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An old children's fable says "sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me". Sadly, this is not true. Nothing is more damaging to self-esteem than being on the receiving end or a victim of emotional abuse. Unlike physical abuse, which occurs in dramatic outbursts, emotional abuse can be more insidious and elusive. In some cases, neither the abuser nor the victim are fully aware it’s happening. Words are potent, and a stinging assault can have lasting impact. The reverse is also true insofar as a lack of words, or "the silent treatment", can be equally damaging.
What is emotional abuse?
Emotional abuse is a subject not often discussed or talked about. It is hidden behind closed doors of homes in Toorak right to homes in the Dandenong. Victims protect their partners to protect themselves from embarrassment and feelings of shame. Emotional abuse can be verbal or behavioural, active or passive, frequent or occasional. Regardless, it is often as painful as physical assault. And the pain lasts much longer. Emotional abuse involves a regular pattern of behaviours that may include: put downs, verbal attacks, threats, bullying and constant criticism, as well as subtle tactics like intimidation, shaming, manipulation and the aforementioned "silent treatment". Emotional abuse is used to control and subjugate another.
In some respects, emotional abuse is more devastating than physical violence due to the fact that there is a greater likelihood that victims will blame themselves. If someone hits you the damage is visual and obvious but if the abuse is subtle, saying or implying that you are ugly, a bad parent, stupid, incompetent, not worth attention, or that no one could love you, then you are more likely to think you are the problem. Emotional abuse seems more personal than physical abuse, more about you as a person. It makes love hurt.
Where one person’s language (including body language) or actions intimidate, control or manipulate the other person in a way that undermines their choices or self-esteem then emotional abuse is occurring. These behaviours, when exhibited regularly, cause relationship injuries, feelings of worthlessness and loneliness and they are all forms of emotional abuse. It includes:
Humiliation – putting down or making fun of someone in front of other people
Minimising, demeaning, devaluing or disregarding the ideas opinions or suggestions of another
Criticism with little or no positive feedback
Teasing or sarcasm
Accusation of being oversensitive or prone to overreaction aimed to defend or deflect
Treating one like a child in an attempt to take control
Correcting or chastising
Taking control of finances and how money is spent
Trivialising hopes, dreams and aspirations
Regularly pointing out flaws, mistakes or shortcomings;
Repeatedly ignoring boundaries and requests;
Blaming for life problems, difficulties or unhappiness;
Withholding touching, kissing and sex or withholding affection in a parent/child relationship
Preventing another from seeing friends or family;
Sharing one’s personal information with others to shame or criticise
Making subtle threats with the intent to frighten and control
Where does emotional abuse occur?
The most obvious environment for emotional abuse is in an intimate relationship. Studies show that men and women abuse each other at equal rates. In fact, emotional abuse can occur in any relationship - in families, in friendships and in the workplace.
Emotional abuse is affecting millions of relationships in Australia. In families it can occur across generations. An emotionally abused child who does not, as an adult, face the truth of their childhood is in great danger of repeating the cycle of emotional abuse with his or her own children. It occurs in families in all parts of society, regardless of geographic location. Emotional abuse in families transcends socioeconomic status, affecting people regardless of their levels of income, education, occupation, age, cultural and ethnic background, or religious belief.
Anger and abuse in relationships begins with blame: "I feel bad, and it's your fault" or "it is because of your family that I suffered". Even when they recognise the wrongness of their behaviour, abusers still blame it on their partners: "You push my buttons," or, "I might have overreacted, but I'm human, and look what you did!" Abusers feel like victims, which justifies in their minds victimising others.
Why do people abuse?
Quite often emotional abuse occurs because the abuser has unrecognised and or unresolved childhood wounds from being abused themselves. They have not learned healthy ways of relating or how to have their needs met in a way that does not take away autonomy from another. Instead, their inability to ask for what they need manifests in anger and controlling ways when they feel uncertain, anxious, hurt, fearful or out of control.
Abusers tend to be anxious by temperament. Anxiety is about fear. From the time they were children, they've had a sense of dread that things will go wrong and that they will fail to cope. They try to control their environment (including people) to avoid feelings of failure and inadequacy. The strategy of trying to control others fails to satisfy them for the simple reason that the primary cause of their anxiety is within them. It springs from one of two sources: a heavy dread of failure or fear of harm, isolation and deprivation.
