Emotional Abuse: The Quiet Killer


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emotional abuse

"Emotional violence is another kind of abuse ... it's not about words because an emotionally abusive person doesn't always resort to using the verbal club, but rather the verbal untraceable poison."  ~ Augusten Burroughs

It was after reading the above passage in a book I recently completed by Augusten Burroughs that I stopped dead in my tracks.  Emotional abuse?  This concept was something completely new to me.  The words settled like lead inside of my head.  What I had discovered in those precise few moments, was the exact description for the subtle abuse I was, and still am, facing from my estranged parents.  I read on:

They may, in fact, speak very kind words to you.  And appear nothing but supportive to those around you.  Their covert abuse is administered in small, cunning ways over time.  So the impact is gradual, not fist-to-the-eye immediate.

What struck me about this quote is the fact that emotional abusers are very passive, very subtle, very quiet.  I would even go so far as saying ... very introverted in their approach.  This single moment led me to wonder: is this the introvert's favored form of abuse?  And also ... do I unwittingly border on emotional abuse when I'm upset with someone?  And also ... who else shows signs of being emotionally abusive in my life?  I know, I know, it all sounds very intense and extreme, doesn't it?  Guess that's just me.

The tricky thing with emotional abuse like anything quiet and unobtrusive, is that it can be overlooked easily, blending into the background of life.  Luckily however, it can lead traces of something "not being quite right" in your relationships - something wrong that you just can't quite put your finger on.

My hope is that this article will help introduce, or reintroduce, you to the world of emotional abuse.  If you do decide to continue reading, please consider introspecting and reflecting on yourself and the people in your life.  It could make all the difference in the world.

Emotional Abuse: The Devil's Quiet Sister

Emotional abuse is also known as psychological or mental abuse.  It's aim is to control, belittle, isolate and shame other people into subservience.  This happens little by little overtime, so that the victim's sense of self-worth, self-confidence, self-concept and own ideas and perceptions erode.

Many emotional abusers operate under the guise that they are "teaching", "advising", "correcting", and/or "guiding", and therefore fly under the radar, spreading their poison for years upon years.


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Types Of Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse rarely just involves criticisms or put-downs.  I've listed some more kinds of abuse below that you should be wary of.  Also, be a bit careful when you read this list.  For instance, you may find one or two symptoms of emotional abuse apparent in your life, but it doesn't necessarily make your relationships absolutely and utterly emotionally abusive.  The more symptoms you recognize, the more likely you're experiencing emotional abuse.

1.  Control and Domination.

  • They may control your money and your spending.
  • They may treat you as an inferior person.
  • They may make you feel small by reminding you of your faults and shortcomings.
  • They may make you feel as though they're always right, and you're always wrong.
  • You may feel the need to "get permission" for every thing you do, or decision you have to make.
  • They may give you disapproving, or condescending looks and comments.
  • They may "chastise" you, and treat you like a child.
  • They may control where you go, who you interact with, and/or what you do.
  • They're excessively possessive and jealous.

2.  Isolation and Neglect.

  • They may have difficulty taking responsibility for their actions.  Instead, they deflect the blame onto you.
  • They may have no regard for, and no interest in, the way you feel.
  • They may use "the silent treatment" to punish you.
  • They may withdraw affection from you to punish you.
  • They may become deliberately emotionally distant from you for long periods of time.
  • They purposely neglect to share important pieces of information with you.
  • They may neglect to give you privacy, or purposely disrespect your boundaries.

3.  Bullying and Humiliation.

  • They may call you names, or label you.
  • They may belittle your success and triumphs.
  • They may mock, impersonate or otherwise talk to you in sarcastic ways.
  • They may accuse you of things that you never did.
  • They may degrade or subtly humiliate you in front of other people.
  • They may frequently make jokes at your own expense.
  • You may feel intimidated or scared when voicing an opinion.

What To Read & Where To Go To Find Out More

If you are experiencing emotional abuse, or if you're the one inflicting it, I've composed a list of resources that can help assist you with this quiet killer.

I'd appreciate any comments or stories of your own.  I read every one of them. ;)

Photo by: Andi Jetaime

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  1. Ryan Collins says

    Ever since I can remember, my mom has done literally every single thing listed above, and she continues to this day. My school grades were often D’s and F’s. I failed two classes last year. But today, I was just complemented by my teacher about my amazing improvement and now Honor roll status. I also just got student of the month at school-so yay. Recently, I have moved away from my mother’s home and I now live with my father. My father is incredibly kind and just plain amazing. He has NEVER lied, broken a promise, or earned my distrust. I have a loving step mom and an adorable, super cool little brother as well. The only issue is…. everyone (but my dad, step-mom, lil bro on my dads side and grandparents) keeps pushing me to go back to the way things were for me and appease the attacker (my mom). I’m tough though. I will never give in, never give up, and never surrender in this battle of wits. Great article BTW.

    • says

      Your mum sounds like a very wounded person (most emotional abusers are). Fortunately you are a tough person though, one who is now aware of what has been happening. Knowledge is power they say! And hopefully one day you will come to see the deeply hurt person your mother is (similar to my own).

