Here is some key information about Emotional Abuse
What is Emotional abuse?
Emotional abuse is the act of systematically breaking down someone's self-esteem, sense of self and sense of reality through a variety of tactics, with the intent to exert control over the victim and relationship.
Emotional abuse tactics include but are not limited to:
•Silent treatment (stone-walling)
•Denial of abuse (gaslighting)
All tactics do not need to be present for the relationship to be emotionally abusive. Emotional abuse may also include elements of verbal, financial, sexual, physical or psychological abuse, such as threats of physical violence or sexually demeaning behaviour.
Emotional abuse is present in all abusive relationships
Emotional abuse is present in ALL abusive relationships. Someone wouldn’t stay in a physically abusive relationship, for example, without the effects of emotional and psychological abuse clouding their judgement and stripping their self-esteem to the bare minimum.
Financial and emotional abuse are also significantly intertwined. Financial abuse is commonly used within emotionally abusive tactics. The abuser will restrict the financial freedom of the victim by hiding or cutting up debit cards, limiting allowances, or even the abuser spends recklessly whilst denying the victim the right to spend any money. The abuser may also build up personal savings whilst denying the victim the right to any money other than for essentials.
Financial abuse creates a environment whereby the victim is trapped in the relationship. These restrictions are implemented through emotionally abusive tactics, such as cutting up the debit cards in a sudden rage of anger, or belittling the victim, saying they can’t handle the responsibility of managing the finances.
Emotional abuse can also be the only form of abuse within the relationship. Nonetheless, the effects of emotional abuse alone should not be minimised, as they can have a long-lasting and devastating impact on a victim's mental and emotional well-being, even leaving them feeling suicidal and often resulting in trauma.
The cycle of abuse
An abuser does not abuse all the time. It runs on a cycle. This is one of the points that feed into the confusion the victim feels about the relationship. The good times are often as extreme as the bad times, and this huge dichotomy in behaviour creates turmoil within the victim, whereby they cannot make sense of the love and abuse they feel. This cycle is a major causation of the trauma bonding that happens in abusive relationships.
The cycle of abuse also makes the victim grateful for any caring behaviour. Grateful just that the abuser isn’t being cruel or berating them that day, the victim will settle for crumbs of affection in the relationship. This will lower the self-worth of the victim, as the message is they are only worthy of these crumbs. Before long the abuse starts to build again, through no fault of the victim, but rather the goal and need of the abuser to exert dominance and control.
The phases of the cycle are:
Calm phase – This is where there is no abuse present and everything seems calm.
Tension phase – This is where the abuser is starting to become agitated and the victim can sense tension building. There is a sense of walking on eggshells. Behaviours such as criticisms, belittling, lying, berating, mocking, will start to show.
Abuse phase – There is an explosion of abuse. A sudden rage, yelling, shouting, threats, silent treatment. The victim will experience fight / flight / freeze during this episode.
Come down phase – I like to call this the ‘come down’ phase. The abuser will deny, minimise, trivialise, blame, gaslight, perhaps apologise in some form, for the abusive episode. The victim is in a state of confusion and will self-blame because of the tactics used by the abuser to avoid accountability. The cycle then re-enters the calm phase.
Self-care after abuse
There are some key aspects to self-care after abuse. Firstly, an element of abuse is isolation, so it is likely the victim will have been isolated from meaningful connections. There is also the chance that friendships, or even relationships with family members will have been damaged by the abuser’s ability to be able to get people on their side, so the victim may not feel they have a support network.
Survivors have spoken of how connecting with others who have experienced abuse can be invaluable, as this provides a sounding board to validate their own experiences. This can be done through local charities, or there are many online communities, such as The Personal Growth Project’s facebook and Instagram pages.
Many find growth and clarity through therapy. It is important to find a therapist you feel you have a connection with, and someone that understands emotional abuse and the abusive dynamic, otherwise the process can be retraumatising.
But a good therapist can be excellent for healing. There are many models of therapy; CBT, person-centred, psychodynamic, for example, as well as EMDR for trauma related therapy, so it may be good to do a little research on what would be a good fit. Or if that all feels too much, a good point of call would be the local abuse charity, who may provide counselling, or be able to suggest therapists with appropriate training.
In terms of the small steps that the individual can take, it is important to try and distance yourself from the negative internal messages that would have been instilled and provoked by the abuse. There is a need to take small steps in building self-worth and confidence.
A great way to do this is to start a new hobby, as learning a new skill gives a sense of achievement and pride. It can also be satisfying to ‘grow’ as a person after abuse, and to have an aspect of self that isn’t known to the abuser. Or if this is too difficult, setting goals like reading a new book or going for regular walks is another great way to feel achievement.
Another part of self-care is to give yourself ‘a little extra’… because you are worth it! So taking a long bath, relaxing in the garden with a good book, buying yourself something new. These small actions may create a lot of guilt at first but they will work to counter balance the internal messages of not being worthy, and begin to create a sense that your needs are also important.
Practicing mindfulness or breathing exercises to combat anxiety. Daily mindfulness can help to reduce the build up of anxiety. If you feel anxiety rising, then practicing breathing exercises can help to reduce the anxious episode.
One such would be to place your hand on your diaphragm, and to breathe slowly in and then slowly out, making sure your hand is rising and falling with each breath. A simple mantra can be spoken to help combat racing thoughts, such as ‘I am ok’, or ‘I am good enough’, or even just ‘ommm’. This helps to calm the anxiety as the physiological signals being sent to the brain are that everything is ok, as we breathe slowly when we are calm and there is no need to be anxious.