You’re Not Crazy, But Emotional Abuse Can Make You Think You Are
By Marie Miguel
Updated April 15, 2019
Reviewer Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC
Emotional abuse is painful and extremely real. When people think of abusive relationships, they often associate them with physical violence. You can see the bruises or broken bones, but this isn't the only type of abuse there is. There are other kinds of abusive behavior that can be directed against a partner, family member or even colleague. Emotional abuse is a form of domestic violence, and it can have devastating effects on the mental health of the victim.
The first thing you need to understand is that emotional abuse is a crime, and you do have places to go to seek safety from an abuser. At their core, all forms of abuse are behaviors the abuser uses to control, coerce, and maintain the power they've acquired over their victim through fear and intimidation.
The victim of emotional abuse has been groomed by the abuser to accept the abuse as "normal." They learn to accept this treatment as "what they deserve." The abuser starts out many times as a charismatic and even kind person and gains the victim's trust. Once they have that, they can start manipulating and controlling them.
Emotional abuse, however, can be hard to detect at first. You know if someone causes you direct physical harm. But tactics of emotional abuse can be so subtle that you may not even realize at first you are being manipulated and threatened, and this can lead to you questioning yourself.
You start thinking: Maybe I am wrong. Maybe I do not remember the situation accurately. You can start to feel crazy and feel that you can't trust yourself, your memories, or your judgments; but, you are not crazy. This is their way of keeping control over you. Learning about emotional abuse can help you get on the path to recovery.
Who Could Be A Victim of Emotional Abuse?
Emotional abuse is often talked about regarding intimate relationships, and it's true that relationships between romantic partners are one of the most common settings of this form of abuse. But they are not the only type of relationship where emotional abuse occurs.
Gender does discriminate when it comes to emotional abuse. Both men and women are victims and are targeted by their partners. Children can be victims of emotional abuse by a parent or other authority figure. Bosses can abuse their power over employees. Adult children can emotionally abuse their parents. You may even have an emotionally abusive friend, family member, or co-worker. Coercive and manipulative behaviors are not exclusive to any one type of relationship. One thing that most of these relationships have in common is that the victim is in regular contact with their abuser in some way.
Forms of Emotional Abuse
Several forms of emotional abuse can arise in relationships. Often, abusers use more than one of these tactics against their victims. All of them are ways for the abuser to control you.
Threats come in many forms. Often, the abuser will use threats to play mind games with you, manipulate you, or control what actions you take. They may threaten physical violence to scare you into listening to them and doing what they want. They may threaten to call the police and tell them that you are the one being abusive.
They may coerce you into staying in a relationship by convincing you that you will be ruining your child's life by leaving. They may make threats they don't intend to carry through with to get you to comply, such as threatening to leave you. They may make you feel guilty for their actions by threatening to hurt themselves. Regularly using threats to manipulate someone is not healthy in a relationship.
Criticism is not always abusive when it's constructive. However, when the critical words turn into put-downs, that's not productive, it's abusive. When someone is constantly putting you down or questioning your decisions, there's a malicious motive behind their behavior.
This chronic shaming wears down the victim's self-esteem and confidence and makes them doubt themselves and their self-worth. Criticism can also be disguised as jokes. This makes the victim question whether they are truly being demeaned or not. When a joke is designed to point out your flaws (real or perceived) to make you feel bad, it is criticism, and not a constructive one.
Not all teasing is abuse, sometimes it can be playful, but there's a way to tell the difference. If the joke is about something that doesn't bother you or the other person, it is truly a joke. For example, if a friend or family member teases you about being short, but you feel good about your height and you know they're playful, this is a friendly joke.
If they pretend about you being lazy and have seriously criticized you about this before, knowing that it evokes a reaction from you, then they are pushing your buttons. Eventually, you may become more susceptible to other forms of emotional abuse because of being so worn down by criticism.
Gaslighting is probably the most "crazy-making" of the forms of emotional abuse. It is a denial of your experiences and your perception of reality. When someone tells you enough times that something you remember didn't happen or that they didn't say a thing you're sure they did, or that you said a thing you're sure you didn't, you begin to believe that your memory is unreliable. Then you begin to depend on that very person to tell you what happened, which is a dangerous place to be in. After experiencing gaslighting, you need to re-learn to trust yourself. The first step is recognizing that this is happening to you.
With gaslighting, information is twisted to favor the abuser. Often, but not always, it is done in a premeditated manner. We have all seen small children twist a story after the fact to get out of trouble, but gaslighting is not the same thing. It is not done to get the abuser out of trouble, but to gain further control over the victim. They may accuse you of being the instigator in a situation when they poked you to get a reaction.
The purpose of gaslighting is to make you start acting like you are out of control. Another sign that you are the victim of gaslighting is if every time you try to talk about your experiences, the other person makes the conversation about them, as though they are the victim of your behaviors, despite you being the one who brought up a grievance. A truly caring partner, friend, or family member will listen to you with compassion and want to help if you feel there is a problem in the relationship.
