How to Recognize the Signs of Emotional Abuse

By Olivia Guy-Evans, published May 26, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD

Emotional abuse vector flat illustration. Depressive woman sitting and crying against pointing hand, man yelling on colleague, aggressive woman scolds friend. Harrassment, abuse, or bullying concept.

While physical abuse can be easily recognised as being physically violent towards another person, emotional abuse can be less easy to identify. Emotional abuse is a way of controlling another person using emotions to blame, shame, embarrass, criticise, or manipulate another.

It is a mistreatment of another’s feelings and emotional needs and can involve attempts to isolate them. Although most associated with romantic types of relationships, emotional abuse can occur in all types of relationships such as in friendships, families, and in the workplace. 

Emotional abuse can be harder to notice as it can be subtle and covert, with many people not realising they are being emotionally abused at all.

An isolated incident doesn’t necessarily qualify as abuse, but a pattern of behaviour over time usually does. Emotional abuse can start gradually but then can escalate and lead to damaging consequences. 

What are the signs of emotional abuse?

As emotional abuse can often be subtle, it is also hard to detect, especially if you are the one who is experiencing it.

To understand whether it is abuse, it is helpful to consider how the interactions with the suspected abuser make you feel. Below are five signs that could indicate you are experiencing emotional abuse:

  1. You feel invalidated

When speaking to the person you may feel as if your opinions are not accepted so you do not feel you can share your true thoughts with them.

They may dismiss your perception of reality and suggest your perceptions are wrong and cannot be trusted.

Whenever you share your wants and needs, they may dismiss them or claim you are being ‘too sensitive’ or ‘too emotional’, so you may choose to keep these wants and needs to yourself. 

  1. They have unrealistic expectations

You may feel as if the person makes unreasonable demands from you or that they are never satisfied with anything that you do for them.

You may feel as if you are going above and beyond completing tasks for them when they do not return the favour.

They may also give criticism for not completing enough tasks for them or for not finishing tasks to the person’s impossibly high standards. 

  1. You feel put down

When you come away from spending time with this person, you may feel bad about yourself. You may feel like the other person treats you as inferior to them, that they talk in a condescending tone, and put down your ideas, hopes, and values.

The person may always blame you for their mistakes and will never accept when they are in the wrong. 

  1. You feel manipulated

When you are around the suspected abuser, you may feel guilty about things that aren’t your fault.

You may be made to feel guilty for things so that you will do something for them. They may get overly angry or upset when you do not do what they want you to do.

Likewise, they may lie to you about things that happened and use your fears, values, and compassion as a way to manipulate you. 

  1. You feel controlled

If the person always needs to know where you are, who you are with, and monitor who you talk to, this is a sign that they are trying to control you.

They may be overly jealous when you spend time with other people and might criticise the people you care about. Consequently, you may find that you spend most of your time with them to avoid any conflict.  

Shaming and controlling

As a way to hold power over you, someone may make you feel ashamed of what they perceive are your inadequacies, so that you do what they want you to do.

They may shame you by always lecturing you about every mistake you make, making it clear that you are below them. They might also make all the decisions and shame you out of any decisions you make yourself. 

They may control you by digitally monitoring your location and needing you to reply to their calls or texts immediately or they will get mad. They may also show up at places unexpectedly.

For instance, you could be out for dinner with your friends and the person turns up, perhaps claiming they were ‘in the area’, but they actually just wanted to monitor where you are and who you are with. 

Criticism and humiliation

A reason why an emotionally abusive person may criticise or humiliate you is to undermine your self-esteem.

They may use patronising language or embarrass you privately or in public, making fun of you in front of others.

If you get annoyed at them for embarrassing you in front of others, they may make you even more humiliated by claiming that they were ‘only joking’ and that you are ‘being too sensitive’. 

An emotionally abusive person may dismiss things that are important to you, criticise your interests and dismiss your accomplishments.

They may also criticise you by using ‘always’ and ‘never’ statements such as ‘You are always doing this’ or ‘You never do anything right’. They might also use this language when talking about you to others to humiliate you further.

