Here we will look at the signs of mental abuse in intimate relationships and the effects of mental abuse on the victims.
There is no widely accepted definition of mental abuse and even the terminology is not very clear. Some consider that mental abuse is also called psychological abuse or emotional abuse and others say that mental abuse is made up of verbal abuse and psychological abuse. I am not going to get lost in the terminology, I'd rather spend the time going through the signs of mental abuse, their effects and what you can do about it.
While these are the signs of mental abuse in an intimate relationship they can also be applied to a work situation or a social situation. The same things also happen in cults. And while I will not specifically be addressing the signs of mental abuse in children, there are lots of things in common and the effects in children are often more pronounced for several reasons, not least of which is that children have less life experience and are less skilled in terms of protecting themselves.
If you think you might be in an abusive relationship, these are some of the signs of mental abuse to look out for...
Criticism, humiliation and belittling
Withholding, denying, isolation
I'm right, you're wrong
Control and domination
Other signs of mental abuse
If you recognize many or most of these signs of mental abuse in your own relationship(s), or even in a therapy situation, then you really need to investigate further to learn what is really going on.
An important consideration here is that, for example, a one off episode of shouting and name calling during an argument is not considered mental abuse. If your partner thinks a particular shirt you wear is funny, this is not considered to be mental abuse, either. The important thing is that these things occur in a systematic and repeated way over time, over weeks, months or even years. It is the frequent repetition of these things over time that does the damage.
Mental abuse has profound and long lasting effects on the victim. These changes can also be considered signs of mental abuse if you know what you are looking for. The signs of mental abuse listed above can be easily verified by any third party looking in at the relationship from outside, but the following signs of mental abuse are more subtle and may not be so obvious. If you are the victim, you may not even recognize these signs because your perceptions and thinking has been so distorted by the abuser, and the abuser will have redefined what some of these things mean. I will explain more about this idea later.
Mental abuse affects every aspect of a person's life, not just their relationship. It changes the way a person behaves, thinks, perceives the world and it even changes a person's personality. One thing that commonly happens is that the victim becomes dependent on the abuser. This seems like an odd thing to happen but it may start with the victim having to check with the abuser to know what to do so as not to get into trouble. Then they also have to ask permission before doing things. Initially they have to ask permission for big things, but eventually it changes into asking permission for the little things, too. And in severe cases, the victim has to check with the abuser to know that they are ok and even to know who they are. At this level the identity of the abuser has been blended with the abuser in such a way that the victim literally loses themselves and the abuser has become their purpose in life.
Because of a lack of understanding of the signs of mental abuse, outsiders often label the victim dependent, co-dependent or an addictive personality, they make comments about the victim not being able to make their own decisions and needing someone to do it for them and such things. But this dependency has actually been created by the abuser and it usually disappears when the victim has the opportunity to undo the damage. It has nothing to do, therefore, with the real personality of the victim.
The personality also becomes very submissive and is kept this way by the abuser through the use of fear, guilt and dread. The victim may come to dread losing the emotional and psychological support that they believe the abuser is providing, irrespective of how controlling that support may actually be. The fear of losing the relationship may operate at the level of a phobia, a phobia being an intense fear that is disconnected from, or disproportionate to, reality. The victim may actually believe that they are nothing without the abuser or that they will be unable to survive without the abuser. This has two very important effects. The first is that this phobia keeps the person in the relationship. Just walking out is not an option for the dependent victim. The second is that if the abuser threatens to leave the relationship, it causes tremendous anxiety for the victim and this is enough to force the victim to give in to the abuser in order to appease them. Unfortunately, most abusers recognize that they have this power and they have no qualms about using this threat frequently to keep the victim in line.
There are many other things that change in the life of the victim because of the effects of mental abuse. They drift away from family and friends because the abuser makes it so uncomfortable to spend time with them. Often the victim believes that it's the friends that are creating distance and don't realize that it is actually the other say around. This adds to the sense of isolation of the victim.
The sense of humor often disappears very quickly when mental abuse starts.
The victim can have tremendous difficulty trying to make sense of the actions of the abuser. They cannot understand how someone can be so cruel and callous even with someone they love.
The person ends up doubting themselves because their ideas, beliefs, opinions have been challenged and ridiculed so much. Decision making becomes very difficult. It becomes easier to just rely on others because that way there is less probability of being derided again. The victim ends up with the same ideas and beliefs as the abuser.
This may be defined by the abuser as the victim maturing or evolving to be more like the abuser, who has already established himself as more intelligent and evolved. In the same vein, the abuser justifies and redefines many things in the relationship. Multiple phone calls to the victim while the victim is out with friends is redefined from control to 'caring about you'. The abuser will often excuse nastiness with, 'You made me do it. I was only responding to what you did." Isolation from friends and family is done by making suggestions that they are holding the victim back or that they just don't want the victim to be happy.
