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What is emotional abuse?

Updated: Sep 15, 2023

A healthy relationship is based on trust, understanding and mutual respect.

This is true of personal relationships, as well as professional ones.

Sometimes people seek to exploit these elements of a relationship in order to benefit themselves in some way.

The sign of emotional manipulation can be very subtle.

It’s often hard to identify, especially when it is happening to you.

You can learn to protect your self -esteem and sanity, too.

Emotional manipulator get close too quickly

What they are doing well, however is trying to make you feel special so that you divulge your secrets. They can use these sensitivities against you later.

Like for example: "I feel like we’re just connecting on a really deep level. I’ve never had this happen before or "I’ve never had someone share their vision with me like you have. We’re really meant to be in this together".

They let you speak first.

This is a popular tactic with some business relationships, but it can happen in personal ones too. When one person wants to establish control, they may ask probing questions so that you share your thoughts and concerns early.

They, then, can use your answers to manipulate your decisions - "Well you are just going to have to explain to me why you’re mad at me again".

They twist the facts

They alter reality with lies or misstatements in order to confuse you.

They may exaggerate events to make themselves seem more vulnerable. They may also understate their role in a conflict in order to gain sympathy.

For example - "I asked a question about the project and she came at me, yelling about how I never did anything to help her, but you know I do, right?

Emotional abuse involves attempts of frightening, control, or isolation.

This type of abuse doesn’t involve physical violence, though it might involve threats of violence directed toward you or your loved ones.

It’s characterised by a person’s words, actions, and the consistency of these behaviours. Abuse may start gradually, but it happens again and again.

People of any age or gender can abuse or experience abuse, many of times unconsciously. And abuse doesn’t just happen in the context of romantic relationships.

The person abusing you could be your spouse or romantic partner — but they might also be your business partner, caretaker, or even your adult child.

Regardless, you don’t deserve the abuse, and it’s definitely not your fault.

Emotional Abuse
Emotional Abuse

Some signs of emotional abuse are: humiliation, negating, and criticizing.

Examples are:

Derogatory nicknames.

They call you "stupid", a "loser" or use other insults.

Character assassination.

This usually involves the word “always.You’re always late, wrong, screwing up, disagreeable, and so on. They might say these things to you, or use them to describe your behaviour to others.

Screaming, yelling, and swearing are form of intimidation used to make you feel small. Maybe they never hit you, but they throw things or damage property.


They belittle you by saying things like, “I know you try, but this is just beyond the scope of your brain.

Public embarrassment.

They pick fights, share your secrets ....


When you express discomfort with something they’ve said, they snap back, “Can’t you take a joke? Grow up.”

Insulting your appearance.

As you head out, they stop you at the door. “You’re wearing that ridiculous outfit? ". Or they constantly say you’re lucky they chose you.

Belittling your accomplishments.

Putting down your interests. They suggest your hobby is a waste of time. “You’ll never be any good at the piano, so why do you keep trying?”

Control and shame.

They may try to control you by:

Monitoring your whereabouts.

They want to know where you are, always, and insist you respond to calls or texts immediately. They might show up at your work or school, just to check you did actually go there.

Spying on you digitally.

They demand your passwords, or insist you go password-free, and regularly check your internet history, emails, texts, and call log.

Making all the decisions.

This might involve closing a joint bank account and canceling doctor’s appointments. Or maybe they tell you what to wear, what to eat (and how much), or which friends you can spend time with.

Controlling your access to finances.

They keep bank accounts in their name and make you ask for money.

They also expect you to keep your receipts and account for every penny you spend.

Emotional blackmailing.

Someone using this tactic will attempt to get you to do things by manipulating your feelings. They might use tricky questions to “test” you, take on the role of victim, or try to guilt-trip you.

Lecturing you constantly.

After you make a mistake, no matter how minor, they catalog all of your errors with a long monologue. They describe all the ways you’ve fallen short and make it clear they consider you beneath them.

Giving direct orders.

