What Is Mental Abuse And How Can You Protect Yourself?
By: Jon Jaehnig
Updated October 21, 2020
Medically Reviewed By: Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC
When most people think about abuse they think about physical violence and abuse, because it's something they can see. They think about bruises, 'accidents', and trips to the emergency room. However, this is not the only method of abuse. There are several forms of abuse that someone could be suffering from without even knowing it. One of these types of abuse is emotional abuse. It's extremely easy to fall into the trap of being mentally abused and not realize what is happening. These effects of emotional abuse are severe, especially if it occurs long term. It is important that you identify if you are with an abusive partner, to avoid suffering from the impact of emotional abuse.
Am I Being Emotionally Abused?
When someone physically abuses you it's obvious. The violence and abuse endured are seen physically, and it is hard to misinterpret it. You may believe that 'they didn't mean it,' but you still know that they hit you. You know you have been the victim of dating abuse and domestic violence. When they mentally abuse you, however, it can be entirely different. If you are with an emotionally abusive person, it can be very difficult to identify the warning signs. That's because a mental abuser can get into your head and convince you that they are right about you, no matter what they might be saying. In the end, you don't really consider it abuse because they've convinced you that it's all the truth anyway, or they convince you it didn't happen the way you believe it did. It’s vital that you recognize the negative pattern of behavior they have, so you can see if you are being emotionally abused. This way, you won’t have to deal with the emotionally abusive relationship long term.
"Talking with a therapist or someone you trust can help you figure out what's going on in your relationship. You'll gain perspective and figure out whether you need to stay or go."
What is Mental Abuse?
What is mental abuse, exactly? The short answer and clinical answer are the same: mental, psychological, or emotional abuse is a type of abuse where one person exposes another to some type of behavior that causes psychological trauma. Emotional abuse can create traumas that change the way you think, feel, and behave. It can result in anxiety, depression, or even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These effects of psychological abuse can outlast the relationship they take place in.
If you have suffered from the many forms of abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder is a real concern. No matter if you dealt with verbal abuse, psychological abuse, or even if your partner was withholding affection, you can deal with long term mental health issues. The effects of emotional abuse can withstand the length of time an emotionally abusive relationship. It can lead to a feeling of depression, being anxious, and being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. So, if you believe you are being emotionally abused, it is important you confide in a trusted family member and come up with a safety plan.
How to Get Out of an Emotionally Abusive Relationship
One of the many challenges of being in a long term emotionally abusive relationship is finding your way out. Just like with physical violence and abuse, someone who has dealt with long term verbal abuse can feel scared to leave. Through years of manipulation and disrespect, the victim of psychological abuse can feel as though they are stuck. The truth is, you are not stuck if you are in an emotionally abusive relationship. There are many people who survive domestic abuse and toxic relationships, and you can too. Through the support of family members and a licensed counselor, you will feel get the needed support to leave your emotionally abusive partner.
You don't have to suffer through this emotional abuse alone. It can be scary, and you might be afraid to open up to friends or family about the abuse. Maybe you're scared they won't believe you or they might take the side of your abuser. These are common fears that many people in your situation have, and that might prevent you from reaching out for help or support. Don't let it. Tell a friend or family member that you don't feel safe, and you can seek the advice of a mental health professional.
How to Cope With Emotional Abuse
Many people feel stuck in emotionally abusive relationships. It's not easy to be in a relationship with a person who is mistreating you. But there are ways to handle this and get better. As mentioned above, it's crucial to reach out for help if you can. Tell someone you trust that you don't feel safe in your relationship. If you're afraid to tell a friend or loved one, there are many hotlines that you can call that are completely anonymous. There's the National Domestic Abuse Hotline, Crisis Text Line, and Safe Horizon, which both offer anonymous support through hotlines. All of the National Domestic Abuse Hotline, Crisis Text Line, and Safe Horizon resources will give you a great place to discuss a safety plan. The trouble with mental abuse is that you may have difficulty seeing outside of yourself and the relationship. You might not be able to tell that there's a good life and a possibility for healthy relationships without your abuser. But there is, and if you reach out to a mental health professional, you can get through this and find healing.
