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17 Warning Signs of Emotional Abuse, According to a Former Therapist

In this article we are going to talk about the main signs of emotional abuse.

I’m sitting in the passenger seat of my car, and he’s driving. Every single word out of his mouth is a gut punch.

He’s used the hour drive to enumerate my faults of which there are, apparently, many.

It’s character assassination, but I have no words — only shock.

This person is supposed to love me.

He’s supposed to love me, and he thinks I am, deep down, a terrible person. He hasn’t stopped for a single second outlining all the reasons why.

Why the f*ck are you crying?

That’s what he asks when we finally reach our destination.

Then, he tells me I’m twisting what he’s said, that I’m too sensitive, and that he’s only telling me the truth because he loves me. 

I don’t know what to believe anymore. 

It would be nearly a year before I could get my head around the words “emotional abuse”.

I called him toxic. I called the relationship itself a toxic relationship.

But it took nearly a year to call it what it actually was — an emotionally abusive relationship. 

serious man surrounded by smoke

Signs of Emotional Abuse

It was hard to see myself as a victim of abuse. I’m a strong, independent, self-reliant woman. I am well-educated.

I used to be a licensed therapist.

And I didn’t see myself as the type of person who could end up in an abusive relationship. But until I could see it, until I could say it, I couldn’t heal from it.

If I’m honest, I’m writing this with my heart in my throat because I have personally experienced each and every one of these signs.

Let’s take a look at emotional abuse, some of the more subtle forms, and what we can do to heal from this traumatic experience.

Why listen to me? I was a master’s level licensed therapist. I worked with couples and families and specialized in trauma recovery and empowerment. I now write content about relationships and psychology. My work has been featured on Elite Daily, Your Tango, Positively Positive, Mamamia, and The Good Men Project.

1. They Make You Question Reality

One of the signs of emotional abuse is you start to question your own perception of reality.

Emotional abusers will gaslight us into thinking we’re crazy. It’s what they do.

They need us to question reality.

Did we really hear that? Are we overreacting? Did we take their words and twist them? Are we too broken to allow others to love us? Was it coercion or did I really want that to happen?

They have to control the narrative. They insist upon it.

And they cannot take any accountability for their behavior. They can only make us question our intuition, our thoughts, and our feelings.

If they can do that, they can get away with nearly anything.

2. They Manipulate You

The emotional abuser will use guilt, emotional blackmail, and any other manipulation technique to control our behavior.

We no longer feel free to be ourselves. Instead, our lives become what they dictate.

Our reactions are attuned to their actions. 

3. They Are Controlling

Possessive and jealous behavior are key factors in controlling us within the relationship. They want to know where we are, what we’re doing, and who we’re doing it with at all times.

They’ll even violate our privacy to keep tabs on us. 

My abuser insisted that I always answer calls and texts immediately even if I was working.

The healthier partner who followed the abusive one was able to see how I would react when I would miss a call — how triggered I would get, how I would launch into explanations, and the anxiety I experienced as a result. 

4. They Invalidate Your Feelings

Invalidating our feelings is a form of emotional abuse. Whatever we feel is valid — even if we’re overreacting.

We’re reacting to something even if it’s something from the past.

Someone who dismisses our feelings, makes fun of them, or tells us we’re not feeling the way we should is participating in emotional abuse. 

5. They Humiliate You

The time I hate talking about the most isn’t the character assassination I experienced. It’s the time I went grocery shopping with my former partner.

Every single item I picked up, he would humiliate me. It’s hard to describe now. I was paying for the groceries. And I wasn’t spending very much time in the store.

I was grabbing a few essentials on the way to get the thing we came in for, and every single purchase resulted in a litany of abuse.

Now I can’t even remember the words. But I remember the tone.

I remember the other people in the aisles turning to see who he was talking to like that.

And I remember being unable to make eye contact from the shame of it.

I remember the feeling of utter and complete humiliation.

I knew something was wrong, but no one stood up for me, and I didn’t — at that time — know how to stand up for myself.

6. They Isolate You from Others

Every time I answered a call from long-time friends, they heard his voice in the background complaining about the time I spent talking.

Emotional abusers will isolate us from the people who love and support us.

They do this because they crave our total, undivided attention, but they also do it because they know our loved ones will see what they’re up to and speak out. 

7. They Constantly Criticize You

You’re mean. He used to say it all the time. You’re a mean person. When asked to give examples, he would talk about my participation in social justice initiatives.

Standing up for the rights of others was something I was proud of. I didn’t see how it made me mean. 

It didn’t matter. Constant criticism is a common form of emotional abuse.

If we feel like we can’t do anything right, we may be the victim of it.

Someone who nitpicks every single flaw, fault, and mistake and reminds us of every single time we’ve ever messed up is being an emotional abuser.

8. They Undermine Your Self-Confidence

I was self-conscious about my weight after my second child.

I remember the first time I wore a bathing suit around the abuser. It stands out. I was on the beach.

We were with his friends, and he was quick to tell me that it made me look awful. It made me look fat. It was too revealing. 