Some abusers learned to abuse from their parents. Their early history consisted of receiving abuse themselves and/or seeing others abused (one parent abusing the other or their sibling, etc.). As a consequence, abusive behaviours becomes the norm. Such people internalise a particular relationship dynamic, namely the complementary roles of "abuser" and "victim". Given the choice between being the out-of-control victim or the in-control abuser, some people grow up into the role of the abuser. By choosing to be the aggressor/abuser they may garner their first sense of taking control over their own destiny and not being at the mercy of others. Others opt for the role of the victim, usually someone that is passive, submissive, a people pleaser, with little to no self esteem. Victims tend to confuse protecting and caretaking their abusers with being loyal.
Abusive behaviour can also result from mental health issues or disorders. For example, someone with anger management issues, a diagnosis of intermittent explosive disorder or a drinking or drug problem may easily get out of control during arguments. Still other people who abuse may have traits of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (manifested as empathy deficit) or Borderline Personality Disorder (frequent mood swings) because they were abused themselves as children and or in previous intimate relationships. Their sense of self is under-developed or damaged and their interpersonal skills limited. Such abusers have difficulty relating to others as people, choosing instead to treat them as objects. They treat people as though they were there solely for their convenience and do not otherwise have an independent, important life.
Not all emotional abuse involves shouting or criticism. More common forms are “disengaging” (a distracted or preoccupied partner) or "stonewalling" (a partner who refuses to accept anyone else’s perspective). Other forms include "gas lighting" (making a person feel everything they do or even think is wrong) or simply not speaking at all.
Disengaging partners say, "Do whatever you want, just leave me alone." They're often workaholics, couch potatoes, flirts or obsessive in some other way. They try to deal with their sense of inadequacy with respect to relationships by simply not trying, since no attempt means no failure.
Partners who stonewall may not overtly put anyone down. Nevertheless, they punish by refusing even to think about their partners' perspectives. If they listen at all, they do so dismissively or impatiently.
The damage caused by emotional abuse
All forms of emotional abuse makes a person feel unseen, unheard, unattractive, unimportant and unworthy. The most insidious aspect of living with an abuser is not the obvious (such as nervous reactions to shouting, name-calling, criticism or other demeaning behaviour) it is the adaptations made to try to prevent those episodes, walking on eggshells to keep the peace or a semblance of connection.
Women can be especially vulnerable to the negative effects of walking on eggshells due to their greater tendency to be vulnerable to anxiety. Many may engage in constant self-editing and self-criticism to keep from "pushing his buttons". Emotionally abused women may second-guess themselves so much that they feel as though they have lost any sense of self-identity. Emotionally abused men tend to isolate more and more, losing themselves in work or hobbies - anything but family interactions.
The damages it causes is blame based and cyclical. Usually the abuser would throw the victim a bone like: “I think you are good at what you do BUT…". It is always conditional. Every bit of praise or validation comes with a conditional hook. It is therefore not clear cut as it creates self doubt and hence why it is so damaging.
Emotional abuse is a serious problem. Emotional abuse is simply wrong. Victims of emotional abuse are exposed to serious physical problems such as acute stress, migraine, indigestion, stomach ulcers, chronic pain and chronic disease. Other psychological symptoms include eating disorders, depression, anxiety, trauma and behavorial issues. This affects both adults and children. Similar to alcoholism, if left unchanged, the cycle repeats itself in subsequent generations.
How to break the cycle
The first step for those being emotionally abused is to recognise and ADMIT it is happening. For those who have been minimised or marginalised, denying and/or hiding the abuse will only compound both the issue and the damage. However, admission of the situation can be a painful and frightening first step.
The stress of emotional abuse will eventually catch up with you in the form of illness, emotional trauma, depression or anxiety. You simply can’t allow it to continue, even if it means ending the relationship. A licensed Counsellor or Psychologist trained in helping abusive relationships can help you navigate the pain, fears and work with you to rebuild your self-esteem.
Can abusers change? Yes, but only when and if they recognise what they are doing is harmful to you, your relationship and ultimately to themselves. But they also need to ACT on their realisation.
If you are someone on the receiving end of emotional abuse, remember abusers DO NOT change by receiving compassion; they change by learning to give it.
If you are an abuser, perhaps it’s time to stop defending, deflecting, attacking, blaming…all of which takes so much energy when what you want is to avoid feelings of failure, inadequacies, feeling unloved or unaccepted. Perhaps it is time to heal these deep old wounds. Stop repeating the past. Heal the wounds for you, your relationships and your tomorrows.