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5 Signs of Emotional Abuse

Updated: March 2024

5 Signs of Emotional Abuse

By Jennifer Koza
May 23, 2017

Survivors may experience many kinds of abuse. While physical abuse is frequently recognized, emotional abuse is also common but often less talked about. Emotional abuse can be used along with other tactics to exert power and control over survivors. According to a study from The National Domestic Violence Hotline, based on their 2020 service data, 95% of contacts stated they were experiencing emotional abuse.

To understand emotional abuse, we must first understand the difference between emotional abuse and conflict.

Emotional Abuse vs. Conflict

To understand emotional abuse, we need to understand the difference between emotional abuse and normal conflict.

Conflict is a normal part of any relationship and is a healthy way for two people to express emotions, identify an issue, and have a chance to talk through whatever issue is bothering them.

Emotional abuse involves nonphysical behavior that belittles another person and can include insults, put down, verbal threats or other tactics that make the victim feel threatened, inferior, ashamed or degraded.

When is Conflict Actually Not Conflict, but Something More? When is it Emotional Abuse?

Have you ever experienced the feeling of having a knot in your stomach when dealing with someone? Did something in your relationship just feel off? When someone feels scared, confused or like nothing they do will ever be right, this may be a sign of emotional abuse.

What is Emotional Abuse?

Emotional abuse is behavior from another person that makes you consistently feel badly about yourself, like you just can’t be you. Emotional abuse is not limited to romantic partner, but can be perpetrated by a family member, friend or coworker. Emotional abuse can make you feel guilty, ashamed, silenced, violated, uncomfortable or many other things. Emotional abuse can be harder to identify since no one else can necessarily “see” its effects like they can a bruise, cut, or a scar.

Abusive behavior is often motivated by a desire for power and control but the reasons why that need exists varies. Maybe the person who hurt you didn’t do so on purpose; maybe they did. While it’s helpful to understand the “why”, the reasons are not an excuse for harmful behavior- but they can make everything more confusing. Emotional abuse is complicated and disorienting. Below are 5 common signs of emotional abuse:

5 Signs of Emotional Abuse

  1. They are Hyper-Critical or Judgmental Towards You
    • It is human nature to critique or judge, but in emotionally abusive situations, someone takes it to the next level. This can look like someone is:
      • Putting you down in front of others
      • Humiliating or embarrassing you
      • Using sarcasm or “teasing” or “jokes” to make you feel badly about yourself
      • Having an opinion about a lot of what you say, do, or think
      • Upset if/when you don’t agree (e.g., how you dress, how you spend your money, who you spend time with, what you are interested in)
  2. They Ignore Boundaries or Invade Your Privacy
    • We all have the right to our own space. Sometimes it can be tricky to distinguish between the rush and thrill of any new relationship or connection and a violation of your space because you may feel that you want to spend all of your time with this awesome person. This can look like your partner:
      • Wants to move a relationship faster than you are comfortable with either emotionally or physically (e.g. saying “I love you” very quickly and pressuring you to do the same, pushing you to engage in sexual activities, pushing you to move in together)
      • Checks your texts messages, email or social media accounts without your permission
  3. They are Possessive and/or Controlling
    • The abuser may try to restrict your behavior through unreasonable jealousy such as:
      • Monitoring your actions
      • Constantly calling or texting when you are not around
      • Getting upset when you want to spend time by yourself or with family or friends alone
      • Isolating you from other people in your life and/or activities you enjoy or work
      • Demanding access to your phone, email, or social media accounts
  4. They are Manipulative
    • An emotionally abusive person may try many things to get you to do what they want or feel badly, such as:
      • Withdrawing affection when you’ve done something “wrong”
      • Ignoring or excluding you
      • Guilt trips
      • Making you doubt yourself
      • Denying something you know is true
  5. They Often Dismiss You and Your Feelings
    • The abuser might try to play down your emotions or feelings by:
      • Saying you are too sensitive or calling you crazy
      • Making fun of your achievements or hopes and dreams
    • Refusing to talk about or take responsibility for their actions
    • Blaming you or someone else for their actions (it’s never their fault)
    • Being indifferent to your feelings

Help and Resources for Emotional Abuse Survivors

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