The Damaging Effects of Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse is the intentional devaluing of one person by another.

Posted Nov 02, 2020

BigStockPhoto/Sam Wordley
Woman suffering from emotional abuse.
Source: BigStockPhoto/Sam Wordley

There is an old children’s rhyme that says, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” And it’s a lie.

Words can have a devastating impact. They cause people to believe the lies that are unfairly or unjustly spoken to them. 

Emotional abuse is the intentional devaluing of one person by another in order to elevate themselves. Emotional abuse and its negative messages are false; they keep you from finding and understanding the truth of who you are. Emotional abuse takes different forms, but they all have the same destructive impact. 

It’s the mother who yells in frustration at her son, “Why can’t you be more like your sister?” It’s the sibling who regularly smirks, “Why would I want to be with you?” It’s the wife who tells her husband, “I could have done so much better than you!” 

Emotional abuse can come in the form of a one-time, traumatic event. However, it is more often perpetrated over time as a consistent pattern of one person treating another person unfairly and unjustly, while placing blame on the one being abused. 

Through the years, I’ve seen more than I’ve wanted to of physical and sexual abuse. The most common form of abuse, though, is emotional abuse. While physical and sexual abuse are always accompanied by emotional abuse, emotional abuse can also happen when neither physical nor sexual abuse is present.

And, in the absence of those other forms of abuse, some people may doubt that true abusive behavior has taken place. After all, there is no black eye or bruising to see as evidence of an attack. The damage done, however, is real and devastating. 

Some people were taught as children to “just get over it” or “move on” from harsh words or actions, but they weren’t really told how to do that. Neither were they told how truly damaging those harsh words could be. So those children were left hurting, and years or decades later, they feel embarrassed when they find themselves unable to just get over it and move on. 

While physical and sexual abuse can be more visible and considered to be more severe, emotional abuse also has long-term and damaging effects. Because it isn’t easily seen, it isn’t easily acknowledged. And if emotional abuse can be difficult to acknowledge, then it can also be difficult to recognize.

How do you know what you remember was truly abusive? How do you know if a current relationship is an emotionally abusive one? Making this determination isn’t always easy, because if you grew up with emotional abuse present, that abuse may have taken on a sense of normalcy. You didn’t view what you experienced in the past as unusual or “wrong,” so what’s happening now seems normal. 

You may not be the best judge where emotional abuse is concerned, but you are really the only judge. None of us have perfect relationships, and all of us have experienced or engaged in saying or doing harmful things in anger, frustration, fatigue, or just plain meanness. But if those things were part of a pattern, if they were used to belittle, devalue, shame, and ultimately control another person, they were abusive. Even if they were subtle or framed in a way that seemed helpful, “for your own good,” they were still abusive. Those negative messages, often from people you looked to for love and guidance, become ingrained in who you are as a person. Removing them can seem like painfully peeling off parts of yourself, and this is a hard reality to face. 

As difficult as it is to admit you’ve been emotionally abused, it may be even harder to admit that you’ve been emotionally abusive. The denial factor is significant. Sometimes, an abuser will be aware of what they are doing, but sometimes they won’t, especially if the abuse seems normal to them.

Tragically, as is often the case with other forms of abuse, emotional abusers may have a history of being abused themselves. Because the abuse is viewed as normal, it is perpetuated. This denial sets up an unacceptable cycle of being abused and then becoming abusive.