It's easy to see emotional abuse signs if you know what you are looking for. The difficulty arises when you are on the receiving end of such abuse and you believe that the abuser loves you or cares for you or at least has your best interests in mind. Then it becomes quite difficult to recognize what exactly is going on. As odd as that might sound, this is one of the effects of emotional abuse on a person.
While there is no widely accepted definition of emotional abuse, I found this one but I am not sure what the origin is.
Emotional abuse is any act, including confinement, isolation, verbal assault, humiliation, intimidation, infantilization, or any other treatment which may diminish the sense of identity, dignity, and self-worth.
There are 2 things that need to be added here. The first is the consideration of the phrase 'any act', and the second is the idea of time and repetition.
Shouting at your partner during an argument by itself is not emotional abuse (Everyone shouts at some point!). Not talking to your partner after an argument when it happens once every 6 months does not constitute emotional abuse either. Some people have learnt patterns of behavior and respond the same way every time, for example, shouting during arguments or making jokes when they are nervous. These alone should not be considered emotional abuse. When there is actual abuse, it's fair to say that there are combinations of behaviors going on at the same time.
The second issue is that of repetition of the degrading behaviors over time. Being called a name might be upsetting but learning to deal with it is part of growing up and maturing. Repeatedly calling a person that derogatory name over time is a different matter. Combine that with other insulting and belittling behaviors over time and you have emotional abuse. It is the repetition of the behaviors over time that does the damage.
So I think a definition of emotional abuse might be more accurately stated as: Combinations of behaviors such as verbal assault, threats, humiliation, intimidation, belittling, confinement, isolation, infantilization and any other treatment which may diminish the sense of identity, dignity and self worth of the individual, which are carried out in continual and systematic ways over a period of time.
This may occur between husband and wife, child and parent (both ways!), boss and employee, pastor and lay person, therapist and client, teacher and student, student and student and so on. I will mostly be referencing intimate relationships in this article on emotional abuse signs but the ideas can be applied in the other situations mentioned, too.
So lets have a look at emotional abuse signs that are significant. These are in no particular order.
Obviously, all of these emotional abuse signs won't be present in every particular case. If you recognize many of these emotional abuse signs in your situation, (even in a therapy setting) then you need to pay attention and do something about it. So what can you do? In order to know what your best options are, it's important to recognize what effects emotional abuse has on an individual.
The overall effect is that the victim comes under the control of the abuser, who has all the power in the relationship, and this is exactly what the abuser or manipulator wants. They want to control your behavior, your thoughts and your emotions. In this way, they basically control every aspect of your life.
If we think about our definition again, "...treatment which may diminish the sense of identity, dignity, and self-worth" the reference to identity is very significant. Emotional abuse makes people doubt themselves, it makes them think that there is something basically wrong with them and it changes a person's thinking and decision making. It's no surprise that friends and family members of a victim of emotional abuse often say that the victim changed considerably when they started the relationship with the abuser, and this change is never for the better. They say that the victim is not herself or himself, they have lost their sense of humor, they spend less time together, the victim seems dependent on the abuser and even that they hardly recognize the person anymore.
All of these things will be true. The abuser has changed the person at a very fundamental level, at the level of their personality or identity. They now have a false personality or pseudopersonality that dominates their real personality. While physical abuse leaves marks, there may be no physical marks with emotional abuse but nonetheless the effects are quite profound.
This new personality is indeed dependent on the abuser, it has difficulty making decisions alone, there is low self confidence, poor self esteem, the person blames themselves for anything that goes wrong and this new personality may suffer so much emotional abuse that it becomes 'normal' and the person no longer recognizes the abuse as abuse. Other aspects of their perception of reality may be very distorted, too. The victim often feels unworthy, unlovable, fearful, very ashamed, deserving of punishment and generally inferior to others.
The dependency can be so strong that the individual can no longer consider a future without the abuser. They may even think that they are nothing without the abuser. This is why battered wives (who typically also suffer emotional abuse as well as physical abuse) and other victims of emotional abuse often return to the abuser after having broken up with them (despite the warnings and advice of friends an family). They literally feel so bad without the abuser that they have to return to alleviate the desperation, the lonliness and the upset.
At this stage, when a victim goes for professional help, if the practitioner does not understand emotional abuse, the victim may be labeled as depressed, anxious, paranoid, suffering from PTSD, inadequate personality, borderline personality disorder, Asperger's syndrome, schizophrenia, lacking in self esteem, low self worth, hysterical, jealous, controlling, inflexible, suffering from the effects of childhood difficulties and so on. More than one therapist has said to a victim that they need to be more understanding and adaptable to their spouse. This is called blaming the victim and it's devastating in the case of emotional abuse. The obvious difficulty is that if a person is treated for the wrong diagnosis, the problem is rarely resolved.
