What is Emotional Abuse?

It is heartbreaking to hear your stories of abuse on my radio show. I'm continually faced with how cruel so many people can be to each other. Perhaps you have suffered tragic abuse at the hands of someone you thought you could trust. This is not how it's supposed to be. But even though we live in a world where abuse runs rampant, there is still reason to find hope and keep pressing forward with your life. I want to help you do that. I've blogged about physical and sexual abuse, now I want to explore perhaps the most common abuse of all verbal/emotional abuse.

What is Verbal/Emotional Abuse?

Justin described it like this: My father has always been very verbally abusive to my brother and me for as far back as I can remember. He'd tell us that we would never amount to anything, and would never be a real man like himself -- some 'real man' huh?

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. This old saying could not be farther from the truth. Verbal/emotional abuse happens when yelling and anger go too far or when someone constantly criticizes, threatens, or dismisses you until your self-esteem and feelings of self-worth are damaged. It also includes being around constant family conflict.

Signs of Emotional Abuse

Here are some examples of verbal/emotional abuse:

  • Constant belittling, shaming, and humiliating
  • Calling names and making negative comparisons to others
  • Constantly telling someone he or she is "no good," "worthless," "bad," or "a mistake"
  • Yelling, threatening, or bullying
  • Ignoring or rejecting someone, giving him or her the silent treatment
  • Witnessing acts that cause a feeling of helplessness and horror, such as domestic violence or watching another sibling or pet be abused

Damaging Effects of Verbal Abuse

This kind of abuse may seem invisible. But the effects can be extremely damaging and may even leave deeper lifelong psychological scars than physical or sexual abuse.

Kent shared: My mom tells me that she doesn't want me, and that she doesn't love me. And that's not right. I thought a mother can love her child forever, maybe she does and just gets sick of dealing with my daily problems/concerns. Kent is feeling deep pain he never should have to feel. No child, teenager, or young adult should be responsible for the emotional well-being of his/her parent.

Jenn described her abusive home life: My mom has this strange way of doing things and she abuses in the way of controlling me to the point that I feel if I don't, please her I feel like my heart breaks because I'm breaking hers. She controls me in the way she guilts me into everything -- going to the store, being with my boyfriend, hanging out with friends -- she feels if I'm not spending time with her or doing what she wants me to, she feels empty. And then I feel horrible, which is why I got into cutting. She controlled me in the way that I could not say ANYTHING to anyone about problems within our family -- nothing could go outside of our house. I feel so trapped in my own home.

Can Verbal Abuse Turn Physical?

Verbal abuse doesn’t always turn into physical abuse, but there is a chance that it could happen. The likelihood of verbal abuse escalating to physical abuse is greater if:

  • The abuser has a history of physical abuse
  • They excessively drink alcohol or have substance abuse issues
  • If the abuser is unable to maintain a positive emotional tie to someone while they are angry, frustrated, or disappointed.
  • How much their moods and behavior have changed overtime?

It's Not Your Fault!

You've heard me say this before, but you must realize it is not your fault you are being treated the way you are. You don't have to carry around guilt and shame for something you haven't done. You've only been in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong person and absorbed the wounds of someone else's dysfunction and illness.

Cera shared her thoughts on being emotionally abused: I often think this is the type of abuse that is the hardest to identify. I always thought my feelings of never being good enough were because I was a horrible daughter, and I didn't deserve to be treated well. I often hid my feelings and did things perfect or didn't do them at all. When I am put in a situation, I think I may not be perfect at, I began to fear what everyone is going to say and think. I am beginning to realize I am not perfect, but that's okay because nobody is. 

The part you can play when abused is to choose how you're going to respond to it. You can let it turn you into a miserable, depressed person. Or you can allow the pain and hardship you've experienced turn you into a compassionate, caring person who can help other people going through their own difficulties.

Jodi wrote with some words of encouragement: I have pretty much been through a mentally abusive time with my family the past four months -- my parents are in the process of a divorce. I live with my mom and my dad doesn't talk to me. All I can say is take it day by day and always know that there are people that care about you and that can help you any way that you need it. Count on your friends to be there for you. Jodi gave some good advice.  There is HOPE to get through and move forward in a healthy way.