Leaving your emotionally abusive partner might sound scary, but think of it as an empowering statement. You've already taken the courageous first step of researching how to protect yourself. Use this same courage to reach out to somebody (whether it's a loved one you trust, a family member, or a mental health professional) who can help you build a joyful life. Many people who have experienced mental abuse have grown the strength needed to leave the abusive relationship, and move forward to healthy relationships and a fulfilling life. We're going to cover different scenarios of mental abuse below. Online therapy can help you move forward-it's proven to reduce the effects of trauma and trauma-related symptoms.
You may read the full study here: A therapist-assisted cognitive behavior therapy internet intervention for posttraumatic stress disorder: Pre-, post- and 3-month follow-up results from an open trial.
Scenarios of Mental Abuse
There are hundreds of scenarios in which someone can be subject to mental abuse. The truth this, the abusive person can shape their day-to-day life around being emotionally abusive. Not to mention, it can be very difficult to recognize you are being emotionally abused. One of the best ways to tell you are being emotionally abused is to reach out to a friend or family member. When it comes to reaching out to a family member, they should guide you on having healthy relationships. A friend or family member should spend time with you and discuss how you are feeling. If they tell you that your partner is an abusive person, don’t take this opinion lightly. Also, look at the scenarios below.
Control Their Partners
Most mental abusers are people who attempt to control their partner's lives because of their insecurities, and a misguided sense of power. For example, an individual who is insecure and fears their partner may leave them may put them down. After all, if your partner is constantly insulting you, it may convince you that if you leave, you'll never find anyone else. You stay in the relationship because you don't believe you deserve better. This is incredibly emotionally abusive, and it simply isn’t true. A healthy relationship means staying with someone because you love them, no matter the state of your mental health or self-esteem. An abusive person will make you believe they are the only partner you can get.
Protect Their Image
Another common abuse scenario is the abusive partner who wants to present a certain image to the world and therefore wants their partner to act and look a certain way. They may attempt to control everything about the partner: their clothes, haircut, activities, friends, and their job. This type of abuser will use criticism to 'mold' the behavior of the partner into what they prefer. Young people can be even subject to this type of abuse most, as they are trying to figure out who they are. They are still turning into the person they are meant to be.
When Physical Abuse Occurs
There are many situations where emotionally abusive behavior may present itself. It isn't uncommon for mental and physical abuse to co-occur. The goal of both forms of abuse is control, which means that they may be used together to exert and gain more power in a relationship. An abusive person may also try to control the victim of abuse by limiting the relationships a person makes with others. The victim feels helpless and isolated, because the abuser makes them feel that way. Domestic abuse is never acceptable, no matter the past of the person who is emotionally abusive. Whether if it is domestic violence, financial abuse, or mental abuse, you do not deserve any of it.
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What are the Signs and Symptoms of Emotional Abuse?
According to a medically reviewed article from Healthline, there are many symptoms of mental abuse and many combinations of their occurrences. In fact, they list 64 signs! As you can see, the signs can vary greatly, and are not limited. So, be on the lookout for domestic abuse in your relationship or in the relationships of your loved ones.
Below are signs that something unhealthy is happening in your relationship and should be addressed. Afterward, this article will cover ways you can protect yourself from these signs of mental abuse.
- Constant criticism and manipulation. Emotionally abusive people will use criticism to make you feel worse about yourself--whether that criticism is truthful or not is irrelevant. An abuser will start by playing on your insecurities because it helps them gain control more quickly and then they may start pulling in criticism that you never would have believed about yourself before. If you have been trying to lose some weight they might call you fat. If you haven't been able to find a job and they have one they may call you lazy. These things play on your current insecurities and make it easier for them to build up to criticizing everything else about you to make you feel like you owe them.
- Shaming you about your behavior. The abuser will attempt to make you feel bad about the things that you do or say that embarrass them (or that they claim to embarrass them). An abuser will make you feel bad for embarrassing them to the point that you want to do exactly what they say so that next time you don't embarrass them again.
- Blaming their feelings on you. An abuser doesn't take responsibility for their own feelings and their own life. If they haven't been able to get ahead in their job, it's your fault. If they are unhappy it's because you're not up to standard. If they yell at you, it's because you made them do it. Abusers do not see their own responsibility in what's going on and they refuse to acknowledge that they may have a part in any of it. Instead, they blame everything bad that happens in their life and in your life on you and what you've done to ruin them.
