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Emotional Abuse

The Damaging Effects of Emotional Abuse

Five ways emotional abuse can impact your mental health and well-being.

Key points

  • Emotional abuse robs you of emotional security.
  • Losing a sense of secuirty breeds anxiety and fear.
  • The emotionally abused can feel deep guilt, shame, and anger.

Emotional abuse is so damaging because it outlives its own life span. Not only does it damage a person’s self-esteem at the time it is done, it also sets up a life pattern that daily assaults the inner being. Present events and relationships are filtered through the negative messages and events of the past. Behavior is unknowingly modified to produce results consistent with the established life pattern. Through continued emotional assault, even a healthy life pattern can be subverted by an abusive one.

When you view life as unstable—anxiety, tension, and fear result. When nothing you do ever seems to be right—insecurity, guilt, and shame set in. And when you stop having the energy to fight it all—apathy and depression can become present.

Don’t ever let anyone tell you that emotional abuse is not damaging. Below are five ways it can impact your mental health and well-being.

1. Lack of emotional security. At the most basic level, emotional abuse robs you of your sense of security and value. In an attempt to bring order to chaos, even the regularity of abuse can be substituted for a sense of what is normal.

One of the deepest needs of children is consistency, including the certain knowledge that they are unconditionally accepted and valued by those who love them. Small children crave the repetition and constant nature of certain stories in which the same words or phrases are used over and over again. Children learn what to expect, anticipate with delight the coming use of the word or phrase, and feel in control of the story when they can repeat along with the storyteller. The story always ends the same way. Life has order. By knowing the ending in advance, children have a sense of security and safety. They learn how it feels to be right and know what lies ahead, and this produces a sense of control.

With emotional abuse, whether through purposeful or inadvertent neglect, children soon learn that anything is possible. There are no boundaries for behavior directed toward them. And when there are no boundaries, there is no security. A physical or verbal blow can come at any time. Accomplishments can be met with apathy, passive-aggressive indifference, or outright aggressive disapproval. It is best to be left unnoticed. Life is safer that way.

Woman experiencing effects of emotional abuse
Source: goffkeinpro/Shutterstock

2. Fear and anxiety. A loss of security leads to an ever-present feeling of anxiety or fear. When you are in the midst of being emotionally abused, you have a very real fear of how far the abuse will go and how damaging it will be.

You learn there are no safe moments. Your abuser may be absent, but he or she may reappear at any time. Though you were met with an apathetic response yesterday, you may be met with violent outrage tomorrow. You are robbed of the security of anticipation. You fear what each day will hold.

3. Guilt and shame. The reason given for the abuse varies: You are bad, stupid, or unwanted. No matter the reason provided, you are to blame for what is happening to you. You are guilty of causing the abuse.

The guilt you are feeling is not true guilt. True guilt is brought on by the realistic understanding of your behavior and its consequences to yourself and others. False guilt is an oppressive burden that is not based on reality but on the warped views, ideas, and attitudes of others. Emotional abuse transfers those warped views onto you, and they produce mind-numbing, action-paralyzing shame.

For some people, assuming guilt for the abuse might seem to be a devastating decision, and it is. But it also has some very practical uses. For the person who has been emotionally abused, guilt is born out of a sense of fear of the world and what it holds. At first it makes no sense that this should be happening, but then guilt takes over. You feel responsible. Maybe you think, “Bad things happen to me because I am bad.” By latching onto your guilt, you are really attempting to take back control of your life.

4. Anger. When security is gone, when fear must be dealt with on a daily basis, when the oppressive weight of guilt and shame crushes the spirit, when hope is extinguished in the rush of despair, often the only way to respond is with anger. The injustice of the abuse eventually demands the response of rage from the battered psyche of the abused person.

This rage and anger can be explosive and consuming, taking opposite directions upon release. Often in the abused person this anger is directed inward. Presented daily with “proof” of their total unworthiness, the emotionally abused can turn the frustration on themselves.

5. Depression. It is said that depression is only anger turned inward. Emotionally abused people often give up on emotions, since emotions have proven to be so damaging. They have been beaten down by the emotions of others and struck through the heart by their own emotions in response. No safety—just anger, fear, shame, and guilt.

It takes a great deal of energy to deal with emotional abuse and stay buoyant. Each emotional assault takes its toll on that store of energy. Some people simply run out of strength to climb the mound of abuse heaped upon them. When that happens, they slip into the pit of depression.

Unable to escape from anger, fear, shame, and guilt, they attempt to shut down all of their emotions. With no visible way out, they curl into themselves, isolating themselves from others and imploding their world.

Emotional abuse steals away your identity. It sucks up all of the wonderful, positive characteristics of your true nature and seeks to replace them with false truths and negative images. It attempts to hijack the personal power and sense of self for the benefit and control of your abuser. It’s wrong.

Realizing the nature of your emotional abuse may seem like waking up after a long and terrible nightmare. In the course of counseling those with emotional abuse, a time comes when they stop denying, excusing, or avoiding the truth of the abuse. Then, a plan for healing can begin.

Having the courage to face difficult issues will result in hope, which opens the heart to change. It is possible to get over a past in which you suffered abuse and begin to really live for the future.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

More from Gregory L. Jantz Ph.D.
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