What Is Mental Abuse And How Can You Protect Yourself?
By Sarah Fader
Updated August 05, 2019
Reviewer Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC
When most people think about abuse they think about physical abuse, because it's something they can see. They think about bruises, 'accidents', and trips to the emergency room. There are several types of abuse that someone could be suffering from without even knowing it. It's extremely easy to fall into the trap of being mentally abused and not realize what is happening.
Am I Being Abused?
When someone physically abuses you it's obvious. You may believe that 'they didn't mean it,' but you still know that they hit you. When they mentally abuse you, however, it can be entirely different. 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.
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.
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 Crisis Text Line, and Safe Horizon, which both offer anonymous support through hotlines. 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 without your abuser. But there is, and if you reach out to a mental health professional, you can get through this and find healing.
That 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, 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 a healthy and fulfilling life. We're going to cover different scenarios of mental abuse below.
Scenarios of Mental Abuse
Mental abusers are people who attempt to control their partner's lives because of their insecurities, and 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.
Another common abuse scenario is the abuser 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.
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 abuser may also try to control the abused by limiting the relationships a person makes with others. The victim feels helpless and isolated, because the abuser makes them feel that way.
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Symptoms of Mental Abuse
There are many symptoms of mental abuse and many combinations of their occurrences. 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. The abuser 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 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. 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. They don't want to talk about the problems because then you might realize that it's not your fault.
- 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.
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 a mentally 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.
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.
"Saju has really helped me turn my life around from a low point in my life, to feeling really good, having more energy and being more positive every day. Best thing I ever did was get counselling and getting connected with Saju was the best thing that happened to me. He's fantastic! Would recommend to everyone, whether you think you need him or not, I have no doubt he will help you achieve all your goals and aspirations. Amazing!"
"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."