7 Signs You Might Be Emotionally Abusive
Hey, Psych2Go-ers! When most people think of abuse, they tend to think of physical or verbal fights. But did you know there is a more common type of abuse? Emotional abuse–or the “invisible” abuse—is more common than physical or verbal abuse, but may be reported less because it is harder to prove (NCADV, 2020). According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (2020), approximately 48.4% of women and 48.8% of men report having experienced emotional abuse at some time in their lives (NCADV, 2020).
So what exactly is emotional abuse?
The two forces driving all forms of abuse are power and control. This means the goal of all abusers is to maintain the upper hand or control in the relationship and they are willing to act in negative, destructive ways to keep this control.
In a nutshell, emotional abuse is behavioral and emotional tactics that are used to attack the target’s sense of control or sense of self (Mouradian, 2000). Here are some examples of emotional abuse (Mouradian, 2000):
- Putting down someone’s intellect or physical appearance.
- Using fear to control someone.
- Using emotional outbursts or guilt to gain the upper hand.
- Humiliating or degrading someone.
- Keeping resources to yourself or withholding love to get your way.
- Convincing someone they are “defective” or “unlovable.”
- Convincing someone they are “crazy” or “too sensitive.”
As you can see, emotional abuse is often subtle. The characteristics of emotional abuse often go under the radar for two reasons. First, many emotionally abusive acts are often swept under the rug as a bad day or a normal disagreement. Second, emotional abuse specifically attacks a target’s sense of who they are and how they feel about themselves. This often leads to the target of emotional abuse feeling like they somehow deserve the abuse.
Take a second to think about what made you click on this article. Were you drawn to this article because you were curious about emotional abuse? Are you wondering if emotional abuse played a role in any friendships or relationships that have been hurtful? Maybe you are looking to change a few patterns in your life. Or maybe you are wondering if you are the abuser.
Before we begin, you need to know a couple things. This article tackles emotional abuse from the standpoint of something you might be doing. It describes this common form of abuse in direct terms and many of you can relate to it in some way. However, if you recognize yourself in any of these examples, please know this was not posted to shame, hurt, or trigger you. Please understand this topic was chosen so that anyone who sees themselves in these behaviors can use this information to improve their relationships and lives. Seeing yourself in these behaviors does not automatically make you a bad person or evil. Rather, seeing yourself in these behaviors means you are able to look at yourself and figure out whether you want to change how you deal with the people in your lives. Again, please understand this was not intended to trigger or hurt you. If the material in this article is too triggering or painful for you, please honor yourself, even if it means not reading further.
But enough about that. Let’s talk about you.
7 Signs You Might be Emotionally Abusive
- You “jokingly” insult people.
Good friends playfully banter with each other. A parent or sibling might give you a nickname based on something funny or embarrassing you did. As long as everyone involved feels like they are in on the joke, this is completely normal. However, teasing and playful put-downs cross the line into emotional abuse territory when:
- The tone of the joke becomes aggressive.
- You have some sort of authority over the target. Some examples of this include bosses, teachers, parents, or people who have more clout than the person being teased.
- You intend to hurt or send a message to the target, such as posting passive-aggressive social media posts or hitting the target where you know it hurts. You may even add a statement like “I was only joking” or “you’re too sensitive.”
- The teasing keeps happening, even though the target has told you to stop.
- The “joker” encourages others to tease the target, such as when a parent constantly tells the target’s siblings to ignore the person being teased because they have no sense of humor or when the leader with a large platform gives a certain group of people a derogatory nickname.
It turns out the damage done by constantly teasing or insulting someone goes deeper than just hurting their feelings. Research has shown that being constantly teased and insulted increases the amount of inflammation in a person’s body, which weakens their immune system and leaves them more vulnerable to illnesses over time (Du Preez et al, 2016). If the continued taunting happens when someone is an adolescent, the constant assault on their immune system can make that person more vulnerable to developing depression as an adult (Du Preez et al, 2016).
So what makes you want to pointedly tease someone? Only you can answer that through a little self-reflection. However, social psychology has shown us that someone is more likely to resort to teasing and “joking” insults in situations where there is an established pecking order (Gabriel, 1998). This competitive dynamic happens a lot at school, on the job, and in dysfunctional families. Settings where emotional abuse happens by repeated insults have the following characteristics (Gabriel, 1998):
- There is a lot of competition in the environment.
