Reclaiming Your Voice: Saying No to Emotional Abuse

Rear view of a person on swing over the oceanThe term “domestic violence” is an umbrella term that encompasses so much more than just physical violence. It involves a pattern of manipulative behaviors meant to control and maintain power over another individual, and it can happen in any type of relationship. While physical and sexual abuse are the most obvious forms of violence, emotional abuse—often referred to as “invisible wounding”—is something many people encounter, whether in childhood or as an adult, and its effects can be every bit as damaging.

Working in the domestic violence department at a local counseling agency, I frequently encountered individuals who were not sure they “deserved” to be seeking services. Many came in at the urgings of friends or family members, but because they had no bruises, broken bones, or black eyes to show, they timidly questioned whether they were in the right place for the right reasons.

When I teach tools for building self-esteem, I talk a lot about how we all have a little voice in the back of our heads, feeding us messages all day long. That voice is often referred to as “self-talk” and it plays a huge role in how you feel about yourself; however, as one of my recent workshop participants pointed out, that voice may not always feel like your own. Sometimes the messages we repeat in our own thoughts echo the voices and messages we’ve heard from significant figures in our lives, be it a parent, sibling, teacher, partner, spouse, or other individual.

Over time, the negative, hurtful, or discouraging messages we hear from others get internalized and may cause us to doubt our abilities or value. While some harmful messages are well-intended—for example, a parent focusing on why you got a B instead of an A on a test—others are downright mean, shaming, and belittling. They keep us trapped in a place of self-doubt, holding us back from living up to our full potential.

Eventually, emotional abuse takes a toll on your happiness, self-esteem, and ability to trust in yourself. These consequences of emotional abuse can be just as painful and detrimental as a physical blow.

Bullies and individuals who are abusive or narcissistic may intentionally put you down in their attempts to make themselves feel more powerful. This type of emotional abuse tends to happen so gradually and subtly over time that a victim may not even recognize the behavior as abusive until they are stuck in a seemingly hopeless position. Eventually, emotional abuse takes a toll on your happiness, self-esteem, and ability to trust in yourself. These consequences of emotional abuse can be just as painful and detrimental as a physical blow.

Emotional abuse can wreak havoc on a person’s sense of identity and well-being. It can involve verbal abuse—put-downs and name-calling—and any form of belittling or humiliation. Emotional abuse can also include mind games and attempts to make another person feel guilty or at fault via unwarranted jealousy or something called “gaslighting”—manipulating somebody into doubting themselves.

Emotional abuse may also involve making threats—to leave, take away the children, cause physical harm, cut off financial support, or go through with suicide—and can leave an individual feeling isolated as the abusive person attempts to control who the victim sees and talks to. Coupled with the blaming, denial, and minimization that an abusive person may display, these behaviors can make it extremely hard for somebody in an emotionally abusive situation to maintain the confidence and sense of self-worth that is paramount to leading a healthy and fulfilling life.

Recovering from Emotional Abuse

The damage from emotional abuse can be profound and the scars run deep; however, it is possible to take back control of your life. Doing so takes courage and determination. It involves beginning to believe in your worth and starting to let go of the disparaging commentary you’ve incorporated into your inner dialogue. As you gain self-acceptance, you may be better able to stand up for yourself, be assertive, and set healthy boundaries.

If you have been affected by emotional abuse, I encourage you to seek help from an experienced therapist to work through the lingering hurt and trauma as you reclaim your voice. Be advised that while the long-term benefits of standing up to emotional abuse are worthwhile, the short-term setbacks may seem insurmountable. Because an abusive person typically seeks to maintain power and control, your attempts to begin standing up for yourself may be met with resistance and an even greater attempt to break your spirit down. But don’t let this hold you back.

Imagine a balancing scale: As you become healthier and begin standing up for yourself you gain back some control, evening the scale and causing the abusive person to lose some sense of power. The abusive person may increase the attempts to control you in order to raise their end of the scale back up and push your end farther down.

