As a counselor, the vast majority of clients I see have either endured or perpetrated some type of emotional abuse throughout their lifetime. Emotional abuse is quite pervasive, and it is a fairly new topic to be discussed as generations prior would not have even considered the effects of their words or actions qualifying as abusive.
I do want to differentiate right away between someone being an emotional abuser, and someone saying or doing emotionally abusive things. An abuser will perpetually hurt, undermine, or seek to gain a manipulative upper hand over others – whereas the majority of people will have the capacity to say or do something that is emotionally abusive in an isolated situation or circumstance without being a habitual abuser.
We have all at some point or another sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, but repenting and seeking reparation for the wrong we have done is key. However, there are types of people who will continually hurt others and destroy intimate connections with people – whether intentional or unintentional – and their behaviors rarely change for the better.
Emotional abuse may take place in a romantic relationship, a parental relationship, among siblings, on the playground at school, in the office at work, in the pews at church, etc. Because humans reside within all of these occupations, dynamics, and settings – the ability to abuse or be abused is not limited to a specific demographic or location.
What Does Emotional Abuse Look Like?
Emotional abuse signs will vary somewhat, but not drastically – depending on the type of relationship that is being surveyed. As we go through these types of abuse, take note of the context in which you can relate to the abuse, and also offer some introspection to determine if you yourself have used any of these behaviors within an interaction.
Neglect as Abuse
When a parent has physically removed themselves from any interaction in their child’s life, this is emotional abuse. When someone has emotionally removed themselves from engaging in their child or significant other’s life, this is also emotional abuse. When a parent provides for the physical needs of their child but prioritizes other aspects of life over their child – this too, is also emotional abuse through neglect.
You may notice that the sum of these is that the caregiver or partner is neglecting one or more needs of the other person; thus, doing emotional harm to them. This is deemed neglectful because there are certain unspoken expectations that come along with becoming a parent or entering into a romantic relationship with another person, and that is essentially signing up to be an active and involved contributor to the care of this person – whether physically, emotionally, financially, or otherwise; thus, not contributing to the welfare of this other person, is neglectful.
Verbal Emotional Abuse
Have you ever encountered a person who has a pattern of refusing to consider your opinion, and somehow forces you to accept theirs? What about the type of person who uses an absence of words and interaction to punish and control you?
It may not surprise you that these are types of emotional abuse through the use of words (or lack thereof). How about the person who always has to be right and have the last say? Or the person who harshly judges you or your behavior in an attempt to control you by burdening you with guilt and shame for not living in a way they agree with?
Emotional abuse in these forms has to do with these types of tactics being used to rob you of our uniqueness and sense of self-worth. One of the most surprising forms of emotional abuse is the use of sarcasm. Most people do not equate sarcasm with emotional abuse (myself, previously included in this group) – because we tell ourselves that as long as it’s funny, it is permissible and okay, don’t we?
However, take a moment to really think about the sarcastic comments you have either dished out or taken yourself and ask if those comments hurt your feelings or built you up? My guess is that they likely hurt your feelings and were a form of put-down. Sarcasm tends to belittle a person under the guise of humor.
Sometimes emotional abuse will come in the form of someone having a sermon prepared for every situation in an attempt to control you by showing you the fault and errors in your ways, as opposed to taking a stance of grace and understanding to help you figure out what you may want to choose to do the next time this situation arises.
Perhaps one of the most hurtful types of emotionally abusive verbal abuse is the person who tells you that they have forgiven you, but they bring up past grievances repeatedly as a means of shaming you into a subservient position.
Someone who uses screaming and name-calling is also partaking in emotional abuse. The essence of emotional abuse through the use of words is an attempt at robbing one person of their personal dignity by a show of “one-upmanship” through the use of language.
Emotional Abuse through Behavior
Physical abuse is always emotionally abusive, but emotional abuse is not always physical. Let’s take a look at how emotional abuse can be perpetrated through the use of actions. The person who uses intimidation and fear tactics as a means of controlling the other is an emotional abuser.
