Emotional abuse allows one person to gain power and control over another through words and gestures which gradually undermine the other’s self respect. Emotional abuse can be difficult to identify, as there is no scars or marks, and the torment can continue indefinitely. Conflict, arguments and criticism are all healthy ways of interacting with others – so what makes communication abusive?
On this page
- Patterns of emotional abuse
- Signs of emotional abuse
- Causes of emotional abuse
- When is the right time to seek help?
Patterns of emotional abuse
Emotional abuse falls into three patterns:
- Aggressive: which includes name-calling, belittling, blaming, accusing, yelling, screaming, making threats, degrading insults or destructive criticism.
- Denying: this includes sulking, manipulation, neglecting, not listening, withholding affection and distorting the other’s experience.
- Minimising: this can include belittling the effect of something, isolating, accusations of exaggerating or inventing and offering solutions or 'advice'.
Signs of emotional abuse
- Depression or anxiety
- Increased isolation from friends and family
- Fearful or agitated behaviour
- Lower self-esteem and self-confidence
- Addiction to alcohol or drugs
- Escapist behaviour
Emotional abuse can damage a person's confidence so that they feel worthless and find it hard to make or keep other relationships. Secrecy and shame usually maintain the abuse.
Causes of emotional abuse
Powerlessness, hurt, fear and anger are often unresolved issues for both the abuser and the abused. Childhood patterns can be re-enacted in emotional abuse with one participant taking the 'parent' role and the other adopting that of the ‘child’. A person may also be an abuser in one relationship and abused in another as they reverse unresolved emotions. Abusers find it difficult to handle their feelings and blame their problems on others instead.
When is the right time to seek help?
If your behaviour starts to change and you are no longer able to find satisfaction in your work or social life it is time to consider seeking help. If people you trust express concern about you or your relationship, it may be helpful to assess whether it is abusive or just conflicted. There is plenty of current information on abusive relationships to allow you to do a reality check; through books, on the internet, with a health professional or experienced counsellor. You may need help to assess your self-esteem and what can be done about the problem.
Medical help and treatment
Emotional abuse can be damaging, and often taps into earlier patterns. It is important to seek help and support to prevent it from becoming entrenched. It can be helpful to seek help from a counsellor or therapist in order to know yourself better and escape from a cycle of powerlessness. Learning to care for your own needs and to feel entitled to be confident and respected is a good start to being able to claim your own self-esteem.
Acknowledging that a relationship is abusive can be a useful call to action. There are a variety of help sources available for sufferers.
If the abuse is in an intimate relationship it may be worth considering couples counselling as an individual. It is not usually appropriate to attend with the partner to break free of the pattern. Counselling is not recommended for abusers, who may use the opportunity to re-enforce their own inability to take responsibility and ‘poor me’ position.
Counselling, psychotherapy and CBT all have their place and for many people it is the beginning of a long, but rewarding journey to a better and more fulfilling way of living by breaking old, unhealthy patterns.
What should I be looking for in a counsellor or psychotherapist?
Whilst there are currently no official rules and regulations in position to stipulate what level of training and experience a counsellor dealing with emotional abuse needs, we do recommend that you check your therapist is experienced in the area for which you are seeking help.
There are several accredited courses, qualifications and workshops available to counsellors that can improve their knowledge of a particular area, so for peace of mind you may wish to check to see if they have had further training in matters of abuse. Another way to assure they have undergone specialist training is to check if they belong to a relevant professional organisation that represents abuse counsellors.
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What our experts say
- Recognising emotional abuse
Stella Goddard, BA (Hons) Registered MBACP (Accred)15th June, 2017
- Emotionally abusive relationships: Survivors of narcissistic parents
Amanda Perl MSc Psychotherapist Counsellor MBPsS BACP (Accred) CBT Practitioner16th May, 2017
- Emotionally abusive relationships: Technological violence, stalking on Facebook and social media
Amanda Perl MSc Psychotherapist Counsellor MBPsS BACP (Accred) CBT Practitioner20th April, 2017
- Why do we find it so hard to recognise emotional abuse?
Siobhan Toner MBACP8th April, 2017
- Psychological abuse is still abuse
Roxana Trelia (MBACP)6th April, 2017
- Do you know domestic abuse?
Liz Jenkins Psychotherapeutic Counsellor BSc (Hons) UKCP (Reg'd/Accr'd), MBACP6th April, 2017
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