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How to Identify It, What to Do

Overview

You probably know many of the more obvious signs of mental and emotional abuse. But when you’re in the midst of it, it can be easy to miss the persistent undercurrent of abusive behavior.

Psychological abuse involves a person’s attempts to frighten, control, or isolate you. It’s in the abuser’s words and actions, as well as their persistence in these behaviors.

The abuser could be your spouse or other romantic partner. They could be your business partner, parent, or a caretaker.

No matter who it is, you don’t deserve it and it’s not your fault. Continue reading to learn more, including how to recognize it and what you can do next.

These tactics are meant to undermine your self-esteem. The abuse is harsh and unrelenting in matters big and small.

Here are some examples:

  • Name-calling. They’ll blatantly call you “stupid,” “a loser,” or words too awful to repeat here.
  • Derogatory “pet names.” This is just more name-calling in not-so-subtle disguise. “My little knuckle dragger” or “My chubby pumpkin” aren’t terms of endearment.
  • Character assassination. This usually involves the word “always.” You’re always late, wrong, screwing up, disagreeable, and so on. Basically, they say you’re not a good person.
  • Yelling. Yelling, screaming, and swearing are meant to intimidate and make you feel small and inconsequential. It might be accompanied by fist-pounding or throwing things.
  • Patronizing. “Aw, sweetie, I know you try, but this is just beyond your understanding.”
  • Public embarrassment. They pick fights, expose your secrets, or make fun of your shortcomings in public.
  • Dismissiveness. You tell them about something that’s important to you and they say it’s nothing. Body language like eye-rolling, smirking, headshaking, and sighing help convey the same message.
  • “Joking.” The jokes might have a grain of truth to them or be a complete fabrication. Either way, they make you look foolish.
  • Sarcasm. Often just a dig in disguise. When you object, they claim to have been teasing and tell you to stop taking everything so seriously.
  • Insults of your appearance. They tell you, just before you go out, that your hair is ugly or your outfit is clownish.
  • Belittling your accomplishments. Your abuser might tell you that your achievements mean nothing, or they may even claim responsibility for your success.
  • Put-downs of your interests. They might tell you that your hobby is a childish waste of time or you’re out of your league when you play sports. Really, it’s that they’d rather you not participate in activities without them.
  • Pushing your buttons. Once your abuser knows about something that annoys you, they’ll bring it up or do it every chance they get.
  Definition, Causes, Treatments, and More

Trying to make you feel ashamed of your inadequacies is just another path to power.

Tools of the shame and control game include:

  • Threats. Telling you they’ll take the kids and disappear, or saying “There’s no telling what I might do.”
  • Monitoring your whereabouts. They want to know where you are all the time and insist that you respond to calls or texts immediately. They might show up just to see if you’re where you’re supposed to be.
  • Digital spying. They might check your internet history, emails, texts, and call log. They might even demand your passwords.
  • Unilateral decision-making. They might close a joint bank account, cancel your doctor’s appointment, or speak with your boss without asking.
  • Financial control. They might keep bank accounts in their name only and make you ask for money. You might be expected to account for every penny you spend.
  • Lecturing. Belaboring your errors with long monologues makes it clear they think you’re beneath them.
  • Direct orders. From “Get my dinner on the table now” to “Stop taking the pill,” orders are expected to be followed despite your plans to the contrary.
  • Outbursts. You were told to cancel that outing with your friend or put the car in the garage, but didn’t, so now you have to put up with a red-faced tirade about how uncooperative you are.
  • Treating you like a child. They tell you what to wear, what and how much to eat, or which friends you can see.
  • Feigned helplessness. They may say they don’t know how to do something. Sometimes it’s easier to do it yourself than to explain it. They know this and take advantage of it.
  • Unpredictability. They’ll explode with rage out of nowhere, suddenly shower you with affection, or become dark and moody at the drop of a hat to keep you walking on eggshells.
  • They walk out. In a social situation, stomping out of the room leaves you holding the bag. At home, it’s a tool to keep the problem unresolved.
  • Using others. Abusers may tell you that “everybody” thinks you’re crazy or “they all say” you’re wrong.
  Agoraphobia: Types, Causes, and Symptoms

This behavior comes from an abuser’s insecurities. They want to create a hierarchy in which they’re at the top and you’re at the bottom.

Here are some examples:

  • Jealousy. They accuse you of flirting or cheating on them.
  • Turning the tables. They say you cause their rage and control issues by being such a pain.
  • Denying something you know is true. An abuser will deny that an argument or even an agreement took place. This is called gaslighting. It’s meant to make you question your own memory and sanity.
  • Using guilt. They might say something like, “You owe me this. Look at all I’ve done for you,” in an attempt to get their way.
  • Goading then blaming. Abusers know just how to upset you. But once the trouble starts,…

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