Psychological abuse leaves no visible marks and often remains hidden within families, romantic relationships, toxic individuals and groups, cults and organizations of various religious and non-religious orientations. However, it is at least as damaging as the more explicitly violent forms of physical and sexual abuse. Mental, emotional and spiritual abuse leaves lasting damage to a person’s sense of self, confidence and ability to navigate life successfully.
It often takes considerable time for psychological abuse to be recognized for what it is. Perpetrators are masters at manipulation and creating a harmless facade behind which they use a range of techniques to keep their victims in line.
Various forms of control are used to undermine their victims’ independence: monitoring the individual’s actions, censoring and discouraging social connections, limiting access to support, creating financial dependence, dictating lifestyle and how the person functions in life. Techniques of control are intended to isolate the victim and position the abuser at the center of their world. In the individual subjected to them a sense of helplessness and hopelessness is created that can be used for further manipulation.
Punishments and Rewards
In domestic relationships, abuse may be followed by apologies, promises of it never happening again or periods of harmony. Toxic groups may enforce strict rules but also offer more positive activities to encourage compliance and override disturbing impressions. Whatever the context, approval, inclusion and rewards depend on compliance and performance: as long as the individual does what pleases the perpetrator and follows the rules, problems are averted — until the next (so-called) transgression. The often arbitrary and unpredictable nature of punishment and reward destabilizes the victim’s assessment of their experience so they end up doubting the validity of their feelings and perceptions.
Exposing flaws and deficiencies
Excessive focus on what is “wrong” with a person, relentless criticism, demeaning comments and put-downs erode self-acceptance and a sense of self-worth. With their sense of self destabilized, victims often come to believe that any chance of well-being — and perhaps survival — depends on suppressing who they are, how they think and behave. In extreme cases this even leads to victims censoring themselves and adopting mannerisms pleasing to the perpetrator.
Denying their own perceptions, intuitions and truths, their real self may become so suppressed that it gradually becomes superimposed by a kind of pseudo-self. Without firm grounding in their own individuality victims find it difficult to access their own inner compass and self-reliance.
Perpetrators do not take responsibility for their actions. They make light of what they did and blame the victim instead. Worn down by manipulation and accusations, a person eventually accepts and learns to believe that whatever is being done to them is their fault. They live in fear of recrimination and end up walking on eggshells to avoid unpleasant or harmful responses to their actions.
Drawn into the web
How is it possible for a person to become so compliant and crushed? Why do people not simply leave at the first sign of control or abuse?
Idealism, romantic attachment, loneliness, expectations of a better future or simply naivety and unhappiness with life draw people into the web of abusers. Abusers are masters at establishing or exploiting an imbalance of power through claiming superior knowledge, more resources, financial security, social status, love and belonging, charisma or popularity. Promising something of value only they can deliver encourages subordination of the victim.
Whatever the scenario, it always begins with a honeymoon period where the expectations of the individual are validated. Life is good, a bond develops and the unequal power dynamic seems acceptable. Gradually difficult incidents creep in. But as they are moderated by ‘good’ periods, the victim learns to accept and even excuse them as justified because of something they did or didn’t do.
Repairing the damage
If the initial investment, dream or intention was significant, victims find it difficult to admit to themselves that they fell for an illusion and allowed themselves to be treated badly. They may also have been so brainwashed and their self-esteem so undermined that clear thinking and resolute action are compromised. Recognizing the true nature of their circumstances and how they undermine authenticity, independence, self-esteem, happiness and well-being is the first step for anyone seeking to recover and rebuild.
Depending on the nature of the abuse, its severity and length of exposure, substantial support and assistance may be required to heal the damage. But with focused inner work and appropriate guidance there is every chance of making a fresh start and become stronger, wiser and thrive in the future.
A word of warning: If you recognize your own or someone else’s situation in any of the above descriptions, seek help as soon as possible. Be very careful how you proceed: withdrawing from an abusive situation can be a most dangerous and vulnerable period. Abusers have extreme and often violent reactions to losing their power. Make sure you do it as safely and with as much support as possible.
What other forms of psychological abuse have you witnessed or experienced? What strategies do you find helpful in healing?