The abuser whose moods are unpredictable and swing from one extreme to another is removing one’s sense of safety and consistency, so that too is harmful. How about the Jekyll and Hyde personality? Have you ever encountered someone who has a very likeable public persona, yet they are very different at home? Does it surprise you that this is emotionally abusive as well?
One of the most pervasive types of emotional abuse we see is that of the person who plays favorites and will measure one individual against the success or accomplishments of another person, as a means of tearing down one’s sense of self and esteem. How about the role reversing parent who confuses relational roles by taking the role of the child and leaving the child to assume the responsibilities of the adult or the role of the adult’s emotional spouse?
Dr. Kenneth Adams wrote a terrific book on this concept, called Silently Seduced. Within this book, he identifies emotional or covert incest, in which one parent is feeling abandoned or neglected by the other parent, so the children are used as substitutes.
This ends up having lasting negative effects on the child as they grow up into adulthood. In fact, you may be married to someone who grew up with this experience, and now you are seeing the troublesome dynamic between your spouse and one of their parental figures in a way that negatively impacts your relationship with them.
How about the person who makes empty promises? Would this be considered emotionally abusive? Absolutely. The lack of security or substance in this person’s promises will create a distrust in people, and also it will rob the victim of their ability to hope for good things in the future, because they may question whether or not good things will actually come to pass for them.
There are many more examples than the aforementioned, but I hope I have given you a good idea of how likely it is that you or someone you know has been affected in some way by emotional abuse.
The Effects of Emotional Abuse on Relationships
Now that you have a better understanding of different ways emotional abuse may manifest itself, let’s take a moment to discuss the impact of this abuse on your life in other areas.
Have you noticed a lack of intimate relationships throughout your life? If so, it may be because you have received a message somewhere along the way that people are not emotionally safe, so you always keep yourself distanced and do not feel comfortable with opening up and being vulnerable as a result.
Codependency is another product of the emotionally abused person – when one person seeks continual validation and their sense of worth from others, it could likely be tied to a history of not having that nurtured within them as a child.
Additionally, enabling behaviors could be a result of enduring emotional abuse in the past, as now one person has such a desire to be needed, that they will enable unhealthy or inappropriate behaviors in someone else for the sake of feeling purposeful. Typically, when clients come into therapy and are engaging in either potentially abusive relationships or abusive relationships, I can guess that they themselves received a message somewhere along the way that they deserved this type of treatment.
How about the person who feels so inadequate in managing relationships, that they withdraw and isolate themselves from others? Which type of emotional abuse do you think they likely endured previously? My guess would be one of the verbal abusers mentioned above. If you find yourself craving relationships to the point that you are willing to do whatever is asked of you – whether or not it goes against your own values – this may be due to having distorted beliefs from abuse.
What Does the Bible Say About Emotional Abuse?
The Bible does not directly name emotional abuse, but it certainly provides us with a wealth of examples of God’s view concerning it:
Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger by the way you treat them. Rather, bring them up with the discipline and instruction that comes from the Lord. – Eph. 6:4
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. – 1 Cor 13:4-7
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. – Eph. 5:1-4
A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. – Prov. 15:1
He who isolates himself pursues selfish desires; he rebels against all sound judgment. A fool does not delight in understanding, but only in airing his opinions. With a wicked man comes contempt as well, and shame is accompanied by disgrace. The words of a man’s mouth are deep waters; the fountain of wisdom is a bubbling brook. A fool’s lips bring strife, and his mouth invites a beating. A fool’s mouth is his ruin, and his lips are a snare to his soul. A gossip’s words are like choice morsels, and they sink into the inmost being. – Prov. 18:1-4 & 6-8
As you can tell from the above, God clearly feels strongly about the way we use the freedom of our speech and the intentions of our hearts as we interact with others around us.
If you have experienced emotional abuse in your life and you want to heal from the effects of it, please reach out to a Seattle Christian Counselor so that we can help you. By challenging the distorted beliefs and thoughts that have resulted from the abuse, we can work together to form a healthy, new belief system and more solid identity.
Hurt people hurt people, and brokenness begets brokenness; it’s not that the emotional abuse was your fault, but now it is, unfortunately, your responsibility to seek change and not succumb to its ill effects. Reach out today so that we can help you make necessary changes for your tomorrow.
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