Do you know what mental abuse is? Or what it means to be mentally abused by someone? When we think of abuse and abusive relationships, we often imagine scenarios of escalating physical abuse. But what happens when the kind of abuse we endure isn’t physical at all? What if it leaves no wounds, bruises, or lasting marks for other people to see? What then?
Mental abuse, which can be either verbal, emotional, or psychological in nature, is one of the most criminally overlooked forms of maltreatment in the world, no less dangerous and destructive than physical abuse, but far more insidious and manipulative. It is also arguably the most difficult kind of abuse to recognize, and is often inflicted on others as a way to control, exploit, or degrade. Some common examples of mental abuse include: yelling, name-calling, gaslighting, belittling, invasions of privacy, public humiliation, and being isolated from your friends and family.
With that said, here are 6 things mental abuse can do to a person:
1. You start to doubt yourself a lot.
Easily one of the worst things mental abuse can do to a person is plague them with an unbearable amount of guilt and self-doubt, especially if their abuser was also their significant other. They will find themselves constantly wondering things like, “Was it my fault? Could I have done something to stop it? Could I have changed them for the better? Was I just not worth changing for? Why wasn’t I good enough for them?” You start to doubt your worth as a partner, a friend, and even as a person, because mental abuse is meant to undermine your self-esteem and sense of self-worth to make you more compliant and accepting of the abuse and manipulation others want to inflict on you.
2. You question your own sanity.
A form of emotional manipulation meant to deceive us and our perceptions of reality, gaslighting is one of the most common ways mental abuse manifests. And it’s unfortunately because of this that victims of mental abuse often find themselves starting to question their own sanity at times (Stark, 2019). Mental abuse in and of itself is already hard enough to come to terms with, but losing trust in ourselves and our own judgment only makes things worse. Victims of mental abuse may find themselves believing other people’s lies over their own memories, or questioning their own thoughts and feelings about things.
3. You tend to minimize the abuse.
Mental abuse can be difficult to come to terms with, especially when people say things like, “Did it ever get physical between you two?” or “Did they ever threaten you or make you feel unsafe?” Saying no might make you feel embarrassed, thinking that you’re making a big deal about nothing and doubting if what you’re even experiencing can be counted as abuse. But don’t be so quick to dismiss these feelings, especially after the abuse has stopped. Many studies have proven that mental and emotional abuse can be just as harmful to our mental health, level of functioning, and overall sense of well-being as physical abuse (Mouradian, 2000).
4. You struggle with self-blame.
Similar to the last few points, most victims of mental abuse will not only doubt themselves and minimize the abuse they experience, many of them often struggle with feelings of guilt and self-blame, too (Cramer, Gallant & Langlois, 2005). A psychological phenomenon known as “self-silencing,” victims of abuse often have a strong tendency to internalize their abuse and wrongly come to believe that what has happened to them is somehow their fault, that they could have done more to stop it or defend themselves, that they could have somehow reasoned with and changed their abusers for the better. But having thoughts like this can be dangerous, and self-blame is a very big, very real reason why so many victims of abuse still struggle to come to terms with their trauma.
5. You feel like you can’t trust people anymore.
Mental abuse is often inflicted on victims by someone they once trusted and cared about. So even after they are no longer being abused or have already cut their abuser out of their life, many victims of mental abuse still find it hard to trust and get close to others, even their own friends and family. Mental abuse can turn even the most open, warm, forgiving, and innocent of us into someone paranoid and insecure, someone who struggles with intimacy and can’t connect with other people on an emotional level anymore because they’ve learned first-hand how terrifying it can be to trust the wrong person.
6. You start to have flashbacks/triggers.
Trauma is a normal response to being abused, be it physically or mentally, and it’s not uncommon for many victims of abuse to develop triggers that lead to flashbacks or panic attacks (Orzek, Rokach & Chin, 2010). This is because, in terms of mental abuse, we might not always be able to understand that what we are experiencing is actually abuse, something harmful to our mental health. But our minds might still be able to sense the danger and trigger powerful physiological responses — such as sweating, trembling, muscle tension, and a racing heart rate, all of which are characteristic of a panic attack. The trigger might be something related to the abuse (like a word your abuser often used to insult you, or a memory you have of them abusing you) but this isn’t always the case. Either way, the triggers and flashbacks are often sudden, vivid, and unpleasant to experience.
If you or anyone you know is a victim of abuse (be it physical or mental), please do not hesitate to reach out to a mental healthcare professional today and get the help you need, because abuse — in any form — should never be tolerated. As a victim of abuse, please always remember that it’s not your fault and that there’s no right or wrong way to feel about your experience. Seek help and support from those around you,
- Stark, C. A. (2019). Gaslighting, misogyny, and psychological oppression. The Monist, 102(2), 221-235.
- Mouradian, V. E. (2000). Abuse in intimate relationships: Defining the multiple dimensions and terms. Wellesley, MA: National Violence Against Women Prevention Research Center. Retrieved Avgust, 11, 2010.
- Cramer, K. M., Gallant, M. D., & Langlois, M. W. (2005). Self-silencing and depression in women and men: Comparative structural equation models. Personality and Individual Differences, 39(3), 581-592.
- Orzeck, T. L., Rokach, A., & Chin, J. (2010). The effects of traumatic and abusive relationships. Journal of loss and trauma, 15(3), 167-192.