What Is… Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse: the system destruction of a person's self-esteem and/or sense of safety

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is emotional abuse.

Emotional abuse involves:

“…the systemic destruction of a person’s self-esteem and/or sense of safety, often occurring in relationships where there are differences in power and control.”

Government of Canada

It can involve a number of different tactics:

  • verbal abuse, including ridiculing and name-calling
  • actual/threatened rejection/abandonment
  • gaslighting (trying to make a victim doubt their sanity)
  • causing fear, threatening
  • socially isolating the victim
  • bullying
  • controlling
  • needing to know everything the victim is doing
  • financial abuse

This type of abuse can occur along with other forms of abuse, or on its own, and can cause significant damage either way. It can happen in multiple contexts, including intimate relationships, adult-child relationships, child-child bullying, and workplace bullying.

Abusers may start off relationships behaving normally or with the abuser laying love and attention on thick in order to create the initial bond. Some research has indicated that the underlying motivators to be emotionally abusive are a need for control and a need to break down the victim’s self-esteem.

The abuse can cause significant long-lasting harm to both physical and mental health, including chronic pain, PTSD, depression, and anxiety.

Identifying vulnerable people

Certain groups are at increased risk of being targeted with this type of abuse, including people with disabilities, the elderly, Indigenous people, and people with language or culture barriers.

Signs of abuse that might be overtly apparent include someone going along with their partner on everything, rarely going out in public unless they’re with their partner, describing their partner as jealous or possessive, or having a drop in self-esteem or major personality change.

Myths & facts

Crisis Text Line offers several myths and facts:

MYTH: Emotional and physical abuse always occur together
REALITY: Emotional abuse can happen with no physical signs–that’s part of what makes it so hard to spot

MYTH: Emotional abuse only happens to women
REALITY: Like any abuse, emotional abuse can happen to anyone and in any relationship

MYTH: Emotional abuse isn’t “as bad” as physical abuse
REALITY: Anything hurtful is just that—hurtful. There is no need to compare or judge one painful experience against another.

Crisis Text Line
wheel representing power and control tactics
moggs oceanlane / CC BY

The above image shows a variety of power and control tactics. Despite the labelling, these are all forms of emotional abuse.

Narcissistic abuse

The term narcissistic abuse is often used to describe this type of abuse, and in particular gaslighting, when it’s perpetrated by someone who is a narcissist. However, some people who aren’t narcissistic are emotional abusers, some people who have narcissistic personality disorder aren’t emotional abusers, and someone with narcissistic personality disorder may be abusive for reasons other than their personality disorder.

Long story short, an upside of the term emotional abuse is that it captures the abusive behaviours without getting into specifics about the abuser.

Invisible wounds

Unlike the visible signs that might result from physical abuse, emotional wounds are invisible, and the abuser is likely to send clear messages to the victim that they are to blame and that silence must be maintained. But the fact that it’s invisible doesn’t make it any less harmful.

Have you ever been emotionally abused or known someone who was?


The Psychology Corner: Insights into psychology and psychological tests

The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.

Ashley L. Peterson headshot

Ashley L. Peterson


Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.

36 thoughts on “What Is… Emotional Abuse”

  1. I have experienced it. Dad was one and first person I went with and got married to, turned out to be one.

    Mum had it off dad too.

    You know from reading my blogs posts, I don’t highly rate him at all.

  2. Very interesting! Thank you for mentioning my post, I was quite surprised 🙂
    I think you explained it very well although emotional abuse can be difficult to get a grip on because it isn’t that visible after all.
    It really makes me wonder how people are living through it as we speak. Thanks for bringing it into the light today.

  3. Is emotional abuse something you’ve experienced, either directly or with regards to someone you know? Both long term relationships I had as a young woman (which went on for decades in one case) were emotionally abusive. Hubby never physically abused me, but he got really really good at the emotional abuse. At the end I seriously hated even being around him at all because it was so toxic. The other person I was involved with over thirty years was abusive. Period. He was physically abusive until we got in a fight and I threatened to kill him and seriously meant it. I guess I looked crazier than he was, and he never hit me again after that, BUT his use of emotional and mental abuse was massive. My father was a victim (I seriously hate that word) of emotional abuse from my mother too, so it is true that not only women suffer from that kind of abuse.

  4. Urgh! It’s a horrible feeling just thinking about it. Still, we need to get this message out there, that it can happen to both male and female, and can be happening without being aware that it is abuse.

    As you’ve mentioned Ashley, it doesn’t always happen in isolation, often there’s another type of abuse going on sometimes i.e. domestic abuse.

    Thank you for giving me a mention, much appreciated.

  5. The mother inflicted physical and emotional/verbal abuse on me from before birth – the physical abuse basically stopped when I became bigger than her (with one interesting episode when I was about 19), the verbal/emotional abuse continued until I was 48 years old and I ceased any contact with her. The effects of that abuse – bones healed, but my psyche/self-esteem/soul – never healed and never will.

  6. I am unfortunately all too familiar with this type of abuse. It’s taken many years to understand and overcome. Thank you for sharing this testimony by highlighting Kacha’s story. Hugs to you both. Together, we recover and rise❤❤

  7. My ex was emotionally abusive to me and to our children (also to others in his own family and strangers too, such as waiters and clerks). We don’t talk to him any longer because he is so unpleasant to deal with. Whatever you say, he twists into an insult and goes into a rage. Honestly should have seen these red flags in my 20s… well, I did, but he convinced me it was okay to be a bully sometimes and he was only putting on an act because people will take advantage otherwise. And then he’d be super nice for a while. It took years for me to rid myself of his words rattling in my head.

  8. I have seen movies with relationships like this. It’s hard to watch. I have never experienced it. I have been friends with people in middle who would also bully me.

  9. Great post. My mom did this which is why we no longer talk 🙂 I especially like the part of the post where you debunk the myths about emotional abuse – I’ve heard a lot of “but at least she didn’t physically abuse you” from well meaning people.

      1. Emotional abuse is something I’ve experienced unfortunately. I’ve been wanting to share my experience on my blog, but its taking a long time to build up the courage for it.

  10. This is a great post, and it’s so important to discuss.

    I have experienced emotional abuse. In reading this post, I realized to what extent I was abused.

    Thank you for writing this.

  11. Thank you for this. I think it was a timely reminder for me. Emotional abuse is as bad as physical abuse. I found it hard to recognise in my own experience and can probably link it to my mental health but healing and learning about self love has really helped.

  12. I think gaslighting is more common than people believe. I researched a lot about it as I have experienced it a couple of times. Not to a significant degree, other than in one relationship many years ago. When your self esteem is low you become an easy target for many. It’s also easy to feel strong emotionally and begin a relationship with someone who is very loving, extremely full on and everything you would want … only to have that removed and the emotional abuse begin. I am very wary of relationships that begin like that now.

  13. Up until very recently, I thought emotional abuse was interchangeable with verbal abuse. Currently reading “The Emotionally Abusive Relationship” by Beverly Engel and then I see your post! 😀

    Beverly asserts that “emotional abuse is any nonphysical behavior or attitude that is designed to control, intimidate, subjugate, demean, punish, or isolate another person. But there are also some types of physical behavior that can be considered emotional abuse.

    These behaviors have a name: symbolic violence. This includes intimidating behavior such as slamming doors, kicking a wall, throwing dishes, furniture, or other objects, driving recklessly while the victim is in the car, and destroying or threatening to destroy objects the victim values. Even milder forms of violence such as shaking a fist or finger at the victim, making threatening gestures or faces, or acting like he or she wants to kill the victim carry symbolic threats of violence.”

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