Learn to identify the signs of emotional abuse
- Who is an abuser?
- Can anyone become an abuser?
- Are abusers born or made?
- How do I know if I'm in an abusive relationship
- Checklist: is there abusive behavior in your life
- How emotional abuse is manifested in relationships
- Other scenarios
- How to deal with an abuser to avoid damage to your nervous system
- What if the abuser is yourself?
How do you know if you are dealing with emotional abuse in a relationship? What can you do to protect yourself? Abuse can be both physical and emotional—but while in the former case the fact of abuse is clear, psychological abuse is sometimes extremely difficult to recognize because of the behavior of the abuser and the way the abuser builds relationships with the victim, sometimes creating the illusion that the abuser absolutely blameless.
Who is an abuser?
An abuser is a person who uses criticism, blaming, gaslighting, manipulation and sometimes physical violence to control other people.
An abuser can be anyone—a family member, a friend, a co-worker, a lover, a neighbor in a stairwell. There is no clear gender correlation—both men and women can be abusers.
Can anyone become an abuser?
No. Especially people with a high degree of empathy and sympathy, who care about others and are considerate of their problems and difficulties, are far from this behavioral scenario.
Are abusers born or made?
We can say that some of the conditions for abuse are genetic. But it is also important to note that if children grow up in an environment with high levels of aggression and abuse, they are much more likely to become abusers than their peers who were raised in a more supportive environment.
How do I know if I'm in an abusive relationship
So how do you know if you are being psychologically abused? As mentioned above, emotional abuse is sometimes extremely difficult to detect. This is especially difficult for people who encountered such a relationship at a young age—in other words, they had an abusive parent in their lives. In this case, the individual initially had few opportunities to experience a constructive, respectful relationship with a significant adult, making it difficult to recognize later that interactions with someone around them followed an emotionally abusive script.
Checklist: is there abusive behavior in your life
First, think back: are there people in your life whose contact constantly evokes guilt, making you feel like a “bad person,” whose needs and experiences are not worthy of respect? As specific people come to mind, try to assess their behavior toward you by answering the following questions:
- Do you often hear them say that you misunderstood what happened to you, especially if their role in the situation was not the most positive?
- Do they often say that your feelings cannot be what they are and that you should not be offended by them because they do not say/do anything offensive?
- Do they demand that you constantly respond to their requests/wants, while your wishes are almost always ignored by them?
- Do they often say that the way you remember certain words, actions or facts related to your interaction with them is complete nonsense and couldn't have happened?
- Do you constantly feel guilt and urge to compromise your beliefs or interests in response to their frequent resentments and accusations?
- Can you say that you have never received a sincere apology from these people even when they were really wrong?
- Do you often hear them accuse you of being too selfish, self-centered?
- Do you constantly have to feel nervous when discussing sensitive topics with these people, because you may receive an unfavorable assessment of yourself and your behavior at any moment?
- Does your self-esteem, your self-respect suffer when you are in contact with these people because they constantly belittle you, devalue you, or try to doubt your ability?
- Do you feel that you are the target of their sarcastic comments and jokes?
If you answered yes to at least half of these questions, you should ask yourself if you are in a dysfunctional relationship with an abuser.
Often we ask ourselves: how is it that someone can behave like this? What is wrong with these people? How is this different from those who never do it?
There are quite a few differences, including the psychological profile of such people. They often have great difficulty experiencing empathy, the feeling that helps us understand that the person next to them is suffering emotionally. They may also be selfish, aggressive, controlling, ignoring the interests of others, unable to admit mistakes and errors, and unable to build stable relationships with others.
How emotional abuse is manifested in relationships
Abuse in interpersonal communication can take the following forms:
- Compulsive monitoring and controlling of the other person's behavior;
- Constant criticism and confrontation;
- Gaslighting: “What you say about my earlier behavior didn't really happen, you're making it up/lying, I didn't say/do that”;
- Attempts to isolate the person from his/her usual environment, a ban on contacts and communication with friends, scandals (in case of your failure to meet their expectations);
- Constant accusations of infidelity, jealousy;
- Taking advantage of a person without reciprocity;
- Attempts at shaming;
- Threats to break off the relationship;
- Verbal insults;
- Playing the silence game (refusing to talk to a person to make them admit guilt or compromise).