- The parents, bosses, teachers, etc. in power often play favorites and/or go out of their way to exclude people they see as weak.
- Those in power often know the teasing is happening, but don’t do anything about it.
- The mean-spirited jokes are considered part of the company, family, or school’s culture.
- Those who are not in power feel like they have to join in or they will be seen as weak or losers.
But what do you think, Psych2Go-ers? Have any of you ever experienced this, or caught yourself acting like this? Please comment below.
2. You dismiss others’ feelings.
The hustle and grind of daily life can make you lose sight of what is happening in others’ lives. This makes it easy to miss the cues that let you know if your loved ones are happy, sad, stressed, or upset by something you did. Even the most caring person gets it wrong sometimes, but these mistakes can become an emotionally abusive pattern. Not recognizing or honoring someone else’s feelings becomes emotional abuse when:
- Your goal is to keep control of a situation or relationship.
- You want to manipulate or have power over the other person.
- You repeatedly tell someone their feelings are wrong.
- You often resort to the silent treatment instead of talking to someone who has upset you.
- You tell someone you have more right to be upset than they do when confronted with having hurt them.
- You mock or shame someone for being upset, confused, angry, or crying.
The signs of this behavior can be pretty subtle and are often excused as your go-to behaviors when you are mad, hurt, blind-sided, or rejected. Sometimes people act this way when they do not know what to say, how to handle, or how to empathize with what an emotional person is saying. However, if you recognize yourself in the previous examples, this might be a behavior you want to change. Further signs of this form of emotional abuse include telling someone:
- “I’m sure you’ve been through worse.”
- “It wasn’t that bad, right?”
- “You really shouldn’t be so upset, angry, sad, confused, depressed, etc.”
- “Let it go already!”
- “Suck it up.”
- “Man up.”
- “There’s no need to cry about it.”
- “I’ve totally been through worse than that.”
- “You have no idea what pain is.”
- “So many people have it worse than you.”
- “I know exactly what you’re going through.”
Psychological invalidation–or the act of brushing someone’s feelings off as irrelevant, dramatic, or dumb–often creates feelings of sadness, alienation, and rejection for whomever is on the receiving end. Considering we form many of our behavior patterns to avoid these feelings, repeated psychological invalidation can have powerful consequences in the target’s life (Leary, 2015). Here are some things people who have been emotionally abused this way report feeling:
- Like they do not have true friends or anyone who really cares about them (Srivastava et al, 2009).
- Difficulty forming close relationships with others (Srivastava et al, 2009).
- Awkwardness or anxiety in social situations (Srivastava et al, 2009).
- Like nobody values or “gets” them (Leary, 2015).
- That their boundaries and emotional needs are not as important as others’ (Leary, 2015).
- Constant loneliness, guilt, and shame without knowing why (Leary, 2015).
- Feeling jealous of those the abuser sees as “worthy” or seems to like better (Leary, 2015).
- Feelings of anger or sadness when faced with a social situation involving the abuser (Leary, 2015).
As with any item in this article, if you recognize yourself as making others feel this way, please know this is something you can change. But we want to hear from the Psych2Go community. What are your experiences with psychological invalidation? How did you handle it? Leave your answers in the comments below.
3. You like to embarrass others.
“Remember that time you were climbing the rope in PE and your shorts fell down?”
“I remember when that plate of spaghetti fell on your head. You turned so red!”
We all have those embarrassing moments we wish could be forgotten. Of course there is always someone who is more than happy to remember them in vivid detail. It is one thing to laugh about the crazy stuff that happens to others in a fun-loving way, but this can quickly become emotional abuse when:
- You are trying to make the other person feel hurt, angry, guilty, or ashamed.
- You continue to talk about the humiliating situation long after the target has asked you to stop.
- You go out of your way to humiliate the other person in front of people they are trying to impress.
- You try to humiliate the other person out of anger or because you feel threatened.
- You are using humiliation to punish someone.
- You are reminding this person of their mistakes to let them know you are in charge.