Gaslighting

Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse with the goal to exert power, control, and manipulation over others.

People who experience gaslighting are usually left questioning their own reality and sanity through the following manipulation tactics:

  • Denial – the abuser may accuse you of lying which can leave you confused. They may say ‘That never happened’ even when you know it did happen. As denial continues you may begin questioning your own memory. 

  • Shifting blame – if you confront the abuser, they may turn the blame back onto you as a way to make you look bad. For example, they might say ‘If you behaved differently, then I wouldn’t need to treat you this way’. 

  • Minimising – they may trivialise your feelings and emotions such as saying that you are overreacting or being too sensitive. 

  • Countering – an abuser may say ‘You never remember things accurately’ or ‘You have a bad memory’ which can cause you to believe you may not remember things the way they happened. 

  • Withholding – the abuser may pretend to not understand what you are saying to get out of responding to something they don’t want to address. They may say ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about’. 

  • Discrediting – the abuser may try to make you appear emotionally unstable and may subtly tell others this so that they side with the abuser. 

Accusing and blaming

The emotionally abusive person may accuse you of things you haven’t done. In a romantic relationship for instance, they may constantly accuse you of cheating even when there is no evidence to support this. 

When you try to call out their behaviour, the emotionally abusive person will deny the abuse and deflect the issue so that it becomes a problem with you.

They may blame you for being upset and that it is your fault for being so sensitive or incompetent. 

Neglect and isolation

An emotionally abusive person may neglect your needs by withholding attention from you such as giving the silent treatment and shutting down any form of communication.

They might not support you or call you needy or emotional when you ask for support. 

The emotionally abusive person may also come between you and your loved ones which leaves you more dependent on the abuser.

They may become so upset whenever you make plans with other people that you either do not socialise with other people or if you do, the abuser guilts you the whole time you are apart, so you end up leaving the social event early or choose not to go next time. 

They may also come between you and your family, perhaps claiming that your family are the ones controlling you or that they don’t care about you.

You may end up cancelling plans with your family or making excuses not to see them as you know it will upset the abuser if you do see them. 

Although the following signs may not be indicative that someone is emotionally abusive, they could be some of the early warning signs that someone may become emotionally abusive.

They are passive-aggressive

Passive-aggressive behaviour is characterised by indirect resistance to the demands of others and the avoidance of direct confrontation.

If someone is being passive-aggressive towards you, this usually means they are annoyed or angry about something, but they are using other methods to communicate this rather than being direct and honest.

Some passive-aggressive behaviour includes:

  • Giving backhanded compliments 

  • Using sarcasm 

  • Giving the silent treatment 

  • Being moody

  • Procrastinating on tasks they offered to do for you

  • Excluding you

  • Being late on purpose

They display toxic behaviours

While not all toxic behaviours are emotionally abusive, all emotional abusive is toxic.

There are many ways in which toxic behaviour can be displayed subtly in any type of relationship which can take a toll on a person’s mental well-being.

Some signs that someone is being toxic include:

  • Seeing your achievements as a competition and always wanting to one-up you.

  • Finding fault with everything that you do.

  • They are very distrusting of you without reason to be this way.

  • Not valuing your boundaries.

  • Having unpredictable moods. 

  • A lack of emotional reciprocity – you may always be catering to their needs, but they do not cater to yours.

  • They get overly jealous.

  • They have a bad temper. 

What type of person is likely to be an abuser?

There are many reasons why someone may be emotionally abusive, including the following:

They were abused

A lot of the time, people who are abusive experienced abuse earlier in life. Negative events tend to have a habit of repeating themselves so many people who were abused may go on to display these same behaviours.

They may act out their dysfunctional behaviour on others in a subconscious effort to resolve their own abuse.

Moreover, the abusive person may have learnt that emotionally abusive behaviour is acceptable if in childhood they have seen their parents have the same abusive dynamic.

Their later abusive behaviour may match directly to what they experienced in childhood.  

They have a mental health disorder

It could be that someone displays emotionally abusive behaviour if they have a mental health disorder such as antisocial personality disorder or narcissistic personality disorder.

