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Emotional Abuse

How Manipulators Prey on Your Emotions

... and the lasting scars emotional manipulation can leave.

Key points

  • Emotions can be a powerful tool for manipulators to use against you.
  • Emotional abuse creates long-term changes in victims.
  • There is hope for getting out of emotionally abusive situations.

Emotions are a powerful force. They can determine our thought patterns, if we allow them to, and in turn affect our behaviors—and this usually happens under the surface, far from our direct consciousness. The hidden nature of emotional reactions is where much of their power lies.

Have you ever interacted with someone who just seems to know what makes you tick, right from the start? They are able to explain your feelings better than you can, with little to no awareness of your background, and they seem to be able to predict how you will feel in certain situations. You may feel shocked at how well they get you, and while some people seem naturally inclined to such empathy, others may have learned the surface skill of appearing empathetic—and use it as a tool for manipulation.

Emotions are powerful

Manipulators are experts at understanding, and using, others’ emotions to get what they want. What more powerful way is there to subconsciously convince you to see things a certain way than emotional manipulation? In many ways, it is more insidious, long-lasting, and duplicitous than other forms of manipulation. It causes self-doubt and will drive you to question your own sense of reality.

Eventually, if you are submerged in an emotionally abusive pattern long enough, your emotions can actually adapt to it in the name of survival. You will emotionally respond as you have been trained to do so, in a sense; your feelings and perspective end up matching your abuser’s. This is the end game for emotional manipulators.

How emotional manipulation can change you

Researchers have long tried to answer whether manipulators are always conscious of their behaviors, or if some of those skills have been honed to the point that they use them without knowing. Regardless of an abuser’s level of self-awareness, for victims of emotional manipulation there is one solid truth: You will come out of it a changed person, and not always for the better.

Victims of emotional abuse will be forced to deal with paranoia, extreme difficulty trusting others, and significant anxiety. Patterns they have been exposed to in abusive relationships will color their future relationships, making it challenging for them to establish and maintain healthy interactions. Emotional abuse is a form of trauma, and trauma is well-established as a serious physical and mental health concern.

The number-one reason manipulators prey on your emotions is because that is the quickest and most efficient way to get what they want from you—and to maintain that relationship for the long run. If an abuser is able to worm into your emotional patterns and influence them, there is a much higher chance you will react the way they want. You will be more likely to question yourself, instead of them. You may eventually become accustomed to the self-doubt, which will make their game all the easier to run. And, since they won’t move on to the next victim easily, that very cycle of emotional instability and self-doubt can keep you firmly in their sights for a very long time.

What to do if you're a victim of emotional abuse

So, what is the answer for individuals who find themselves caught up in this devastating cycle? The first step is awareness. Stop simply reacting and start observing. Track the situations that are setting off those little alarm bells inside and pay attention to where they could be coming from. Is there potential that you’re overreacting? Is there something going on that maybe you’ve missed? Be meticulous and don’t be afraid to take a step back and dive into your thoughts, feelings, and reactions.

Once you become more skilled at noticing your emotions, and recognizing those that feel off to you in some way, you can take the next step of exploring the whys. Try to see each situation from a bigger perspective, run it by someone you trust (although for some people stuck in long-term abusive situations, there often is no one they can trust). If you have no one to talk to, and therapy is not an option, comfort yourself with the knowledge that at the end of the day, you are still strong enough to take the first step on your own. Help will eventually follow.

If an emotional abuse victim starts to grasp patterns in which they question their own reality, their emotional reactions feel out of place for them, or their instincts are telling them there’s something wrong, it’s time to stop and regroup. This is the moment to withdraw before reacting, to force yourself to become aware of maladaptive patterns and stop to think before engaging.

The fight of your life

Once victims are able to recognize emotional manipulation, and how it helps their manipulator to get what they want, it gives them a starting point to take back their own lives. This is not a short-term fight; it is an arduous, painful battle that will likely stay with you in some way for the rest of your life. Emotional abuse creates changes in its victims—physically, mentally, and emotionally—that can be recognized, treated, and adapted to but sometimes never completely disappear.

The positive side to understanding patterns of abuse is that you will eventually gain back your freedom. You will be empowered to understand your feelings and behaviors, which in turn gives you the chance to start choosing those reactions again. You will no longer be oblivious to the fact that someone else is pulling the strings behind your emotions.

The first steps of recovery from abuse can be some of the most painful, but there will be some relief—relief that you don’t always have to feel this way, relief that your alarm bells serve a purpose, and relief that you’re not imagining things. Although the battle will be demanding, you must be unrelenting in order to reach the other side.

Facebook image: novak.elcic/Shutterstock

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