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Emotional Abuse: What Is It and How to Recognize 



Emotional Abuse What Is It and How to Recognize 

Abuse in any form, physical or emotional, is still abuse. It is not your fault – it is an action done to you by someone else. By understanding the signs of emotional or mental abuse, you can recognize if it is happening to you or someone you know. Getting help, guidance, and support is crucial.

While many of us recognize when an abusive situation is happening to someone else, it is not always easy to see it when it occurs in our lives. We may find reasons to justify someone’s abusive behavior to us or ignore it altogether. Sadly, abuse is rarely a one-time occurrence. It may come on gradually or sporadically at first, happening more frequently as the abuser sees they can get away with their actions without reproach.

Any person at any age can be on the receiving or giving end of mental abuse. It can be a romantic, familial, business, caretaker, or school-related relationship. Whether it happens to a child, senior, or anyone in between, the effects can have long-lasting ramifications on a person’s life.

What is emotional or mental abuse?

Emotional abuse uses insults, ridicule, threats, humiliation, fear, and other tactics to make people feel less of themselves. It is often called bullying in school, with social media posts increasing the mental torment of the individual. Sadly, many childhood suicides result from mental abuse. We often read about adult suicides where relatives said they were bullied as children.

Many Baby Boomers grew up with the rhyme, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

That could not be farther from the truth. Unlike physical abuse, mental abuse does not leave scars, bruises, or broken bones. The damage is internal, often lasting far longer than it takes for a bone to heal. Emotional or psychological maltreatment of children may be the most challenging form of child abuse and neglect.

Gaslighting is another form of mental cruelty, as the abuser wants the abused to think they are crazy. Memories and events may be twisted to cause the victim to feel they do not remember a situation correctly.

Signs of Mental Abuse

As with physical abuse, a person can emotionally abuse another in many ways. In some situations, the abuse occurs behind closed doors (such as in a home or office). At other times, the abuse may be in public, with others not knowing how to respond. It can be uncomfortable to watch, and the fear of reprisals and repercussions to the victim if we try to intervene on their behalf can keep some people quiet.

The following signs of emotional abuse can help you identify when you or someone you know needs help:

  • Humiliation

An abusive individual may use humiliation to ridicule or poke fun at the victim’s insecurities. They attempt to lower the victim’s self-esteem to increase their self-worth.

  • Threats

Threatening abuse can happen in any situation, including at work, where a boss could hold a promotion or demotion over an employee’s head. In relationships, one partner can threaten to take away the children or cut off monetary support. Threats work via intimidation and fear to gain control. In some extreme instances, an abuser may threaten the victim’s loved ones if they say anything.

  • Patronizing behavior

By belittling, the abuser lets the victim know they are incapable or not good enough to accomplish an action.

  • Dismissiveness or belittling your accomplishments

With dismissive behavior, the abuser brushes aside anything important or any accomplishment. They may ignore, smirk, roll their eyes, sigh, shake their head, or use hand gestures to brush the victim aside, saying it does not matter. Another action is taking credit for any success of the victim. Putting down any interests or hobbies as a waste of time is another method of control, especially if it is an activity that does not include them.

  • Name-calling

Language has powerful ramifications, and abusers know that. They may call their victim stupid or an idiot for making a small mistake or forgetting to do something. The words can become nastier if the individual attempts to stand up for themselves. Name-calling does not need a reason, as it can occur anytime and feature derogatory nicknames or foul language.

  • Public embarrassment or insulting behavior

Shame is a powerful emotional tool that can be used privately or publicly. The abuser may share secrets, ridicule, pick fights, or put down the victim’s appearance or choice of wardrobe. They may say they can find someone more worthy, lowering the individual’s self-esteem even further. The abuser may discover that a specific action of theirs pushes the victim’s buttons, spurring them to repeat it over and over again.

  • Withholding affection

From parents withholding love, praise, or attention from a child to a partner withholding affection, communication, or sex, these acts are meant to punish the victim for a behavior or disagreement.

  • Angry verbalizations

Rather than physical abuse, a person may yell, scream, or swear to intimidate and control. There may be fear of physical violence, as the abuser may throw things, punch a wall, or damage items while on a verbal tirade.

