Emotional abuse

Written by Becky Banham
Becky Banham
Counselling Directory Content Team

Reviewed by Lindsay Roadnight
Last updated 6th July 2023 | Next update due 5th July 2026

Emotional abuse (also called psychological abuse) is a type of abuse where someone tries to use emotions to manipulate, embarrass, shame, blame, criticise, or otherwise try and gain control and power over someone else.

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What is emotional abuse?

Emotional abuse is a type of abuse that happens when someone tries to control you by using emotions to embarrass, criticise, blame, shame, guilt, or manipulate you in some way. Over time, this consistent pattern of abusive words and behaviours can affect your self-esteem and mental health.

Emotional abuse can occur in romantic relationships as well as between friends, family members, and colleagues. It can happen at any stage in a person's life and between people of any gender. 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.

While most people will have heard of other types of abuse such as physical or sexual, emotional abuse can be seen by some as 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.

Counsellor Leigh Taylor explains more about emotional abuse and how therapy can help.

Emotional abuse can be incredibly damaging to your mental health and if not dealt with, can have far-reaching effects. Some people may be hesitant about using the phrase 'emotional abuse' when describing how they are being treated. However, 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, or makes you doubt events or experiences you know to be true (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.

Emotionally abusive people aim to gain control by isolating, discrediting, and silencing their victims. Over time, this leads to their target feeling trapped and unable to leave. If you're worried that you or someone you care about is being emotionally abused, seek help and support.

Types of emotional abuse

There are many different types of abuse. Emotional abuse may occur on its own, or you may also experience other forms such as physical, sexual, or financial abuse.

Emotionally abusive behaviours can 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.
  • Shaming. Making you feel ashamed of yourself, your behaviour, or your experiences.
  • 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 other people really care about you, or trying to exclude you from gatherings or events. If they constantly require you to check in or want to know where you are, who you're with, or require proof of where you are or who you're 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. 
  • Unrealistic expectations. Making unreasonable demands such as wanting you to spend all of your time with them, expecting you to drop everything to meet their needs, or expecting you to share every opinion. Someone setting unrealistic expectations may never be happy no matter how hard you try, or you may never live up to their standards no matter what you do. Demanding exact dates and times of past events (e.g. past discussions they deny happened) can also be a form of unrealistic expectation.
  • Invalidating. This can include dismissing your perspective, refusing to accept how you feel (or demanding you feel a certain way), accusing you of being too sensitive or emotional, dismissing your needs and wants as ridiculous, or accusing you of being needy or selfish for expressing your needs.

An emotionally abusive person may show signs of jealousy or possessiveness. Using silent treatment or withholding affection and attention can also be common tactics used in an attempt to control your behaviour. 

Why are they behaving this way?

If someone's behaviour is making you feel uncomfortable, upset, anxious, or scared, this isn't normal or acceptable.

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 experienced other forms of abuse. 

Acknowledging 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.

Signs of emotional abuse in children and teens

Teens and young adults may not feel comfortable or able to reach out until they reach a crisis point, while children may not understand what is happening to them or that it's wrong. Signs of emotional abuse in children and teens can 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 preschool-aged children, signs may also include being overly affectionate with strangers, seeming wary or anxious, a lack of a close bond with their parents, and aggressive or cruel behaviour towards other children or animals.

Emotional abuse is generally about control. Sometimes this is explicit; if you're 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 can 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.

Emotional abuse is often subtle and hard to detect. If you aren't sure whether or not you're experiencing emotional abuse, try and think: how do the interactions you have with that person make you feel? 

You may find yourself feeling:

  • anxious
  • confused
  • frustrated
  • misunderstood
  • wounded
  • worthless

Whether you feel all of these or just a few, this is still a sign of emotional abuse. Everyone deserves to be treated with kindness and respect. It's not normal to be made to feel like this frequently, most or all of the time. 

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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:

  • 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

Over time, you may feel like you have lost all sense of who you are. You may no longer trust yourself, feel worthless, or even hate yourself. Research suggests that emotional abuse can have as severe of an impact as physical abuse.

In children, emotional abuse can lead to behavioural, emotional development, and mental health problems. This can include self-harming behaviour, trouble with language development, and 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.

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.

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're 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're 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's 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're 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 - whether 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're 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). 

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's 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 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.

When is the right time to seek help?

If your behaviour starts to change, you feel isolated from friends and family, or you're no longer able to find satisfaction in your home, work or social life, it's 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's 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.

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. Therapy offers you a safe space to talk, without fear and without judgement. A therapist can listen to you, help you come to terms with what has happened and your options for moving forward.

If you're no longer being emotionally abused but still feel the effects, 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 and psychotherapy have their place and, for many people, it's 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're 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).
  • 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 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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