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Published on March 17, 2015

5 Signs of Emotional Abuse

March 17, 2015

woman holding her hand up in defenseEmotional abuse is more difficult to detect than physical abuse and may go unnoticed—even by victims.

Emotional abuse, also known as psychological abuse, doesn’t leave visible scars, but the wounds it inflicts are painful and often lifelong.The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence defines emotional abuse as the “systematic perpetration” of malicious, nonphysical acts. These acts occur within an intimate or dependent relationship, such as that of romantic partners or a parent and child.

Beyond Sticks and Stones

Victims of emotional abuse may have lived for so long with the abuse that they no longer recognize it as unhealthy or abnormal. Those who do recognize they’re being abused may feel trapped by dependence on the abuser. A spouse may feel unable to face the financial uncertainties that might come from leaving an abusive partner. A child may be afraid to tell other adults about an abusive parent out of fear of retribution. An older adult may be unable to leave an emotionally abusive caretaker due to daily physical or medical needs.

Avoid becoming the victim of emotional abuse by being aware of the red flags. Examples of psychological abuse include:

  • Denying the victim access to money, food, sleep or other needs
  • Tightly controlling the victim’s social life or preventing the victim from leaving the house
  • Threatening to physically harm the victim or the victim’s loved ones or pet
  • Frequently making degrading or belittling comments toward the victim
  • Damaging the victim’s belongings

If you discover a friend or relative is the victim of emotional abuse, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. The National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma & Mental Health also offers resources and education for victims of emotional, sexual and physical abuse.

The Power of Positive Self-Talk

It takes years to heal the scars of psychological abuse. One technique that may help is called positive self-talk. It’s a simple therapy you can teach yourself to perform every day, and it costs nothing. Everyone engages in self-talk all the time—it’s often described as that “little voice” in your head, commenting on what you do and say. Positive self-talk is the practice of intentionally guiding that little voice to say things that are encouraging and empowering.

Victims of emotional abuse may be more prone to engage in negative self-talk, which perpetuates abuse long after the abuser is gone. When you catch yourself engaging in negative self-talk, stop and redirect the internal dialogue. For example, when you make a mistake, you may hear yourself saying something such as: “How could you make such a stupid mistake? Now everything’s ruined, and it’s your fault.” Instead, tell yourself: “That’s OK, everyone makes mistakes. It’s not a big deal.” It can feel silly or uncomfortable at first, but positive self-talk will become more automatic and effective over time.


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