Emotional Abuse is All About…

I’ve been thinking lately about how to succinctly describe emotional abuse. Wondering, how do you put into a few words the cunning and cumulative manipulations that an emotional abuser uses? How do you talk about it swiftly, without going into gratuitous details about the put downs, verbal assaults, neglect, withholding, and other revolting behaviours an emotional abuser displays? How do you talk about the lifelong trauma that results from being emotionally abused, or how to parent after abuse, or how to co-parent with an emotionally abusive partner? How do you say all that in a just a few words??

It seems it’s impossible for me to stop the torrent of descriptors that come out of my mouth when someone asks me what emotional abuse is all about, but I do want to try and find a clearer and more direct way of conveying my understanding of it.

I think we need to find ways to summarize and express what emotional abuse (sometimes called “mental” abuse) is all about without overdoing it. We, as champions of sharing our experiences of emotional abuse, need to draw people in by not overwhelming them, while still conveying the magnitude of emotional abuse’s insidious nature.

“A healthy relationship will never require you to sacrifice your friends, your dreams, or your dignity.”

source

In the talk I gave recently I spent 20 minutes or so sharing my experience, describing emotional abuse, and offering ideas for managing post-abuse. There was also a great discussion afterwards, with people offering truly insightful and interesting comments and questions that led me to further extrapolate on my understanding of emotional abuse and my identity as an abuse survivor.

As I reflected on my talk later, I realized that in the end I could sum up emotional abuse using just six words:

Emotional abuse is all about control.

That’s really what it comes down to. It’s one person creating a significant power imbalance between themselves and another person, exerting control and maintaining it for as long as possible and in as many ways as possible. It’s constructing a powerful codependence in which one person benefits immensely from the suffering of another.

I think about my past relationships and these are the kinds of controlling behaviours that come to mind:

  • Being told what to wear/what not to wear
  • Being promised things repeatedly and then having those promises undone
  • Being expected to report about my whereabouts and goings-on, even when in my own house
  • Having a partner who never showed up on time or who consistently procrastinated getting ready, making us both chronically late
  • Telling me who I could spend time with (and who I couldn’t)
  • Using sex as a bargaining tool instead of an expression of affection

…I could go on, but I suspect that the picture’s becoming clear.

Emotional abuse is about control. Full stop. And it is just as harmful and just as scary as physical abuse. It carries an intense traumatic impact and on top of all of that, it can be impossible to prove because it can  happen so surreptitiously.

How would you summarize emotional abuse? What other ways might we succinctly categorize and explain what emotional abuse is and how it affects people? Or do you think I’ve summed it up accurately?

Finding new and better ways to describe emotional abuse is something I will continue to work on. Not only so I can continue to improve my own understanding, but also so that I can increase the vocabulary we use when talking about it and so that knowledge and compassion about this topic can build and develop. So that everyone knows that emotional abuse is real and understands that what it’s really about, is asserting and maintaining control in the worst, most calculated and cruel ways.

xxJ

The chains of control exerted by our abusers often feel like they are inescapable, but I’m living proof that you can break through them, even if the word “forever” hangs over you like a prison sentence. Remember this: absolutely nothing is forever.

looks like/sounds like/feels like

People have a hard time understanding what emotional abuse is. In fact, I’m going to confidently state that most people really don’t get it.

Like, at all.

Because to most people domestic abuse = physical violence. To most people, domestic abuse is loud and nasty and BIG and leaves bruises and cigarette burns, broken lamps and smashed dishes and holes in walls.

And yes, sometimes (too often) domestic abuse is vociferous and physically violent. But what if I told you that domestic violence isn’t always physical? What if domestic abuse can be subtler? What if it’s relatively inconspicuous? What if the victim is so good at compensating and pretending that EVERYTHING IS OKAY ALRIGHT?! that no one has any idea what’s going on? (Not that I’ve ever done that before…)

I think emotional abuse is usually misunderstood because most people don’t realize that neglect or silence can be just as vicious as a punch in the face.

I  want to try to explain more about what emotional abuse is and how people may experience it, so I’ve drawn upon my past as a teacher and what follows is basically going to be like a kindergarten circle time where we all gather together to talk about what something “looks like/sounds like/feels like”. Except instead of discussing “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” or how a bean seed grows, we’re going to tackle emotional abuse. Decidedly not a kindergarten-appropriate topic (Or maybe it is? I mean, kids are never too young to learn about consent and showing respect!) but I’m hoping you’ll find it insightful.

So, come join me on the carpet. Please sit criss-cross applesauce with your hands in your lap, eyes up, and mouth closed…Ms. J is going to start the lesson…

Emotional abuse looks like:

  • Absence
  • Stifling
  • Codependence
  • Intense control
  • Financial control
  • Manipulation
  • Vindictiveness
  • Pettiness
  • Insecurity
  • Narcissism
  • Lack of intimacy
  • Withholding (affection, money, time, etc.)
  • Lack of consent
  • Isolation
  • Patterns of negative behaviour
  • Idealization
  • Chronic forgetfulness
  • Posturing
  • Grandiose gestures that are out of context or used as leverage
  • Forced affection
  • Saving face
  • Hypervigilance
  • Disdain
  • Perpetual indifference or apathy

Emotional abuse sounds like:

  • Shouting
  • Silence
  • Harsh words
  • Lies
  • Backhanded compliments
  • Gaslighting
  • Indignation
  • Name calling
  • Threats
  • Put downs
  • Reprimands or punishing
  • Criticisms
  • Punitive statements
  • Questioning
  • Comebacks
  • Rationalization of unhealthy things/ideas/behaviours
  • Scapegoating

Emotional abuse feels like:

  • Loneliness
  • Despair
  • Confusion
  • Anger
  • Craziness
  • Self-loathing
  • Low self-worth
  • Lack of purpose
  • Rigidity
  • Fear
  • Shame
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Mood swings
  • Self-harm
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Needing to be in control
  • Surreal
  • Duress
  • Pain
  • Exhaustion
  • Stress
  • Being overwhelmed
  • Worry

People who exhibit these behaviours (or other similar ones) chronically are perpetrators of abuse. Those who struggle continually because of these feelings and behaviours, are victims of abuse.

My own experience of abuse was insidious and cumulative and I’m tired of feeling like I have to prove that my experience was real.

Emotional abuse looks/feels/sounds real.

Abuse = abuse.

And accepting that helps people like me by letting us know that what we’re going through, or what we’ve been through, is just as real as a punch, kick, or slap.

You can now un-cross your legs and go have free-play time. Just don’t hog the Lego table and remember to use kind words with your friends.

xx J

2018-07-24 13.24.28
Feels like belly rub time for my pup, Kara.


Do you have anything you could add to the lists above? I’m sure there’s more that I’ve missed. Comment below and share your thoughts!