emotional wellbeing

Written By: DiveThru Team

Reviewed By: Amanda Kobly M.Ed., Registered Provisional Psychologist


5 Signs of Emotional Abuse & What to Do Next

PUBLISHED Aug 16th, 2022 & UPDATED ON Feb 23rd, 2023

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Okay, before we start off on this article, we should give you a trigger warning! We’re going to be talking about abuse and how it affects victims. If this content is difficult for you to read, please take care of yourself and step away. 

Because it’s discussed more often, you’re probably aware of the common signs of physical abuse. It can be easy to miss the signs of emotional abuse because it can come in different forms and be harder to identify. 

Emotional abuse, like physical abuse, is when the abuser uses power over you to exclude and intimidate you mentally through their words and actions. Whoever said “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” did NOT know what they were talking about. If you’re anything like us, you probably still remember things that a childhood bully said decades ago. It can be so much worse if those words come from a loved one, like a parent or partner.

So we’re going to dive into the warning signs, effects of emotional abuse, as well as how to deal with it if it’s happening to you or a loved one. 

What Is Emotional Abuse? 

If you’ve ever been exposed to love-bombing, manipulation, or the downplaying of your emotions, you’ve likely been vulnerable to mental and verbal abuse. It can happen to you without you even realizing it. Emotional bullying gives the perpetrator influence over you by accusing, exploiting, condemning, and humiliating your feelings, ultimately affecting your mental health and self-confidence. 

Emotional abuse can start subtly, sometimes using personality and charisma to captivate you while masking their true colours until they know you are comfortable enough with them to control you. Then, they make you believe that what they are doing is a normal part of your connection or friendship with them. At that point, you’re in a cycle of abuse

The most common kind of emotional abuse is observed in romantic relationships, but it can happen in pretty much any situation where someone is in a position of perceived power over another person, such as a parent, boss, or caregiver. No matter the type of relationship that exists, abuse is never the victim’s fault. There is no excuse for that kind of treatment—and no one deserves it.  

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Signs of Emotional Abuse

Let’s get into a few signs of emotional abuse so that you know exactly what they are and how to recognize them.

1. Love Bombing 

Maybe you’ve never heard the term love bombing but you’ve seen it before, whether in real life, on TV, or in movies (looking at you, Ross Geller…). There’s a difference between love bombing and the honeymoon phase of a new relationship. Love bombing occurs when a partner overwhelms you with affection, charming words, and behaviour patterns to gain your trust and manipulate you over time.

This act of intense affection can only last for so long. As abusers might start to withhold affection from the victim. Some more examples of love bombing include: 

  • Not taking no for an answer
  • Sudden interest in everything you are interested in 
  • Always in your personal space, not giving you room to breathe 
  • Overbearing compliments 
  • Constant communication with you through texts or calls to check-in
  • Randomly appearing at your home unannounced 
  • Saying “I love you” very early on in the relationship 
  • Giving you gifts constantly 

This can also happen in non-romantic relationships. Friends, family members, coworkers, and managers can also be charming and complementary to try to create compliance instead of community. 

2. Gaslighting 

When an abuser repeatedly distorts or denies the truth, it causes victims to doubt their reality and/ or perceptions. As a result, you lose faith in yourself and begin questioning your memories of what happened based on what the person has told you. This is called gaslighting.

For example: in the Netflix series Maid, Alex was trying everything she could to avoid returning to her abuser. But when she needed his assistance, he began to lovebomb her and be there for her. Then, as she got more at ease, he began to gaslight her about leaving him and claiming that the abuse she claims he committed was not valid. 

Here are some examples of gaslighting: 

  • “I never said/ did that.”
  • “Are you sure that happened? I don’t remember that.”
  • “You’re too sensitive.”

3. Constant Criticism

Nobody’s perfect, but no matter how hard you try, it’s never good enough for your partner, boss, friend, or family member. It’s as if they’re always looking for any “imperfection” to point out to you, making you feel sooooo self-conscious. It can feel as if they know just what will set you off and break you apart.

Constant criticism is a form of emotional abuse as the abuser tries to make their victim feel like they’re not good enough and don’t deserve their partner… which can play a role in trauma bonding

Some examples of constant criticism include: 

  • Criticizing small actions (like leaving a dirty dish on the counter instead of putting it in the sink) as a character flaw
  • Body shaming, whether it’s criticizing weight or clothes or eating habits
  • Refusing to apologize for hurtful things they’ve said or done because “you’re being too sensitive,” or otherwise dismissing valid emotions 

4. Insults, Swearing and Physical Aggression

When an abuser realizes they can control their victim, they may begin to lash out with nasty comments in rage. It might be a supervisor at work making verbally abusive statements to you when they are angry. It may also involve physical aggressiveness that may or may not be directed at the victim, like throwing a phone or punching a wall.

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5. Possessive and Controlling 

It feels good to be cared for. But while it’s nice to get a text from your partner asking if you made it home okay, it’s not nice to get a text asking where you are because your partner needs to know otherwise they’ll get angry with you. That’s the difference between being cared for and being controlled. 