The victim also has a dramatic drop in self esteem, they lose confidence in their abilities, they come to believe that they are bad, worthless, unlovable and all sorts of other untrue labels. They find it very difficult to maintain their effectiveness and efficiency. This typically brings more abuse down on top of them from the abuser. Eventually the victim is not functioning very well at all, he or she may have difficulties doing the day to day things of daily life and may even lose their jobs.
The victim is often living in fear but may not actually be aware of the level of fear until after they leave the relationship. There will be fear of upsetting the abuser and this may be so great that the fear literally spills over into other areas and some victims develop a fear of elevators or a fear of the dark when this was not a concern before. Doing new things can become a daunting task to the extent that the victim may not even attempt anything with which they are not already familiar.
Outsiders notice these changes and often remark that they hardly recognize the person any more. 'They are not the person they were," is frequently heard. This dramatic change in personality is common in situations of psychological abuse and is called the pseudopersonality, or false personality.
The effects of the mental abuse are so profound that they actually changes a person's personality. This new, but false, personality is put in place with such strong and powerful influence techniques that it does not just disappear when a person leaves the abusive situation. It persists and continues to cause problems until it is actively undone.
The pseudopersonality dominates and represses the real personality but never completely destroys it. This helps to explain the internal conflicts that victims experience, where one part of them wants one thing and another part wants the opposite and this creates the sensation that the person is at war with themselves. People may feel that they are actually going crazy because there may be no way to resolve the crisis while the pseudopersonality is dominant. For example, the victim may love and hate the abuser at the same time, they want the abuser to come home from work (pseudopersonality) but hate the thought of the abuser being in the house (real personality) or they want to leave the relationship (real personality) but they can't imagine a life without the abuser (pseudopersonality).
The personality change was first described in the 1950's by Edgar Schein in relation to the Korean prisoners of war and was attributed to the manner in which the Chinese had altered the prisoners beliefs, thinking, emotions and actions and how these changes had persisted even after the prisoners were released.
You can read more about the pseudopersonality in this article about narcissistic abuse recovery. And speaking of narcissists...
Various studies have shown that people who engage in physical and mental abuse have a high incidence of personality disorders, including narcissism and psychopathy. In one study, upwards of 80% of abusers who were ordered by a court into treatment were shown to have a personality disorder.
This is important! Very important!!
Whatever idea you may have about psychopaths, the thing about these people is that they have no conscience, no empathy and their motivation is domination and control. This means that they deliberately set out to manipulate and exercise power over those around them and that they never feel bad for anything they do.
Most people don't understand that a psychopath or narcissist does not have emotions or they only have very shallow and short lasting feelings. The implications of this, however, cannot be overstated. These people are cold, calculating and callous. They do not care about other people although they can put on a great show in public that will fool many people about their true nature. They cause chaos, destruction and misery for those around them. And there is no effective treatment for them. All these things have important ramifications.
Another thing to keep in mind is that nobody goes out looking for an abusive relationship. They are tricked into it by the abuser. The abuser pretends at the start that they are a wonderful, kind, friendly person and makes the victim feel really good initially. Then, when the victim is committed to the relationship, the bad beahvior starts. You can read more about this process here.
So you've checked the signs of mental abuse and not only can you see many of them but you can recognize that you are suffering from some of the deeper signs of mental abuse as well, you recognize that your partner may actually fit the profile of a psychopath or narcissist, so what do you do?
The basic plan is to get away, get rest and get help.
Until you get away from the abuser, irrespective of how difficult or even impossible you might consider that in this very moment, you will be subjected to mental abuse.
Some people are in such a bad situation that they need to just run and sort things out as they go. Other people may need to learn more about psychopathy or narcisssism, mind control and mental abuse in order to better understand what is happening so that they can even get to the point where they can make the decision to leave and actually act on it. Some are in a position where they have had enough and are just about ready to leave and being able to label what is going on is the last piece they need in order to get out.
I know that this is a huge step but it's one you are going to take at some stage anyway and the sooner the better.
Whatever way you leave, it's important that you do not go back. People who go back to the abuser often find that the abuse increases because the abuser realizes the power he or she has over the victim because they know the victim can't get away.
Getting rest is vital, whatever else is going on. The chances are that you are sleep deprived because of the way the abuser treats you (another one of the signs of mental abuse!). When you are tired, you get overwhelmed easily and it's very difficult to resist mentally. It takes a lot of energy to take on an abuser and a lot of effort to keep them away. Make sure you get as much rest and sleep as you can!
Get professional help. This will change everything for you. Mind control, mental abuse and personality disorders are a very specialized field. Many therapists do not understand these areas and so may do more harm than good, so make sure you find someone who specifically deals with these issues.
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.
You have the theory but how do you actually apply it? This book spells it out...
Do you think that you might be in an abusive relationship? Are you realizing that the group you are in may be a cult?
Do you think you are being taken advantage of emotionally, physically, sexually or financially in your relationship? Do you want to leave but you can't seem to get away?