Be aware that these attempts may result in an escalation of abusive behaviors. Where there is emotional abuse, there is an increased risk of potential physical violence, so if you feel unsafe it is especially important to get support in your journey to heal and become empowered. As you learn methods to stay safe and increase self-esteem, you can begin to renounce the negative messages thrown your way and instead acquire your own voice of self-acceptance. With time and effort, you will be able to maintain your position in that balancing scale, sending the message that you will not tolerate being emotionally abused.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Megan MacCutcheon, LPC, therapist in Vienna, Virginia

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Kelley

    July 7th, 2016 at 12:05 PM

    The hardest thing about emotional abuse is that all of the scars and the wounds are on the inside. No one sees the pain that you have to endure because this abuser, he is a sneaky one, and inflicts pain so that only you can feel it, but it takes a very long time before all of that begins to show on the outside. Bu then, by the time all of that pain becomes apparent and visible to another person, you are so worn down that you don’t ever know how to escape the cycle.

  • scottie

    July 8th, 2016 at 10:37 AM

    Until you have lived through an experience like this you have no idea just how much of yourself you lose to your abuser when they are emotionally abusive toward you.
    You lose any sense of who you really are and you somehow lose your ability to stand up for yourself too.
    They will tear you down bit by bit, if only to make themselves for whatever reasons feel better about themselves.

  • Marcia

    July 9th, 2016 at 8:55 AM

    With any abuse case the victim/ survivor has to be the one to finally say enough is enough and be willing to walk away. No matter how much we may want to do it for them, until they are ready there is no real way to even begin helping them break away and seek out some help.

  • Nathan

    July 10th, 2016 at 1:52 PM

    I am not proud to say but this is how I saw my own dad with my mother so for a long time this is what I believed that a marriage should look like, belittling the other person until you simply get your way. My wife gave me a real wake up call when she left, and pretty much left me to figure out that no, when you love someone this is not how you treat them.
    Did I have the ability to change overnight? No because this is the kind of thing that I grew up around my whole life. It has taken a lot of work for me to even get to the point where I can admit that I failed as a husband and as a father. But I am working very hard to get back what i have lost and to become a better person now.

  • Megan MacCutcheon, LPC

    Megan MacCutcheon, LPC

    July 11th, 2016 at 4:50 AM

    Nathan, it’s so nice to hear from you and to hear your perspective. Because yes, the abusive partner isn’t always a horrible person. Often these patterns are passed down for generations and are so engrained in one’s sense of what’s normal. However, many abusers aren’t able to have insight into this and aren’t willing to take the steps toward change so I give you a lot of credit. Thanks for the courage in sharing!

  • Jade

    October 14th, 2016 at 10:32 AM

    Good for you, Nathan. Wish I could say same for my ex, whom I left a year and a half ago after 25 years of marriage. Divorce final in July. He escalated things and became *more* hard core & stern after I left instead of the (somewhat) hoped for calming down & taking me seriously and working to change. That’s when I truly realized it was over — when he thought threatening me would somehow make me want to come back. Worst part: SO many years used up. I’m now a 57 year old woman who (statistically & according to laws of probability) isn’t likely to find a good spouse and surely won’t have the opportunity to be a new mom again in a *truly* loving relationship. (Our only son was adopted when we learned I couldn’t have children.)

  • Nathan

    July 11th, 2016 at 9:44 AM

    Thanks for the encouragement Megan. It’s a process, that’s for sure, but I know that I need to continue.

  • Kaye

    July 14th, 2016 at 2:13 PM

    You might have your suspicions about the grief that someone feels at home with their partner but I would encourage them to try to talk about it and to admit that there is a problem at home.
    I know that there are many people who feel like no one will believe them or think that what they are feeling is real, but you have to let them know that you see that pain and emotional problem that they are feeling and that you will always be there to support them.

  • Carla

    July 15th, 2016 at 1:11 AM

    I had a realisation long after the emotional abuse stopped: the messages I heard as a child I had adopted for myself. The ultimate way for me to heal was by loving that little child in me that felt so badly done by, and at other times so stoic, and heal those voices inside of me.

  • milt

    July 17th, 2016 at 8:11 AM

    I see my daughter going through this but it feels as if our hands are tied, not knowing how to help.

