People who have experienced or are experiencing emotional abuse often downplay the issue. The reasons for this can be two-fold. They may feel that what they are experiencing is not as bad as “real” abuse. They may also have been victimized by people not taking them seriously in the past when they have spoken about it.
Emotional abuse is sometimes difficult to describe to others because it requires time to explain. If you are being physically abused, it is quick and easy to point to examples. She punched you in the face or he threw you down the stairs. No decent person is going to claim that is not abuse or not a big deal.
When you have been emotionally abused it can be hard to point to a large clear example. Many times, the abuse is the cumulative effect of years of daily small mistreatment. When we try to give people examples, they seem to think none of the things were a big deal. Perhaps on their own, each instance may not have been a big deal but when everything the abuser has done is taken as a whole; it was abuse. Most people do not want to listen to your entire life story while you try to make the case for having been abused.
Emotionally abusive people also often hide it well. The person they are in public is not the person they are at home. I still remember how angry I was after my mother’s death at the people who spoke at her funeral or who expressed condolences and talked about what a nice person she was.
Emotional abuse leaves damage just like physical abuse does. It does not matter whether the emotional abuse was explicit, with the abuser telling you that you are worthless, etc., or implicit with their behavior giving you that message without them saying the actual words. The damage is the same.
These are some of the major effects:
Being made to feel bad for existing is destructive to your sense of self. Someone who claims to love you — -a parent, a spouse, etc., treats you like you are garbage. They undermine your worth until you believe what they are telling you. You feel like you don’t deserve to be treated any better. You believe that you are worth nothing.
Along with low self-esteem comes underachievement. Because you don’t believe in yourself, you are unlikely to attempt to improve your life situation. You may fear that others will reinforce what the abuser has convinced you of. That you are horrible, worthless, or stupid.
Perfectionism can be another side to the lack of achievement. Many emotionally abused people are perfectionists. Afraid to put their work or themselves out into the world if it is not up to ridiculously high standards. They feel any mistakes or criticism will validate what the abuser has told them. In the end, they decide not trying is a better safer choice for them.
Trust Issues in Relationships
If your emotional abuser was a romantic partner and you have gotten away from them, you may fear getting into other relationships because you don’t want to be treated like that again. You may not trust potential partners to not take advantage of your vulnerabilities, so you hide them and your true self.
If your abuser was a parent, it affects all your relationships: romantic and friendships. Many abusers will convince their victims that they can’t trust other people. That nobody could ever like or love them. That anyone who is nice to them has an ulterior motive. My mother has been dead for nearly 17 years now and when someone does or says something nice to me, the very first thought that pops into my head is, “what do they want?” Even though she’s been gone all that time, the response she taught me is still my default. The belief that none of them are really kind. They are just pretending because they want something from me. Every single time I have to consciously choose to not react to that thought.
Depression and/or Anxiety
Many people who suffer from anxiety or depression or, like me, both, have abuse in their past (or present). Because there is not an absolute definitive cause for depression or anxiety, it appears that in people who have the potential to develop those conditions, emotional abuse can be the trigger that manifests them.
Those who are suffering depression or anxiety and cannot locate the root cause to work through it may turn to drugs or alcohol to self-medicate.
Also, those who just want the pain of existing when they feel they are unwanted and unvalued to stop will also self-medicate.
Western society has identified physical abuse and sexual abuse as being things that are damaging and should be stopped. Long embedded historical institutions have made progress slow, but it is happening. No decent person would stand up and say that physical or sexual abuse is acceptable.
But emotional abuse still flies too far under the radar. The fact that it is not easily quantified and put on a checklist makes it harder for those suffering from it to be identified and helped. Though the signs of emotional abuse may be more subtle than physical abuse, it needs to be looked for so that help can be given.