Insidious and invisible, emotional abuse has slowly begun to gain attention in social media and the perception of the public.
By definition, it refers simply to the harmful manipulation of another person’s emotions.
It is said to include “anything from verbal abuse and constant criticism to more subtle tactics such as intimidation, manipulation, and refusal to even be pleased”.
In many cases, it is manifested in domestic or romantic relationships where the victim isn’t aware of the mistreatment as abuse. If left unchecked, it can lead to the victim developing psychological illnesses and perhaps even perpetuating this cycle of abuse to other persons.
It is difficult to educate the masses about the damages of emotional abuse, primarily due to the lack of awareness and importance that it is provided in society. Its counterparts- physical and sexual abuse, are given more attention by the media.
Although, that would be apparent considering its covert nature, and the mental stress rather than physical harm it causes, which isn’t easily noticeable. Moreover, it is not a result of a single act, but a series of emotional and mental degenerative events that take place over a relatively long period.
These factors among others, leave many emotional abuse survivors to be silent and unheard. A sizeable amount of the population has experienced emotional abuse to some degree. Even the abuser is not aware that their actions can cause psychological detriments.
Emotional Abuse is commonly attributed to personal relationships, like family for instance.
In a household environment, abuse can take many forms, like verbal slander, invasion of privacy, insults to personal interests and aspirations, threats (this may include threats to abandon home, hurt another person, or damage belongings), public humiliation, over-protectiveness, over-indulgence, neglect, and unchecked rage and aggression.
It is subtle and unnoticeable.
A child cannot recognize these toxic behaviors as failures of the abuser himself/herself, and gradually grows to believe that the abuse is a result of their own shortcomings and inadequacies.
This dangerously pushes the person to develop low levels of self-esteem, and very often, a sense of worthlessness.
In abusive romantic relationships, such tendencies of over-indulgence, threats, blatant manipulation of the partner’s emotions, gaslighting, etc. are not rare.
In any case, the victim may develop mental illnesses, like depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, etc.
Victims also exhibit signs of social withdrawal, insomnia, eating disorders, loneliness, a habit of apologizing too much, or emotional numbness.
Emotional Abuse enacted at a young age carries trauma and long-term detriments that often manifest themselves during adolescence when the child begins to socialize and build relationships.
A result of abuse that is common amongst teenagers is social anxiety.
It can be characterized as an incessant fear towards social interactions, or heightened awareness of oneself and one’s surroundings.
But it is much deeper than simply a phobia.
The symptoms of social anxiety cannot easily be seen. There are physical symptoms as well, like shortness of breath, increase in heartbeat, headaches, stomach aches, nausea, sweating, etc. But the long-term damages are usually induced by the thoughts of the victim.
Say, you had Social Anxiety. It wouldn’t be uncommon for you to have a constant worry over what people thought of you, feeling unable and too afraid to speak up, believing everyone is silently judging you, always fearing that people are watching your every move and criticizing you.
Even eye contact, verbal communication, walking into a room, or going to the bathroom alone may seem like monumental tasks.
You become vulnerable to the smallest stimulus.
Researchers believe that being in a constant state of panic, which generates the flight or fight system that releases a flood of chemicals and hormones, like adrenaline, into your system, can result in your body unable to return to normal functioning in the long run.
This weakens your immune system and makes you vulnerable to illnesses and infections.
One mistake that many of us make, is believing physical abuse to be worse than emotional abuse. There is no proof that abuse of physical nature outweighs in damages to the survivor as compared to emotional abuse.
Abuse in emotional form can be just as horrible, or maybe even worse than physical abuse. As the meme goes, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will forever cripple my mind and cause permanent psychological damage.”
An important detail that should be noted, is that emotional abuse, at large, is highly ambiguous and concealed.
In several instances, a victim of Emotional Abuse is distraught with doubts on the validity of their experiences.
A majority of the documented cases show that victims’ perception of what is or what was real, is distorted.
The following are some signs of emotional abuse:
Forcing someone to do things that they are not comfortable with using fear.
Using insults, slanders, teasing, and jokes to belittle someone
Withholding support, praise, and love towards a child.
Alienating a person and making them feel different or inferior to others.
Constant bickering over the smallest mistakes or failures.
Exposing children to domestic violence, or excessive aggression.
Guilt-tripping (make some feel guilty for something that is unjustified)
Mistreating someone because of things they cannot change (gender, sexuality, disability)
Holding unrealistic expectations or unreasonable demands.
Bullying of any form or putting people down when they reach out to you for help (Most common in cases with parents).
It is possible that people may experience psychological abuse, in other ways that aren’t mentioned in the list above.
The manner in which abuse can be inflicted is multiple. They are hard to recognize. This stems unresolved trauma that takes shape in later life, in little details that we wouldn’t usually pay heed to.
A poor level of self-image, self-worth, uncontrolled and unexpected waves of severe sadness and crying, being easily irritable and irrationally angry, or excessive gloominess, overthinking past events or unrealistic scenarios are just a few of the many symptoms of abuse not easily detected.
Procrastination is also a byproduct of abuse. As David Cain put it, in Procrastination is Not Laziness, “It turns out procrastination is not typically a function of laziness, apathy or work ethic as it is often regarded to be. It’s a neurotic self-defense behavior that develops to protect a person’s sense of self-worth…... Procrastinators tend to be people who have, for some reason, developed to perceive an unusually strong association between their performance and their value as a person. This makes failure or criticism disproportionately painful, which leads naturally to hesitancy that reflects their ability.”
Methods on how to cope with Emotional Abuse
Recognizing the abuse is the first step towards mental healing. Identify how your abusers manipulate your emotions, and try to find the patterns in their behavior. Remember that it is okay to feel uneasy or doubtful of your experience. Often, the abusers themselves are oblivious of their toxicity.
Healthy boundaries are essential. You are under no obligation to be anybody’s lifeboat. You cannot change people or heal them. Only they can do it for themselves. You are allowed to say no when it’s necessary. Not doing so will only drain you.
Reach out for professional help or any kind of guidance. A mistake many of us make is believing we are alone in our suffering, or that it isn’t that bad. If you feel this way, chances are that you do require help. It’s okay to need comfort or support.
Give yourself permission to feel whatever it is you’re feeling. Denial will only push your emotions deeper, where they will stay buried, fester, and rot. It would be helpful to distance yourself from your abuser and seek therapeutic assistance.
Self-Validation; if you do not validate yourself, you will seek it in others. Allowing yourself to accept the things you feel, and reaffirm yourself can benefit you. Support from friends and family can be helpful, but it would be wise to remind yourself that you are the only one in control of any change that is to take place.
Rid yourself of the toxic belief that self-love, or the path to better mental health, does not include bad days. Healing is intentional. Practice it. It won't always be warm baths, sharing memes, and drinking green tea. You will cry and hurt and lose hope. That’s okay. If there’s anything worth fighting for, this is it.