When we talk about abuse, it’s often physical or sexual abuse that comes to mind. However, emotional abuse is more prevalent than either of these. The National Domestic Violence Hotline reports that 95% of their calls relate to emotional abuse.
What is emotional abuse?
The National Domestic Violence Hotline includes emotional abuse in their list of six common types of abuse (the others being: physical abuse, sexual abuse, financial abuse, digital abuse, and stalking).
Their definition of emotional abuse includes psychological (i.e. non-physical) behaviors such as threats, insults, constant monitoring or “checking in,” excessive texting, humiliation, intimidation, or isolation.
Examples of behaviors that qualify as emotional or verbal abuse include:
Calling you names or putting you down.
Telling you what to do or wear.
Yelling or screaming at you.
Intentionally embarrassing you in front of others or starting rumors about you.
Preventing you from seeing or communicating with friends or family, or threatening to have your children taken away from you.
Damaging your property (throwing objects, punching walls, kicking doors, etc.).
Using online communities or communications to control, intimidate, or humiliate you.
Blaming abusive or unhealthy behavior on you or your actions.
Being jealous of outside relationships or accusing you of cheating.
Stalking you or your loved ones.
Threatening to harm you, your pet(s), or people in your life.
Threatening to harm themselves to keep you from ending the relationship.
Gaslighting you by pretending not to understand or refusing to listen to you; questioning your recollection of facts, events, or sources; trivializing your needs or feelings; or denying previous statements or promises.
Making you feel guilty or immature when you don’t consent to sexual activity.
Threatening to expose personal details, such as your sexual orientation or immigration status.
The above examples apply mainly to romantic relationships, although some are applicable to other types of relationships such as friendships, sibling or parent relationships, and bullying at school, college, or in work.
Childhood emotional abuse
Another key form of emotional abuse is childhood emotional abuse. Some researchers narrow down the definition of childhood emotional abuse, pinpointing it to the specific ways parents or caregivers respond to a child’s emotions and the impact this has on their development.
In this context, childhood emotional abuse is ‘sustained, repetitive, inappropriate emotional response to the child’s experience of emotion and its accompanying expressive behavior’.
In other words, the victim of emotional abuse is unable to experience and express their emotions in a healthy way because of the dysfunctional way in which the people around them respond.
Here is an example of a sustained, repetitive and inappropriate emotional response from the same study:
When a four-year-old returns from the nursery, expressing the emotions of excitement and enthusiasm because of some project she has completed successfully and is itching to show it to all around, parents will normally respond with their own enthusiasm, pride, and praise. But what if the parents repeatedly respond with indifference or anger instead of those necessary positive emotions?
If parents (or any other significant persons) are repeatedly reacting to the child’s emotions with emotions that are entirely inappropriate, this will at some point constitute emotional abuse. The child returning from the nursery, for example, is very quickly going to lose any enthusiasm and sense of pride in her achievement. Worse still, she is learning that being enthusiastic, excited, and proud, is dangerous.
It’s really important to note the emphasis of ‘repeatedly’ in the above example. Most parents will have experienced an example of being distracted, busy, too tired, or being short tempered when a child is trying to interact with them. In these cases, parents are likely to realize what they’ve done, apologize to the child, spend time with them to make it up to them, and resolve not to do it again. Therefore, this is not emotional abuse, which is defined by the repeated and sustained nature of the behavior.
What is the impact of emotional abuse?
For those who have experienced emotional abuse in adulthood, the effects can be long lasting and varied. Here are some of the more commonly experienced effects.
Short-term effects on the mind and body
As well as feeling anxiety, shame, fear, confusion, guilt, powerlessness, or hopelessness, victims of emotional abuse may also experience frequent crying, moodiness, aches and pains, difficulty concentrating, and muscle tension.
These effects may only last a short time which can be unrelated to the duration of the abuse.
Long-term effects on the mind and body
Longer term effects include a loss of sense of self, doubting your self-worth and abilities (which can make it harder to leave an emotionally abusive relationship), depression, anxiety, risk of substance misuse, and chronic pain.
Another long-term effect of emotional abuse is possible damage to your attachment style, which impacts current and future relationships.