Embarrassing someone else is a lot like using biting humor in that it involves exposing someone in ways that hurt them (Mann et al, 2017). Using shady or insulting humor against someone involves a great deal of humiliation, but there’s much more to humiliation that makes it emotionally abusive. Here are some other characteristics of humiliation:
- Humiliation directly attacks someone’s self-image (Mann et al, 2017).
- Humiliation involves some form of showing the other person they are “less than” or not as powerful as the perpetrator (Mann et al, 2017).
- People who use humiliation against others choose targets who are more sensitive, depressed, or already feel different from the group somehow (Torres and Bergner, 2010).
Researchers found that for the person on the receiving end, humiliation does more damage when there is more than one person laughing at them (Mann et al, 2017). However, people offering the target some support after they have been humiliated does not seem to decrease the pain of being humiliated (Mann et al, 2017). Being humiliated goes beyond feeling bad, though. People who say they have been emotionally abused by being humiliated report:
- Experiencing increased anger in their lives (Combs et al, 2010).
- Feeling urges towards revenge or proving the perpetrator wrong, especially when the humiliation happens often and/or is public (Combs et al, 2010).
- Increased social anxiety and fear of being humiliated in the future (Hartling and Luchetta, 1999).
- Feeling guilt and shame, especially when it comes to expressing themselves or asking for what they need (Leidner et al, 2012).
- Feeling powerless, like they will always be “less than” (Leidner et al, 2012).
These feelings can have terrible consequences for the target of humiliation, such as:
- Not wanting to be seen or heard
- Letting others walk all over them
- Increased fear of failure and success
- Difficulty making and keeping friends
If you recognize yourself as someone who uses humiliation against others, is this something you want to change about yourself? Again, if you see yourself in this section and do not like what you see, you can change this pattern. Comment below if you want articles and videos on changing your patterns.
4. You like to push buttons.
Needing attention from others is a tricky thing. On one hand, having someone show you that they see and understand you can be one of the best feelings in the world. The right kind of attention makes you feel accepted, liked, and likeable. On the other hand, seeking attention in the wrong ways ruins relationships. Doing crazy stuff will get you noticed, but might also cause others to keep you at arms’ length. But did you know that constantly doing and saying things to get others to react might be a form of emotional abuse?
Unpredictability—or never knowing what will happen next—is one of the major factors in abuse (Johnson, 2019). This makes perfect sense, if you think about it, because what better way to maintain power over someone than to constantly keep them on their toes? But let’s be clear: being spontaneous—or even unfocused or flighty—is way different from always shaking things up to keep the upper hand. Here are some ways that pushing others’ buttons can become abusive (Johnson, 2019):
- Sabotaging them by not giving them an important message.
- Always having them help you through a crisis when you know they have something they need to get done right then.
- Repeatedly sending someone emails or social media posts that you know will anger or hurt them, but then getting angry at them for reacting.
- Acting charming in public, but being completely unsupportive when the two of you are alone.
- Constantly changing plans at the last minute.
- Not honoring a person’s personal boundaries—such as constantly borrowing their things without asking or showing up at their home unannounced—but expecting them to “just understand.”
- Knowingly serving a dish that the other person hates or cannot eat.
- Immediately broadcasting something you were told in confidence to others in order to make the target look pathetic or negative in some way.
- Telling someone in private that you support them or agree with them, but completely bashing them online or with other people.
Beyond making the target of this sort of abuse feel alienated and resentful, using unpredictability to feel like you have power over a person or relationship is a self-sabotaging behavior. In a nutshell, acting like this pushes people away because repeatedly setting these emotional traps for people creates distrust. When a relationship lacks trust, it gets weaker.
5. You tell people their version of reality is wrong.
We all perceive things in different ways. For example, many siblings who have grown up in the same home have different views on their childhoods. Parts of your reality may be different than your friend’s, partner’s, or family member’s reality. Experiencing something differently than another person is perfectly alright, but telling the other person what they experienced was not real can become abusive.
Gaslighting—the psychological term for negating someone else’s reality—involves intentionally using someone’s words, feelings, and actions against them. The goal of gaslighting is to completely discredit anything the other person has to say so that the abuser can maintain control over the narrative. Some of the ways people gaslight others include:
- Pretending not to understand or hear someone else’s concerns.
- You make decisions that directly involve others without asking for their input.
- Telling someone they are imagining things.
- Insinuating or telling someone they are crazy or damaged.
