Emotional abuse: what is it, and how do we heal?
Often described as 'just' emotional abuse, I think that it can be incredibly damaging, particularly as it can be so difficult to both see and describe. It can deeply affect your relationship to yourself, and you may find yourself losing trust in yourself, becoming increasingly self-critical and handing over your decisions to others in your life.
It often manifests as an experience of a loved one as being repeatedly critical, demeaning, controlling and cruel. A particular feature is that the victim is often blamed for the problems in the relationship; for example, they can be told that they are crazy, or that they have an ‘anger problem’ as a way to invalidate their normal, human response to being treated badly.
Obviously, those around us are human, and may do and say hurtful things every so often. Emotional abuse is different; it is a consistent pattern of behaviour, and it can often be understood as instrumental (which is not necessarily the same as conscious). This means that it is often an attempt to gain and maintain a position of power or invulnerability in the relationship.
Blame may even be present in a non-abusive relationship, the difference being that you are usually able to talk about it, and the other is able to hear your experience – although not necessarily in the moment, usually later. And even if they don’t necessarily agree with you, they are open to you having an opinion that is different to theirs.
Emotional abuse can be very difficult to describe, too, as it can often sound as though you are nitpicking; this makes it very hard to believe your own experience of abuse, as well as be believed by other people.
However, it really can have profound and far-reaching effects. It not only disrupts our relationship with ourselves, but emotional abuse in a past relationship can also affect how we experience our relationships in the present. It can leave us mistrustful, hearing criticism when none was intended, confused, isolated, or simply not showing our authentic self to others.
You may also feel very emotionally attached to the person that is/was abusive to you; loving someone who is alternately loving and cruel can be incredibly confusing. Where there is physical or sexual abuse from a loved one, in my experience, emotional abuse is always present.
Healing often seems to happen in relationship with another. A friend, therapist, a new lover, an internet group; we are simply treated better and we internalise this. Treating ourselves better also has a deep and profound healing effect: we internalise the kindnesses that we show to ourselves too.
Sometimes healing can happen spontaneously in a new, loving relationship, but sometimes the experience needs speaking about in order for you to heal.
So, if you're struggling to work out whether this is happening to you, or you’re finding it hard to recover, it may be worth seeking professional help. It can be very helpful to unpick your experiences with someone who is trained and experienced in helping people around these kinds of experiences.
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About Jo Baker
An experienced UPCA registered psychotherapeutic counsellor, Jo specialises in individual therapy for women. She has worked with survivors of domestic and sexual violence for a number of years in various projects. She now works from her private practice in Lewes, East Sussex, and also for a low cost counselling service in Brighton.