Not all kinds of abuse come with visible signs or warnings. Some, like emotional abuse, may affect you before you realize what’s happening.
Emotional mistreatment and abuse can take many forms. Sometimes, it can sneak up on you and hide in sweet words. Other times, it comes in waves of complete silence.
It can be difficult to know when you’re experiencing emotional abuse. You may not recognize some of the signs. Maybe you’ve been led to believe you’re too sensitive, or all relationships are like this.
But when you start feeling isolated, powerless, or worthless in your relationships, you might want to pay closer attention.
There’s never a good reason for you to feel this way. You deserve respect, love, and care.
Learning to pinpoint the red flags in your relationship can help you make empowered decisions about it.
Abuse refers to words and behaviors that intentionally cause harm. It can range from physically violent acts to sexual assault to neglect and humiliation.
Abuse can happen only once, or it can be a pattern of behavior that repeats over time and across situations.
Abuse is always intentional. You might hurt others with words or actions, but this doesn’t always qualify as abuse.
Doing something with the intention of taking advantage of or hurting someone else, qualifies as abuse.
Someone may not be aware that their behavior is defined as abuse. But, if the intention of their actions is to exert control, take your power away, manipulate you, or retain you against your will, then that is abusive behavior.
Abuse is defined by the intention and not always by the impact. In other words, someone may say hurtful things and push you around with the intention to cause you harm. Even if you don’t get hurt by what they do, their actions qualify as abuse.
Abuse isn’t always physical or evident. You don’t need to have visible “proof” someone is causing you harm.
Emotional abuse occurs when someone uses words and nonviolent behaviors to exert power and control over you. It’s sometimes referred to as mental or psychological abuse.
Emotional abuse can be any harmful behavior that may negatively affect your emotional state. Even if you don’t experience a negative impact from what the other person is saying or doing, if their intention was to hurt you, that is abuse.
Emotional abuse often leads you to develop a negative self-image and poor confidence.
Someone with emotionally abusive behaviors may try to isolate you from loved ones, for example. They may use manipulation tactics to prevent you from doing things you enjoy.
Sometimes, emotional unavailability and emotional abandonment may also be considered emotional abuse.
You may find emotional abuse gradually takes away your freedom, individuality, and sense of self.
Over 10 years ago, national survey data showed approximately half of people in the United States had at some point experienced emotional abuse by a romantic partner.
Emotional abuse doesn’t have to come from a partner, though. It can also come from employers, co-workers, family, and friends.
Example of nonpartner emotional abuse
Something important happened at work and you’re running late to meet your mom for dinner.
When you call her to let her know, she replies, “It’s fine. You always have something more important than me, anyway. I’m used to it.”
You’re hurt by her comment, but convince yourself her words are justified because you’re the one running late.
When you get to the restaurant, she barely speaks to you. When you say your goodbyes, she says, “I’m busy next week with your brother. He’s a good son and never forgets about me.”
Emotional abuse doesn’t have to happen regularly. It can be a one-time occurrence, or it may happen several times.
You may experience emotional abuse throughout an entire relationship with someone.
Emotional abuse is never OK. But abusive patterns may have greater psychological consequences compared to one-time events.
If someone has a singular abusive behavior, sometimes that behavior can be addressed and changed.
Abusive patterns, however, work over time by affecting your thoughts and emotions, wearing you down.
It’s not always easy to spot signs of emotional abuse. You can learn to recognize abusive behaviors in others. But if you’re experiencing abuse, you may notice your own behavior changes, too.
11 behavioral signs of emotional abuse in others
Some of these attitudes and behaviors may signal someone is emotionally abusing you.
Shaming is any action or word intended to make you feel ashamed of being you.
Shaming can make you feel in the wrong for your thoughts or actions.
It can include expressions like, “Why would you do that?” It may also take the form of comments that target insecurities, such as your body image.
Emotionally abusive blaming can take the form of “flipping the switch,” or suddenly blaming you for someone else’s behaviors or reactions.
“I wouldn’t have done it if you hadn’t made me so angry,” is an example of blaming that removes responsibility from the person with abusive behaviors.
Criticism that’s cruel or isn’t constructive may be emotionally abusive. Interrupting you mid-conversation to say you don’t know when to shut up, for example, can be a form of emotional abuse.
Guilt can be a powerful manipulation tactic. When you feel as though you’ve let someone down, you’re not good enough, or you’re a disappointment, you may change your behavior to avoid that feeling in the future.
One of the more obvious forms of emotional abuse is humiliating. This may come as public embarrassment, or private behaviors that degrade you and make you feel less than human.
Name-calling, mean “jokes,” and sarcasm can all be forms of abusive ridicule.
When your thoughts, values, or opinions are dismissed, it can make you feel unimportant. Over time, you may question if your input has any value.
Unfair accusations can manipulate you into people-pleasing behaviors. If someone is constantly accusing you of infidelity, for example, you may go to extra lengths to be attentive toward them. You might also stop leaving the house out of fear they might confront you about where you are.
When your physical or emotional needs aren’t met, this can be a form of neglect. Emotional neglect might mean deliberately withholding affection, or punishing you with the silent treatment.
Monitoring can destroy your sense of privacy. Reading your messages, scanning your social media, and showing up at events you’re attending are all forms of monitoring.
Emotional abuse doesn’t have to be subtle. Sometimes it comes as verbal attacks, mood swings, or fits of yelling.
10 signs of emotional abuse in yourself
When emotionally abusive behaviors in someone else are difficult to spot, you may be able to identify the abuse by exploring yourself.
Personal signs you may be experiencing emotional abuse can include:
- Social withdrawal. You feel isolated or withdrawn from others.
- Low self-esteem. You become self-critical or feel worthless.
- Fear. You walk on eggshells or avoid saying or doing things that could cause a reaction.
- Adapting to other people’s expectations. You change your appearance or interests despite your preferences.
- Losing your identity. You give up activities you enjoy.
- Dependence or codependence. You lose your sense of independence.
- Voice and power. You don’t contribute to decisions or participate in projects that affect both of you.
- Shame. You feel guilty or anxious about who you are.
- Physical changes. You notice changes in your sleeping, eating, or weight patterns.
- Psychological symptoms. You experience mental health conditions such as depression.
The effects of emotional abuse can be broad and often depend on your unique circumstances.
Emotional abuse from a parent, for example, may create different challenges compared with those that result from partner abuse.
The effects of emotional abuse on you may also vary depending on your emotional resources and support network.
If you feel you may be experiencing abuse in your relationship, support is available. There are many ways to deal with the situation.
No matter what type of emotional abuse you’ve experienced, speaking with a mental health professional may help.
You can explore coping strategies and learn how to set boundaries. Setting boundaries can protect your mental health and help you make the right decisions for yourself.
You may also find it helpful to reach out to someone who can understand what you’re going through. These resources are available right now:
Abuse refers to any behavior that has the intention to control, overpower, or hurt you. It can come from romantic partners, family members, friends, co-workers, or strangers.
Emotional abuse may be more subtle, but it can gradually affect your self-esteem and sense of personal power. It’s never your fault, though over time, experiencing emotional abuse may make you think you’re to blame.
The signs of emotional abuse can be difficult to spot. You may not be able to recognize some of the abusive behaviors in someone else, but you could identify some changes in yourself.
Feeling withdrawn, worthless, or fearful are just some personal indications you may be experiencing emotional abuse.
Exiting an abusive situation is possible and healing can be achieved. You’re not alone, and you deserve to start your path toward respect and care.