8 signs of emotional abuse

Emotional abuse is the most common form of abuse, but many people do not know they are victims of it because it is so hard to pinpoint.

Victims of emotional abuse are more likely to blame themselves than accuse someone else of emotional abuse before learning how to identify emotional abuse.

Emotional abusers are more likely to discredit and dismiss anyone who speaks out against the abuse. And they get away with it.

Especially since it is commonly mistaken for interpersonal conflict and poor mental health.

Emotional abuse vs conflict

Conflict is a healthy relationship occurrence wherein each person feels safe to express their thoughts, ideas and feelings without shame or threats to their well-being.

Disagreements are part of healthy interpersonal conflict, but not shutting the other out.

Emotional abuse is when conflict cannot be resolved because there is no safe space to express diversity of opinion and feelings without mental distress.

Have you ever felt like, no matter what, you couldn’t be yourself?

Or when you behaved in a way that was natural to you, your relative or friend ridiculed you and coerced you into behaving the way they wanted?

That’s emotional abuse. If you have to change your behavior in order to feel safe around them, you are likely a victim of abuse.

Abuse happens because the abuser cannot regulate their emotions, and/or seeks power and control. Even if they don’t mean to be abusive, abuse is abuse. Actions speak louder.

“I didn’t mean to” is the battle cry of all abusers everywhere, for all time.

Emotional abuse vs mental illness

When left unresolved, emotional abuse and interpersonal conflict affects our mental health.

In the event of intergenerational abuse, emotional abuse comes across as normal/typical behavior, and continues by insisting relatives who try to break the cycle are mentally ill.

An emotionally abused person under duress will behave similarly to someone with a personality or mood disorder due to long-term effects of emotional abuse.

Mental illness and disabilities affect all areas of a person’s life. They don’t just struggle at home, but at work, school, etc.

Mental illness and/or disabilities do not mean they cannot also be emotional abuse victims. Statistically speaking, vulnerable humans are at higher risk of experiencing abuse.

Emotional abuse affects the environment in which it festers. Inside and around this environment, the victim struggles and behaves uncharacteristically.

When away from the source of the abuse, the victim thrives. They may act on trauma responses, but they generally feel safe.

In the presence or acknowledgement of the abuser, they shutdown or tense up. They grow defensive or freeze.

Trauma shows up in the workplace and at school, mistaken for aggression and performance issues.

Signs of emotional abuse

Emotional abuse is the hardest to differentiate from typical behavior because it runs rampant in humanity.

1. Extreme criticism or judgment

Everything is opportunity for criticism or their judgment. Emotional abusers cannot pass up an opportunity to remind you how bad you should feel about yourself or how burdened they are by you.

Any time they talk to you, it’s always to say something bad. “I love you” is always only said as an afterthought or in passing, never in a positive moment.

There are few positive moments, but you can easily think up negative moments.

Nothing is ever good enough, or things are rarely ever good enough. There is always room for their “constructive feedback”.

If you were your true self, they would want nothing to do with you.

Maybe it’s when they ask, “How will you ever be able to ________ if you can’t even [insert random task/chore/process]?”

Or they say, “You can never do anything right.”

If you are feeling proud of an achievement, they might ask, “What have you ever accomplished besides [insert idle activity here]?” They might even say it’s supposed to be a joke.

Jokes at the expense of your mental health are never okay. Their “sarcasm” is an excuse to degrade you. That is never okay.

Include humiliation here as well — it is never okay to humiliate someone on purpose, especially in front of other people.

2. Blaming and scapegoating

Even if you didn’t do something, you are blamed every time something goes wrong.

If you are blamed for all that goes wrong in someone’s life, you are their scapegoat. This is especially common in families where trauma runs rampant.

The Black Sheep is the family scapegoat. They often hear things like, “Everyone else gets along just fine, but you…”

Or, “Why can’t we all just get along?” and, “Why can’t you just let that go?”

They blame you for their misfortune and yours.

“If you didn’t ____, then you wouldn’t be here. It’s not my fault.”

This is their way of claiming you deserve their abuse, that they wouldn’t be abusive if you were a perfect human who never made any mistakes and always did exactly what they wanted.

This is also called blame-shifting or victim-blaming.

Ultimately, abusers cause the problems in the first place and blame the victim for the fallout.

3. Lack of boundaries

In an abusive relationship, boundaries are not allowed.

Abusers view boundaries as barriers to their control.

Despite how the relationship dynamics seem, the abuser doesn’t have a relationship with you — they have a relationship with the power they hold over you.

So when you set boundaries, that is a threat to their power. Abusers retaliate because they want to salvage their control. They love the control.

Previously, respect was synonymous with no boundaries. Respecting your elders resulted in [conditional] love and meant never saying “no”. It meant having zero boundaries and personal space.

