7 Damaging Effects Of Emotional Abuse
Have you — or has someone you love — suffered from an abusive relationship?
Even if that relationship is now over, you may still be living with the long term effects of emotional abuse. The relief that comes of no longer being subject to abusive treatment doesn’t erase its impact on your psychological well-being.
A Canadian study involving 1,000 women aged 15 and up resulted in the following statistics:
- 35% of the women had experienced emotional abuse growing up
- 43% had suffered some form of abuse as children or adolescents
- 39% had experienced emotional abuse in a relationship within the past 5 year
Whatever you’ve been through with an abusive spouse, partner, relative, or friend, you have a right to call the abuse what it is, to fight for your independence, and to experience healing.
And your awareness is the first step toward learning how to recover from emotional abuse.
You may not even realize that what you suffered in that relationship amounts to emotional abuse. The word “abuse” usually brings to mind images of bruised and battered women and children, too scared of or still too attached to the abuser to get away.
But emotional abusers don’t have to touch you to leave scars. Their words and other behaviors can become your mental prison, and it’s not an easy one to escape.
If someone in your life is (or was) doing the following to you on a regular basis, you probably have intimate knowledge of the effects of emotional abuse:
- Criticizing you constantly (your behavior, performance, appearance, etc.)
- Humiliating you at home and in public
- Blaming you when you bring up something they’ve done to hurt you
- Stonewalling or using the silent treatment
- Threatening to hurt you or someone you love (or themselves) if you don’t do what they want
- Controlling your finances and using money to control and manipulate you
- Discouraging you from going out — to spend time with others or to go to work, school, or other commitments — so you’ll stay home and do what they want
This isn’t an exhaustive list. Simply put, if there is a consistent imbalance of power in your relationship — in favor of the other person — when you should be treating each other with mutual respect and consideration, there’s a problem.
Just because you don’t have bruises or scars to hide doesn’t mean you’re not suffering from abuse. The effects of mental abuse aren’t obvious, especially in the early stages, but they go deep. And they affect every relationship you have.
Spousal Emotional Abuse
There’s another thing to consider when addressing emotional abuse: abusers don’t usually start out as torturers.
In the case of spousal emotional abuse, they may take an unusual interest in “keeping you safe” and making sure you don’t make mistakes or take unnecessary risks.
They take on a parental role that, at first, may seem caring and committed to your best interests. They see threats that you don’t, and if you didn’t feel protected enough (or interesting enough) to the people you trusted while growing up, their protectiveness may make you feel loved.
But once they’ve got you, they seize more and more control, eroding your self-confidence and expecting your compliance in every decision they make — and punishing you when you try to reclaim your independence.
Quick note: Are you feeling drained and worn down from living with a verbal abuser? Check out this resource that can help you discover all the signs of emotional abuse.
7 Damaging Effects of Emotional Abuse
You may not experience all the effects of covert abuse listed here, but at least some of them should sound familiar.
This is your body’s way of protecting you from the pain inflicted by long-term emotional abuse. You don’t feel good, but you don’t feel bad, either; you feel nothing because it’s safer.
Underneath it all, though, the trauma is still there. Once you face that and acknowledge that you’re suffering — and that your pain is a reasonable response to abusive language and behavior — you can begin to work toward your liberation and healing.
You need a safe space to acknowledge those buried feelings, to honor yourself by deciding on necessary action (i.e., to get away from the abuser), and to allow yourself to feel the pain of loss: the loss of what you thought you had or what you wanted to have with the abuser.
That pain can still be there in the midst of the relief that comes from finally freeing yourself from the abusive relationship. It may take some time before you feel safe enough to feel anything.
2. Resentment and Aggression
What often goes with the buried pain of loss is resentment: the anger builds, and it may overtake the numbness and provoke you to angry outbursts or to passive-aggressive behavior.
You’ll say and do things you wouldn’t if you were satisfied with your relationship. Things will come out, and though you never before have considered leaving the abuser, you find yourself ready to not only leave but to burn the bridges behind you.
You don’t want a slow burn, either; you want an inferno. You want an explosion because everything in you has built up to that. And until you let it out, it burns you on the inside.
You might let it out bit by bit with caustic humor, critical rants (to the abuser or to someone else), and passive-aggressive behavior — just to relieve the pressure a bit — but the relief is illusory and inadequate.
You want the abuser to experience — in epic fashion — the pain he or she has inflicted.
Or if you can’t punish your abuser (either because of fear or a strong attachment), you might direct your aggression at others, which might at first offer some relief but ultimately makes you feel worse about yourself.
You might even deliberately provoke someone into an angry response, just because it feels more familiar to you – and more real — than the friendly conversation you used to enjoy with them.
3. Sleep Disorders and Nightmares
The trauma from emotional abuse doesn’t give you a break when it’s time for bed. You might spend hours ruminating on someone’s abusive words or actions or reliving those painful scenes again and again.
With sleep deprivation, you have less energy to cope with the abuse, and your overall performance and mood suffer, which makes you an easy target for even more abuse — which then keeps you awake when you desperately need the sleep.