  2. John says

    This is a kind of ‘ps’ to my prior post.
    The other difficulty with this sort of abuse aside from the confusion it causes is the guilt. You know, my parents – they’re ‘nice’ people. And they brought me up! They spent – how much money? They ‘fed’ me, clothed me … and there I am complaining about them! ‘Snitching’ on them to other people. Nobody is perfect they say. How can I say terrible things about them (things that would in any event be denied by other family members).
    Well it’s true. Nobody is perfect. And I don’t want my parents to be punished. I prefer to talk about this to others outside the home. It is so difficult to deal with this sort of abuse.

    • says

      Your below comment has stimulated a lot of reflection within me John, especially the part about questioning your own sanity. I learnt something very important: respect shouldn’t just be given, it must be earnt. The reality is that you don’t owe your parents anything. Of course, you can be courteous towards them, but they are never “better”, “more right”, or “superior” to you purely because of the fact they are your parents. All humans, regardless of their connections with each other, are equal, and emotional abuse of any kind is not justifiable. Once you see through the fallacy of feeling the need to “owe” your parents something, you will see that it is fine to have a problem with the way they treat you.

  3. John says

    I am a ‘victim’ of emotional and to a lesser extent physical abuse by my parents. I ought to say at this point that this has never been openly acknowledged.
    And this is very very different from being in an emotionally abusive relationship with a partner or spouse.
    You can leave a spouse, you can never leave your parents. Not emotionally. You probably didn’t even meet your spouse until you were in your twenties. Your parents were with you from the start. And the abuse begins then.
    I want also to say that I am not ‘young’ though it feels like I am stuck in a sort of time warp. An eternally troubled teenager. Never able to fully become a man. Always being pushed back down every time I try to stand up. My parents are in their seventies and all too healthy. Physically at any rate.
    It is also probably not helpful to suggest that their abuse is fully conscious. It is more a case of insecure people muddling along in life. I doubt that they are doing it with deliberate intent. Much of the crap that comes from them is stuff they have learned from their own childhood experiences.
    In my case I have had difficulties over the years with both parents, but probably my father is the worst. He for some reason has a need to single me out in social situations – with family of course. He’d never do it in public. (He doesn’t want to risk compromising his relationships with his friends!) I don’t have any of course. I have found it difficult to form relationships. I suppose if I had friends it would weaken his sense of control. I (his “rival”) would have allies! Yes, he’s a very jealous man.
    One of the things that is worst it the confusion that this sort of abuse can cause. When I was 16, my father punched me in the face giving me a black eye. The reason? I was unhappy. That sounds ridiculous doesn’t it? But it happened. He hated me being unhappy. He was working all the hours (hence he was knackered a lot of the time at home and miserable himself). But as far as he was concerned I was simply ungrateful. So because I had my head down over my dinner (cowering probably) he went and punched me in the face for being miserable. Guess what? That did nothing to cheer me up!
    How couled he have got away with it? Well my aunt was staying at the time (lives a long way away), my mother’s sister. I told her what had happened. She blanked me. She didn’t want to get involved. It was very difficult to get help when I was growing up.
    Of course, 95% of the time he wasn’t so directly abusive. But it was a little like having an angry rottweiler loose in the house. Not exactly a great environment to grow up in. And he wouldn’t hit me now. Well I am as big as him now anyway and besides there’s more to be gained from being hit. If only he could wind me up enough! My sisters he managed to get on side. They would probably deny that any sort of abuse ever took place. Which only causes you to question your own sanity.
    Well I have said very little but written quite a lot. I could say so much more. Thank you.

    • says

      John, I really appreciate that you’ve taken the time to share something so personal here with us. It is cathartic to put this kind of experience down in writing, and I hope this article could help to confirm what you have experienced. It’s so important that we receive closure as humans … and I can see how hard it is to grow up questioning your own sanity! When everyone is denying abuse BUT you it really makes you feel crazy … like there really MUST be something wrong with you. I have experienced this before in my life, so I can completely empathize with this feeling.

      You sound like a reasonably levelheaded person, being able to see things not only from your perspective, but also from the perspective of others as well. This will help you to heal a lot. But what I have personally found helpful as well is to fully experience the emotions we’ve collected throughout the years. When we slowly face them, and release that anger in a healthy way (say, journaling, artistic expression, boxing, extreme exercise), we eventually exhaust ourselves. Sometimes this process is long, and often times very uncomfortable, but I’ve found it to be really worth it. I’m not sure what part of your healing journey you are in at this present moment, but if you still struggle, what I have just said might help.

      Thank you once again for reading John, and best wishes.

  4. LC says

    Oh, thank you *so* much for this article. I recently left a relationship with a man who used to do pretty much every thing on the above lists – and yet who fiercely denies that he did anything other than love me during the eight and a half years we were together. Rather, he believes that I made it all up so that I would have an excuse to leave him. Anyway, reading articles like this and recognising the behaviours is so helpful in reaffirming my decision whenever I experience a moment of uncertainty. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

    • says

      My absolute pleasure LC, and it is wonderful that you’ve discovered and confirmed this! The thing about our modern day idea of ‘love’ is that it is conditional and often sourced from neediness, low self-esteem or ego. Deluded people will try to convince themselves of their deluded notions and beliefs and no matter how sincere they sound (or how much they believe themselves) only actions truly speak the loudest. I’m so happy you could lay this to rest in your life. Thank you so much for sharing!