In addition to the effects above, the National Domestic Violence Helpline highlights four specific ways in which people can feel like their lives have changed after experiencing abuse and domestic violence:
Feeling easily overwhelmed, anxious, irritated or crying without explanation
You may find that the people and places you used to love now feel different. They may be dull or, on the other hand, you might find them too much. Survivors of abusive situations often try to find respite by isolating themselves from the world or the activities that were once meaningful to them. While this feels better in the short term, think of it as a temporary fix while you re-learn how to be in the world. Human beings are social creatures that need interaction with other people, and healing happens in relationships with others.
Feeling distrustful of people
In particular, for women who’ve experienced emotional abuse at the hands of a male partner, it can be uncomfortable to be with someone of the opposite sex. You may be wary of others, which is completely natural. It’s a coping instinct to keep yourself safe. Realizing you have a hard time building connections with other people, and that trust has become an issue, is a key trigger to you getting the help you need.
Flashbacks of the abuse
Although emotional abuse differs from physical or sexual abuse in that the abuser’s wounding mainly happens verbally or psychologically, the pain suffered by victims is experienced in the same part of the brain as physical pain. Many people who have experienced abuse report having flashbacks which can be triggered for no apparent reason. Reliving the pain experienced from the abusive situation can leave you feeling confused, isolated and like there’s something wrong with your head. Flashbacks are a symptom of PTSD or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Many survivors of abuse experience Complex PTSD, which is a slightly different type of PTSD that occurs due to the repetitive nature of abuse. Both can be treated so seeking professional help is advisable.
Rumination is a way of describing the fixation and repetition of a word, problem or event that plays in a continuous loop over and over in your head. This can take the form of the words said by an abusive partner or mental images of the distress experienced. This can cause agitation, hopelessness, and depression, all of which can hamper the recovery process.
What are the effects of childhood emotional abuse?
For those who experience emotional abuse as children, there are two common consequences:
Silencing and ‘invisibilizing’
This can be thought of as a kind of ‘under-expression of emotions’, described as silencing and ‘invisibilizing’ of emotions. For these children, they have learned the hard way that expressing their emotions provokes negative reactions from parents/caregivers. The more they are responded to this way, the less the child expresses their emotions audibly and visibly. It might seem these children exist in an ‘emotionless’ state, but there is no such thing as a child without emotions. What actually happens is the child instead learns to experience mainly negative emotions (e.g., misery, despair, apathy). These are relatively noiseless, motionless, and often invisible. This serves to keep the child safe from their parents’/caregivers’ negative responses.
Audible and visible expression
This is a kind of ‘over-expression of emotions’, in which they are communicated audibly and visibly. These children cannot cope with the way their parents/caregivers are behaving and express their frustration, anger, rage, and aggression through the loudest, most visible, most action-laden (often destructive) behavior. This means they are learning no other alternative or appropriate emotional response, are likely to experience great difficulty in their educational and social lives, and are perceived as unpredictable and aggressive, constantly living on a short fuse.
What is the impact on adult survivors of childhood emotional abuse?
As adults, the children who learned to keep safe by under-expressing emotions are likely to find relationships difficult, suffer from mental health issues (including depression and anxiety, eating disorders, suicidal thoughts, and self-harm) and put others’ needs before their own (also known as ‘people-pleasing’).
The children who learned to keep safe by over-expressing emotions are likely to find they are incapable of the subtleties and sophistication of emotional communication necessary in their peer groups, their schools, and work settings. They may have anger issues, become violent in their response to difficult emotions, and struggle with all types of relationships, and with their mental health in general.
For obvious reasons, most victims of childhood emotional abuse suffer from a lack of emotional literacy, which is the ability to express our emotions and feelings using speech and other forms of communication.
Emotional abuse robs individuals and couples of the opportunity for happy relationships. Left unaddressed, it can become accepted and “the way it is.” Dr. Gregory Jantz discusses how relationships turn into emotionally abusive ones, and how you can address it in a positive way.