If you’re able to sleep, though, the trauma doesn’t switch off when you lose consciousness; your brain will want to keep working on this, and since you can’t control or shut off the subconscious video streaming, you end up reliving the trauma in new ways.
The nightmares may stay with you even after the end of an abusive relationship and can be associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
4. Substance Abuse
When your relationship brings you more pain than pleasure, it’s pretty common to seek comfort in drugs that stimulate the production of “happy” brain chemicals (like dopamine and serotonin).
And it’s not hard to become dependent on these drugs to make you feel good (or at least better) — especially after being on the receiving end of another abusive or emotionally exhausting tirade.
The one inflicting the abuse doesn’t even have to be consciously or overtly abusive; often what we perceive as emotionally damaging comes in the form of repeated negativity in the words of someone we love.
They could be launching into “Why me?” rants every day after work — saying things like “God doesn’t want me to be happy/successful,” or “I don’t know much more of this I can take before I kill myself or die of a heart attack.”
Behind these rants is the subtle reminder that you’re not doing enough to make things better.
Try listening to that for years and not going numb, stir-crazy, or increasingly angry and prone to explosive outbursts.
After another rant or another lecture or another reminder of “how poor we are (and it’s your fault),” who wouldn’t want a pick-me-up, even knowing that the lift in spirits is only temporary?
5. Trust Issues and Approval Seeking
When the emotional abuse has taken root and damaged your confidence and self-worth, you’re less likely to trust that others will love or value you as you are. What the abuser has been saying (even if not overtly) is “You are not enough (for me).”
So, you might look for ways to earn the approval of your loved ones and of others whose opinions matter to you:
- Taking an extreme interest in looking your absolute best
- Doing nice things for others (in the hopes of being noticed and appreciated for it)
- Trying extra hard to please people.
- Accomplishing more and becoming obsessed with accomplishment
Even if others show appreciation for your appearance or for something you’ve done, though, it never feels quite convincing enough.
You’re still left with the feeling that you’d better do X, Y, and Z — and you’d better not do A, B, or C — or the praise you hear will turn to disappointed or angry rants (to which you’ve become more accustomed).
You might slack off and let your performance suffer — at school, at work, and at home. Your feelings of low self-worth have begun to seep into your efforts.
When you never feel good enough, you begin to live up to that low expectation. Or you might underperform as a passive-aggressive means of getting back at your abuser.
If your spouse expects you to do housework, you might just avoid it or do it half-heartedly. If he criticizes your appearance, you stop taking care of yourself and how you look.
It’s tough to stick with positive habits when you don’t feel worthy or appreciated.
If the reward for optimal performance — for doing your best — is nonexistent or just as bad (in your mind) as the consequences for slacking off, who can blame you for choosing the easier path to the same result?
7. Anxiety, Depression, and Suicidal or Self Harming Thoughts and Behaviors
The effect of frequent criticism, browbeating lectures, or self-pitying monologues can dampen anyone’s spirits. But the effect of long-term emotional abuse goes deeper than momentary sadness or feeling “bummed out.”
If your self-talk mirrors the talk you hear day in and day out, it multiplies the effects of abuse, dragging you down and making you sick — physically, mentally, and emotionally.
The accumulation of abusive language and actions, leading to toxic self-talk, isn’t something you just snap out of. Even if the abuser is no longer in the picture, if you’re still mentally replaying the same tapes you recorded while the abuser was with you, your training will pick up where the abuser left off.
It takes conscious awareness of those abusive scripts to begin the work of replacing them with self-talk that builds you up and helps you heal.
Without that awareness, you’re susceptible not only to anxiety and depression but also to suicidal thoughts (to escape the abuse still going on in your head) and self-harm (to punish yourself or to distract yourself from the emotional pain).
Healing from Emotional Abuse
Until you become consciously aware of the abuse and its effects on you, you can’t begin to free yourself — inside and out — from its hold. And you can’t begin the healing process.
It takes courage to admit that you’re suffering from emotional abuse at the hands of someone you should be able to trust. It also takes courage to choose freedom from that abuse and to do what you need to do to begin healing from it.
The following can all be part of the liberation, the healing, or both:
- Talking to a trusted counselor
- Countering the negative self-talk with the truth and with gratitude
- Forgiving the abuser — but not condoning or downplaying the abuse
- Taking a renewed interest in a skill or hobby that lights you up inside
- Reaching out to others for support
- Reading books that help you work through the pain and move beyond it
The after-effects of emotional abuse don’t have to be your “normal” for the rest of your life; you deserve better and can take steps today to replace those harmful scripts with healthy, confidence-building ones.
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Create your new normal.
Has this helped you identify emotional abuse and its long term effects? If we’ve set you on the path toward healing or given you a resource for helping someone you love, this article has fulfilled its purpose.
The sooner you begin telling yourself the truth of who you are and what you’re capable of — which is much better than the negative, limiting scripts that have been on auto-replay in your head — the sooner you can move on from the abuse and become happier.
And the more you can help others dealing with the same trauma.
What you’ve been through can make you a strong advocate for others who’ve suffered from emotional abuse. You know now that surviving this is about more than breaking away from the abuser, and the more you heal, the more you can help others do the same.
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May your resilience and courage influence everything else you do today.