- Verbal abuse and name-calling. As mentioned in the medically reviewed article above, a common form of mental abuse is name-calling. An abuser may resort to schoolyard bully tricks of simply calling you names even in a 'joking' manner. They may claim it's simply a term of endearment to call you a 'piggy' or a 'lazy bum' but the terms play on your insecurities and that's the point. Even when everything seems to be going well and they haven't made any other negative comments in a while they may use these terms to make sure you remember where you stand and how much you 'owe' them for remaining with you even though you're not good enough for them.
- Punishing or threatening to punish the victim. An abuser may threaten to leave, but only after they've gotten you to a point where you feel like you can't be without them. They may resort to punishments that you would associate with children such as refusing to let you go out with friends or talk on the phone. These are ways that they can isolate you from the people who would want to help if they knew what was going on.
- Refusing to talk about it. If you want to talk about the problems in your relationship, the abuser may refuse or stop talking to you altogether. This is what is known as the silent treatment. They don't want to talk about the problems because then you might realize that it's not your fault. So, they give you the silent treatment and make you rethink all of your words and actions.
- Refusing affection and attention. Everyone needs love and affection in a relationship. Simple things like sitting together on the couch or holding hands when you're outside can provide you with the affection that you need. An abuser uses affection as a reward for "good behavior" and takes it away for "bad behavior." Affection makes you feel important, loved and secure. The abuser taking it away prompts you to do whatever you can to earn that love back. For the abuser, affection is a form of manipulation and that's all. It will only be doled out as a means of controlling the victim.
- Isolating you from loved ones. An abuser can make you feel like no one else really understands you or even cares about you. They attempt to break off the relationships you have with friends and family because they claim "they're not good for you." Your loved ones may be picking up on the abuse, and that's not what the abuser wants. They'll do whatever it takes to get you to stop hanging out with that person who suspects something is not right in your relationship. The more isolated you are, the less likely you are to leave them. So, they make sure you don’t spend time with anyone else but them, even if it’s just a family member you want to see.
- Physically hurting you or themselves. Many emotionally abusive people will also turn to physical abuse when attempting to control their partners. They will act out in physical domestic violence to control you. This could be something as small as grabbing your wrist so you don’t leave the house, or something much worse. No matter the level of domestic abuse, the effects can be astronomical. It can leave the victim of the emotionally abusive behavior with post-traumatic stress disorder, in which they will likely submit to their partner.
What to Do to Protect Yourself
If you think you're in an emotionally abusive relationship you should seek professional help immediately. Talking with a counselor may help you understand whether the relationship you're in is healthy for you or not. It is possible that your relationship isn't healthy, but it's not abusive. It's also a possibility that your relationship doesn't have all of the signs mentioned above and still is abusive.
Talking with a therapist or someone you trust can help you figure out what's going on in your relationship. You'll gain perspective and figure out whether you need to stay or go. If you determine that you're in an abusive relationship and the abuser believes you might leave, they're probably going to make promises to change. Having a healthy relationship with someone who has been abusive while they 'work on things' isn't realistic, and it could end up causing you more long-term pain.
Getting out of an abusive relationship is not easy, but it is possible. You can seek professional help no matter how you're feeling about the relationship.
Other things you can do to protect yourself are:
- Talk to friends and family if you feel like you're in an emotionally abusive relationship. One of the things that an abuser is excellent at doing is making you feel as if your reality is false. When you talk to people who care about you they will validate your feelings about the abuse.
- Remember who you are. Do activities that make you feel good about you. Make sure that you engage in self-care as much as possible. You may be in a situation where you're not being treated right, and the best thing you can do is fortify your boundaries by spending time doing good things for yourself.
- Write in a journal or a private blog. You can be candid about your feelings and no one can judge you. It's important for you to realize that your emotions are valid. If you want to ensure that your abuser won't read your writing, consider keeping your journal at a friend's house, or at your workplace. Otherwise, make sure to keep your digital writing password-protected.
Frequently Asked Questions About Emotional Abuse
What is the definition of mental abuse?
Mental abuse and emotional abuse are usually synonymous in terms of diagnosis. With that being said, emotional abuse is an act of verbal assault, isolation, and other acts that diminish the self-worth of a partner, according to a medically reviewed article from Healthy Place. If your partner repeatedly degrades you and makes you feel unworthy of love, they are likely mentally abusing you, whether you know it or not. Domestic violence can also be a form of mental abuse, as abusive people can use physical violence to mentally control others.
