How to Recognize Emotional Abuse

Medically reviewed by: Shane Trujillo, EdM
Tuesday, March 28

Confusion, fear, difficulty concentrating, low confidence. These are just a few symptoms that can be caused by emotional abuse in a relationship. The effects of emotional abuse are just as detrimental as the effects of physical abuse and should be taken just as seriously. 

For anyone experiencing emotional abuse in a relationship, it’s important to know you’re not alone. Support is available to help you leave an emotionally abusive relationship and recover.  

The first step toward recovery is to recognize that you’re in an emotionally abusive relationship. These signs aren’t always as clear-cut as signs of physical abuse. That’s why we’re sharing what to look out for to help you recognize emotional abuse, and what you can do to get help. 

The signs of emotional abuse and how to recognize them

Emotional abuse is a pattern of behavior in which a person insults, humiliates, and instills fear in another person in order to control them. They do this through manipulating, isolating, demeaning, and threatening their victims. 

Most people relate emotional abuse to something that happens in a romantic relationship. But the truth is it can happen in any type of relationship — including parental relationships, professional relationships, and friendships. Emotional abuse can also happen to anyone — including women, men, members of the LGBTQIA+ community, adolescents, and children. Here’s what to watch for.  

Signs of emotional abuse

To those on the outside, signs of emotional abuse may be obvious. But when you’re in an emotionally abusive relationship, it’s not always as easy to recognize harmful behaviors. This is because abusers are extremely good at manipulation and often lead their victims to believe their unhappiness in the relationship is their own fault. 

To help you recognize signs of emotional abuse, there are a few common patterns and behaviors to look out for. According to Psychology Today, emotional abusers may:  

  • Monitor and control your behavior
  • Threaten your safety, property, or loved ones
  • Isolate you from others
  • Demean, shame, or humiliate you 
  • Be extremely jealous and may not allow you to spend time alone 
  • Frequently criticize, ridicule, or tease you 
  • Prevent you from reaching goals (professional or personal) 
  • Cause you to doubt yourself and feel worthless
  • Blame you for the way they treat you or for how you feel 
  • Gaslight you (make you question your competence, perceptions, and reality) 

In addition, you may have difficulty concentrating, low self-esteem, nightmares, aches, or a racing heart as a result of being emotionally abused. 

The difference between normal relationship struggles and emotional abuse

Many relationships, especially romantic ones, go through difficult times. You or your partner/friend/loved one may say something hurtful in the heat of the moment when struggling to express your feelings or point of view. This can happen during arguments and is a normal part of communication challenges in relationships. 

What’s not normal is when hurtful words, judgment, and criticisms are repeatedly used beyond a misunderstanding or a disconnect between two people. Instead, these behaviors are intended to demean you and lessen your feelings of self-worth in an effort to control you. They may also leave you feeling afraid and confused. 

What to do if you think you’re being emotionally abused

Seeking help to get out of an emotionally abusive relationship takes a lot of courage and strength. It’s not as simple as “just leaving”. It may be dangerous to leave, or you may feel your abuser can change and be better. You may not have the confidence to feel like you can be ok without your abuser. It’s normal to feel these fears when you’ve experienced emotional abuse. Leaving and recovering from emotional abuse, however, is possible. 

It’s important to recognize that you’re not alone and that experiencing emotional abuse isn’t your fault. Talking to family or friends who you trust and feel can support you might be a comfortable first step toward separating yourself from an emotionally abusive relationship. Seeking therapy is another way to get support and professional care to help you end the relationship and recover.

If you feel you’re in danger, connect with a local shelter or call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233

Overcoming emotional abuse: benefits of talk therapy

Seeking professional help is important to helping you recognize and recover from the effects of emotional abuse. Connecting to a therapist who specializes in helping emotional abuse victims can help ensure you’re getting the help you need. If you’re ready to connect to a therapist, SonderMind can help find someone who’s right for you. 

What to expect in therapy

In your first session with your therapist, you likely fill out questionnaires so your therapist can better understand your background, symptoms, and if you’re in danger. If you decide this therapist is the right fit for you after this initial session, you’ll then discuss therapy approaches that may be best to help you recover. These may include:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT helps you attain safety and reduce trauma/post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms, and substance misuse
  • STAIR (Skills Training in Affective and Interpersonal Regulation): STAIR is an evidence-based skills-focused CBT for PTSD treatment and is primarily focused on reframing thoughts that have emerged as a result of a traumatic experiences such as emotional abuse 
  • Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT): CPT helps reduce PTSD and depression symptoms following emotional abuse 

Therapy can help you in future relationships

Along with helping you attain safety, process your feelings, build up your confidence, and ultimately leave an emotionally abusive relationship, therapy can also help you build the skills you need to have healthy relationships in the future. Your therapist can help you better identify early signs of emotional abuse so you can avoid it in the future, while also helping you learn how to set healthy boundaries and communicate your needs in a relationship.  

You’re not alone

If you feel you may be in an emotionally abusive relationship, know that you don’t have to stay. Help is available to get you to safety, protect your well-being, and help you recover from the consequences of emotional abuse. If you feel you’re in danger, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. 

If you’re not in danger and are ready to seek support to leave and recover from an emotionally abusive relationship, SonderMind can connect you with a therapist who’s right for you. 

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