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Emotional abuse, sometimes referred to as psychological abuse, describes any type of behaviour that allows one person to gain power and control over another. There are many different types of emotional abuse, all which gradually undermine the other person’s self-respect.
This can occur in any kind of relationship - be it within a couple, a friendship or amongst family members or colleagues - and at any stage in a person’s life.
On this page we will look at how being abused in this way can make you feel and dispel some common myths about emotional abuse. We will also look at how counselling can help you to look after your mental health.
What is emotional abuse?
Most people know what physical or sexual abuse is, but when it comes to emotional abuse, some people think of it more of a ‘grey area’. They might know it has something to do with treating someone else badly but not be clear on what’s actually classed as emotional abuse.
The problem is, unlike with other types of abuse there are no scars or marks, so emotional abuse can be difficult to identify. But, these behaviours can be incredibly damaging to our mental health and if not dealt with, the torment can continue indefinitely.
Types of emotional abuse
There are a variety of types of behaviour that could be classed as emotional abuse, which include:
- Intimidation or threats. This is often done to make a person feel small and to stop them from standing up for themselves. This could be things like shouting, acting aggressively or making you feel scared.
- Criticism. This could be things like name-calling or making unpleasant, belittling comments. This can heavily affect your self-esteem and self-confidence.
- Undermining. This might include things like dismissing your opinion or disputing your version of events, so that you begin to doubt yourself. They might tell you that you're being oversensitive if you get upset.
- Making you feel guilty. This can range from emotional blackmail to ignoring you, by way of manipulation. Or they may suddenly act really nice towards you after being cruel - making you feel sorry for them.
As seen in the above examples, emotional abuse is generally about control. Sometimes this is explicit; if you are told when and where you can go out, or whether you can see certain people. Other times, however, it might be more implicit; neglection or withholding affection may seem less abusive than more outwardly aggressive behaviours, but this can be just as hurtful.
Another type of emotional abuse is economic or financial abuse. This can include withholding money, not involving you in finances or even preventing you from having a job. This could be done as a way of limiting your financial freedom, stopping you from feeling independent.
How do I know if it’s emotional abuse?
Conflict, arguments and criticism are all healthy ways of interacting with others - but there is a clear difference between this and emotional abuse: the way we feel.
If you’re on the receiving end, it can be extremely damaging and upsetting - and this is reflected in the law; The Serious Crime Act 2015. This makes behaviour that is ‘controlling or coercive’, in an intimate or family relationship, punishable by a prison sentence.
There can be many reasons why a person acts abusively towards another. There may be issues that stem from their childhood, such as if they grew up in a household that was abusive, or have been in previous relationships where this was the case. Abusers often find it difficult to handle their feelings and blame their problems on others instead.
Regardless of the reasons, this does not excuse the behaviour. No one has the right to make you feel frightened or worthless and you do not deserve to feel this way.
Misconceptions of emotional abuse
There are a number of myths and misconceptions that surround emotional abuse. For instance, some people believe that emotional abuse is merely another term for ‘verbal abuse’. It is true that emotional abuse does often include verbal abuse, but it can involve non-verbal and other non-physical forms of abuse. For example, being ignored.
When we think of emotional abuse, many people will picture a couple or a parent and child scenario. Whilst emotional abuse is commonly a part of domestic violence and child abuse, there are many other relationships that be affected by emotional abuse. These can include friendships and working relationships, too.
Additionally, while the majority of abuse victims (particularly in a domestic setting) are women, abuse of men happens far more often than you might expect.
At the time, I didn’t think Mike was treating me badly. He was giving me everything I’d ever wanted and that I’d never had before – love, acceptance, happiness, support, understanding. The problem was that I didn’t get any of that without emotional blackmail, mind games and pressure that resulted in sexual abuse.
- Phil shares his story, fighting for the rights of other male abuse victims.
People with a disability can also be vulnerable to emotional abuse. Sadly, in some cases, a person’s caregiver and abuser are one and the same. These situations are especially risky, since the person with the disability may be dependent on their caregiver for basic needs.
How does emotional abuse make you feel?
Experiencing abuse of any kind can lead to a number of different emotions. There is no right or wrong way to feel. You may experience some (or all) of the following:
- 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.
One of the hardest things about emotional abuse is that, through a campaign of blame, undermining, criticism and gaslighting, it can cause you to lose trust in yourself.
- Counsellor Jo Baker
But you mustn’t lose trust in yourself. Your feelings may have been frequently invalidated or dismissed and you may have suppressed your feelings for believing that they are wrong. But you must remember that the person who has taken control of your emotions has done so wrongly.
You are not worth less than other people and you can be happy and confident again.
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, one of the best things you can do is talk to them about what’s going on. Talking to someone outside of the situation can help give you a little perspective. They can help you to assess whether this relationship is abusive and whether you would be better without this person in your life.
Emotional abuse can have a damaging effect on you, so it is important to seek help and support to prevent it from becoming entrenched. 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.
I began meditating again, I prayed and I surrounded myself with personal development resources that I knew would help me reconnect with my true self. Even though I was still living with him, I gradually detached emotionally and mentally. I began seeing everything more clearly.
- Holly shares how she moved forward from an emotionally abusive relationship.
How can counselling help?
It can be helpful to seek help from a counsellor or therapist in order to help you see a way out and escape from a cycle of powerlessness.
You may not feel comfortable speaking to loved ones about what is going on, or maybe you have, yet they aren't sure of how to help you further. Counselling offers you a safe space to talk, without fear and without judgement. They can listen to you, and help you come to terms with what has happened, and understand your options for moving forward.
If you are no longer in an abusive relationship, but still feel the effects from what the other person put you through, a counsellor can help you come to terms with what has happened and move forward with your life. Trusting new people might feel especially difficult right now - but it will get easier. Finding a counsellor you trust and connect with is particularly important in helping you do this.
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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