In other words, if your partner/colleague/friend often sees your words or actions as reasons to feel hurt or offended (assuming you didn't even mean it), makes you feel guilty or stops talking to you so that you think you did something wrong and that the problem is all yours, you try to appease and reconcile, you make all kinds of compromises and sacrifice your own interests, and only then you finally earn his/her leniency, then you are dealing with one of the most common scenarios of emotional abuse.
For example, a partner/colleague/friend absolutely won't take “no” for an answer when it comes to what he/she expects from you—whether that is money, a favor, or accepting his/her opinion as the only right one. If you timidly try to find a compromise, you will be met with angry accusations or disdainful looks from him/her. Or you may receive a request for help, but instead of “thank you”, you will be accused of being harsh, unkindly or selfish because the person who requested your help didn't like the “tone of your response.”
There can be many scenarios, but the result of communicating with an abuser is always the same: you feel worthless, stupidly selfish, and you try all your best to get out of this unpleasant interaction as quickly as possible, promising yourself never to allow such monstrous treatment again.
How to deal with an abuser to avoid damage to your nervous system
Meeting such people is painful, and it is extremely difficult to come out of it uninjured. But it is possible to minimize the damage. Here are some simple rules to regulate communication with an emotional abuser.
Rule 1. Don't blame yourself
The fact that you have such a difficult relationship with this person is not at all your fault, no matter how colorfully the person tries to prove that you're wrong. You do not have to take responsibility for the insults, tantrums, and the person's silence. Think of the people with whom you have a perfectly normal relationship—because you manage to find a compromise, make concessions, help each other and receive a positive response. The abuser, on the other hand, does not strive to observe the rules of politeness and is not inclined to behave in such a way that you can constructively resolve your disagreements. And why don't they just do that? Because abusers do not want a normal, constructive relationship—they want submission and seek how use your resources without giving anything in return. Therefore, it's worth thinking a few times before you keep communicating with such a person.
Rule 2. Adjust your own expectations of the abuser
If you expect such a person to treat you respectfully, respect your own needs and sincerely apologize for the mistake they have made, you will inevitably find that your expectations will not be met. And, unfortunately, they will never do this. You'd better adjust your expectations—knowing that you are communicating with an abuser, don't hope for the best, but expect the worst. At least, this way you won't feel hurt when your expectations are not met.
Rule 3. Don't hope that such a person will ever change
“Abandon hope, all ye who enter here,” as written on the gates of hell according to Dante: neither you nor anyone else can dramatically change the abuser's behavior.
Rule 4. Set clear boundaries for interactions
The best option is to stop all communication with such people. But abusers are often parents or other relatives, and it is very difficult to break contact with them. Therefore, focus as much as possible on your own life goals, try to say “no” if someone tries to use you in a non-constructive way, and always clearly remind the abuser that his or her behavior is unacceptable to you. At least, the abuser will be confronted with the fact that you will not silently tolerate their manipulation and that you are willing to stand up for yourself.
Rule 5. Treat yourself as gently as possible after contact with the abuser
Most of us experience emotional abuse sooner or later. If this happens to you, by no means blame yourself. Be self-compassionate—treat yourself like you would treat your best friend in this situation. Praise yourself for what you have been through, give yourself a good rest. And, if necessary, seek psychological support.
What if the abuser is yourself?
If, when answering the questions in the checklist above, you have inadvertently recognized yourself, that is not a pleasant discovery. In this case, however, it seems that all is not lost. Realizing that you can sometimes behave like this is already a big step towards becoming a different person.
Giving up an abusive strategy is not easy, especially because abusers usually do not want to admit that they are abusers. Otherwise, they would have to abandon such an effective way of influencing those around them.