The wounds of physical abuse leave a visible mark. But words can wound too, and in quiet ways that are just as damaging. Emotional wounds can be deep and terrible. They leave us feeling isolated, because they are covert. This is the hurt that nobody sees, and so who is there to care? The cops will not come. The ones you love may tell you that you’re just being hypersensitive or humorless, and you may wonder. Emotional abuse can be subtle and persistent, eroding confidence one molecule at a time, so that the recipient may not be clear that real abuse has occurred at all. This doubt allows the pattern of hurt to continue.
Emotional abuse is different from honest criticism. Somebody pointing out your mistake is not abusive, though doing it at your party might be. Emotional abuse shames or belittles, sometimes by screaming, but even if it looks like jesting; criticism is constructive, even if it is tough. Trading little jibes among equals can feel like a gesture of inclusion; but personal teasing that makes someone feel vulnerable, or ethnic references that make someone an outsider, easily become abusive. Conversations that go on as if you weren’t in the room, or a pattern of ignored messages, can leave you doubting your worth. The decision maker may dispute this, but it’s the recipient’s call.
Whether emotional abuse uses words or gestures, it’s all about control, making the abuser the authority. Telling a person that they sound ridiculous, or lack courage or talent or style, may be just a small mean gesture, but over time these little moments accumulate to become a corrosive, shaming way of life. Paradoxically, emotional abuse can be done with a smile. Calling someone 6 times a day to check up on them, giving unsolicited advice on weight loss, or coming home to find your philodendron was given away during a housecleaning frenzy, do not usually feel affirming to the hearer. Being always right or always at fault is a big flaming hint of emotional abuse, as is blaming and shaming for decisions that backfired. The recipient might be intimidated that the displeased abuser will leave at any moment, or wonder who appointed them judge (they did, silly), and how this is helpful (as a guide to groveling?).
Noticing emotional abuse can be a stark awakening. People don’t mean for this to happen, and it does. The healing response requires seeing the world through another person’s eyes, and that is likely to lead to surprises. If any of this sounds familiar, know that it can change. People who have received emotional abuse can discover, with support, that their feelings are worthy of respect, and always have been. Flourishing begins when people are fearlessly themselves.