  • Ola

    July 20th, 2016 at 4:16 PM

    I have been in four year marriage to an emotionally abusive husband and his family. 4months ago I filed for divorce. There is a lot of detail in between and gaining the strength was not easy. We have a 3 year old daughter together. Although we are going through divorce he is still trying to control and manipulate me in every way possible.
    I too had parents who seen it but never said anything it was hard for them and I know they tried. There has been times I wished they told me what they seen as I had no self value to see it myself. But I also know I might not have believed them and take his side. I think you really do need to be there for your daughter. I know it may break your heart to see her hurt but she needs to know she’s not alone. Her partner might try to isolate her like mine did and feeling lonely in that isolation was even more destructive and disempowering. No matter what be there and try to send gentle messages how you value her. One day you will see a window of opportunity for her to get out. I did and it’s liberating.

  • Jade

    October 14th, 2016 at 10:49 AM

    At least your parents see and acknowledge that there’s something wrong. My parents a one brother kept thinking, saying something was wrong with *me* & sometimes they still do. Now that the divorce is final they’ve settled down, but they still “don’t want to take sides.” This makes recovery even harder.

  • Sam

    July 26th, 2016 at 3:10 AM

    After many years of emotional torture. I finally plucked up the courage to leave my wife. We were together for 26years. I just said I would no longer tolerate the way she was treating me. No physical violence, but my delivery was poor lots of bad language on my behalf. 3 days later she had me scheduled to a mental health facility. Nearly 5 years later I have finally divorced and reached financial settlement. But now continues to try and control me by threatening access to the kids because of my Bi-Polar Diagnosis. It has been a wild ride but no regrets looking forward to the future. The amazing thing is in Physical assault the offender is locked up. But in Pshycological abuse all to often the victim is branded with a diagnosis.

  • Jade

    February 1st, 2017 at 9:17 AM

    Yep. Similar story here. Ex has gotten my parents to believe I’m fragile mentally ill. Well, yes, BECAUSE I WAS LIVING WITH HIM FOR 25 YEARS!

  • Sandra M

    January 30th, 2017 at 1:18 PM

    Thankful to have come across this site. I don’t feel so alone or crazy. Wish it was a Canadian site 😥

  • The GoodTherapy.org Team

    January 30th, 2017 at 5:42 PM

    Hi Sandra,
    So glad GoodTherapy.org is helpful to you! We do list many therapists in Canada, if you are looking for a mental health professional. Try our international search here: http://www.goodtherapy.org/international-search.html

    Wishing you all the best. ♥

  • Abby

    February 16th, 2017 at 7:53 PM

    I wish I could handle the emotional abuse from the person to whom I’m married and since lost everything, better. Now that I have been totally bedridden for five years it is even worse as he knows I cannot do anything about it and it just hurts worse than it has. After 12 years I am at wit’s end trying to find a new method to not letting it get under my skin. A good thing is that I only have to see him about an hour or two a week, but now, my room/clothing/bedding, etc. is filthy and I get spoiled food to eat several times a week along with more frequent name calling. Tried to change my name to what he calls me (c#%!) to justify the name, but was told that I cannot change it to profanity–oh well. Just another worthless effort of mine.

    I am fairly used to emotional abuse, my mother started me off on it from the first minute I can remember (which was around 1958, 2 years-old, then told my mom that big girls don’t need cribs, lost my naps after that). Nap times were always the best because she would leave me alone for a couple of hours and I could imagine, fiddle my thumbs, or otherwise amuse myself. Seems like there is a huge, flashing neon sign over my head that reads…sucker that I can’t see.

