What Is Mental Abuse, And How Can You Protect Yourself?

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated June 9, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
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Some people may associate the word "abuse" with physical violence. However, there are several forms of abuse that people can experience without physical signs, including mental or emotional abuse. If you're unsure of what mental abuse looks like, you might struggle to recognize when it's happening to you or someone you love. For that reason, going through these signs can help prepare you for potentially unhealthy relationships. 

This article explores warning signs of mental abuse and resources like therapy and the National Domestic Violence Hotline that can help individuals who have been or are currently in an emotionally abusive relationship. 

I think I'm experiencing mental abuse, what can I do?

Am I being emotionally abused?

While physical abuse can leave bruises and broken bones, the signs of mental and emotional abuse may be less obvious. It can be challenging to identify the warning signs if you are in this situation. In addition, someone acting abusively might try to convince you they aren't being abusive by telling you that your experiences are "false" or "crazy." 

According to the Office on Women's Health, verbal and emotional abuse includes "insults and attempts to scare, isolate, or control you," sometimes followed by physical abuse. This type of abuse may start suddenly after a close relationship has already been established. People who engage in mental abuse may try to make the other person feel like they are tightly bonded. Over time, they may begin to insult or threaten the survivor. 

What are the signs and symptoms of emotional abuse?

Below are a few signs you might be experiencing emotional abuse. If you notice these signs in a relationship, consider contacting a professional to discuss your options. 

Constant criticism and manipulation

People acting emotionally abusive may use criticism to make you feel worse about yourself. They may start by playing on your insecurities to gain control quickly, trying to tell you aspects of "who you are" that you might disagree with. For example, if you're trying to eat healthier, they might tell you you're "too lazy" or "can't eat right." These statements may start to wear you down over time, which is another tactic they may use to abuse you further as time goes on. 


The abusive partner may attempt to make you feel guilty about what you say or do, claiming that you embarrass them or make them "look bad." They might follow up on this shaming behavior with a request for you to act differently, which could make you anxious and cause you to feel you're "walking on eggshells" around them in public. 


People acting abusively may not take responsibility for their feelings and might blame you for their behavior or the consequences of their behavior. If they haven't been able to get ahead in their job, they may tell you it's your fault. If they are unhappy, they may say you're not up to their standards. If they yell at you, they might say it's due to how you talk to them. They may struggle to take any responsibility for the situation or conflict. 

Verbal abuse and name-calling

Abusive people may call you names, even if they try to do it jokingly. They may claim that their "nicknames" for you are terms of endearment, even though they play on your insecurities and make you uncomfortable. Even when the relationship seems healthy, they may use these terms to remind you that they control you. 


An abusive individual may threaten to leave you to try to make you stop feeling a certain way. 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 you love. 

Refusal to partake in conversations 

You may try to address the difficulties in your relationship with your partner. It could be a sign of emotional abuse if they refuse to have conversations and become loud, angry, or upset whenever you try to talk. Any attempts of you trying to rationalize what is occurring can cause these arguments to ensue. 

Refusal to offer affection and love 

Love and affection are often considered core needs in a relationship. For example, sitting on a couch together or holding hands may release oxytocin, increasing emotional connection. Abusive people may use affection as a reward for you doing what they want. When you aren't acting in a way they enjoy, they may withhold affection and tell you it's your fault. When this individual stops showing love and kindness, it may prompt you to do whatever you can to regain that love. You might feel that you are constantly "living for them" and trying to please them to no avail. 


An abusive person might make you feel like no one else understands or cares about you. They may attempt to break off your relationships with friends and family or become jealous of your connections with others. Your loved ones may be picking up on the abuse, so the individual may try to hide you from these individuals so they don't try to convince you to leave your partner. 

Physical harm 

Emotionally abusive people may turn to physical abuse when attempting to control their partners. For example, they might grab your wrist when you try to leave home or slam a door in your face and threaten to hit you. In addition, they may hurt themselves to try to gain control over the situation. They may cut themselves, punch a wall, or hit themselves. Some people threaten to attempt suicide to control their partner's behaviors.

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or urges, call the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or text 988 to talk to a crisis provider over SMS. They are available 24/7 to offer support. 988 also offers an online chat for those with an internet connection.

How to cope with emotional abuse

Many people feel stuck in emotionally abusive relationships due to the push-and-pull dynamic. They may love their partner, regardless of their actions, and feel that the person can change with time. However, reaching out for help is crucial if you notice these signs in a partner. These signs can escalate and lead to severe consequences. Emotional abuse can have severe physical consequences, as chronic stress can increase your risk of illness and death.


Steps for moving forward as a survivor 

If you think you're in an emotionally abusive relationship, seek professional help immediately. Talking with a counselor may help you understand whether your relationship is healthy. Your relationship may not be abusive, but it may be unhealthy. In addition, your relationship may not have the signs listed above, but it could still be a form of abuse. For this reason, professional help may be necessary. 

Below are a few other ways to start moving forward in or out of this relationship. 

Reach out to your support system 

An abusive person may try to convince you that your reality is false and separate you from healthy people who disagree. When you talk to people who care about you, they may be able to validate your feelings about your relationship. Try to find someone you trust in a safe location to talk to. You can then start forming a plan for when you leave the relationship. 

Remember who you are

Try to partake in activities that make you happy and optimistic, and engage in self-care as much as possible. You may be in a situation where you're not being treated right, and fortifying your boundaries by spending time alone may help you clear your mind and understand how your relationship harms you. 

Write in a journal 

Consider writing in a journal to be candid about your feelings so that someone can't judge you. Realize that your emotions are valid. If you want to ensure that this person won't read your writing, consider keeping your journal at a friend's house, in your car, or at your workplace. You could also lock it up or keep a journal online. 

Talk to a therapist 

Talking with a therapist can help you determine the next steps for your relationship and how to cope with unhealthy dynamics. You may gain perspective and determine whether staying or leaving the individual would be best. Long-term effects of mental abuse in a relationship include chronic pain, depression, and anxiety, so talking with a therapist can be critical. 

If you're worried about attending in-person therapy due to your partner's behaviors, you might also try online therapy through a platform like BetterHelp. With an online platform, you don't have to find a nearby therapist, commute to an office, or talk to someone face-to-face. You can be matched with a therapist available to help you within 48 hours, and you can reach out to them 24/7 over messaging. You can also participate in therapy from anywhere with an internet connection, so you do not have to attend your sessions from home if your partner might not respond well. 

Getty/Vadym Pastukh
I think I'm experiencing mental abuse, what can I do?

Research shows that online therapy is effective for treating depression and anxiety, with one study showing "significant and clinically meaningful improvements in depression and anxiety scores relative to baseline" after 12 weeks and again at six months post-intervention. Another study found that internet-based therapy could effectively treat trauma responses in those who have experienced domestic violence or abuse. 


Mental and emotional abuse can skew how you see yourself and your relationship. Whether you're trying to work up the courage to leave or starting to put your life back together after getting out of an abusive relationship, consider reaching out to a therapist. If you're in a dangerous situation or mental health crisis, immediately reach out to the hotline at the start of this article.
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