Many people have a difficult time defining this type of abuse, and often find themselves with just a sense that something is wrong in their relationships. While this inner feeling can indicate a number of problems, if we compare this sense of wrongness to known emotionally abusive behaviors, we can determine if we are experiencing emotional abuse. Then we can begin the process of naming the problem and finding a solution.
Emotional abuse is not only the most common form of abuse, it’s the type of abuse always present in every other form of abuse. Emotional abuse is behavior that occurs repeatedly that snubs, shames, excludes, cuts off, isolates, intimidates, terrorizes, threatens, degrades and/or dominates another person, causing emotional damage to them.
It is not physical, and may be as simple as a certain look or gesture. Emotional abuse can result from ignoring someone, making unreasonable demands, teasing or publicly humiliating a person, making them the butt of a joke or correcting them in front of others. And it can occur between spouses, from parent to child or child to parent, and at work or school.
Part of the problem is that we accept some emotionally abusive behaviors as normal. Many of us grew up with these emotionally damaging practices as a normal part of our lives. Abusers use several common tactics to confuse our response to emotional abuse.
You may recognize some of these responses:
1) When confronted, abusers often reply with, “Oh, you’re just being sensitive/overreacting!”
2) There’s also the “obscuring effect”: What really happened? The accused party may defend themselves by saying, “I really didn’t mean that or didn’t really do what you think I did.” They may imply that you are incapable of understanding what is going on or, again, that you are just oversensitive.
3) Double messaging or an in-congruence between the words spoken and body language/tone/volume used. For example, “I love you,” with a rigid stance and an arms-crossed posture that says, “Only if you do it my way.”
4) Name calling or sarcasm or whispered jokes that illicit the laughter of others, but leave the recipient hurt; again, implying that you are too sensitive, you are unacceptable and worthy of contempt. It’s surprising how often this is considered acceptable behavior.
Emotional abuse has many characteristics. Do you feel humiliated, criticized or treated like a child? Do you need to get permission for little decisions? Does your partner control how you spent your time, or who you spend it with? How about money, or transportation and where you spend your time? Is he/she always right or always wrong? Emotional abuse can make you feel discounted, degraded and unfairly judged.
Often much of what we learn about what is acceptable was taught to us in our childhood homes. We may have learned to accept emotional abuse in our relationships because we have lived with it as children. What was normal in your home? Was emotional abuse ignored, obscured, excused or was it confronted?
Emotionally abusive behaviors and practices, if not dealt with properly, grow, accumulate and eventually damage the recipient. Emotional abuse impacts people at the center of their being. They are left believing that they are insignificant, unworthy, defective, needy, and unlovable. The emotional abuse is absorbed and internalized, and these beliefs become the core of their shame identity. Without a good sense of self-worth, the abused person feels that their normal imperfection is defective. “I’m imperfect, therefore I’m not okay; I must be perfect (see my articles on Performance Orientation), and when I fail, I deserve this punishment, this bad relationship, this type of treatment, this unfair deal, etc.” They feel unworthy and unlovable. This sense of shame makes it difficult to trust, connect and live in emotionally sustaining relationships.
Wow, I may be in an emotionally abusive relationship! Now what?
The good news is that you already have taken the first step. Identifying that intangible sense of wrongness in your relationship is one of the most difficult things for most people. You are beginning to put words and feelings to something that no one would confirm for you. Now you need confront the lie that you are unworthy. It is a lie. There is no one like you; there is no one else who can impact the world the way you can. You were created by the supreme being of the universe, and he does not make mistakes or junk (Palms 139:14). You may be a contributor to the problem; in our own way, we all contribute to the problems in our relationships, but you are not ALL THE PROBLEM. You did not fail; it’s not your job to try to make others happy. Recognize that you are okay, and that you are loved. You are not deserving of abusive treatment.
Most people need someone to help them discover their value, and overcome their shame. If it’s time to make a change and you would like help, click my contact tab and set up an appointment, or give my office a call. It would be an honor to walk with you on your journey.