    I was very comfortable after my injury living by myself and I feel so stupid that I got conned into this from his hoard of lies. Then, his kids got dumped on me, for 6 years, every school year until graduation, and he was rarely home. That caused a severe decline in my health because I was not taking care of myself coupled with the day I was trapped in the house fire with no way but to crawl out into the snow in my nightgown leaving my wheelchair behind because there was too much junk to open the door all the way. Then out of nowhere, he had no job, for 3 1/2 years–that of course, was my fault too. He refused to work in any available job just took my disability checks for himself and I had to do without adequate medical care and could only use about half my regular medication to stretch it out. When we lost the house, we moved into my old RV, but he walked on the roof for whatever reason, so it then leaked on my bed whenever it rained or snowed. But it was dry up front for him and he never did any maintenance, so there was no hot water, etc., and it died very quickly (within 2 months of moving in it stopped running–we stayed nearly a year in there–well I did, he could go to his dad’s house whenever he wanted–using my car, leaving me stranded…again). I considered myself pretty lucky though to not have to sleep in the park or where ever and had, mostly, a roof over my head. I finally asked a very well connected and important political friend for help with getting him a job that he would take and that actually happened. So we moved into an apartment. But, it was 4 hours away from home, so I’ve been separated from everyone I know and certainly cannot make any friends here. I’m like in solitary confinement. He then took my car (the one I bought before we married) and stood over me until I signed it over to him and then he traded it in for an expensive car of his own, so I have nothing but my wheelchair now which does not get me too far. I am fairly unfamiliar with the town we live in since I get out only for the doctor appointments that he pre-approves. He refuses to allow me to see a counselor for any reason, and says he is a counselor (he is not, not even halfway close) and there is nothing amiss in this relationship except my bi&^%ing. I only really get one meal a day, if it is one of his days off and he is willing to give me a second meal I might get something edible–this morning was rancid bacon, so I typically only eat once a day about 600 calories. I try to make sure that I have cereal, cheese, chips, pudding or something from dinner left over to keep in my little fridge (an argument I won) since I have to eat everything cold. I cannot be up for long enough to microwave anything or even make a sandwich as my back and neck has no strength left to hold me up. I get about four steps and then I am down on the floor for the day–he sometimes helps me get up when he finally comes home, but more often he doesn’t. I have a couple serious health concerns that I have to say in front on him, that I hope I die soon or I will get yelled at if I ask to have the recommended treatment, like physical therapy from my neurologist and/or medication from my oncologist. Last year he made me co-sign on the house loan that he wanted because I have no choices left and I am certainly not allowed an opinion. I am allowed to have a computer though so email must suffice, its just not the same as a hug once in a while (although he will sometimes check my history so I stay incognito when online and do not use a known email address or screen name.) I am here quite often and finally decided to say something so maybe someone can give me some ideas/tips on tolerance. There are a couple really mean things I could do to him but, I cannot make myself harm anyone, so they are not even viable options. I even question if divorce is feasible since I would then need a caregiver and I will not live in a nursing home that I do not really need when all I need is help for meals and some housekeeping, I just cannot afford it on my $700 a month and without his private insurance, my ability to obtain health care would be even more compromised, especially with the latest updates on the table. I can manage being alone for long periods of time, I’ve had 60 years practice, but getting meals and to appointments, that’s the real challenge.

    Sorry if I offend anyone sounding like such a whiner, I just really want to be able to handle the hurt better or be able to just ignore it so I can at least exist with a roof over my head until I do die.

  • The GoodTherapy.org Team

    February 17th, 2017 at 2:57 PM

    Dear Abby,
    Thank you so much for your comment. We wanted to reach out to you and give you some resources that may help in your situation. First, if you are ever in immediate danger of being hurt or of hurting yourself, it is very important you seek help immediately. You can call 911 or your local law enforcement any time of day or night. We have more information about emotional abuse at http://www.goodtherapy.org/therapy-for-emotional-abuse.html and additional information about what to do in a crisis at http://www.goodtherapy.org/in-crisis.html.

    You can search for a therapist near you, or a therapist who can do home visits or remote appointments, here: http://www.goodtherapy.org/find-therapist.html

    Please know there is hope, and help is available. We are thinking of you and wishing you the very best!
    Kind regards,
    The GoodTherapy.org Team

  • Sam

    May 24th, 2017 at 2:21 PM

    I have recently after 5 years been able to find the strength to end my abusive relationship. Fortunately I had good friends and family who always supported me even when I continued to return to the relationship. It’s early days but I have done things very differently this time. I’ve been referred to specialist and have blocked all contact which is something I have not been able to do through fear.
    Emotional abuse is so hard to share as it’s minimised by some. It would show on me at different times. I’d loose weight quickly, couldn’t sleep, have to come off Facebook. It’s like being sucked of energy and life, treading on egg shells, trying to predict the next steps to prevent any hassle, but that’s easier said than done.
    All I can say is confind in someone you trust and listen to their comments and let them help you take the next steps.
    Dig deep and find strength as it isn’t you that is mental or paranoid!

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