Emotional abuse is a bit difficult to define as an absolute. While it is generally considered prevalent and rather common and people will have a good sense of what it is, the difficulty in putting a finger on exactly what it entails can be a challenge because it takes many forms. It is a form of violence that can happen to anyone at any time in their lives and can have devastating consequences on relationships, families, and anyone who may be involved.
By definition, emotional abuse is just that — an attack on someone’s emotional well-being. It is not a single instance where someone lashes out at another, but a series of attacks and demoralizing emotional indignities that wear away at the victim over time. It doesn’t lead to physical markings such as visible bruises, but the hurt and damage it can do are very real. It may be a precursor to other forms of abuse. The consequence is diminished identity and dignity of the victim(s).
As it is difficult to define, it is probably best to simply outline some of the forms it can take. These include gaslighting, intimidation, humiliation/criticism, confinement/isolation, verbal abuse, control, and assigning guilt or blame. The actions are chronic aggressions whose aim is to purposely belittle the victim. Many of the categorizations overlap or proceed in tandem.
As a result of continued stresses, the victim may react with various emotional responses such as depression, withdrawal, panic attacks and consideration of suicide. The over-riding sense that an emotionally abused person might feel are of helplessness and a loss of a normal sense of reality. This is the playland of narcissists and sociopaths who lack the sort of empathy that would keep them from such tactics of manipulation. An interesting twist to the assaults is that they often simply turn on and off to further the confusion, lack of consistency and raise fear.
Gaslighting is when an abuser purposely sets out to make a victim confused about or doubt what they know as reality. The perpetrator will act like known events never occurred and create situations which contradict beliefs. The over-all goal is demoralization and making the victim doubt their sanity by providing what are essentially alternative facts. The smoke screen becomes a haze through which the victim is eternally entrenched and doubts themselves and their own sensibility.
2. Intimidation/Verbal abuse/Bullying
Intimidation may cover a range of behaviors from personal threats, verbal admonishment, and use of vulgar language. Acts may include displays of rage meant to suggest physical violence. This intimidation and verbal abuse can likely overlap with humiliation and criticism. Abusers will belittle, trivialize victims and their accomplishments, and laugh at hopes and dreams.
An emotionally abusive person may resort to simple humiliations and criticism at every turn. The victim will be pronounced to be ugly, stupid, incapable of performing well or doing absolutely anything credibly well. The repetition is, again, systematically demoralizing, leaving the victim in a constant state of distress. Each new attempt to improve and show that the claims of incompetence are true is met with additional admonishment until the point where the victim assumes they are indeed incapable of doing anything correctly. The abuser will readily laugh at those around them, but cannot in any sense laugh at themselves.
An emotional abuser may push to isolate you from everything and everyone you know to become your lone liaison to the world. This may not include physical containment such as being locked in a room or a basement, but the result might be functionally the same. Friends will not be welcome to the house and the abused will feel the need to request permission to perform even common behaviors or risk repercussions.
An abuser will use many forms of controlling behaviors to keep the abused under their thumb. They might shut down by not talking, withholding physical relations, withholding finances (or access to them) and shunning any attempts to connect. They use elements of intimidation, bullying, criticism, and isolation to reprimand the abused and align the abused to desired behaviors.
6. Assigning guilt/Blame/Shaming
Abusers are quick to make excuses for their behavior and failures, usually by blaming someone or something else, and the target is most often the abused. Linking the abused can sometimes fall in the shadow of gaslighting where reality becomes quite distorted in order to make blame stick. It is a means of dismissing that the abuser is imperfect, and it is the environment that is responsible for every failing.
Emotional abusers become expert at removing passion, interest, and control from the lives of the abused to make them dependent, weak and reliant. The abuser swings in and out of moods and behaviors only to leave the abused more confused and never knowing what to expect. It is like poorly training a dog, and on the surface, the callousness and lack of empathy may seem like it is exactly that. In reality, the abuser is a deeply flawed and wounded personality that has retreated so much from their own flaws that they are in denial and fear of admitting that they are the ones who are broken.