- Minimizing what the other person has to say by calling them “too sensitive”, “too emotional”, or saying they are getting upset over nothing.
- Playing dumb by pretending not to know anything about what the other person is telling you.
- Accusing someone of lying when you know you may be in the wrong.
Continually telling someone their reality is a lie or glitch in the Matrix goes beyond a simple disagreement. People who report being the targets of gaslighting often say it has affected them in the following ways (National Domestic Violence Hotline, 2020):
- Constantly second-guessing themselves, even when they are alone.
- Wondering if they are crazy, dramatic, or too sensitive.
- Always having the feeling that something is wrong, but never knowing how to identify what it is.
- Not being able to trust their own feelings.
- Not being able to trust their own thoughts.
- Feeling like they have to lie in order to avoid conflicts and insults.
- Problems making the smallest decisions.
- Often feeling hopeless and like there’s no joy in their lives.
- Constantly feeling “less than”, “not good enough”, or like they can never do anything right.
As you can see, being the target of gaslighting can chip away at someone’s self-confidence and how they see themselves. What are some of your thoughts when you read about gaslighting?
6. You use your emotions to get people to do what you want.
Think about the last time someone opened up to you in a way you were comfortable with or found positive. Who was it? What did they say? Why do you think they said it? What about this situation left you feeling like this was appropriate or good?
Now think about the last time someone expressed themselves in a way that felt gross, wrong, or negative to you. Who was it? What did they say and how did they say it? Why do you think they said it in that way? Did they mean to make you feel bad? What about this situation felt odd or negative to you?
So what was the difference between those two situations?
Expressing your emotions can be great for your mental health. Appropriate self-expression facilitates open communication and prevents many resentments. However, unleashing your emotions becomes destructive when you use it to manipulate another person. Here are some signs you might be trying to manipulate others using your emotions:
- You use a lot of threats or ultimatums.
- You blow up… a lot.
- You blame others for fights that you start.
- You use guilt to get your way.
- You try to rush relationships with people you barely know.
- You ask people questions about themselves so you get intel on them to use later.
- You often use others’ personal details against them.
- You often say things like, “Well, I guess you don’t trust me.”
- You are constantly telling others how much helping them is taking from you.
Although that list does not cover every possible form of emotional manipulation, it does touch on a couple common themes. First, like all abuse, emotional manipulation is about maintaining power and control. Abusers use this tactic when the target calls them out for bad behavior, such as cheating or gossiping. Second, emotional manipulation plays to specific feelings. The emotions or emotional states abusers want to target the most are (Nepryakhin, 2019):
- Nostalgia or a sense of romance.
- A sense of justice or fairness.
- Shame or embarrassment.
Targeting these emotions means the abuser needs to be a chameleon and take on a certain role. The most common roles used during emotional manipulation are (Nephryakhin, 2019):
- Despot. The manipulator needs control at any cost and is not subtle about it. This type is most likely to use aggression, threats, humiliation, or even violence.
- Victim. A manipulator that plays the victim tries to get the upper hand by playing to a target’s “soft spots,” such as compassion, pity, sense of justice, or guilt. They may also play to a target’s pride by making them feel like a hero.
- Prosecutor. This type of emotional manipulation happens when the abuser criticizes, accuses, shames, or humiliates the target. They might answer a question with a question or use the target’s words against them.
- Buddy. Emotional manipulation by an abusive “buddy” often involves the target feeling like there is an emotional connection or prior relationship between the abuser and target. The “buddy” abuser is looking to play to the target’s guilt, feelings for the “buddy,” sense of nostalgia, or loyalty.
In romantic or friend relationships, younger people tend to use this type of abuse more often than people over 35 (Karakurt and Silver, 2013). Women who experience this type of emotional abuse tend to report more feelings of loneliness and isolation than women who do not experience emotional manipulation (Karakurt and Silver, 2013). Furthermore, research has shown a possible link between long-term emotional abuse and chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia (Karakurt and Silver, 2013).
What drives people to do this? Although the tendency to emotionally manipulate others does not have one root cause, researchers believe someone is more likely to resort to this form of emotional abuse if (Brewer and Abell, 2017):
- They learned at a young age that they will not get what they want or need by asking directly.
- They have major trust issues, usually stemming from childhood.
