Emotional abuse

Emotional abuse, sometimes referred to as psychological abuse, is used to describe any type of behaviour that allows someone to gain power and control over another. There are many different types of emotional abuse, all of which gradually undermine the other person’s self-respect.

This can occur in any kind of relationship - be it within a couple, a friendship, amongst family members or colleagues. It can happen at any stage in a person’s life. Spotting the signs of emotional abuse can be trickier than other more overt types of abuse, which can lead to some people overlooking, ignoring, or dismissing the signs. 

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If you are on the receiving end of emotional abuse, it can be just as damaging and as upsetting as other forms of abuse. Controlling or coercive behaviour are both considered serious crimes.

On this page, we’ll explore how emotional abuse can make you feel, tackle some of the common myths and misconceptions, and look at how you can find help if you are experiencing emotional abuse. 

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 and can have far-reaching effects.

Some people may be hesitant about using the phrase ‘emotional abuse’ when describing how someone else is treating them. It’s important to remember that any behaviour that makes you feel controlled, small, unable to talk or seek help, is abusive.

If someone is stopping you from expressing yourself, is belittling your opinions, is making you doubt events or experiences you know to be true (known as gaslighting), this is abusive behaviour. If you find yourself changing how you act to better accommodate their behaviour, or find yourself feeling scared or anxious about their reactions, this is abusive behaviour.

What if my partner has reasons for behaving this way?

If someone’s behaviour is making you feel uncomfortable, upset, anxious, or scared, past experiences may be a reason - but they shouldn’t be used as an excuse.

There can be many reasons why a person acts abusively towards another. Emotionally abusive individuals may have grown up in an environment where there may have been a challenging family setting, where shouting or sarcasm may have led them towards feeling insecure, or where they may have themselves experienced other forms of abuse. 

While this may be something to consider as part of couples counselling, understanding these past experiences doesn’t excuse current or future abusive behaviour. Abusers can often find it difficult to handle their feelings and may 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.

You deserve to feel safe in sharing your opinion, speaking up, and sharing your experiences. No-one has the right to make you feel small, scared, or less than.

Types of emotional abuse

There are many different types of abuse and although emotional abuse may occur on its own, you may also face physical or sexual abuse alongside it. 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. It can also include refusing to acknowledge your successes, belittling your strengths or accomplishments. 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 (a form of gaslighting) 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.
  • Name-calling. They may use derogatory names or phrases when speaking with you, put you down in conversations, or say things to make you feel bad about yourself. These hurtful things may be disguised as a ‘joke’ or played off as sarcasm when questioned.
  • Different treatment. An emotionally abusive partner, friend or sibling may treat you differently from your siblings, other friends, or family. They may also put you in dangerous situations, try to control you, or put pressure on you to do things that you aren’t comfortable with or don’t want to do.
  • Isolation. This can include stopping you from having friends, making you doubt if friends or other family members really care about you, or trying to exclude you from gatherings or events. If your partner constantly requires you to check-in, wants to know where you are, who you are with, or required proof of where you are or who you are with, these can be further signs of controlling and isolating behaviours. 
  • Withholding affection, sex, or money. This may be as a method of controlling you, trying to make you change your behaviours or opinions. 

Signs of emotional abuse in children and teens

Young people may not feel comfortable or able to reach out until they reach a crisis point. For children, they may not understand what is happening to them or that what is happening is wrong.

If you’re worried about a child, signs to look out for include:

  • a lack of confidence or self-assurance
  • trouble dealing with their emotions
  • difficulty making (or maintaining) friendships or other relationships, including few or no friends, as well as isolation from their parents
  • behaviour that is inappropriate or unusual for their age 
  • extreme outbursts or a lack of social skills

For pre-school aged children, signs may also include being overly-affectionate with strangers, seeming wary or anxious, a lack of a close bond with their parents, aggressive or cruel behaviour towards other children or animals.

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; neglect or withholding affection may seem less abusive than more outwardly aggressive behaviours, but can be just as hurtful.

How do I know if I'm being emotionally abused?

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.

I’m being emotionally abused - what do I do?

If you think you may be experiencing emotional abuse, or are worried that a loved one is being emotionally abused, there are things you can do to help. 

Speak out. Telling someone you are being abused means you no longer have to deal with it alone. Anonymous helplines can offer a safe, judgement-free place to talk through any worries or concerns if you feel nervous or unsure about speaking to anyone in-person, or aren’t sure if you are ready to open up to friends or family.

Keep records. Keeping a diary of what is happening to you can help to remind you of the scale and scope of the emotional abuse you are experiencing. When abusers are being nice, it can be easy to forget, overlook, or convince ourselves that past events ‘weren’t that bad’ or must have become overblown in our memories. Keeping a diary of events and how they made you feel can help you to put their behaviour in perspective. 

Prioritise you. Make your mental and physical health a priority, and start taking care of your needs rather than worrying about pleasing others. Practising self-care, ensuring you get enough sleep, and eating balanced, regular meals can all help you to feel more able to deal with day-to-day stress and challenges that may arise.

