What is emotional abuse?
Emotional abuse is far more common than physical or sexual abuse.
Most emotional abuse is verbal. Racial slurs, insults, derogatory remarks and threats are blatant examples of explicit emotional abuse but much more commonly it is covert and hidden in more ordinary interpersonal exchanges. Much of the time the damage is done by tone of voice and verbal emphasis… for example comments made in a contemptuous or accusatory tone. Depending on the intensity and duration of the experience it is capable of creating damaging and lasting behavioral and attitudinal changes in the victim.
Overt and Covert verbal abuse
In explicit verbal abuse the anger, hatred or contempt are usually very evident. In covert emotional abuse the anger and hatred are muted or seem to be absent. Covert abuse is usually delivered without evident anger or yelling. The tone of voice may seem normal, but to those who listen closely, a trace of criticism or contempt can usually be heard. The motives which drive covert abuse tend to be the desire to manipulate, shame or punish the other.
Some of the more subtle forms of covert abuse include: “withholding”, “discounting”, “verbal abuse described as jokes”, “blocking and diverting”, “trivializing” and “undermining”. The perpetrator may communicate in ways which are vague, confusing or ambiguous. When the victim misunderstands or misinterprets these communications they are unfairly, but hurtfully, criticized or dismissed as being inattentive, lazy, selfish, stupid, uninformed etc..
Recognizing two VERY common types of emotional abuse
In verbal gaslighting, as in the 1944 movie of that name, the perpetrator attempts to make the victim doubt their own perceptions and judgements and accept those of the abuser. This may be done intentionally or unconsciously, but when the victim loses confidence in their own judgment they become easily swayed and accept the perpetrator’s point of view, plan or decision.
Since cumulative emotional trauma creates psychological damage much more often than single traumatic incidents, when gaslighting is repetitive and intense, overall mental health may be affected and growing self-doubt can lead to emotional breakdown or even suicide in the victim.
The Double Whammy
In the double whammy, two emotionally hurtful or insulting comments are made, separated by a communication (usually a protest) from the victim. The second abusive remark is typically an attack on the victim’s response. “Of course you would say that.. You always play the victim.” The first remark hurts and shames and the second invalidates the protest or denies the hurtfulness of the first comment:
“I was only kidding… you have no sense of humor”
“You are too sensitive”
The perpetrator’s second remark is often a form of gaslighting.
Ruined relationships, ruined lives
When these abusive tactics are experienced from childhood it is difficult to grow and develop into a confident, competent adult. Repeated undermining and derogation create pervasive feelings of lack of worth, hopelessness and depression which make effective and happy life more difficult.
These verbal attacks destabilize the victim creating lasting anxiety, shame, fear and guilt. In the long run these behaviors destroy trust, love, or collegiality between intimate or social partners.
How we learn it
North American men have often unwittingly been taught to use speech to dominate others. Sons learn it by watching their fathers and other male role models. Girls follow the examples of their mothers and other female models who, especially in the past, have tended to minimize, excuse, ignore or discount dominating abuse which is directed at them.
Feeling inferior, looking for help…
Most perpetrators and many victims are unaware, (or only partially or temporarily aware) that these interactions are abusive. When they are effective the victim may genuinely believe that their thinking or decision-making is inferior, incorrect or based on unacceptable premises. The feelings of incompetence, low self-esteem, anxiety, depression and hopelessness which lead many individuals to seek psychological help for their “weakness” often have deep roots in the early experience of emotional abuse.
An everyday occurrence
Sadly, since this subtle but hurtful form of abuse is part of out culturally sanctioned pattern of social interaction, most of us will do it at some time or another. When it is unconscious, unintentional or infrequent, it may be regarded as a “psychological defense” … an attempt to verbally control the other in order to feel sufficiently powerful or safe.
But since these behaviors are so ubiquitous it might be well if each of us examined our own behavior and resolved to purge these unfortunately common and hurtful verbal habits from our interactions. We must be less willing to silently tolerate emotional abuse and we need to be alert, aware and responsive when it is directed at us… or at others in our presence.