If you actively avoid any sort of conflict, or if you’re extra sensitive to changes in another person’s mood, tone or facial expressions, or if you’re afraid of other people’s (or another person’s) reaction to certain news, or if you’ve ever felt like you’ve had to “walk on eggshells” around another person, you’ve probably experienced emotional abuse. And yes: emotional abuse is real, and it’s an actual problem.
Emotional abuse is a staple of domestic abuse situations in particular because it functions as the primary means by which abusers control their victims. It’s an “invisible” sort of abuse that leaves no physical marks but is just as psychologically damaging to victims.
Emotional abuse is also not exclusive to domestic abuse survivors: it’s entirely possible to experience emotional abuse in a friendship, or in a relationship with an inherent power dynamic (e.g., boss and employee, professor and student, etc.).
The primary purpose of emotional abuse is to make the victim feel as though they can’t trust their own intellect, senses and gut. It conditions the victim to rely emotionally on the abuser as a savior-type figure or as a form of authority.
The abuser will often isolate the victim from their loved ones (especially if those loved ones see through the abuser’s facade), manipulate their victim into giving them increasingly more control over their lives (through financial control, legal control, physical control, etc.), and they also tend to punish their victims with intentional mood swings. In terms of my own experience of abuse, my dad would often suddenly switch from happy and jolly to enraged and lecturing and screaming.
Emotional abusers may not always understand what they’re doing. Often their abusive actions mimic the patterns of behavior that they themselves experienced as children from abusive parents or authority figures, or from abusive partners. The abuser, feeling as though a situation will harm them if they don’t control every aspect of it, will do everything in their power to control a person who may affect that situation by any means necessary. The reasons for their abuse don’t make the abuse any less wrong or harmful to their victim.
Verbal abuse is a type of emotional abuse. Whereas emotional abuse as a whole is designed to make a victim feel as though they have no agency, the purpose of verbal abuse is specifically to humiliate the victim and make the victim doubt their worth and their self-image. Other forms of emotional abuse tend to be subtler, to the point where many times the victim is unaware that the abuse is taking place – and only that the behavior makes them uncomfortable. The chart below differentiates types of verbal abuse from other types of emotional abuse.
|Verbal Abuse||General Emotional Abuse|
|Name-calling (“idiot”, “stupid”, “useless”)||Passive-aggression|
|Public shaming (speaking ill of the victim in front of other people while the victim is there)||Undermining (speaking on the victim’s behalf without permission, taking credit for their ideas, taking weight from their voice)|
|Intentionally hurtful joking or sarcasm||Gaslighting (lying with the specific purpose of making the victim question their memories)|
|Criticizing (unsolicited comments or lectures about what the victim may have done wrong, without any positivity or sympathy)||Constant opposition (arguing against everything the victim says, especially when the victim brings up their feelings)|
|Judging||Shutting down meaningful conversations|
There’s plenty more behaviors I could add to both columns in the chart above, but these tend to be the primary staples of an emotionally and verbally abusive relationship.
So what does verbal vs. emotional abuse look like in real life?
Let’s start with verbal abuse. To use examples from my childhood once more: my father never passed up an opportunity to shame my mother with insults designed to wear away at her self image. “Stupid,” “fat” and “incompetent” were the most popular offenders when he directly insulted her in moments of anger or frustration, but he also – far more frequently – used subtler insults in the form of teasing and jokes. “You’re getting a little heavier, I see.” “If you’d just used your noodle, this would have gone differently.” “You see? You did it again: penny-wise, pound-foolish.”
Whenever anyone in the house did something that wasn’t completely to his standards, he would endlessly criticize what he perceived to be wrong while completely neglecting any positive feedback. Nothing mattered in those moments except his own disappointment.
If my mother made dinner slightly differently, she would get a half-hour lecture about how she did a rushed job, how there was no reproducibility in her cooking, how she didn’t apply herself with focus and motivation. He worded that last part differently, as an attack on her character: “you’re supposed to do little things with great love!”
The same pattern applied if one of us got a subpar grade on an exam, didn’t clean the bathroom or living room to his expectations, or wore an outfit that wasn’t to his liking: constant criticism and attacks on our characters, more for the purpose of allowing him to vent his anger than to actually communicate with us and work on any problems.
In groups (often family gatherings, but occasionally groups of acquaintances), he would often make jokes about my mother’s weight and her mannerisms, or the fact that she “let” him use her money. In private, he would often bombard her with paranoid accusations.
My strongest memory of his judging, when it came to my mother, was during an instance where she innocently asked him why he was spending a little more of his time out of the house. His immediate reaction was to lash out at her because, in his paranoid mind, she seemed to be accusing him of cheating. She had never made any such accusation, explicitly or implicitly, but he stayed angry at her for hours, hissing and growling his ire at her past 2 AM until she stormed off to her room, sobbing.
All the forms of verbal abuse listed in the chart can be found through these and further examples of my father’s behavior: actions meant to convince the victim that they lack self-worth and don’t deserve better treatment because of inherent flaws in their character.
Under this verbal abuse, we all developed the same self-image of worthlessness in different manifestations: “I’m stupid. I can’t trust my own reasoning.” “I’m sinful. I can’t trust my ability to determine right from wrong.” “I’m ugly. I can’t have any confidence or pride in my own body.” “I’m unreliable. I can never do a good enough job.”
When a person develops a negative self-image, they become easier to control because of the sharp decrease in their self-esteem and confidence. If a person believes that they’re ugly, it’s easier to convince them that only certain types of outfits will benefit them.
If a person believes that they’re stupid, it’s easier to convince them that their own sense of reason can’t be trusted. Slowly, through fostering the victim’s negative self-image, the abuser takes more and more control over the victim’s actions.
The other types of emotional abuse listed in the chart are just as damaging and can also wear away at a victim’s self-image, but because they’re subtler it’s much easier for the abuser to use them more frequently to wear away at the victim without the victim even realizing that abuse is taking place.
It’s easy to recognize abusive behavior when it comes suddenly, in the form of an explosive insult, without any prior evidence that the person would have used such an insult. It’s much more difficult when the abuser uses underhanded tactics:
- Lying about something you know you saw, as they make you feel guilty for even confronting them about the issue
- Speaking for you in a group of friends without your permission, and thereby tacitly claiming their own perspective as superior to yours.
- Acting or speaking passive-aggressively, and forcing you to come to conclusions about what might be wrong rather than being direct
- “Punishing” you with mood swings, and giving you the silent treatment
When the abuser has created a regular atmosphere of unease, and sees that their victim is becoming more and more accustomed to their subtle tactics and is losing trust in their own perspective, that’s when the abuser becomes more comfortable transitioning to increasingly more obvious forms of abuse.
If you’ve already come to the conclusion, through the abuser’s tacit convincing, that your senses can’t be trusted and that your character is bad, is it as great of a shock if one day they say what they’ve made you think directly to your face or out in the open?
“Idiot,” without prior actions and warnings, is the equivalent of exposing a frog to hot water – it’ll immediately jump away. “Idiot,” with months or years of slow grooming through passive aggression and gaslighting and undermining, is the equivalent of putting a frog in cold water and slowly heating the water. That’s what makes both forms of abuse so insidious.
Leave a comment if you can relate.