You should also keep in mind that feeling stressed, angry, or upset, will cause you to have trouble with your memory of the situation, and this is normal. It does not mean you are crazy if you cannot remember the exact words you or the other person said during an argument. Don't let someone use the results of stress against you.
Disregarding Your Opinions
Also called opposing and blocking, the result of constantly having your opinions shot down or being told to shut up or that your thoughts don't matter is that you stop standing up for yourself. You stop vocalizing your opinions. Ultimately no connection can exist without open communication.
Again, this form of abuse can be quite subtle. It can be as simple as the abuser telling you that you are boring when you start talking about something you are enthusiastic about. But when that assertion is repeated to you over and over, you may begin to feel like your thoughts don't have any worth.
A relationship involves rejection when one person makes the other feel unwanted. This can be seen in emotionally abusive parent-child relationships. When the child is called names, demeaned, belittled, or left by themselves for long periods of time, it can cause extreme mental harm. This also occurs in intimate relationships in which the abuser continues to stay but repeatedly calls the victim names and makes character insults to show that they have no respect for them. In any relationship, the result is that the victim feels like no one else would want them either.
The abuser makes sure that the victim is kept apart from friends or other family members; this is another form of emotional abuse. A child or partner may not be allowed to interact with friends. An elderly parent may be denied visits. Without other healthy relationships, the victim becomes more and more dependent upon the abuser to fulfill their needs. This is unhealthy and destructive to their lives.
Partners or parents may keep the victim from getting a job, meaning they don't form relationships with peers and they have no financial independence. Ultimately, losing the abuser would mean losing everything, even if the victim sees that the relationship is not good.
Victim blaming is a severe form of emotional abuse. Blaming the victim comes after other forms of abuse, whether physical, sexual, or emotional. The abuser will tell you that things that happened are your fault. They claim they would not have acted the way they did or said the things they said if you would have just behaved appropriately and listened to them. They will tell you that you always cause issues, or you always start arguments.
Unfortunately, abuse typically happens in private so you may have no one to validate your experiences or help you understand that you are not to blame for their actions. You are not responsible for what your abuser does. Making your own decisions is not a cause for abuse.
If you feel like something is not right about the way you are being treated, you should trust your instincts. Seek help by finding someone you can trust to talk to. If you decide to confront your abuser about their behaviors, only continue the conversation if each of you can remain calm and have an escape plan prepared before the discussion. You may want to hold the conversation in a public place.
The Emotional Abuse Cycle
Abusive relationships often work in cycles, especially if the victim has a choice about whether to stay. The first stage is the honeymoon period. Many emotional abusers come across as extremely charming to their potential victims, and to others around them. This can make it even more difficult for a victim to get help because everyone you know may think the abuser is such a nice person that they could never do or say such things.
During the honeymoon period, the abuser will charm you and make you feel like they do love and care about you. They may buy you nice things to earn your forgiveness for past hurts and profess their feelings for you. Because of this behavior pattern, victims became very attached to their abusers and invested in the relationship before they recognize the negative behavior patterns of coercion, manipulation, and violence.
The next stage is when the tension builds. During this period, the abuser becomes increasingly agitated. It is the stage, which many victims refer to as "walking on eggshells." You may not be sure what thing you say or do will set off the other person.
Finally, the next situation of abuse arises. The abuser is back to their old ways. The promises they made during the "good" part of the relationship are shown to be just another part of their manipulation against you. The problem with this cycle is that it can lead you to believe that your abuser is a good person; that they messed up; and that they deserve another chance. But without the abuser seeking counseling for their problems, giving them another chance simply means they will repeat the cycle over again.
So how do you stop the cycle of abuse? As mentioned, if you and your abuser both seek counseling for your separate issues, you may be able to end the abuse. Most often, the relationship is damaged irreparably before an abuser can seek help and end their destructive behaviors. For your mental health and safety, it is usually best to get out of the relationship, whether that means a break-up or looking for a new job and bettering yourself.
You can endanger yourself by standing up to an abuser in certain situations. That being said, if you feel confident that you are not at risk for physical violence, or that you may be able to improve the relationship, you can push back by calling the person out and vocalizing what they are doing that hurts you. If their response is defensive, then they are not receptive to this strategy and your best way to avoid further abuse is to reduce your interactions with this person.
Coercive Behavior Patterns
Emotional abusers often have distinct personality and behavior patterns. Once you've been exposed to these traits, you may be able to recognize them in future relationships before abuse begins. They are often self-centered individuals who lack empathy. They may feel like they have no control over their own lives and have a strong desire for asserting control where they can, including in their relationships with others. You can watch for the following signs to determine whether a person is a risk for coercive behaviors. Knowing these patterns can help you avoid entering an abusive relationship in the future.