- They tend to have a high level of Machiavellianism in their personality.
People with a high degree of Machiavellianism—or the tendency to further your own agenda by exploiting or deceiving others—tend to be cynical, mistrustful, and cut off from their own feelings than others (Brewer and Abell, 2017). Not surprisingly, people who report higher Machiavellianism also say they have lower levels of relationship satisfaction (Brewer and Abell, 2017). It is this sense of dissatisfaction that often drives the Machiavellian partner’s manipulative and dishonest behavior (Brewer and Abell, 2017).
But what are your thoughts on emotional manipulation? When do you think it crosses the line between normal drama and abuse? Tell us about it in the comments.
7. You use silence as a weapon.
We have all heard the phrase “silence is golden,” but is that always true? Emotional withholding—a form of emotional abuse that involves using affection, validation, love, and praise against someone—is a form of emotional abuse that includes what you might know as the silent treatment. Although even the healthiest relationship may go through more silent periods, silence becomes abusive when it is used to control, manipulate, or punish someone.
Researchers have found that emotional withholding is not always done out of malice, although it can be intentional (Gunther, 2018). People who engage in emotional withholding patterns—intentional and unintentional—often use this tactic for one of the following reasons (Gunther, 2018):
- They need to get the upper hand before the other person hurts them.
- They fear vulnerability and exposure due to unhealed trauma.
- They deal with conflict by shutting down and running the other direction.
- They are the type that needs to win at all costs.
Using silence or withholding affection puts someone in an uncomfortable situation. They can either go along with the silence and emotional restriction or they can break the silence. Someone on the receiving end of emotional withholding may choose to give in to the abuser’s manipulation for one of these reasons (Leonard, 2020):
- They are the type of person who will do anything to keep the peace.
- They fear abandonment and rejection more than they care about being manipulated.
- They grew up in a home where the silent treatment or emotional withholding was used all the time.
- They are the type of person who feels better about themselves when they sacrifice what they want or need.
- They pretty much decided they would lose this battle anyway, so why not accept defeat?
Punishing someone by withholding affection, positive emotions, and using the silent treatment creates a ripple effect of negativity, both in the relationship and in the target of this form of abuse (Leonard, 2020). When you use emotional withholding, the relationship ultimately suffers because both parties get used to poor communication and power plays (Leonard, 2020). The emotions pushed down when they are unexpressed do not just disappear. These emotions often come out as angry outbursts later in the relationship (Rittenour et al, 2018). People who are alienated by being the target of emotional withholding report:
- Lower self-esteem (Nezlek et al, 2012).
- Feeling like they do not belong anywhere (Nezlek et al, 2012).
- Taking criticism and feedback more personally than those who do not report receiving this treatment (Nezlek et al, 2012).
- Feeling like they have no purpose or meaning in their lives (Nezlek et al, 2012).
- More anger and resentment (Rittenour et al, 2018).
- More anxiety (Rittenour et al, 2018).
- Using food or other unhealthy outlets to comfort themselves (Rittenour et al, 2018).
Again, not all radio silence in relationships is abusive or done intentionally. Sometimes a break is necessary for both people to do some self-reflection. However, a break or lull becomes abusive when (Leonard, 2020):
- You are using the silence or withholding emotion to punish the other person.
- You are trying to change or control the other person by using the silent treatment or being stingy with affection.
- YOU always have to be the one to decide when the silence begins and ends.
- You are using emotional withholding to regain the upper hand.
- You talk to everyone about this issue, but not the other person involved in the conflict.
- You always look for people to be “on your side” or “against them” when you get into these conflicts.
- You want the other person to feel bad or guilty.
Can you relate to anything in this section, Psych2Go-ers? The good news is, this does not have to be your future. Tell us in the comments below if you want articles and videos about how to deal with conflict. Also, tell us about some of your biggest pet peeves when you are dealing with a loved one.
What if You Are Being Emotionally Abusive?
At the end of the day, only you can decide whether you want to change your behavior. However, it may be time for some self-reflection.
These changes are best made with the help of a qualified mental health professional and you owe it to yourself to find the help you need. Using a journal along with going to counseling can help you get clear about what you want to change and why. Here are some journal prompts to get you started:
- List each of the emotionally abusive tactics you have used in your relationships. For each tactic you have used, answer each of the following questions:
- Who was the other person or people involved in these situations?
