How To Recognize Someone is Emotionally Abusing You

Disclaimer: The aim of this article is to spread awareness among the general public, not for self-diagnosis. 

Trigger warning: This article contains descriptions of emotional abuse that may be triggering to some. If you are not in a psychologically healthy place to read this, you may delay reading this until a later time and do know that there are resources that you can seek for help. 

An emotionally abusive relationship may actually be hard to detect, compared to a physically abusive one. It can actually be subtle, and you may actually be oblivious to it. 

If you find that the emotional abusive pattern happens continuously, despite you having voiced your dissatisfaction and concern about the behaviour, there is a high probability that you are in an emotionally abusive relationship. 

Some consequences of emotional abuse include depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, and post-traumatic stress disorder (Brennan, 2020). 

So, Psych2goers, let’s all delve into the signs that someone is emotionally abusing you: 

  1. They use guilt to control you

“Sorry I am unable to attend your birthday party this weekend. I have to complete an important assignment,” you informed your friend.

“Hmm, I guess I’ll just cancel my party. It seems that no one wants to come to my party. Why do I bother to have a party anyway?” 

“Well, I’ll go then,” you said to your friend because you feel so sorry for her. You don’t want her to feel alone and unwanted. 

Psych2goers, have you ever been guilt-tripped by anyone? You have done nothing wrong, but the other person is invoking a feeling that you are at fault. They are hinting that they are unhappy about your decision and you are responsible for their feelings. However, this is regarded as a form of unhealthy communication and hinders conflict resolution. 

However, we also need to realize that guilt does not always entail deliberate manipulation. 

Guilt can actually be positive. It can propel you to make amends and prevent yourself from repeating the same mistakes. We can look at guilt-tripping as more of a spectrum of behaviour. Guilt-tripping may not necessarily impose a significant effect on a healthy relationship. For example, you and your significant other have a loving relationship. You want your partner to help you with the laundry since you feel tired and jetlagged, since you have just returned home after a long business trip. You then go to your partner who is playing his favourite video game, you take his hand, and say, 

“Dear, you know what, I am feeling so tired right now, but there are tonnes of my clothes from the trip that I haven’t washed yet. Can you please just do the laundry for me?” 

What do you notice about the above conversation? Perhaps this will induce a feeling of guilt in your partner, and your partner will gladly do your laundry for you. 

Okay, let’s look at another scenario. 

You are working with a colleague, who is your boss’s best friend. He always comes to work late and leaves early. You feel dissatisfied and you want to at least let him know that it is not a good attitude at the workplace. So, you decide to let out heavy sighs regularly, comment on how much work that you have to finish, and how stressful it is to meet the job deadline. Deep down, you hope that the colleague is able to notice your hint and that you want him to at least be responsible at work. However, when you are doing it like this, it can backfire and you may face failure, if the other person does not care how his behaviour affects you. Thus, you will feel more and more dissatisfied (Klein & Raypole, 2020). 

2. They police your day-to-day routines without acknowledging your desires 

You wake up one morning and see a text message on Whatsapp. 

“Where are you? What are you doing? Why don’t you reply to my message?” 

You leave it aside, planning to get ready for your work and reply to your significant other’s message while you are on the subway to work. 

After you have done showering, you hear a notification from your Whatsapp again. You see the message that pop up on the screen, 

“I know you have read my message. Why don’t you reply? Do you not care about me? By the way, you cannot go and hang out with your friends after work. My parents are coming over to town and will stay for one week, so let’s meet them today.” 

“Can’t I meet them tomorrow?” you finally reply to the message. 

“No, today. Let’s meet them today.” 

Have you ever encountered such a situation? Your partner is overly-invested in your day to day life and you feel like you don’t have the freedom to make your own choices. 

This can also be a type of emotional abuse. 