Learn to nurture and take care of yourself. Examples of this could include putting yourself first (including saying no, asking for help, honoring your likes and dislikes, and prioritizing your own enjoyment), eating well, moving your body, and making enough time for rest and relaxation. Self-care is also about discipline, so you may need to practice making yourself do things you don’t want to do and stopping yourself from doing things you shouldn’t do. Self-soothing is also a component of self-care, so try listing out the healthy self-soothing strategies that work for you in times of stress or distress and keep this list at hand for when you need it. Breathing exercises and grounding techniques can help you calm down. Mindfulness can be another helpful way to self-soothe. It’s a non-judgmental, receptive mind state in which one observes thoughts and feelings as they are, without trying to suppress or deny them. We cannot ignore and feel compassion for our pain at the same time. Mindfulness requires we not be “over-identified” with our thoughts and feelings, so that we are caught up and swept away by negative reactivity.
If you struggle with relationships after experiencing emotional abuse, you are not alone. In order to survive, you learned coping strategies that kept you safe. However these may no longer be needed once the abuse is over. However, stripping away your existing coping strategies before having built up new, more functional ones can leave you vulnerable. Be patient, as learning new ways of being takes time. Healing is completely individual and happens at a different pace for everyone. Be kind to yourself, bringing in some self-compassion while you heal.
Develop your self-compassion
Self-compassion just means giving ourselves the same kindness and care we’d give to a good friend. Instead of being hard on yourself, try to remain out of judgment when things don’t go your way. Remember that being imperfect, failing, and experiencing life difficulties are inevitable. Recognize suffering and personal inadequacy is part of the shared human experience – something we all go through rather than being something that happens to “me” alone.
Get to know your inner child
For those who’ve experienced childhood emotional abuse, inner child work can be particularly healing. By imagining yourself as a child you can reconnect with the person you were at the time of the abuse, coming to terms with its impact. Looking through adult eyes at what happened allows you to see the abuse was not okay. The concept of the inner child is a way to acknowledge the wounds experienced in childhood remain throughout life, allowing room for the kind of love, care, and protection you missed out on. Listen to the scared, sad, lonely, or angry parts and tell them you are safe now, you didn’t do anything wrong, and you are loved. This can be enough to get you on the path to accepting your wounds and looking for ways to backfill the things you didn’t receive, whether that’s learning, material goods, or emotional support.
Work on your emotional literacy
If you learned that emotions were dangerous when you were growing up, it’s likely you could use some support in developing your emotional literacy. The Feelings Wheel is a helpful tool for identifying what you might be feeling, and helping you to find the words to describe what you’re feeling. There is another version – the Emotion Sensation Feelings Wheel – designed to help describe what emotions feel like in the body.
Reclaim your body
Emotional abuse can cause a profound abandonment of self that spans across our emotional and physical being. Reconnecting with your body can be unfamiliar at first but the effects can be huge. Experiment with how it feels to connect using practices such as meditation, yoga, positive affirmations, and breathing exercises.
Seek professional help
While it can be helpful to try some of the suggestions above, professional help is out there for those who feel the need for more support. Not all treatments for recovery from emotional abuse are effective for everyone, so you might have to try a few different things to see what works best for you.
The main ways in which the effects of emotional abuse are treated include medication, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing.
Many survivors of emotional abuse feel shame about themselves and their experiences. Shame is a social emotion that requires empathy to heal. Talking therapy is a particularly helpful method for healing shame as you work alongside a therapist who supports you from an empathic and supportive stance.
At The Center • A Place of HOPE, we offer treatment for emotional abuse. Our proven Whole Person Care model addresses the entire you – your emotional, medical, physical, psychological, nutritional, fitness and spiritual needs.
We are here, and ready to help you. Please call 1.888.771.5166 for more information.
 O’Hagan, K. P. 1995. Emotional and psychological abuse: Problems of definition. Child Abuse and Neglect, 19: 449–461.
Dr. Gregory Jantz
Pioneering Whole Person Care over thirty years ago, Dr. Gregory Jantz is an innovator in the treatment of mental health. He is a best-selling author of over 45 books, and a go-to media authority on behavioral health afflictions, appearing on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN. Dr. Jantz leads a team of world-class, licensed, and...
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