People with these disorders often gain pleasure from seeing others in pain and even more so when they are the ones inflicting the discomfort. 

They have anger issues

Many people who are emotionally abusive may have unresolved anger issues, meaning that they may not know how to display their anger in appropriate ways, or they get angry extremely quickly over the smallest things.

The source of their anger varies but it is often tied to a traumatic life event. Unresolved trauma can ignite anger when triggered by certain stimuli. 

They are deeply insecure 

It could be that someone who is emotionally abusive has deep insecurities about themselves which could also be the result of past negative experiences.

They may feel as if they have no control over some area of their lives, so they have a strong desire to assert control over someone else.

Likewise, they may be insecure from being put down by people in the past so now they constantly seek reassurance and will play the victim to meet their needs. 

They don’t understand boundaries

Some people who are emotionally abusive do not understand boundaries in relationships. They may see their victim as an extension of themselves and thus the person is not entitled to have boundaries according to the abuser.

This abusive dynamic is commonly seen in some parent-child relationships.  

What are the consequences of emotional abuse?

Low sense of self

This can happen a lot in gaslighting relationships where you are always left questioning your own sanity.

Over time, people in these kinds of relationships may not know what is real or who they are anymore.

Also, if the emotionally abusive person is keeping you from your loved ones or from previously loved hobbies, you may lose your self of individuality, instead becoming an extension of the abuser. 

Low self-esteem

If the abuser is constantly chipping away at your confidence and worth, over time this can damage your self-esteem.

Eventually, you may start to agree with the abuser when they are calling you names, criticising you or blaming you for everything.

You may become internally critical about yourself, and this is a reason why some people feel stuck in abusive relationships if they believe they will never be good enough for anyone else. 

Difficulty in future relationships

If you have been in an emotionally abusive relationship and then get into another relationship, you may carry over a lot of damage that the abuser inflicted on you.

You may be wary of future partners and be suspicious if they are not emotionally abusive towards you or think that everything they say has a hidden vicious meaning.

Unfortunately, a lot of people who have been in abusive relationships may also find themselves in relationships with new people who are also abusive.

The victim may not believe they are worth more and will therefore keep having relationships with abusive people. 

Mental health problems

If you are being isolated from loved ones and feeling put down by the abuser constantly, this can severely affect your mood and you may be at risk of developing depression or anxiety disorders.

Many people who experience emotional abuse may also develop posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) due to the abuse they experienced.

Even when they have left the situation, they may suffer the consequences of the abuser’s actions and become triggered from thinking about their experiences.  

Substance use disorders are also common in emotionally abusive relationships as victims use alcohol and drugs as a way to cope. The abuser may also encourage the use of substances to keep you dependent on them.

Moreover, people in abusive relationships get a point where they feel so trapped that they may have ideas of ending their own life or engaging in suicidal behaviours as a way to escape. 

Why do people stay in an abusive relationship?

While to outsiders it may seem strange for someone to stay in an emotionally abusive relationship, there are many reasons why people do stay:

  • They are in love with the abuser. 

  • They may not believe they deserve better due to the damaged self-worth that was inflicted by the abuser.

  • They are high in empathy and want to try their best to help the person who is abusing them to change and will feel too guilty to leave.

  • They are so worn down by the relationship that they cannot endure it any longer, but they are also too afraid to leave so they feel trapped. 

  • If there are children involved in the situation, the victim may fear for their safety and well-being if they were to leave the relationship. 

  • Their emotional threshold is so high meaning that their tolerance for abuse becomes higher over time.

    For example, they become so used to being yelled at for making mistakes that when one time, if the abuser doesn’t yell but they call the victim ‘worthless’ instead, the victim sees this as an improvement in behaviour.

    While both instances are bad, anything below their emotional threshold is seen as acceptable behaviour.

    The victim may also be thankful that their partner is not physically abusive and think that they should deal with emotional abuse because they think ‘At least they aren’t hitting me’. 

  • The abuser gives ‘bread crumbs’ which are small signs that they will change or that they are actually a good person. This can keep the victim invested in the relationship for hopes that things will get better. 

