In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is emotional abuse.
Kacha of Food.for.Thoughts recently wrote about her own experience with gaslighting, as did Caz of Mental Health 360º. I’ve written in the past about gaslighting specifically, but I wanted to take a broader look at emotional abuse in this post.
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
Emotional 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 for emotional abuse are a need for control and a need to break down the victim’s self-esteem.
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.
The abuse abuse can cause significant long-lasting harm to both physical and mental health, including chronic pain, PTSD, depression, and anxiety.
Crisis Text Line offers several myths and facts about emotional abuse:
“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.Crisis 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. While only one section is labelled as emotional abuse, the other sections are also forms of emotional abuse.
Narcissistic abuse is often used to describe emotional abuse, particularly gaslighting, 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 abuse for reasons other than their personality disorder. Long story short, an upside of the term emotional abuse captures the abusive behaviours without getting into specifics about the abuser.
Unlike physical forms of abuse that may leave a visible mark, emotional forms of abuse 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.
Is emotional abuse something you’ve experienced, either directly or with regards to someone you know?
You can find the rest of the What Is series here.
- 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?
While I often use Wikipedia as a source in this series, it’s worth noting that the Wikipedia page for this topic was quite poor quality.