- The person seems insecure or uncomfortable around others.
- They are paranoid about people's motivations, constantly looking for insults or hidden agendas where there aren't any.
- Overreacts about simple situations or seems edgy or uptight.
- Has overbearing parents or has family members that have taken care of everything for them, past an appropriate age to do so.
- Expresses road rage and thinks other drivers are "morons."
- Brags or boasts
- Overly needy, constantly requiring emotional support.
- Unreasonable resentment of past partners and blaming failed relationships on the other person, constantly bring up their continued anger or grievances over the former partner.
- Plays the sad puppy, looking for your pity, and bemoaning how poorly they have been treated in the past.
- Acts pushy in conversations, by not letting others having an opinion, always getting in the last word, and arguing over petty issues that don't seem worth arguing about.
- Pressures you to do things you don't want to.
- Makes decisions for you, without consulting you.
- Invades your privacy, always being nosey about where you are, what you're doing, or who you're with.
- Behaves possessively over you.
- Lies about small things that it would be easy, to tell the truth about.
- Disregards boundaries you have set.
- You've heard accounts of other angry, violent, or abusive episodes from other people who know them.
If you see multiple patterns on this list in a person, you are at risk of emotional abuse.
Stopping the Abuse
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about emotional and verbal abuse is that to the victim it does not make any rational sense. In fact, it is impossible to stop verbal abuse through reasoning or logic because an emotional abuser is not forming their actions with rationality or logic. You can fall into a pattern of looking for the reason for the other person's angry outburst or trying to figure out what you did wrong, but the truth is there usually is no logical explanation.
The lack of logic is another reason that emotional abuse can make you feel like you are crazy. The arguments will go on in circles because the abuser will not acknowledge your rational arguments. Your knowledge that a reasonable person does not communicate in this way does not change that they are not going to cooperate. So how do you stop this?
The first thing you need to do to protect your mental health is to stop trying to reason with the abuser. All this will result in is frustration and anger for you, and they won't respond to it. They are operating on emotion rather than reason. If you allow yourself to get angry, the situation will only escalate, and the abuser will have gained power over you because you too will have lost your ability to reason well. Simply stop the habit of trying to explain yourself and your actions.
The next step is to disengage from the abuse as much as possible. Make yourself boring to the abuser. Don't play into the abuse and if you need to walk away and leave the situation do that. If you don't react to the manipulation, they will get less satisfaction from mistreating you. If they spot the change and try to up the abuse, circle back to the first step and remember not to argue logic or lose your temper. They will try to goad you into an argument, perhaps calling you "icy," "stony," "emotionless," or a "robot." You know this is not true and that you are protecting yourself from their abuse.
While you are implementing these changes in your patterns, remember to take care of yourself. Start thinking about you. This can be difficult for those who have been trained to put the abuser first and always think about what would make them happy or keep them from exploding. Instead, seek out ways to improve your mental health and happiness.
You should also start learning to set personal boundaries. Stating your boundaries out loud shows the abuser that you are aware of what they are doing. It begins to break their hold over you, and it is an extremely important lesson to learn for your future friendships and relationships.
If the abusive behavior continues after setting boundaries and refusing to engage, it is time to plan your exit from the relationship. Start by finding ways to decrease your interactions with this person. Continue the steps discussed above to limit harmful situations while you prepare to leave. If you are financially dependent upon your abuser, plan for financial independence before you act.
When you are ready to leave, whether you are leaving a specific argument or leaving altogether, make sure someone you trust knows where you are and what you are planning. If possible, have someone with you or on the phone during the conversation. Again, trying to remove yourself from an emotionally abusive argument can escalate the situation to physical violence, as the abuser panics for a way to control your behavior and keep you from leaving.
Learn to Trust Yourself Again After Emotional Abuse
It can be difficult to learn to trust your judgments and thoughts after experiencing emotional abuse. Emotional abuse can cause many secondary conditions that may also need to be addressed as you recover from the situation. These secondary conditions can include:
- Post-traumatic stress disorder,
- Chronic pain,
- Reduced sexual desire,
- Gastrointestinal problems,
- Increased blood pressure,
- And other stress-related health issues.
You can get help. Finding the help you need is about healing yourself. Emotional abuse is a painful wound, and like any other deep wound, you're more likely heal when you seek professional treatment. An online therapist at BetterHelp will help you figure out whether you're in an abusive relationship. Sometimes people are in denial, and their relationship is abusive.
If you discover that you are involved with an abusive partner, your therapist can help guide you toward leaving the relationship and getting healthy. It's extremely important to understand that having another mental illness does not preclude you from experiencing emotional abuse. It is not okay for someone to dismiss your claims of abuse as part of your other mental illness. You do not imagine things, and this abuse is real. Get the help that you need so you can start to live your best life.