How to Recover From Emotional Abuse

Stay Safe - Get Help

If you determine you are living in a verbally/emotionally abusive situation, it's important that you tell someone. You deserve to be safe. Find someone you can trust to talk about what's going on at home. It will help you get perspective on your situation, and help you decide what actions you need to take to protect yourself. You can always chat with us here at TheHopeLine. If you are in immediate danger, contact the police (911) as soon as possible. You can also call the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at: 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453).

Please continue sending me your stories in the comments below, it's extremely helpful to others to know they are not alone and to hear your perspective.

If you have been verbally and emotionally abused, your self-esteem may have suffered. To start building it back, check out TheHopeLine’s eBook on self-worth for practical advice about things you can do to increase your self-esteem.

Dawson McAllister
Dawson McAllister, also known as America's youth pastor, was an author, radio host, speaker, and founder of TheHopeLine. McAllister attended Bethel College in Minnesota for undergraduate work where he graduated in 1968, began graduate studies at Talbot School of Theology in California, and received an honorary doctorate from Biola University.
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357 comments on “What is Emotional Abuse?”

  1. My father, first verbally abused his mom, and wife and tried to do it to me, his daughter. Left me pushing all guys away with my toughness as my father only respected tough. You say in the article... "Constantly telling someone he or she is “no good,” “worthless,” “bad,” or “a mistake” My father never said any of those phases so I feel you are missing the other criticism. I think you missed the other judgments and sarcastic jokes. My father love to respond to the women in his life as weird, idiotic, dumb, that stupid... or I went to a training program for inner peace by a very famous person, sound like a Cult, he says. .... but yet he really believes he is being loving. He has told me to everything I loved, that won't work, that will get you nowhere. He put down ever ath I wanted because it wasn't economics or business. Any idea different from his is S#$t he says. He belittles his wife, to boost himself up. And publically too! My mother has stood up for herself in the last ten years, saying, Never talk to me that way again" But it will last two days at most, they were married young and "50 years" later he has not learned. Ok well, not I am on the other side of the country and my mother feels isolated in their large house. My father values , Money, work and other men who work. He does value women is they are making huge incomes on their own. My mother called today to ask me to fly out there, and take her to a divorce attorney. She needs to walk or die as she said she has never felt scene, understood, respected in all they years they were together. My fathers brother was soft , light hearted, easy to talk to into french art... just a great guy. My father the middle child always had a rough bullying streek his sister says, but she says what can you do. You can't change people and he is set in his ways. He does value family oddly, but is the boaster, bragger of the family. People find it comical or amusing for a short while. He is a pillar of intensity, he thinks the louder he gets the more he will be heard. Only right way is his way, he lives in a small bubble. Anyways this is serious abuse as joking and laughing as he is. We try to tell him stop yelling, and he will scream, I don't yell!! He really is clueless. He does talk about how he loves mom, and he believes that. Ok, I visit 5 days a year and that's enough for me. Hope my mother gets through her seperation smoothly.

  2. My ex husband won’t leave me alone he has gone as far as me him and his new girlfriend talking together on my phone that he has hacked and I get to see them have conversations on my phone them telling each other how much they love each other than he comes and tells me he loves me but he doesn’t want anything to do with me he lied in all the courts took my kids from me with lies I don’t know what to do

  3. I don't want to make anybody uncomfortable. I was the abusive one physically and mentally i love my girlfriend very much and she is tge most important person to me so why do i do those things to her? Just a couple weeks ago she had broken up with me but i keep tryna get her back how do i do this.

    1. Jess, please find a good counselor. If you are doing it to others, it was done to you, even if you were too young to remember. Go do self inner strength and balance work first for at least three years, or you will just repeat an inner pattern. Those closest to us trigger us the most. I did ten years of this work, It does work if you commit to it. Try meditation or prayer. Anything to stop the pattern.

  4. Is this abuse if your mom slaps you sometimes or if she says I am dumb or if she tells at you a lot that you aree phyco or curses at me. Like last night when she says your going to go to hell when all I said was what ever. Is it abuse or am I being crazy.

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