Having frequent outbursts. They told you to cancel that outing with your friend, or put the car in the garage, but you didn’t. So, they become enraged, angrily shouting about how inconsiderate and uncooperative you are.

Feigning helplessness.

They say they don’t know how to do something, hoping you’ll simply do it yourself instead of taking the time to explain it.


They explode for no clear reason, then suddenly shower you with affection.

Walking out.

A partner or parent might leave a social event suddenly, so you have no way home. A supervisor might exit during a discussion about your assignment, so your questions remain unresolved.

Stonewalling you.

During a disagreement or conflict, they shut down, refusing to respond to your attempts to communicate.

Accusing, blaming, and denial

People who abuse others often try to create a hierarchy that puts them at the top and you at the bottom.

Examples might include:


They accuse you of flirting or cheating, or say you’d spend all your time with them if you truly loved them.

Using guilt.

"Look at all I’ve done for you,” in an attempt to get their way.

Unrealistic expectations.

They expect you to do what they want, when they want you to do it. They think you should always prioritise their needs, do things according to their standards — and you absolutely shouldn’t hang out with your friends or family if there’s any chance they might need you.


People who manipulate and abuse typically know just how to upset you. But once you do get upset, they pin the blame back on you — after all, it’s your fault for being so sensitive and incompetent.

Denying the abuse.

When you express concerns about their behaviour, they might deny it, seemingly bewildered at the very thought. They may even suggest you’re the one with anger and control issues, or say they only get angry because you’re such a difficult person.


When you explain how much something they said or did upset you and hurt your feelings, they accuse you of overreacting or misunderstanding the situation.

Blaming you for their problems.

When things go wrong, they always blame you. If only you’d been a more loving child, a more supportive partner, or a better parent, they might say, their life would be fantastic.

Emotional neglect and isolation

Someone abusing you will generally try to get you to prioritize their needs and neglect your own.

Tactics they might use include:

Dehumanizing you.

They’ll intentionally look away when you’re talking or stare at something else when speaking to you in an effort to make you feel unimportant.

Keeping you from socialising.

Whenever you have plans to go out, they come up with a distraction or beg you not to go.

Invalidating you.

They might suggest or say straight out that your needs, boundaries, and desires don’t matter to them.

Trying to come between you and your family.

They’ll tell family members you don’t want to see them or make excuses why you can’t attend family functions. Later, they might tell you that your loved ones don’t care about you or think there’s something wrong with you.

Using the silent treatment.

They might ignore your attempts at conversation in person, via text, or over the phone.

Withholding affection.

They won’t touch you, even to hold your hand or pat you on the shoulder. They may refuse to have any intimate contact if you offend them, or they want you to do something you don’t want to do.

Shutting down communication.

They might wave you off, change the subject, or simply ignore you when you want to talk about important concerns.

Actively working to turn others against you.

They might tell other people in your life, including co-workers, friends, and even your family, that you lie, have lost touch with reality, or have had an emotional breakdown.

Denying support.

When you need emotional support or help with a problem, they might call you needy, say the world can’t stop and wait on your problems, or tell you to toughen up and fix it yourself.

Disputing your feelings.

No matter what feeling or emotion you express, they might insist you shouldn’t feel that way. For example, “You shouldn’t be angry over that,” or “What have you got to feel sad about?”

If you believe you are experiencing emotional abuse trust your instinct - get out of the situation. Don't try to fix them - as I did. It is not your job.

They need professional support.

Avoid self-blame. Remember, no-one deserve abuse.

Proritise your needs.

Taking care of your physical and emotional needs can help you to move forward to a place where you feel comfortable setting boundaries, looking for support and leaving the abusive situation.

Don't call them again, don't answer to their messages.

Build a support network.

A therapist can help.

Exit the relationship or circumstance.

State clearly that the relationship is over and get out. Give yourself time to heal. Take space to focus on your needs and recovery. This might involve rediscovering your sense of self, and talking with a therapist who can offer guidance with recovery.


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