There are lots of things written about the abusers, how they were abused themselves, they may not know what they are doing, they do it to cover up inadequacies etc. etc.
Studies have shown that people who engage in physical and emotional abuse, both men and women, have high rates of personality disorders, either narcissistic personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder (psychopathy or sociopathy) or borderline personality disorder. About 80% of men in court ordered treatment programs have a personality disorder. You can read more details in this wikipedia article.
This is very significant. I can't stress this enough. It changes the situation completely.
People often have the idea that a psychopath is a serial killer or a serial rapist. This idea probably comes from the movies and novels and it's not correct. The reality is that a psychopath has no conscience and a huge ego. These two things give rise to the characteristics of the psychopath. Not having a conscience means that the person never feels bad for anything they do. This is often a difficult thing for a normal, feeling person to understand. There are actually people who don't have normal emotions. And if they never feel bad, they can do anything to others without being distressed about it. They can be as cruel and nasty as they like, and they don't feel bad. This may begin to explain to you how someone can do that level of horrible things to another person over time and feel no remorse or guilt.
That big ego also means that they consider themselves above others and above the law. They consider that they are always right and others are always wrong. Their ideas and opinions are the correct ones and others need to get in line with that. This is why they force their victims into thinking and acting a certain way. They want to control and dominate, they want people to make their lives easier, they want people to give them things and take care of them, to be their slaves, basically.
If you recognize the above emotional abuse signs and you think you might be involved with a psychopath or a sociopath or a narcissist, you need to take a big step back and completely re-evaluate your situation. This is absolutely not the same thing as being with a person who is just jealous, or a cheat, or a person who was abused as a child (many of whom do not actually go on to abuse others...).
Many sociopaths, for example, often have a great story about how bad their childhood was and how that affects them still and how people just have to tolerate them the way they are now. This is typically a trick. The sociopaths and narcissist are professional liars. You can't trust a word out of their mouths. Their story is full of lies and exaggerations. It is meant to elicit pity from the listeners because the manipulators know that if they can elicit pity, then it's easy to manipulate.
If you think you are dealing with a sociopath, the rules are different. These people are in a category of their own and you cannot hope to manage the situation with normal thinking and normal strategies. They just won't work. The sociopath or narcissist is not playing within the normal rules and if you try to play against them you will lose. You have to learn how they play, what their motivations are and what tactics they are using against you. This is a big job and you are going to need a lot of help and support. Your personality will have been changed by the manipulator and you have had a pseudopersonality imposed on you. You can read more about how specifically that happens here.
If you can see the emotional abuse signs in your own situation, and you suspect that you are in a relationship with a sociopath or a narcissist then the first thing is that you need to reorientate your thinking somewhat. As I mentioned, dealing with a manipulator of this type requires a particular approach.
The first thing to understand is that these people do not change. There is no treatment for sociopathy or psychopathy. Narcissists may go for treatment for depression sometimes but when that resolves they never hang around long enough for treatment for the narcissism. (If you thought you were better than everyone else, would you think that you needed to change?)
So if they are never going to change, where does that leave you? It means that you have to give up hope that the relationship will ever work out, that you will have a relationship that is fair and that they will ever treat you the way you would like. It's just not going to happen. By far and away the best thing you can do is leave. I know, right now that probably feels like the most difficult think you could ever do. Just remember that many people who have been in your situation have left the abuser and you can, too.
Leaving may often mean learning about psychopaths, narcissists, mind control, the subtler emotional abuse signs and applying all this to your own particular situation so that you can get to the point where you can actually make the decision to leave. This is often very difficult because of the dependency on the manipulator.
You also have to undo that pseudopersonality so that your real personality is allowed to resurface and take control again. The pseudopersonality is put in place with strong and repeated influence techniques and it does not simply disappear when a person leaves the abusive situation. It takes work and effort to learn how it was imposed on you and as you come to understand the process only then does the pseudopersonality disappear. Hoping to just ignore what was done to you and carry on as if nothing happened never works. And besides, having a pseudopersonality makes you an easy target for the next abuser who crosses your path.
Yes, it's a big job, but it's always worth it. And working with a professional in this field is always worth it, too. It saves a lot of effort, time, money and suffering.
Would you like to talk to someone about your situation?
If you think you are or have been in a cult or a destructive relationship, or a friend or family member might be in a cult and you want to talk to someone, send me a message on the Contact page and we can arrange to talk. All communication will be treated in the strictest confidence.
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