  • Placing blame

The abuser may place the blame on the victim for their behavior, telling them that if they did not do a specific action, the abuse would not be necessary. An attack on someone’s character can feature the word “always” as a tool to describe a particular behavior, as in “you are always late.” Parents may blame the child for their behavior, saying it is their fault, or blame their elderly parents for the actions they do.

  • Controlling

Controlling behaviors can include monitoring the victim’s whereabouts, spying on them by checking phone messages and calls, making all decisions, blackmailing, constant lecturing, controlling finances, giving orders, shutting down, or making threats.

  • Turning tables or justifications

Abusers may use guilt or jealousy to justify their actions. They may have unrealistic expectations and manipulate the situation to their standards. In some instances, the abuser may turn the tables and blame the victim for being the one with the issues. Abusers may also try to write off their abuse as “a joke.”

  • Isolation

One of the leading methods of emotional abuse is isolating the victim from their loved ones. They may prevent socialization, invalidate your self-worth, and day no one else cares as much as them. Abusers often try to turn others against the victim, fabricating stories. They may deny support or negate the victim’s feelings.

Effects of Emotional Abuse

The long-term effects of mental abuse can take quite a toll on a person’s emotional and physical health. Stress and depression can cause changes in hormone levels, and immune system functions that give way to many health issues.

Here are some of the most common effects of emotional abuse:

  • Isolation and loneliness

One goal of an abuser is to isolate the victim from their support network, making them solely dependent on them. The victim may feel totally alone with nowhere to turn. A person may fear abandonment and experience codependency, trying to please others without regard to their needs. There may be difficulty with trust or being authentic.

  • Eating disorders

Depression, anxiety, and stress can lead to overeating or going without food – especially if the abuser continually ridicules the victim about their weight or appearance.

  • Low self-esteem

Emotional abuse destroys a person’s self-image and self-respect. The constant put downs, dismissals, and belittling can lower self-esteem, making the victim feel unworthy of love. There may be self-doubt in one’s abilities or shame at their mistakes.

  • Depression

Emotional abuse often leads to changes in mental state. Depression can become exceedingly magnified when isolation is present, and the victim feels as if there is no one they can speak to about their situation. Ongoing depression can take a toll on physical health.

  • Mental health conditions

Numerous mental health conditions can occur in response to mental abuse, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Poor mental state can worsen due to hormonal imbalances, too. For example, HGH deficiency can lead to anxiety, health issues, fatigue, and depression. Discover how the results of Sermorelin before and after can regulate your hormone levels. 

  • Chronic stress

The continual stress of being on one’s toes – afraid of saying or doing anything that could cause emotional abuse – can lead to increased cortisol production. Elevated cortisol levels interfere with the production of other essential hormones that protect the body from physical and cognitive decline. High amounts of cortisol inhibit adequate sleep, worsening the situation.

  • Physical health challenges

The ongoing stress of emotional abuse can lead to physical problems, including body aches, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), heart palpitations, increased illness, and brain changes.

  • Unhealthy view of relationships

Abusive behavior can cause a person to expect that from relationships. If emotional abuse occurs during childhood, the individual may grow up not knowing how a positive relationship should look.

  • Emotional disconnect or apathy

Ongoing mental abuse can make it difficult to connect to others. Changes to the brain can affect the hippocampus, leading to an inability to empathize with other people and their emotions.


The signs of emotional abuse are sometimes well-masked and subtle to the point where you may not realize it is occurring – until something more serious occurs. Abuse is not the fault of the victim.

Once mental abuse is identified, it is crucial to avoid self-blame or engaging with the individual, as that can intensify the situation. Do not try to fix the abuser; they need to work out their issues with professional help. Avoid responding to their calls and messages or reduce time spent in the situation if possible. Prioritize the needs of the victim, and if that is you, get help to set boundaries or remove yourself from the situation.

Building a support network is crucial, as is taking time to recover from an abusive relationship. Help is available to those who need it. Healing from emotional abuse takes time, compassion, and understanding.

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