A lack of boundaries looks like:

  • Person storming into your room without knocking and waiting for you to open it or let them come in
  • Stealing your phone and reading through all your messages
  • Forcing you to share passwords or only use joint social media accounts
  • Saying yes in hopes of pleasing the other person, or avoiding unsafe reactions from them
  • Not speaking up for yourself when people insult you or assume wrongly about you
  • Not knowing where you begin and the people-pleasing version of you ends
  • The same issues/conflict over and over again

4. Control, manipulation, and possessiveness

Abusers love the control they have over you, so they’re keen to protect it. They know how to manipulate you into doing things you wouldn’t otherwise do.

You might be considered their favorite person that they “need” to stay in their life. No one’s well-being should depend on someone specifically staying in a person’s life to the point that the favorite person’s own life is negatively affected.

Possessiveness looks like:

  • Asking if they’re your favorite aunt/uncle/grandparent/cousin/etc.
  • Getting upset when you talk about a different relative, friend, colleague, or even pet
  • Anger upon finding out you’ve been talking to someone of the same gender boat to which you’re attracted
  • Isolating you from friends, family, partners, etc.

Gaslighting allows abusers to avoid responsibility by placing the blame upon their victims instead. This is a manipulation technique. Phrases include:

  • Why can’t you just let it go? This is ridiculous.
  • Come on, I never said that.
  • You’re lying. That didn’t happen.
  • You’re wrong. You’re making it up.
  • Why are you making such a big deal out of this?
  • That’s crazy. You need help.
  • Honey, this isn’t like you.
  • After everything I’ve done for you! What have you ever done for me? Why are you so ungrateful?
  • You’re remembering it wrong.

But gaslighting also looks like:

  • Turning what you’re addressing back around to yourself
  • Bringing outsiders into the conflict to support their claims (triangulation)
  • Denying and rejecting anything that causes them to lose power
  • Accusing you of what they are guilty of (projection)
  • Insulting your character instead of your behavior
  • Their words don’t match their actions or how you wind up feeling
  • Convincing you everyone else is lying so you rely on them for the truth
  • Causing you to doubt your own perspective
  • Feeling confused after the conversation ends
  • Charming you with small gifts and affirmations before insulting you again
  • Using your vulnerabilities and insecurities against you, to cause harm or humiliation

Emotional abuse is the most insidious form of abuse. It’s invisible, and the result of insecure attachment styles.

5. Always being wrong or never being good enough

No matter what you do, it’s not enough. Even if you do something noticeable, like clean up the kitchen, it goes unnoticed.

Then, they tell you that you never help with the dishes or clean up the place.

Emotional abusers are never satisfied with the bare minimum or imperfection. Even when they see you doing it, they don’t care. They might even express shock and say, “Wow, you’re finally ____.”

Victims of emotional abuse often doubt themselves and their capabilities. Constant criticism and “feedback” or “advice” eats away at a person’s self-esteem. Eventually, they believe the emotional abuser.

6. They keep score.

Healthy relationships do not have a score system. No one keeps score or receipts, like screenshots.

Emotional abusers will always keep score. Trying to resolve conflict will be a competition to see who can win — and it’s always up to them, never the victim.

Real love does not involve scores or conflict “wins”.

Everything you’ve ever done will be held against you and turned on you.

It’s never, “Can we talk?” and always, “We have to talk.”

Because they’re in charge, and they know it. They are exerting their power by removing the choice from you to say no.

In a healthy relationship, you would not have to talk. You would have the option to talk, and then perhaps schedule a meeting to do so within both of your boundaries.

7. Conflict is never resolved.

Again, conflict resolution is not possible in an emotionally abusive relationship because there is no safe space to express yourself.

Conflict can only be resolved when both parties in a discussion feel safe to express themselves, without violating their boundaries.

Emotional abusers keep score and only award points based on their opinion of who is worthy of them.

For me, this sounded like,

Okay, fine. You win that one.

I made the mistake of replying. “It’s not about winning. It’s not a competition.”

She looked at me and said, “So you think you’re the only one in the world who deserves to have rights?”

No matter how much logic you use, the conversation goes in circles until you are so defensive they are calling you out on it.

“Then why are you raising your voice at me?”

Note how calm they are throughout the entire “talk”. This is not a conversation. It’s a science experiment.

They have their evidence against you, and you owe them. They feel nothing towards you once you begin taking back your power.

When I looked into the eyes of my aunt, I saw the same hate I saw in my mother. It was then that I realized this level of emotional immaturity was intergenerational, because I’ve seen similar behavior in their mother and grandmother.

I was the problem because I refused to succumb.

It doesn’t matter what your relationship is with an emotional abuser. They will treat you like a stranger if you don’t let them win and tell everyone they are the victim.

8. They alter history.

Emotional abusers love screenshots and any evidence of your crimes.

Receipts are how they pit other people against you so that when you turn to others for help and support, people will instead lecture you about your misbehavior.

Here’s the thing, though: Once psychological abusers are caught doing something they definitely did, they deny reality.

That awful thing they did never happened, and if it did…you “deserved” it, per their mind.

What did your emotional abuser do to you? How did you know when they were emotionally abusive?

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