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
- 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 abuseCrisis Text Line
REALITY: Anything hurtful is just that—hurtful. There is no need to compare or judge one painful experience against another.
The above image shows a variety of power and control tactics. Despite the labelling, these are all forms of emotional 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.
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?
- Crisis Text Line: How to Deal with Emotional Abuse
- Government of Canada: Psychological abuse: A discussion paper
- HelpGuide: Domestic violence and abuse
- Office on Women’s Health: Emotional and verbal abuse
- Reachout.com: What is emotional abuse?
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
BScPharm BSN MPN
Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.