If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of emotional abuse, or seen someone else suffer at the hands of an abuser, you’ll know how confusing and difficult it may be to acknowledge what’s happening and extricate yourself from the relationship. Emotional abuse can occur in almost any relationship, including family, friends, co-workers and romantic relationships, and may be overt or very subtle and manipulative.
Emotional abuse is a consistent pattern of abusive and hurtful words and behaviours which, over time, wear down a person’s self-worth and damages their mental health. The result is a situation in which the person experiencing the abuse is trapped, unable to muster up the strength to defend themselves, ask for help, or leave the relationship.
So, what signs can you look out for if you suspect you may be in an emotionally abusive relationship, or wish to support someone who is:
They invalidate you
Emotional abusers have an uncanny ability to make you question your own reality, judgement and feelings. An emotional abuser will often deny something happened, dismiss your feelings, and accuse you of being overly-sensitive. This may leave you wondering if you are, indeed, exaggerating or misunderstanding the other person, or out of line by expressing your hurt or disappointment.
With emotional abuse, it’s very common to feel you’re continuously walking on very thin ice. Just when you feel relaxed or things appear to be smooth between you and the other person, they’ll have a sudden outburst or change of mood which may leave you reeling in shock and confusion. They may make statements or accusations which are contradictory or irrational, or appear to be constantly picking fights.
People who are emotionally abusive tend to have a sense of entitlement, expecting you to put your needs aside so as to meet theirs. They may demand all of your time and attention and behave angrily if you dare assert your own needs or express any limitations in meeting theirs.
Stand up to the emotional abuser and you’re likely to be met with the silent treatment, withholding of affection or guilt-tripping. This is a means of emotional blackmail, as the abuser seeks to obtain your compliance by punishing you for not giving them what they want from you or the relationship.
The emotional abuser may behave in ways which attempt to assert their dominance or superiority. This may involve humiliating you in public, talking down at you, making jokes at your expense or blaming you for their own mistakes or shortcomings. This is often glossed over by comments such as ‘Oh, I was only teasing you. You’re too sensitive’.
It’s quite common for perpetrators of emotional abuse to try to isolate you from any external support you may have. This is done by bad-mouthing loved ones, forbidding you from, or limiting, seeing friends and family, monitoring your messages, accompanying you everywhere, or expressing resentment and jealousy when you spend time with people you care about. This is partly about having you just for themselves and also a means of isolating you from any support which may act as a stimulus to help you leave the relationship.
Whilst you may not be experiencing physical violence, emotional abusers may instil fear in you by shouting and yelling, breaking, banging or throwing things. Such behaviour may cause you to question your safety, or fear an escalation of their behaviour.
If any of the above sounds familiar to you because you’re going through it yourself or know someone who is, it’s important to take action because the impact of emotional abuse is real and it’s long-lasting. Each person’s situation is unique, based on the nature of the relationship you have with the abuser and your personal circumstances. For instance, emotional abuse in the workplace would require a different course of action from abuse taking place in a romantic relationship. Whether you have financial independence and how much support you have will also play a huge role in your choices around this issue. However, below I’ve listed some steps which may be applied to almost all circumstances:
- Inform yourself. Read up on emotional abuse and what services exist in the community to help you. Support services available here in Malta include 179 (Official national helpline), 1770 (Richmond Foundation) or contact kellimni.com for an online support service.
- Get practical. Start exploring what practical steps you may take to keep yourself safe and leave the source of the abuse. For instance, if the abuse is taking place in the workplace, you could speak to Human Resources or start looking for another job. If the abuse is taking place in your family home, do you have the financial resources to move out or is there someone you could stay with until you get on your feet financially? Outlining your options can give you the grounding and confidence you need to take action.
- Reach out. Talk to someone you trust, such as a friend, family member or close colleague. If you don’t have anyone you trust, seek the professional guidance of a psychotherapist or counsellor. You don’t need to go through this alone.
- If you’re in any danger, contact emergency services immediately.