Although the following signs may not be indicative that someone is emotionally abusive, they could be some of the early warning signs that someone may become emotionally abusive.

Have a strong support network

While it may be difficult to open up to people about what you are experiencing, having loved ones you can share your feelings with can help with gaining an outsider’s perspective if you are not sure if what you are experiencing is emotional abuse.

Loved ones can also help by giving you advice and can help you see things clearly if you feel that you are being gaslighted. 

Don’t blame yourself

While you may be made to think that you deserve the abuse from the person who is abusing you, you never deserve abuse no matter what you have said or done. Remember that if they are being emotionally abusive then this is an issue with them and nothing to do with you. 

Try not to engage 

If someone is emotionally abusive towards you, try not to give them any attention or show that they have affected you.

Do not soothe their feelings or make apologies for something you didn’t do. Instead, walk away from the situation if you feel safe to do so, or limit or stop communication with them. 

Take care of your own needs

If you are in a situation where you cannot leave the emotional abuse, then ensure you find time to put yourself first and have some space from the abuser.

Engaging in self-care activities and relaxation exercises can help to take care of your emotional needs.

Taking care of your own needs can also help you to move forward to a place where you can set boundaries and seek support. 

Realise you can’t fix them

Some people, especially narcissists, may never accept any responsibility for their wrongdoings and will blame you no matter what.

If this is the case, you may have to realise that the abuser is likely never going to change and it is not your responsibility to put up with their behaviour or change them. If you go into a relationship with the intention of ‘fixing’ the other person, you may be left feeling disappointed or trapped in their manipulations.

It is difficult for abusive people to change without professional help. You can encourage them to work with a therapist, but they must make the choice themselves. 

Set boundaries 

If you feel safe to do so, you can set clear boundaries with the emotionally abusive person. Make sure to use clear and concise language and even bring a trusted friend along with you when you set these boundaries.

You can explain to them using ‘I’ statements that you feel upset, you expect them to stop their behaviour, otherwise you are not going to tolerate it anymore.

If the abuser does not accept the boundaries, deflects, or gets angry, this may be a sign that they are not going to change, and you should consider cutting contact with them.

Do not communicate boundaries if you have no intention of following through with them. 

Have an exit plan

If the abuser has shown no intention of changing, even after you have set boundaries, you may have to safely leave the situation as the emotional abuse will take a mental and physical toll on you over time. 

Remember that in some cases, the abuse can escalate when the victim makes the decision to leave so you should carefully plan out how you can exit the situation. You could have a safety plan in place with a therapist or domestic abuse advocate.

You could also bring a trusted friend along with you when you end the relationship. Once you are out of the relationship you should consider cutting off all contact with the abuser, change your phone number and do not let them know where you live. 

Allow time to heal

You may feel emotionally vulnerable after leaving an emotionally abusive relationship so make sure you take as much time as you need to focus on your own needs and to boost your confidence back up.

Consider seeking therapeutic support if you need some extra help with dealing with the issues you have been left with after being in an abusive relationship. 

If you need to talk to someone...

USA

If you or a loved one are a victim of domestic violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline for confidential assistance from trained advocates.

1-800-799-7233

or text “Start” to 88788.

UK

If you want to access support over the phone, you can call:

National Domestic Abuse Helpline – 0808 2000 247 – www.nationaldahelpline.org.uk/ (run by Refuge)

The Men’s Advice Line, for male domestic abuse survivors – 0808 801 0327 (run by Respect)

The Mix, free information and support for under 25s in the UK – 0808 808 4994

National LGBT+ Domestic Abuse Helpline – 0800 999 5428 (run by Galop)

Women’s Aid is the national charity working to end domestic abuse against women and children. We are a federation of over 180 organisations providing just under 300 lifesaving services to women and children across England - 1-800-799-7233

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Guy-Evans, O. (2022, May 26). How to Recognize the Signs of Emotional Abuse. Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/signs-of-emotional-abuse.html

Sources

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Guy-Evans, O. (2022, March 22.) What Is Gaslighting? Examples & How To Respond. Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/is-someone-gaslighting-you.html

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