- What did you feel you lost control over in each of these situations?
- What about these situations made you feel powerless or vulnerable?
- What about these situations made you feel threatened?
- Who was the first person in your life you saw act this way? How did you feel when they did?
- How did acting this way benefit you? What did you get out of it?
- How did the other person act towards you after you did this? How do you feel when you think about how you affected them?
- If you could do it over again, how do you wish you handled this situation?
- Has anyone ever done this to you? How did it affect you?
- What are some things you think all of these situations have in common?
- What emotions did you feel in each of these situations?
- What were the main triggers in each of these situations?
- How do you think your behavior affected the relationship?
Emotional abuse is not a topic to be taken lightly. If you saw yourself in any of the behaviors described here, it may be time to ask yourself a few questions. Getting honest about your bad behavior—especially behavior that might be considered abusive to others—takes a great deal of courage and understanding. Please consider getting professional help so that you can learn healthier behaviors that are less destructive to yourself and others because emotionally abusive patterns can be changed in most cases. The first step is to recognize it as something you want to change. The second step is realizing you are worth it.
As always, any information provided here is for entertainment and educational purposes only. If you need mental health counseling or treatment, please contact your insurance company, local college’s student counseling clinic, or your county crisis line. Keep watching the Psych2Go channel for more information on mental illness. Help is out there!
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My partner has been accusing me of several of these methods of abuse for some time. And after reading this article I can understand why he is, at times, so adamant that he has made a completely accurate assessment and why he is unwilling to enter into any kind of dialogue about my perceived guilt.
Especially the form of abuse known as gaslighting. Do I tell him he is imaging things? Yes. Do I label his accusations ‘crazy’? Yes. Do I claim to have no idea what he is talking about when he makes these accusations? Yes. Do I tell him his perception of what is happening around him is wrong? Yes. Do I strongly deny that I am lying to him when I respond to the claims he makes about me being out to destroy his life? Yes, yes and yes!
HOWEVER, his belief that I have some secret agenda to bring about his downfall for some equally secret reason that I won’t tell him is entirely fabricated! I love my partner very much and with a concerted effort have made personal changes since my previous relationships to ensure I do everything I can to show them the love I have for them, the honour I feel as their partner and most importantly, the respect they deserve to be shown as not only my favourite person but as a unique and special human being. Today I am a more focused partner who always tries to put my boyfriend’s needs before my own. I am more honest about my actions and feelings than I have ever been and I’m more dedicated to my partner than I was in the past, and happily so. With age (we are both 44) has come more maturity and a contentment for a simpler life which means I’m not seeking validation (sexual or otherwise) from even a fraction as many people as I once did. Hypocrisy is something I’ve always despised, that’s not something I felt more as I got older, it was always with me. As is the belief that advancing my own interests at the expense of others is just flat out wrong. Unfortunately, it has likely been a contributing factor to why I find myself unemployed these days – a situation I am desperately trying to remedy as my partner often wonders if I am taking advantage of his generosity while he has to shoulder the bulk of the financial burdens we share. After close to 14 months without work, I find that everyday I’m at home trying to manage increasing levels of feeling useless, worthless, loneliness and depression while my self-confidence and self-esteem inversely deteriorates. So when my partner wrongly accuses me of taking advantage of him, of not actually trying to look for work, of having sex with many others while he is at work, of organising spare house keys for my friends to systematically steal things from him, or even that the compliments I genuinely offer are actually my sarcastic ways of insulting him, then YES, I DO tell him that he is imagining things and that those accusations ARE crazy and that his perception of reality IS just plain wrong. Because that is the truth. But all of this plays into his narrative that I am gaslighting him and the more vehemently I try to convince him, and the angrier I get at being wrongly labeled a liar and a thief with some Machiavellian objective to strip him of all that he values in order to take it for myself, the more valid he feels his evaluation of me as a text-book gaslighted is.
What does a person being wrongly accused of gaslighting do to demonstrate their innocence? There is so much material and support online for people who believe they are the victim of a gaslighter but nothing about how to defend oneself from being labeled such for those of us who are genuinely not trying to hurt or manipulate anyone but are only trying to communicate an honest truth to someone who refuses to believe it.
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