What Is Mental Abuse And How Can You Protect Yourself?

When most people think about abuse, what they're actually thinking about is physical abuse, because it's something you can see. You think about bruises and 'accidents' and trips to the emergency room. But there are several different types of abuse that someone could be suffering, maybe without even knowing it. That's one of the reasons that mental abuse is such a huge problem, and something that you desperately need to understand, because it's extremely easy to fall into the trap of being mentally abused and not even realize that it's happening.

What it Means

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 is able to 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, so how could it be considered abuse?

Mental Abuse is Worse When An Abuser Claims They're Joking And They're Not
Your Pain is Real. Talk to An Online Counselor About it

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The short answer, and the clinical answer is that mental abuse, also called psychological abuse or emotional abuse, is a type of abuse where one person exposes another to some type of behavior that causes them psychological trauma. That means it could give them anxiety, chronic depression or even PTSD. These types of psychological traumas can actually stick around a whole lot longer than the relationship even does, which is one of the worst parts. Even getting out of the relationship and realizing that it was mentally abusive doesn't stop the abuse that goes on in your own head.

What it is Not

So the short answer is that mental abuse is something that causes trauma, but what is it not (since this is going to be a little easier again before we get into the symptoms of mental abuse). When you and your partner (or you and anyone else) yell at each other, that is not automatically emotional abuse. Yelling at people when you are upset or angry is actually considered normal. It may not be the best way to resolve your differences or express yourself, but just the act of yelling is not abuse. Even making negative comments about another person may not be considered mental abuse because it's not just about saying terrible things to your partner, it's about attempting to control them with those comments.

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Scenarios of Mental Abuse

Mental abusers are those who attempt to control their partner's lives because of their own insecurities or their own misguided sense of power or right and wrong. For example, an individual who is insecure and fears their partner may leave them may put them down to make sure that they never leave. After all, if you're feeling miserable in your relationship because your partner is constantly putting you down, wouldn't you want to leave? Sure, but at the same time, those constant put-downs convince you that if you leave, you'll never find anyone else and so it's better to stay, where your partner loves you and wants what's best for you, then to leave and be alone.

Another common abuse scenario is the abuser who wants to give a certain image to the rest of the world and wants their partner to act and look a certain way. They may attempt to control absolutely everything about the partner from their clothes, their activities, their friends, and their job to simply the things that they like or their way of talking. This type of abuser will use criticism as well, to 'mold' the behavior of the partner into exactly what they want.

There are many other scenarios that you may or may not be a part of that are also common with mental abusers. It's also possible that mental abuse and physical abuse could go hand in hand. An abuser may use physical abuse as a way to wear down their partner even more to accept their mental abuse. The bottom line is that an abuser attempts to isolate their victim and make them feel like they have no other options. The abuser is completely in control of their life and they feel like they have nowhere else to go and no one else who will take care of them the way the abuser does when they are in a good mood.

Symptoms of Mental Abuse

There are many symptoms of mental abuse and any combination of them could exist in your situation. Any of these are signs that something unhealthy is happening in your relationship and should definitely be addressed more carefully.

  • 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.
  • Shame 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 you. Believing that 'those people' actually care about you is embarrassing because they don't. or believing that you'll ever amount to anything is stupid. 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.
  • Verbally abusing 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.

Mental Abuse is Worse When An Abuser Claims They're Joking And They're Not
Your Pain is Real. Talk to An Online Counselor About it


  • Punishing or threatening to punish. An abuser may threaten to leave entirely, but only after they've gotten you to a point in the relationship where you feel like you can't be without them. They may even 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 other ways that they can control what you are doing and start isolating you from the people who would be right there to help you if they knew what was going on.
  • Refusing to talk about it. If you start to turn the tables and want to talk about the problems or discuss things that are going on in your relationship they may refuse or they may simply stop talking to you altogether as a form of punishment for bad behavior. They don't want to talk about the problems because then you might realize that it's not your fault. They also want you to feel alone so isolating you from your friends and family and then not talking to you themselves makes you feel entirely alone and without anyone, which makes you more likely to do what they say.
  • Refusing affection and attention. Everyone needs love and affection in a relationship. Even things like sitting together on the couch or holding hands when you're out can help you get the affection that you need but an abuser uses affection as a reward for good behavior and takes it away for bad behavior. Affection makes you feel important and loved and more secure, taking it away makes you do whatever you can to earn it again. Affection is just a form of manipulating you for an abuser and will only be doled out if it can somehow be beneficial to them and their attempt to control.
  • Isolating from anyone else. 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're not good for you. Maybe they are a 'bad influence' or they don't like the abuser and are trying to tear you apart. The abuser will use these as ways to get you to stop hanging out with that person or even talking to them on the phone or any other way because the more isolated you are, the less likely you are to ever leave.

What to Do

If you think you are 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 actually healthy for you or not. Keep in mind it is possible that the relationship you are in is not healthy for you but is also not abuse and it's also possible that your relationship doesn't have all or even any of the signs mentioned above and still is abuse.

Talking with a professional or someone you trust can help you figure out what's going on in your relationship and whether you should get out (or even if you just want to get out) or if it's something that can be worked on. Keep in mind, if you are in an abusive relationship and an abuser believes you really might leave, they will make promises to change or will attempt to convince you that you don't see things the right way and that they were never abusive at all. It is not possible for you to have a healthy relationship with your abuser while they 'work on things.' The relationship you have will definitely not be healthy, no matter what they may say.

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Getting out of an abusive relationship is not easy, and even if the abuser has never laid a hand on you, the trauma that they have caused will be long lasting. Getting professional help is important, no matter how you may feel at the point that you decide to leave. Betterhelp.com can be a great resource to help you communicate with someone without even having to leave the security and comfort of your home, whether you're still trying to work up the courage to leave or you're trying to put your life back together after the fact.

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