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Emotional Abuse: Bruises on Your Sense-of-Self

IMAGE Jack is constantly criticizing his wife, Sally. One day he says she is too easy on their children. The next day she is not making enough money. Jack often promises to help with chores but rarely does. Recently, he told Sally that if she "cannot get her act together," he will leave her.

Susan often tells her aging father that he is too much work to take care of. She ignores him when he needs help. He apologizes for being a burden. She just rolls her eyes.

Many days when Joe gets home from work, he yells at his teenage daughter. He tells her that she will never get into college. He also tells her that she will never be thin enough to find a husband.

What do these threesituations have in common? They all involve emotional abuse.

Defining Emotional Abuse

Once in a whilepeople hurt or try to control another person. Emotional abuse is usually a pattern of behavior. Over time, one person hurts another person emotionally. The goal may be power and control over that person. It can also happen in a single traumatic event.

Emotional abuse involves doing and saying things to make someone feel badly about herself or himself. It often results in low self-esteem, fear, helplessness, and guilt.

Anyone can be a victim of emotional abuse. It can happen as:

  • Men hurting women
  • Parents hurting children
  • Women hurting men
  • Children hurting parents
  • People of the same gender hurting each other

Common Signs of Emotional Abuse

There are many signs of emotional abuse. Some are easier to see than others. Ask yourself if someone in your life:

  • Yells at you or orders you around
  • Insults you, calls you names, blames, or criticizes you
  • Makes fun of you in private or public
  • Withholds affection or ignores you
  • Tries to control your activities and contact with other people
  • Threatens to leave or hurt you or your children

Less obvious ways someone can abuse you include:

  • Denies abusing you
  • Makes hurtful remarks in a caring tone of voice
  • Judges you or denies your feelings
  • Twists your words and distorts their meaning
  • Breaks promises and then claims to have forgotten

Causes of Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse is not caused by drugs, alcohol, or stress. However, they are often used as excuses. Abusive behavior is usually learned. Abusers themselves may have low self-esteem.

The majority of abusers learned their behavior as a child. They may have witnessed abuse, or were abused themselves. In this environment, abusive behavior is viewed as normal. Another cause is a need for power and control.

Emotional vs. Physical Abuse

Emotional abuse can be hard to see. It is often ignored, denied, or seen as okay. As a result, it continues within a relationship. It also spreads from one generation to the next. Many abusers are good at hiding what they do. They often do not act out in public. This works in the abuser's favor. It appears that the victim is lying.

Emotional abuse does not always lead to physical abuse. However, emotional abuse is always present with physical abuse.

Getting Help

To change an abusive relationship you must first see the abuse and seek help. Also, accept that the abusive behavior is not your fault. You cannot change the abuser's behavior. However, you can do things to help yourself. The abuser must own up to his or her actions.

Therapy can provide the abuser with a chance to change. But for some, change is easier than for others.

Some do not realize that their actions are abusive. It may be easier for them to change. Others intend to abuse. For them, change is often very hard. Professional help is very important.

Seek counseling if you are being abused or abusing someone else. There are services for victims and abusers. See the organizations listed below.


Child Help USA, National Child Abuse Hotline

National Domestic Violence Hotline

Canadian Resources

Canadian Psychological Association

Healthy Canadians


Domestic violence and abuse. Helpguide website. Available at: Accessed June 28, 2021.

Effects of violence against women. Office on Women's Health website. Available at: Accessed June 28, 2021.

The elements of good therapy. Good Therapy website. Available at: Accessed June 28, 2021.

Warning signs of abuse. Center for Relationship Abuse Awareness website. Available at: Accessed June 28, 2021.

Who are the abusers? Domestic Violence website. Available at: Accessed June 28, 2021.

  • EBSCO Medical Review Board
  • 202106
  • 20210628