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Recognizing Emotional Abuse

What is emotional abuse?

There is no “one size fits all” description for emotional abuse; however, here is list of typical behaviors of emotional abusers:

  • Abusers will treat another person in a utilitarian manner; as an object to be used, rather than as a person to be valued.
  • They often use targets’ weaknesses against them.
  • They pout and give the silent treatment.
  • Abusers often yell at others, use profanity, and dump their rage on their targets.
  • They are quite often rude to others, particularly those closest to them.
  • They do not “see” or “hear” others, nor do they value people for their intrinsic worth.
  • They do not really know how to love; the “love” or value they place on others is based on performance; it is conditional.
  • They are incapable of demonstrating reciprocity; they cannot collaborate or cooperate with others.
  • They are not humble, kind, or servant-minded.
  • They do not do their fair share of household responsibilities, as they feel superior to other family members.
  • They provide inconsistent reinforcement; this keeps victims always holding out for when the “good personality” will return.
  • Abusers are bullies.
  • When conversing they respond with invalidating, and dismissive comments.

There are so many types of emotional abuse that it is virtually impossible to list them all – financial abuse; emotional affairs; not responding to questions, phone calls, or texts, etc.; coming and going at whim; showing indifference; being there but not there…

People who live with an emotional abuser, rarely hear statements such as, “Have a good day,” or, “How are you?The lack of interest is easily unrecognizable.

How do emotional abusers think?

Abusers suffer with a distorted belief system:

  • They tend to believe they are superior to their victims.
  • They believe their victims are there to serve them.
  • They feel entitled to certain treatment from others.
  • They place themselves as the judge of their victims and other people.
  • They punish their victims.
  • They operate with a set of double standards.
  • They have no insight, nor do they care to.

Believe it or not, emotional abusers have a set of standards they adhere to, particularly with respect to what they will allow themselves to do.  For instance, emotional abusers (a.k.a. narcissists) rarely hit their targets because that would be frowned upon by society. Narcissists want to look good to those in their community. Oftentimes they will abuse their victims covertly so that no one can tell it is happening.

Does it happen suddenly or gradually? Some people think physical abuse affects victims more than emotional abuse does.

Just like drug addiction or alcoholism is progressive disease, abuse is a “progressive disease” as well.  This is not to say that emotional abuse will progress to physical abuse, but that the occurrences of abuse will increase, and a chronic occurrence of cruelty will become commonplace in the relationship.

The relationship will end up being a system, where the abuser does whatever the hell he wants, while the victims have been programmed to cope with it in some way.  Victims may comply, “numb out,” take anti-depressants, live in a detached state of being, pretend that everything’s fine, etc.   They find some way to cope within the system.

Family systems theorists speak of the scapegoat, the golden child, the family mascot, and so on.  These are examples of how children can “act out” their dysfunctional family system.

Victims will slowly lose their sense of self because they are being continually conditioned to only focus outside of themselves.  They have learned to be hyper-vigilant to the feelings and reactions of others and have stopped focusing on their own internal feelings.   This causes victims to become personal shells of who they really are.

For further reading on the topic, see Victims of Emotional Abuse for further information.


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Recognizing Emotional Abuse

Sharie Stines, Psy.D

Sharie Stines, Psy.D. is a recovery expert specializing in personality disorders, complex trauma and helping people overcome damage caused to their lives by addictions, abuse, trauma and dysfunctional relationships. Sharie is a counselor at LIfeline Counseling & Education Inc., in Southern California (www.lifelinecounselingservices.org). Lifeline Counseling is a non-profit organization 501(c)(3) corporation. Sharie is also an abusive relationship recovery coach - therecoveryexpert.com


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APA Reference
Stines, S. (2017). Recognizing Emotional Abuse. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 23, 2018, from https://pro.psychcentral.com/recovery-expert/2017/04/recognizing-emotional-abuse/