What Is Emotional Abuse?

Signs and Red Flags of Emotional Abuse

Identify and deal with emotional abuse

Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin 

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What Is Emotional Abuse?

Emotional abuse involves controlling another person by using emotions to criticize, embarrass, shame, blame, or otherwise manipulate them. While most common in dating and married relationships, mental or emotional abuse can occur in any relationship—including among friends, family members, and co-workers.

Emotional Abuse

In general, a relationship is emotionally abusive when there is a consistent pattern of abusive words and bullying behaviors that wear down a person's self-esteem and undermine their mental health.

The underlying goal of emotional abuse is to control the other person by discrediting, isolating, and silencing them. It is one of the hardest forms of abuse to recognize as it can be subtle and insidious. But it can also be overt and manipulative.

Either way, emotional abuse can chip away at your self-esteem, and you can begin to doubt your perceptions and reality. In the end, you may feel trapped. Emotionally abused people are often too wounded to endure the relationship any longer, but also too afraid to leave. So, the cycle repeats itself until something is done.

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Signs of Emotional Abuse

There are several red flags of emotional abuse. Keep in mind that even if your partner, parent, co-worker, or friend only does a handful of these things versus doing them all, your relationship with them is still emotionally abusive.

When considering your relationship, also remember that emotional abuse is often subtle. As a result, it can be extremely hard to detect the signs. If you are having trouble discerning whether your relationship is abusive, think about how your interactions make you feel.

If you feel wounded, frustrated, confused, misunderstood, depressed, anxious, or worthless any time you interact with the other person, chances are high that your relationship is emotionally abusive.

Also, don't fall into the trap of telling yourself that "it's not that bad" and minimize the other person's behavior. Everyone deserves to be treated with kindness and respect, including you. Realizing this can help you stop the emotional abuse cycle.

Unrealistic Expectations

One sign of emotional abuse is if the other person places unrealistic expectations on you. Examples of this include:

  • Making unreasonable demands
  • Expecting you to put everything aside and meet their needs
  • Demanding you spend all your time together
  • Being dissatisfied, no matter how hard you try or how much you give
  • Criticizing you for not completing tasks according to their standards
  • Expecting you to share their opinions (i.e., you are not permitted to have a different opinion)
  • Demanding that you name exact dates and times when discussing things that upset you (and when you cannot do this, they may dismiss the event as if it never happened)

​Invalidates You

Another sign that someone may be emotionally abusive is if they invalidate you. Some examples of invalidation include:

  • Undermining, dismissing, or distorting your perceptions or your reality
  • Refusing to accept your feelings by trying to define how you should feel
  • Requiring you to explain how you feel over and over
  • Accusing you of being "too sensitive," "too emotional," or "crazy"
  • Refusing to acknowledge or accept your opinions or ideas as valid
  • Dismissing your requests, wants, and needs as ridiculous or unmerited
  • Suggesting that your perceptions are wrong or that you cannot be trusted by saying things like "you're blowing this out of proportion" or "you exaggerate"
  • Accusing you of being selfish, needy, or materialistic if you express your wants or needs (the expectation is that you should not have any wants or needs)

​Creates Chaos

Emotionally abusive people also tend to create chaos. Some examples of this red flag include:

  • Starting arguments for the sake of arguing
  • Making confusing and contradictory statements (sometimes called "crazy-making")
  • Having drastic mood changes or sudden emotional outbursts
  • Nitpicking at your clothes, hair, work, and more
  • Behaving so erratically and unpredictably that you feel like you are "walking on eggshells"

​Uses Emotional Blackmail

If someone tries to use your emotions against you, this is a sign of emotional abuse. Examples of emotional blackmail include:

  • Manipulating and controlling you by making you feel guilty; giving you a guilt trip
  • Humiliating you in public or in private
  • Using your fears, values, compassion, or other hot buttons to control you or the situation
  • Exaggerating your flaws or pointing them out in order to deflect attention or to avoid taking responsibility for their own poor choices or mistakes
  • Denying that an event took place or lying about it
  • Punishing you by withholding affection or giving you the silent treatment

Acts Superior

People who are emotionally abusive often act superior and entitled. Things to look for when considering whether the person in your life exhibits this sign of emotional abuse include:

  • Treating you like you are inferior
  • Blaming you for their mistakes and shortcomings
  • Doubting everything you say and attempting to prove you wrong
  • Making jokes at your expense
  • Telling you that your opinions, ideas, values, and thoughts are stupid, illogical, or "do not make sense"
  • Talking down to you or being condescending
  • Using sarcasm when interacting with you
  • Acting like they are always right, know what is best, and are smarter than you

Controls and Isolates You

​Emotionally abusive people will attempt to isolate and control you. Some examples of this form of emotional abuse include:

  • Controlling who you see or spend time with, including friends and family
  • Monitoring you digitally, including text messages, social media, and email
  • Accusing you of cheating and being jealous of outside relationships
  • Taking or hiding your car keys
  • Demanding to know where you are at all times or using GPS to track your every move
  • Treating you like a possession or property
  • Criticizing or making fun of your friends, family, and co-workers
  • Using jealousy and envy as a sign of love and to keep you from being with others
  • Coercing you into spending all your time together
  • Controlling the finances

Types of Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse can take several different forms, including:

  • Accusations of cheating or other signs of jealousy and possessiveness
  • Constant checking on or attempting to control the other person's behavior
  • Constantly arguing or opposing
  • Criticizing
  • Gaslighting
  • Isolating the individual from their family and friends
  • Name-calling and verbal abuse
  • Refusing to participate in the relationship
  • Shaming or blaming
  • Silent treatment
  • Trivializing the other person's concerns
  • Withholding affection and attention

Your relationship may appear to be normal and loving at the start, with these types of emotional abuse being employed later (as the relationship progresses) in an attempt to begin to manipulate and control you. They may begin so slowly that you may not even notice them at first.

Emotional Abuse vs. Normal Conflict

Conflict is a normal part of a relationship. However, if during the conflict with the other person you feel as if you are being bullied, disrespected, belittled, insulted, or dismissed, these are signs that it may have crossed the line into emotional abuse.

Impact of Emotional Abuse

Research indicates that the consequences of emotional abuse are just as severe as those of physical abuse. Except, instead of physical marks and bruises, your wounds are invisible to others—hidden in the self-doubt, worthlessness, and self-loathing you may feel.

When emotional abuse is severe and ongoing, you can lose your entire sense of self. Over time, the accusations, verbal abuse, name-calling, criticisms, and gaslighting can erode your sense of self so much that you can no longer see yourself realistically.

Consequently, you may begin to agree with the abuser and become internally critical. Once this happens, you become trapped in the abusive relationship, believing that you will never be good enough for anyone else. Eventually, you may pull back from friendships and isolate yourself, convinced that no one likes you.

Emotional abuse can impact friendships because emotionally abused people often worry about how people see them and if they truly like them. 

What's more, emotional abuse can cause a number of health problems. Mental health effects of abuse include depression, anxiety, and sometimes the development of an eating disorder. Being abused emotionally can also impact you physically, causing you to develop stomach ulcers, heart palpitations, and insomnia.

Tips for Dealing With Emotional Abuse

The first step in dealing with an emotionally abusive relationship is to recognize the abuse. If you are able to identify any aspect of emotional abuse in your relationship, it is important to acknowledge that first and foremost.

By being honest about what you are experiencing, you can begin to take control of your life again. Here are seven more strategies for reclaiming your life that you can put into practice today.

Make Yourself a Priority

When it comes to your mental and physical health, make yourself a priority. Stop worrying about pleasing the person abusing you. Take care of your needs. Do something that will help you think positively and affirm who you are.

Also, be sure to get an appropriate amount of rest and eat healthy meals. These simple self-care steps can go a long way in helping you deal with the day-to-day stresses of emotional abuse.

Establish Boundaries

Firmly tell the abusive person that they may no longer yell at you, call you names, insult you, be rude to you, and so on. Then, tell them what will happen if they choose to engage in this behavior.

For instance, tell them that if they call you names or insult you, the conversation will be over and you will leave the room. The key is to follow through on your boundaries. This reinforces to the other person that their emotional abuse will not be tolerated.

Do not communicate boundaries that you have no intention of keeping.

