and find someone else to talk to. Keep trying!
Seek out people who enjoy your company, and whom you enjoy. Notice when you feel good during and after spending time with someone, and see them more.
If the situation is ongoing and/or your despair and pain are continuing or getting worse, seek out supportive professional healing, such as bodywork or psychotherapy. It can be an immense relief to be received with respect, supported to speak your truth, and encouraged to reconnect with your own body.
Know what you deserve
Notice that this list does not include suggestions for ways to improve yourself, fix the aggressor, or smooth your relationship with the aggressor. Sure, learn more about communication if it interests you, and work on your childhood issues if they’re in your way, but don’t do it in hopes of deserving better treatment.
You already deserve to be treated with respect and consideration just as you are.
There are many books about emotional abuse which go into more detail about what it is, what you can do, and how to get help.