How does mental abuse affect a person?
Mental abuse, for one, can degrade the self-esteem of the victim. It can make them feel as though they are unworthy of love. It can make them feel as though they will never find another romantic partner if they leave their abusive one. It can also create feelings of depression and make it difficult to find happiness ever again. Not to mention, it can cause anxiety disorders, in which you feel anxious around people who are the same gender as your old partner, or who look like them. Seeing someone who resembles your old partner can set off an anxiety attack at any given moment. It can sometimes take years of therapy to push through these negative feelings.
Can you mentally abuse yourself?
Unfortunately, many people mentally abuse themselves every day. What’s worse, you can’t escape your own thoughts, like you can an abusive person. When someone has incredibly low self-esteem, they can easily get wrapped up in harmful thoughts and behaviors. They can talk down to themselves and make themselves feel unworthy. Also, for someone who has escaped mental abuse, they can continue telling themselves the harmful things their old partner told them. They may tell themselves they don’t deserve love, affection, or to live period. It’s difficult to break the habit of negative thoughts, so you must break this cycle. So, be sure you seek help from a licensed counselor if you know you mentally abuse yourself.
What are the 4 signs of abuse?
There are many signs of abuse. These can range from physical injuries, depression, isolation, and anxiety. According to a medically reviewed article by Healthline, some signs are degrading you for voicing your concerns, bullying you, and getting close to you too quickly. They may also make fun of you, and turn around and say they’re just kidding if you get offended.
What type of abuse is the hardest to detect?
Mental abuse is oftentimes the most difficult to detect. You cannot see mental abuse on someone. You can, however, detect odd behaviors such as depression, anxiety, and sadness. But, if you don’t know a person well, you may never know they are being mentally abused. This is what makes it so dangerous, as there are no ways to detect it other than observation. So, be on the lookout for your friends and family members who are in relationships. Check on them if they are acting sad, as there may be things going on behind closed doors.
What does narcissistic abuse mean?
According to a medically reviewed article from PsychCentral, narcissistic abuse happens when someone is in a relationship with a narcissist. Their emotionally abusive partner may make them question their sanity, their worth, and can devalue them. A narcissist does what they can to emotionally manipulate their partner in any way they can. All of this is done on purpose, and not on accident. This is why it is important you get out of a relationship with a narcissist if you believe you are dating one.
Can verbal abuse cause trauma?
Absolutely. It can cause depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and even self-esteem issues. All of these things clearly need to be avoided at all costs. Unfortunately, the longer you are in an abusive situation, the more likely you are to have long-lasting trauma. This is why it is vital you find your way out of an emotionally or verbally abusive relationship as quickly as possible.
BetterHelp Wants You to Feel Good About Yourself
The online counselors at BetterHelp understand how painful mental abuse can be. They've worked with people in abusive relationships who didn't see a way out and helped those individuals find the confidence they desperately needed. You may feel as if you're in a crisis, and you can't seem to leave a toxic relationship. That's something you can talk to an online counselor about, get the guidance, and start to make healthy emotional choices so you can leave the relationship and move forward. Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp counselors.
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"Amanda has a natural ability in listening and being compassionate. She has a comprehensive understanding of the problems I face. I thought my issues were too complicated to make sense of, but she was able to get to the core quick and easy which removes clouded feelings/thought. It gives you great relief to be understood when you cannot find the words yourself. Hands down I recommend her."
Therapy Is Personal
If you’re still wondering if therapy is right for you, and how much therapy costs, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. ReGain specializes in online therapy to help address all types of mental health concerns. If you’re interested in individual therapy, please reach out to email@example.com. For more information about BetterHelp as a company, please find us on
- RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network) - 1-800-656-4673
- The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline - 1-800-273-8255
- National Domestic Violence Hotline - 1-800-799-7233
- NAMI Helpline (National Alliance on Mental Illness) - 1-800-950-6264
- SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) SAMHSA Facebook, SAMHSA Twitter
- Mental Health America, MHA Twitter, MHA Facebook, MHA Instagram, MHA Pinterest
- WebMD, WebMD Facebook, WebMD Twitter, WebMD Pinterest
- NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health), NIMH Facebook, NIMH Twitter, NIMH YouTube
- APA (American Psychiatric Association), APA Twitter, APA Facebook, APA LinkedIN, APA Instagram