Emotional abuse is often difficult for us to identify. How many times have we heard the story of a jealous girlfriend (or boyfriend, because no gender discrimination here) demanding that her man be available 24/7, lest he be accused of cheating? How about this one: a child is told that they will remain in custody of his or her parents, even though they are being verbally berated daily, because there is “no physical evidence of abuse”? Or there is the more subtle classic of a child’s parent wishing the child were “less emotional” regardless of gender. This parent may tell their child to “just get over it” or use a plethora of tactics to invalidate the child’s emotions. Are these instances of emotional and psychological abuse? You bet! Unfortunately, due to our culture downplaying the importance of emotion, it makes sense that emotional abuse is harder to recognize to the untrained observer. More tragically, those who are abused even have a difficult time recognizing it as well, which sets them up to be abused over and over again in their adult relationships. Alternatively, you might find that you yourself have used these tactics in the past in order to get your needs met. This is not meant to be a judgmental post if you fall into this camp, but a self-check and hopefully a catalyst for self-reflection and change.
I am writing this post to help us all be better able to recognize emotional and psychological abuse. (Side note: One of my favorite Instagram artists @blessingmanifesting posted a cool infographic about recognizing emotional abuse. It inspired me to write this post, so look over at the sidebar to get a full list of emotional abuse tactics abusers use.) Some of the most common emotional abuse tactics that I see when working with victims of narcissistic abuse are:
- Gaslighting (rewriting events to convince you they happened a different way than what you remember). This is one of the most devastating tactics used, because it causes the recipient to doubt their own perception of reality. Victims quite literally feel crazy. They want to believe their abuser’s often more positive spin on what really happened because they want to continue to love and get their needs met by the abuser. Example: “No I didn’t hit you. You are remembering it wrong. I simply shoved you out of the way because I was starting to get mad.”
- Your boundaries don’t matter. Examples: You tell your boyfriend or spouse you are not comfortable being physically intimate, and they pressure you despite your attempts to say no as firmly as you can. You tell your friend that you can’t do one more favor for them, but they beg and plead despite you continuing to tell all the reasons you cannot help right now.
- Using your empathy against you. Example: “I really need your help, especially after what Sheila did to me. You know how I don’t handle breakups well.”
- Threatening to harm or kill themselves in an attempt to get you to comply. This is one of the most extreme examples, and if you have ever been on the receiving end of this, I am terribly sorry. Please know that another’s life is NEVER in your hands in this scenario. If someone kills themselves (often after a breakup) it is NEVER your fault! Their decision to live or die is theirs alone. They are responsible for how they handle their emotions, and it is not your job to make them feel better.
- Shaming you into not talking about it. Examples: “Everyone will think you are __________.” “If you talk about it, your friends will think you’re a real drag.”
- Nothing you say or do is good enough. This one causes its victims to become either rebellious in nature, overly compliant, or it causes individuals to adopt ridiculously high standards for themselves. Victims never feel satisfied with themselves or other people. Their inner self-voice is very critical of even minor mistakes.
- They idealize you, then discard you. This is a pattern very typical of narcissists during dating. They will come on very strong in the beginning, and will pursue their mates very intensely. To someone with low self-esteem, this can be like water to a dry well. One the victim is hooked, the narcissist will either a) become very critical of the flaws in their partner, insisting that they change constantly, b) find an arbitrary reason to break up with their partner, often very suddenly, or c) a combination of a) and b).
If you are currently the victim of emotional or psychological abuse, please seek help. There is no abuse too small to address in therapy. It also may be helpful to bolster yourself with additional reading materials. A book I recommend for dealing with abuse recovery is “Whole Again: Healing Your Heart and Rediscovering Your True Self After Toxic Relationships and Emotional Abuse” by Jackson MacKenzie. Click the link to purchase from Amazon: https://amzn.to/3i78l1d
There is truly a plethora of reading material on healing from emotional abuse. Here are some additional books and resources to help you on your journey. (Side note: a percentage of purchases from clicking these links will go to Moore Vulnerability Counseling and will help me stay afloat during these difficult times. Thank you.) Some will have pictures posted next to them, and some will not. Be sure to subscribe to my blog so that you don’t miss my next post about how to disarm an abuser!