What Is Mental Abuse And How Can You Protect Yourself?

By Sarah Fader

Updated December 04, 2018

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. You think about bruises, 'accidents', and trips to the emergency room. There are several types of abuse that someone could be suffering through without even knowing it. It's extremely easy to fall into the trap of being mentally abused and not realize what is 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 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.

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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.

What it is Not

Mental abuse is something that causes trauma, but it is also helpful to know what it is not. When you and your partner (or you and anyone else) raise your voices or have disagreements, it isn't necessarily abusive. Disagreements, even heated ones, can be normal and even healthy growing points in relationships.

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Scenarios of Mental Abuse

Mental abusers are those who attempt to control their partner's lives because of their insecurities, their misguided sense of power, or sense right and wrong. For example, an individual who is insecure and fears their partner may leave them may put them down to prevent the partner from feeling worthy of having any other relationship. After all, if your partner is constantly putting you down, those put-downs may convince you that if you leave, you'll never find anyone else. From there you may begin to believe its better to stay where someone tolerates you than it is to leave and be alone.

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, 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 scenarios in which 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 control in a relationship. Control is gained by commentary that causes the hearer to question themselves and even reality, or by commentary or physical action that causes the recipient to fear continued mental or physical abuse and thus act in a way meant to prevent it. Isolation has also used a means of control. By limiting the relationships a person makes with others, an abuser can more fully control and convince his or her victim that they are wrong and have no option but to comply.

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.

  • 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.


  • 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 healthy for you or not. It is possible that the relationship you are in is not healthy for you but is also not abuse. It's also possible that your relationship doesn't have all or any of the signs mentioned above and still is abusive.

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. If you are in an abusive relationship and the abuser believes you might leave, they are likely to make promises to change or will attempt to convince you that you don't see things the right way and that their behavior is normal. Having a healthy relationship with someone who has been abusive while they 'work on things' is very unlikely, and it could end up causing you more long-term pain

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Getting out of an abusive relationship is not easy, but healing from the trauma of mental abuse is possible. Getting professional help is important, no matter how you may feel when 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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