Abusive partners may use patronizing or condescending language to make you believe that you can’t do certain things without their permission. You are your own person, with your life. You know you’re not doing anything wrong, but someone who wants to control you may make you believe you are. 

Here are some examples of possessive and controlling behaviour in emotionally abusive relationships: 

  • They try and control who you are allowed to hang out with 
  • They tell you what you can and can’t wear 
  • They need to know where you are and what you’re doing at all times 
  • They need to know private details like your debit pin or other passwords 
  • They always want to be with you 

Effects of Emotional Abuse

Since we’ve gone over all of the emotional abuse red flags to look out for, let’s move on to the effects. It might be difficult to leave an emotionally abusive environment. You might not even know you’re in a risky position until you leave. And when you’re bonded through trauma with the abuser, it’s much more challenging to go since you’ve become accustomed to their abusive behaviour as well as the love and assurance they still provide you. It might also feel like you don’t know where to go. It can feel humiliating to share what you have gone through. Like in Maid, Alex was trying to express the emotional abuse she had been subjected to to the social worker, she didn’t know how to describe it in a way that would be taken seriously.

Emotional abuse may have long-term and short-term consequences. You may learn things through that connection or relationship with that person that you will carry with you for a long time. You may be afraid to open out to new people because you’re so scared they’ll treat you as the abuser did. It can instill a lot of fear and have an impact on your physical and emotional health.

Some examples of the effects of emotional abuse include: 

  • Depression 
  • Anxiety 
  • Inability to make decisions 
  • Confused 
  • Not sure of yourself 
  • Low self-confidence 
  • Guilt 
  • Tend to doubt yourself a lot 
  • Over apologizing 
  • Easily triggered 
  • Feeling ashamed of yourself                                                                                                                                    

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How to Heal From Emotional Abuse 

If you’re suffering from emotional abuse, the best thing you can do is leave. Unfortunately, that’s not always immediately safe to do. In Canada, three-quarters of intimate partner homicides happen during the separation process, and a similar increase in the risk of violence for the two years following separation. We have links to resources at the end of this article, with tips to help access them more safely. 

Whether you’re in the process of leaving an abusive partner or have experienced emotional abuse in the past, it’s a traumatic thing to go through. It’s important to find healthy ways to cope with your feelings. 

Love Yourself 

In an emotionally-abusive relationship, the victim can ignore their own feelings or prioritize the abusive partner’s emotions over their own. Emotional abuse can also create feelings of low self-worth. It’s so key to remember that your feelings are valid, and that it’s okay to do things you want to do. It’s not selfish, it’s self-care. By actively choosing to prioritize your own interests and feelings, you’re re-learning to love yourself. 

Find Trustworthy People 

Because abusers often work to isolate their victims, people dealing with emotional abuse can feel alone. But just like Mr. Rogers said, “look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” Even if it doesn’t feel like it, there are people who will help you. Loved ones and support workers can help you escape, and rebuild your life. Suffering emotional abuse can make it hard to trust others, but it doesn’t mean you’re incapable of trusting—just that you have to make a more conscious effort. 

Seek Professional Help 

Last but not least, seek professional support, whether from a mental health professional or social worker. This is one of the ways you will be able to escape the situation, as these professionals can guide you on ways and things you can do to be safe is important.

We can put a lot of guilt on ourselves when we know we aren’t being treated with respect. If you recognize any of the signs listed in this article, remember that you DO NOT deserve this treatment, and you ARE NOT to blame. You deserve far better treatment, and it doesn’t make you selfish or a bad person for thinking so. Getting space to acknowledge the situation and finding a safe way to leave an abuser can be really hard, but your wellbeing is worth it. Finding positive support systems around you, like trusted loved ones or a mental health professional, can support you in coping. It’s not always easy to open up about what you’re going through, but going at your own pace can help you go back to living a healthy life where you are free to live life on your own terms, not anyone else’s. 

If you are in any danger and are experiencing any type of abuse, please get in touch with these domestic violence hotlines at 1-604-875-0885 (Canada) and 1-800-799-7233 (United States). There are also some more resources for crisis situations here.

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Internet Safety Tips

Here are some tips to minimize the risk of someone knowing that you’re researching domestic violence-related topics (via Tech Safety): 

  • If you think your devices or internet search activities are being monitored, access this information from a device that isn’t being monitored. That should be a device that the person does not or has not had physical or remote access. This is the safest thing to do if you don’t want someone to know that you are visiting these websites. 
  • Sign out of other accounts, such as Google or Facebook, before visiting these sites. 
  • Use your internet browser settings to increase your privacy, such as turning off browsing history or using the browser in-private mode. 
  • If it is safe to do so, delete the websites URLs that you don’t want stored from the browser history. 
  • Use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to increase the security of your internet browsing and activity.

Read More: 7 Helpful Ways to Take a Social Media Break, Not Sure If You're Being Manipulated? 12 Examples of Emotional Manipulation to Look For,