Stop Blaming Yourself

If you have been in an emotionally abusive relationship for any amount of time, you may believe that there is something severely wrong with you. But you are not the problem. To abuse is to make a choice. Stop blaming yourself for something you have no control over.

Realize You Can't Fix Them

Despite your best efforts, you will never be able to change an emotionally abusive person by doing something different or by being different. An abusive person makes a choice to behave abusively.

Remind yourself that you cannot control their actions and that you are not to blame for their choices. The only thing you can control is your response to emotional abuse.

Avoid Engaging

Do not engage with an abusive person. In other words, if an abuser tries to start an argument with you, begins insulting you, demands things from you, or rages with jealousy, do not try to make explanations, soothe their feelings, or make apologies for things you did not do.

Simply walk away from the situation if you can. Engaging with an abuser only sets you up for more abuse and heartache. No matter how hard you try, you will not be able to make things right in their eyes.

Build a Support Network

Although it can be tough to tell someone that you are going through emotional abuse, speaking up can help. Talk to a trusted friend, family member, or even a counselor about what you are experiencing. Take time away from the abusive person as much as possible and spend time with people who love and support you.

This network of healthy friends and confidantes will help you feel less lonely and isolated. They also can speak truth into your life and help you put things into perspective.

Work on an Exit Plan

If your partner, friend, or family member has no intention of changing or working on their poor choices, you will not be able to remain in the abusive relationship forever. It will eventually take a toll on you both mentally and physically.

Depending on your situation, you may need to take steps to end the relationship. Each situation is different. So, discuss your thoughts and ideas with a trusted friend, family member, or counselor. Emotional abuse can have serious long-term effects, but it can also be a precursor to physical abuse and violence.

Remember too that abuse often escalates when the person being abused makes a decision to leave. So, be sure you have a safety plan in place should the abuse get worse.

What Doesn't Work With Emotional Abuse

Sometimes attempts to deal with or reduce emotional abuse can backfire and actually make the abuse worse. Some tactics that are not effective ways of dealing with abuse include:

  • Arguing with the abuser. Trying to argue with an abuser can escalate the problem and may result in violence. There is no way to argue with an abuser because they will always find more ways to blame, shame, or criticize. They may also try to turn the tables and play the victim.
  • Trying to understand or make excuses for the abuser. It might be tempting to try to make sense of the other person's behavior or to come up with excuses to justify their actions. Finding ways to sympathize with or minimize an abuser's actions can make leaving the situation that much more difficult.
  • Attempting to appease the abuser. Appeasing the other person might seem like a form of de-escalation, but it tends to backfire in the long run and may serve to enable further abuse. Instead of trying to change yourself or your behaviors to suit the abuser's whims, focus on establishing clear boundaries and avoid engaging with them if possible.

If you or a loved one are a victim of domestic violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for confidential assistance from trained advocates.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Healing From Emotional Abuse

If you've experienced emotional abuse, there are a few things you can do to aid in the healing process.

  • Acknowledge the abuse. Stop minimizing or even denying the abuse and admit that it did happen so you can begin to heal from it.
  • Make a commitment to yourself. Commit to stopping the emotional abuse cycle. Also, commit to sticking with the healing process no matter how long it takes because you are worth it and deserve to live a happy life.
  • Practice self-compassion. Give yourself the same level of compassion, kindness, and flexibility to grow as you would give a friend who has experienced emotional abuse.
  • Reach out to loved ones. Get in touch with the people who care about and support you so they can help you through this difficult time.
  • Seek counseling. Psychotherapy can help you put your emotionally abusive relationship into perspective while also providing tools for overcoming the abuse.
  • Talk with others who've been emotionally abused. Sharing your experiences with others who've been through the same can help you recognize that you aren't alone, also providing access to the strategies they used that helped them heal.

Healing from emotional abuse takes time. Taking care of yourself, reaching out to your supportive loved ones, and talking to a therapist can help.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. National Domestic Violence Hotline. Understand relationship abuse.

  3. Office on Women's Health. Emotional and verbal abuse.

  4. Remschmidt H. The emotional and neurological consequences of abuse. Dtsch Arztebl Int. 2011;108(17):285-286. doi:10.3238/arztebl.2011.0285

By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon is a published author and a bullying prevention expert.