I bought a new bathing suit while he told me he was just telling me the truth so that I wouldn’t embarrass myself — never mind that he was the one embarrassing me.

Undermining our self-confidence is a form of emotional abuse.

They may be doing this as a projection of their own low self-esteem, but it is absolutely abusive. 

9. They Use Sarcasm as a Weapon

If the razor edge of their sarcasm and humor hurts us, we’re experiencing emotional abuse masked as just kidding around.

The joke’s on us, though.

It always is. 

10. They Blame and Turn the Tables

One of the most common signs of emotional abuse is blame-shifting.

When confronted about their behavior, emotional abusers shift the blame to us and turn the tables.

We’re at fault. We’re responsible for the way they acted — at least, that’s what they want us to think.

They can’t admit to wrongdoing or lose control of the narrative. 

11. They Call You Names

Name-calling is never acceptable and always abusive.

Someone who will put us down, call us names, and insult us is a bully.

They aren’t someone showing us love, affection, respect, or consideration. 

12. They Withhold Affection

I love you. He always said it back — until the day he didn’t. He never said it again. This time, it was a different relationship.

One that seemed healthier. At least, it seemed healthy until he started withholding affection. I started noticing all the ways he began keeping himself at arm’s length.

Easily the worst of it was when I lost a close relative and asked for some emotional support only to meet with the wall of indifference.

He still couldn’t offer the affection I needed, and I couldn’t understand why it was being withheld. 

It would take even longer to realize that withholding affection in that way could be a sign of low self-esteem, but it’s also emotionally abusive.

People who care about us should be able to tell us so. They should be able to, at the very least, show it. When affection is removed, the relationship suffers. Ongoing withholding is a type of abuse. 

13. They Use the Silent Treatment

This is one of the worst signs of emotional abuse.

The silent treatment may seem commonplace, but it’s also abusive.

Ignoring someone, refusing to look at them or speak to them, or pretending they’re not there is a way that people emotionally abuse others. It’s not mature or healthy.

It’s a sign of poor communication, too.

14. They Love Bomb You

Love bombing is yet another way people emotionally abuse us.

They give us grand gestures, romantic interludes, affection, and attention until we’re wrapped around their little finger.

We emotionally invest in them, get attached, only to discover that they aren’t who they pretended to be.

We were simply manipulated into loving them

15. They Yell at You

Someone who is yelling at us is being an emotional abuser. When we grow up this way, we might normalize this behavior.

It’s not normal. It’s not healthy.

It is abusive.

Insist on respectful communication. If they can’t do this, they are being abusive.

16. They Invade Your Personal Space

When someone steps into our personal space during a disagreement or puts their hands on our bodies in a way that we don’t consent to, we’re experiencing the intimidation of emotional abuse.

While sometimes this behavior leads into physical or sexual violence, sometimes it’s enough to crowd our space in a form of emotional violence and intimidation.

17. They Commit Character Assassination

The emotional abuser will commit character assassination.

They will tell us that we are bad or wrong or mean or ugly. They will try to make us believe we are unworthy of love, kindness, or respect.

That we are somehow insufficient. 

Don’t you dare believe it.

Healing from Emotional Abuse

Healing from emotional abuse takes time. It’s a recovery process. Emotionally abusive relationships — romantic or otherwise — are traumatic.

We need to treat it as a trauma during the recovery process and also recognize the physical symptoms that come with emotional abuse.

We may experience fear, anxiety, depression, loss of concentration, nightmares, racing heart, panic attacks, insomnia, or even suicide ideation.

And we may also experience triggers that we didn’t have before the experience of being abused. 

  • We need to name what happened. It wasn’t just toxic. It was abusive.
  • We need to realize that it’s not our fault we were abused. 
  • We need to practice self-compassion.
  • We need to seek out trauma therapies like eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR).
  • We need to rebuild our social support.
  • We need to leave the relationship if we can do so safely.
  • We need to communicate honestly with friends and family in our lives.
  • We need to establish healthy boundaries for ourselves in all our relationships.
  • We need to insist on respectful treatment in relationships.
  • We need to call 1–800–799-SAFE (7233) if we need resources for leaving a domestic violence situation. 
  • We can hire a specialized coach in order to deal with the abusive person and leave the relationship.
  • We need to have a safety plan for leaving an unhealthy partner. Safety plans can include an extra phone, a contact person, an exit strategy for leaving, and even a reason to go to avoid suspicion. 
  • We need to practice regular self-care.
  • We need to allow time to grieve, heal, and recover from the experience.
  • We need to focus on saving ourselves first, not the abuser or the relationship.

Signs of Emotional Abuse – Final Thoughts

Being a victim of emotional violence was hard. It took a long time to get better. It took a long time to recover my self-esteem, self-trust, and even self-respect.

I know that I am not to blame.

If this is happening to you or has happened to you, you aren’t to blame either. 

Emotional violence may get dismissed as being less important or less painful than physical or sexual violence.

It doesn’t leave visible bruises or injuries, but it is just as scarring and can have detrimental lifelong effects if left untreated. 

Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

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