by Rosenblum LB

Emotional Abuse: Bruises on Your Sense-of-Self

IMAGE Jack is constantly criticizing his wife, Sally. One day he says she is too easy on their children. The next day she is not making enough money. Although Jack often promises to help with the housework, he rarely does. Recently, he told Sally that if she "cannot get her act together," he will leave her.
Susan often tells her elderly father with type 2 diabetes that he is too much work to take care of and does not respond when he needs help. When he apologizes for being a burden, she just gives him a sarcastic smile.
Many days when Joe gets home from work, he yells at his teenage daughter, saying that she will never get good enough grades to get into college or be thin enough to find a husband.
What do these 3 situations have in common? They all involve emotional abuse.

Defining Emotional Abuse

It is not uncommon for people to hurt or try to control another person once in a while. Emotional abuse is usually a pattern of behavior over time, in which one person hurts another person emotionally and maintains power and control over that person. It can also occur in a single traumatic event.
Emotional abuse involves doing and saying things that make the victim feel badly about herself or himself. Low self-esteem, worthlessness, fear, helplessness, and guilt are common results.
Anyone can be a victim of emotional abuse. It can occur as men hurting women, parents hurting children, women hurting men, children hurting parents, and between people of the same gender.

Common Signs of Emotional Abuse

There are many signs of emotional abuse, ranging from the obvious to subtle. Ask yourself if someone in your life does any of the following things:
  • Yells at you or orders you around
  • Insults you, calls you names, blames, or criticizes you
  • Makes fun of you in private or public
  • Withholds affection or ignores you
  • Tries to control your activities and contact with other people
  • Threatens to abandon or hurt you or your children
More subtle ways someone can emotionally abuse you include:
  • Denies abusing you
  • Makes hurtful remarks in a caring tone of voice
  • Judges you or denies your feelings
  • Twists your words and distorts their meaning
  • Breaks promises and then claims to have forgotten

Causes of Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse is not caused by drugs, alcohol, or stress, but they are often used as excuses. Although some researchers think that certain people may be biologically inclined to be aggressive, in most cases abusive behavior is learned. Often, abusers themselves have low self-esteem.
The majority of abusers learned their behavior as a child. They may have witnessed abuse, or were abused themselves. In this environment, abusive behavior is normalized. Other causes may include feeding an abuser's sense of power and the need to control every aspect of someone's life.

Emotional vs. Physical Abuse

Because emotional abuse can be hard to see, it often goes unrecognized. When it is recognized, it is often ignored, denied, or considered acceptable behavior. As a result, it often continues within a relationship and from one generation to the next. Many abusers are good at hiding what they do and often do not act out in public. This works in the abuser's favor because it appears the victim is exaggerating or lying.
Emotional abuse may not necessarily lead to physical abuse. They are 2 different types of behavior that have similar results and causes. However, emotional abuse is always present with physical abuse.

Getting Help

The first step in changing an abusive relationship is to recognize that abuse is occurring and seek help. You need to accept that the abusive behavior is not your fault and that you cannot change the abuser's behavior but you can do things to help yourself. The abuser must take responsibility for his or her actions.
Therapy can provide the abuser with opportunity to change. But for some, change comes easier than for others.
Unlike with abusers who do not recognize their actions as abuse, change for intentional abusers is often a very hard and slow process, in which professional help is crucial.
Whether you are being abused or abusing someone else, you can get counseling and help in deciding whether or not to stay in the abusive situation. There are services specifically for victims and abusers. See the organizations listed below.


Child Help USA, National Child Abuse Hotline
National Domestic Violence Hotline


Canadian Psychological Association
Healthy Canadians


Domestic violence and abuse. Helpguide website. Available at: Updated April 2017. Accessed May 4, 2017.
The elements of good therapy. Good Therapy website. Available at: Updated July 16, 2015. Accessed May 4, 2017.
Violence against women. Office on Women's Health website. Available at: Updated September 30, 2015. Accessed May 4, 2017.
Warning signs of abuse. Center for Relationship Abuse Awareness website. Available at: Accessed May 4, 2017.
Who are the abusers? Domestic Violence website. Available at: Accessed May 4, 2017.

Revision Information

Health Library Search

Only show results from the selected categories.

2 The Importance of Fathers lifestyle - mental health

A good father (or father figure) can be just as important to a child’s development as a good mother. So, if you think you’re not important in your child’s life, here’s so...

3 Adjustment Concerns With Adopted Adolescents lifestyle - kids' & teens' health

Will being adopted make adolescence more difficult for your child? Studies on the psychological well being of adopted adolescents have conflicting results. But experts ag...

Sex may be the furthest thing from your mind after the baby is born, but desire does come back eventually. Here is how to reintroduce love, sex, and romance into your liv...

5 Big Stresses for Small People lifestyle - kids' & teens' health

The sudden loss of a loved one can be one of the most painful and difficult things to go through. But, the experts say, there is no one correct way to grieve....

7 Battered Men: The Painful Truth lifestyle - men's health

Domestic violence against men perpetrated by female partners is more common than most people think. Read here to find out how battered men can find help....