Stop blaming yourself. People who have been emotionally abused may believe it is their fault, that they have done something to make them ‘deserve’ what is happening, or that something is wrong with them. Abuse is never ok. You are not the problem. Recognising that you are worthy of having your own opinions, feeling safe, and being able to express yourself can be the first step towards escaping the cycle of self-blame and guilt, and acknowledging that you are not to blame. 

Work on an exit plan. If the person who is being emotionally abusive, be they your partner, family member, or friend, has no intention of changing or working towards fixing problem behaviours, creating an exit plan may be one way to help you escape the cycle of abuse. Emotional abuse can take a toll, mentally and physically. If things become too much, you may need to take steps to remove yourself safely from the relationship. 

As each situation is different and unique, it may be best to discuss your thoughts and plans with a trusted friend, family member, counsellor, or to speak with a helpline for advice and guidance on your next steps. 

Worried about someone? Be supportive. If you are worried someone else may be experiencing emotional abuse, try to talk with them. Let them know that you care, that people do love and appreciate them, and if they need to talk, they can reach out to you (or helplines or someone else, if you do not feel comfortable or confident). 

Am I emotionally abusive?

Recognising that your behaviour may be emotionally abusive can be tough. Emotional abusers may not actively be aware that they are being abusive, however, it is possible to pick up habits, fall into negative patterns, or to even be influenced by the relationships and behaviours we have seen around us that may not be healthy. 

Signs to look out for can include:

You have trouble accepting that there are two sides to an argument. Apologising or recognising that you may have been wrong or have overreacted can be tough, but in healthy relationships, couples apologise and look at ways to improve and move forward together. If you struggle to accept your role or contribution in an argument, it can be a warning sign.

Has your partner become a people pleaser? If their behaviour has changed, it could be worth considering why they are now acting this way, and if there is anything in your relationship that may be contributing to this. Some people who have experienced emotional abuse may try to please others in an attempt to feel more secure, as their self-esteem may have been impacted. 

You use ‘silent treatment’ frequently. Trying to control others and get your own way doesn’t just mean screaming, shouting, or saying cruel or hurtful things. Refusing to talk about what has upset you and keeping your partner in suspense of what will happen can be ways of controlling others.

Taking a step back and returning to the conversation can be a good way to avoid heated arguments or saying things you may regret, but if you are shutting down the conversation or refusing to discuss things, these can be warning signs. 

You minimise or ignore ongoing issues. It can be tempting to downplay things when they are going wrong, but repeatedly brushing them off, refusing to face them, or denying that anything is wrong can create a sense of frustration, may leave your partner feeling unable to speak with you, or could border on gaslighting behaviour. 

You put them down, instead of helping build them up. Making someone else feel or look bad to put yourself in a better light, or to make yourself feel better is never ok. This can be a sign that you may have self-esteem issues. 

Part of being in a healthy partnership is supporting and contributing towards each other’s well-being. This could be through offering help and supportive words through new projects or hobbies, career moves, or acknowledging each other's skills or successes. Being kind, rather than looking good, as well as listening and behaving in a way that shows love are care are all key ways of helping to build up self-esteem. 

If you are worried about your relationship, or are concerned that you may need help and support learning new ways to cope with stress, anger, anxiety, or unhealthy behaviours, working with a counsellor or therapist could help.

Common misconceptions surrounding 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.

Some common misconceptions include:

  • 'Emotional abuse only happens in romantic relationships’ - 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. 
  • ‘Emotional abuse only affects women’  - while the majority of abuse victims (particularly in a domestic setting) are women, all forms of abuse can also happen to men and non-binary individuals too. 

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.

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.

What are the effects of emotional abuse?

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

In children, emotional abuse can lead to behavioural, emotional development, and mental health problems. This can include self-harming behaviour, trouble with language development, difficulty in forming and maintaining healthy relationships, They may be more likely to experience depression, have trouble expressing and controlling their emotions, may lack confidence, or develop risky behaviours (such as bullying, stealing, or running away). 

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 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.

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.

Finding help and support for emotional abuse

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.

If you’re unsure what you should be looking for in a counsellor, therapist or psychotherapist, try asking yourself these five questions. Choosing the right kind of help for you can be daunting; here are some of the signs that can suggest that you are on the right track and have found a counsellor who could work for you.

Further help

  • Childline - for more information tailored for children on emotional abuse and what you can do if you are worried about yourself or a friend.
  • Galop - the LGBT+ anti-violence charity offers advice, support and advocacy for those who have experienced abuse (emotional, psychological, financial, or sexual).
  • Live Fear Free - part of Welsh Women’s Aid. Speak with someone confidentially, free of charge 24/7 and find out more about getting help and support in your local area.
  • ManKind -  confidential help for men experiencing domestic abuse and violence. 
  • National Domestic Violence Helpline - discover more about domestic abuse, your rights, keeping safe, and the support Refuge can offer. 
  • NSPCC - find out more about the effects of emotional abuse on children, where you can get help, and what you can do if you are worried you about your behaviour.
  • Relate -  learn more about emotional abuse, recognising the signs, and the next steps to find help.
  • Respect - if you’re worried you might be emotionally abusing someone, you can get help and support to better recognise and change your behaviour. 
  • Women's Aid - email, or chat online, discover more about getting help with housing, safety planning and dealing with the police with the help of the survivor’s handbook, and speak with other women in a supportive community.

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