3. They give you the silent treatment

You and your partner attend a wedding ceremony. You are sitting at the table, and your partner is at the buffet table, getting drinks for both of you. From afar, you observe him. You see he is approached by his ex-wife. They still maintain a good relationship for the sake of their children. Then you see how the ex-wife seems to be casually flirting with him, they laugh over something, and his ex-wife is twirling her hair in a flirty manner. You feel jealousy overwhelms you. When your partner arrives at the table, you refuse to accept the drink that he offers you. You remain sulky throughout the event. When he asks you why, you refuse to give him the answer. 

Psych2goers, what do you think of the above scenario? Is this kind of silent treatment quote unquote appropriate? When will you say that this silent treatment is crossing the line into emotional abuse territory? 

Sometimes, silent treatment is not meant to inflict wounds, rather it can be a remote occurrence that can spiral out of hand. However, when this happens frequently, it can actually be a passive-aggressive approach to make you feel bad enough about yourself, because you know that you are doing nothing wrong (Legg & Pietrangelo, 2019). 

4. They put you down intentionally

You visit your in-laws for a festive celebration. Your mother-in-law points at you and says, 

“Why do you make your child dress like that? Tsk, tsk, look at you, you are becoming fatter since the last time I saw you. You need to take care of your appearance, or else you will see your husband looking at other people.” 

Same old, same old. Your mother-in-law always makes it a point to jab at your outward appearance, and about your way you raise your child. She has never approved of your marriage with your husband, and you have never visited your in-laws’ house… until the moment you have a child. 

Psych2goers, do you know a term called as “disparagement humour?” According to a recent paper by the researchers from University of Macedonia (2021), this is defined as humour “that disparages, belittles, debases, demeans, humiliates, or otherwise victimizes.” In this paper, they give an example of Superbowl ads which apply disparaging methods to sell their products, which involve ridiculing and degrading people who are oblivious about the time (ie “Are you living under a rock?”). The researchers also stated that there are particular personality traits involved in the case of advertising: 

  • People high in “katagelasticism”: Enjoy laughing at others, use a personal adaptive strategy to avoid ridicule by others and regain self-esteem. They disparage others to feel superior, perhaps can be traced back to when they were young, in which they have been laughed at by their peers. 
  • People high in “gelotophobia”: Fear being laughed at. They had been targeted by bullies during their childhood, but instead of exhibiting superiority, they become highly sensitive to being mocked at and don’t get involved in the behaviour themselves. They also don’t enjoy seeing others being made fun of. 
  • People high in “gelotophilia”: Love being laughed at, they are extraverted, spontaneous, and self-confident. They take pleasure in making the best of an awkward situation. They view humour directed toward them as a “token of appreciation and admiration”. When they see the disparaging ad, they first find it humorous instead of insulting. 

5. They ignore your feelings

Psych2goers, have you ever been in a situation whereby you verbalize to people about your feelings in a particular situation? You state that you are sad or angry or disappointed, but you found yourself being ignored. They never acknowledge your feelings, and you feel invalidated. This happens repeatedly, and you see no change in behaviour from the person who has been ignoring you. 

Yes, indeed, when a person has been ignoring your feelings, time and time again… you will feel invalidated. You feel that you don’t deserve to feel what you feel. This can also be a sign of emotional abuse. 

Final thoughts

Do you find yourself resonating with the above signs? If you do, it is highly advisable for you to seek help from licensed mental health providers. 


Brennan, D. (2020, November 20). How to tell if your partner is emotionally abusive. WebMD.

Hatzithomas, L., Voutsa, M. C., Boutsouki, C., & Zotos, Y. (2021). A superiority–inferiority hypothesis on disparagement humor: The role of disposition toward ridicule. Journal of Consumer Behaviour. doi: 10.1002/cb.1931

Klein, A., &; Raypole, C. (2020, July 22). How to spot and respond to a guilt trip. Healthline.

Pietrangelo, A., & Legg, T. J. (2019, April 30). Silent treatment: How to respond to it and when it becomes abuse. Healthline.

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