The purpose of abuse is to gain control over another person. Most people assume immediately imagine physical violence when they think of ‘abuse,’ however this forced control can happen with words just as much as with fists.
Emotional abuse looks like manipulation, bullying, and emotional blackmail to bring another person down. An emotional abuser will also invalidate their victim’s emotions and mental well-being. It might seem hard to believe, but it’s possible for this kind of trauma to occur without the abused person realizing it.
Is Abuse Considered Trauma?
Physical, psychological, financial—any type of abuse is considered a trauma. Single or ongoing events that hinder your ability to be in control of your life and emotions can be considered trauma.
Most people think that trauma can only happen in really harrowing situations, like war, natural disaster, or extreme poverty. However, we now know that trauma can happen on an individual level in ‘smaller’ situations, such as the death of a pet, or a car crash. Emotional (and other kinds) of abuse fall well within this spectrum.
Abuse can happen in any type of relationship. The news most often reports on abuse in romantic and parent-child relationships, but it can also take place in platonic, professional, or any type of caregiver relationships.
Relationships are supposed to be safe. They should only enhance your mental health and emotional well being. When they don’t, the trauma from this disconnect can carry over into other spheres of life, and even other relationships.
What Does Emotional Abuse Look Like?
One of the first steps in recovering from emotionally abusive relationships is to identify what emotional abuse looks like. Depending on past experience and length of the relationship, it’s not uncommon for those in emotionally abusive relationships to believe that this behavior is normal or acceptable.
This list is by no means comprehensive of possible abusive behavior, but many signs of abuse look similar to each other. The presence of one of the following behavior patterns is enough to cause trauma:
Gaslighting is a form of manipulation that is intended by the abuser to plant seeds of doubt in the mind of their victim. Their goal is to make the abused person question their own judgment, feelings, and even perceptions of reality.
Essentially, the two main components of a gaslighting strategy include distorting reality and invalidation. These may appear in the form of lying (“That never happened”), discreditization (“Your friends also think you’re crazy”), minimization (“You’re overreacting”), and blame shifting (“I only said it because you made me mad”).
While all lying is meant to manipulate in some way and breaks relationships, not all lying is gaslighting. Gaslighting aims to control the other person in the relationship by forcing them to depend on the abuser for knowing what is ‘real.’
Control and Monitoring
Control efforts include patterns like asking where you’re going, with whom, and why at all times. They might ask to look at your phone, or share your location. Monitoring your every move is not indicative of a trusting relationship.
Controlling behavior, such as banning you from seeing certain people or doing certain things isolates you from any other support you might have. Again, this doesn’t only apply in romantic relationships, such as having a partner tell you that you can’t go see your family over the weekend. This could also look like a boss using their position and influence to tell you that you are required to answer work emails while on vacation.
Some scenarios might be considered more urgent and frightening (like stalking), but any type of controlling behavior is inappropriate.
Bullying and Invalidation
This might be the most ‘obvious’ form of emotional abuse. Simple yelling, name calling, and degradation are not just bullying, they are used by an abuser to create dominance in the relationship.
Invalidation often manifests as demeaning words. When someone works to make their feelings more important than yours, or to completely invalidate your feelings, they are trying to make themselves dominant in the relationship.
Emotional neglect is another form of invalidation. In this case however, rather than your feelings being wrong, they simply don’t exist. If you display any needs in the relationship, they are shot down or ignored.
Again, this can be present in any type of relationship. A partner may disappear without any word of where. A parent may dismiss a child in favor of watching TV or spending time with their friends.
The need to walk on eggshells around a person is also indicative of emotional abuse. Sometimes an action will be fine for that person, and the next time it causes a violent outburst. Not knowing what will spark someone’s anger is traumatic in itself.
Leaving an Abusive Relationship
Once you’ve identified that a relationship is harmful and abusive, it’s time to leave. This is easier said than done, but the only way to have hope for healing from emotional abuse, is to first leave the situation behind.
Have a Plan
For many, just walking out the door isn’t an option. Quitting a job is one thing, but for family and romantic relationships, exiting the relationship could leave someone without a place to live.
It’s ok if creating a plan doesn’t happen overnight, but it needs to happen. Make sure you have important documents, and that you have a safe place to go. Think about how much this person or people are integrated in your life, and what steps you need to take to separate yourself.
Friends and families are important when leaving an emotionally abusive relationship. A strong support system can make the transition easier. Many nonprofits and organizations assist you while leaving and give you resources for rebuilding your life afterwards.
How to Heal from Emotional Abuse
So what are the steps to take once you’re away from the abuse? Some healing processes will require more effort, but small steps can make it easier.
Acknowledge That it Happened
It can be hard to admit that emotional abuse happened. Whether you don’t want to admit that it happened to you or that someone you love was responsible, it’s a difficult step to take. However, you can only start to address what happened once you’ve acknowledged that it was real and wrong. Then it’s time to look toward the future.
It might be cliche, but it is possible to ‘will’ yourself into better self-esteem. Emotional abuse tears a person down. In addition to finding a solid support system to lift you up, start saying positive affirmations to yourself.
“I am worthy of love.” “I am smart.” “It wasn’t my fault.” Mindfully repeating affirmations can help undo what the abuse has done.
Make your Well-Being a Priority
Emotional abuse can take a destructive toll on your emotional well-being, but this can be built back up through physical and mental self-care. Take yoga. Get outside. Talk to your friends that you haven’t been able to. Do things that are just for you that bring you joy.
Learn What a Healthy Relationship Looks and Feels Like
This particular step can take significant time. Remember that an abusive relationship is not only not acceptable, but it isn’t normal. You learned what abuse looks like, now you’ll need to spend time with your counselor learning what a healthy relationship should be.
Emotional Abuse and C-PTSD and PTSD
The reason that all types of abuse are considered traumatic is because they set off stress responses in the body. Even words can make us feel—on a biological level—that we are in danger. When this happens, your body goes into ‘fight, flight, or freeze mode’ as part of its self-preservation mechanisms.
When this response happens over and over for a long period, it wears on the body and brain.
What is the difference between C-PTSD and PTSD
Emotional abuse is most closely linked with Complex Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, or C-PTSD. It is similar to PTSD in that most people associate it with trauma, but they are subtly different.
C-PTSD is caused by prolonged, repetitive trauma, whereas PTSD usually happens after a single event. Think of abuse versus a car accident.
One interpretation of C-PTSD is the idea that it relates to emotional or physical captivity. Some prisoners of war can have both PTSD and C-PTSD
Symptoms of C-PTSD include:
Intrusions and flashbacks
Avoidance of people or anything that might remind them of the events
Warped perception of perpetrator, obsession with perpetrator
Difficulty in relationships
Doesn’t react correctly—excessive irritability or angry outbursts
Emotional abuse generally happens over years, so most that suffer through it are treated for C-PTSD.
Emotional Abuse Recovery
Recovering from emotional abusive relationships takes patience and some grace for yourself. Words can leave wounds that aren’t easy to heal.
At Inner Balance Counseling, we’ll help. Our team is experienced in treating trauma, and proven C-PTSD and PTSD therapies. Even if you need someone to talk to to figure out what you’re going through and how to get out, we’ll be there.
Schedule a consultation today. Let’s start on the road to feeling better together.