Discounting Emotional Abuse
There are a lot of things that fascinate me. One of those is how easily people discount emotional abuse. Why is that? I have had discussions with so many people about abusive relationships. Their response, whether the fighter-survivor or friend/family is to brush it off as “not a big deal.”
Why is emotional abuse seemingly so easy to minimize? I think there are several reasons why it is so easy to overlook emotional abuse. I narrowed it down to the two big reasons that I think trickly down to the other reasons.
The first, emotional abuse leaves no external, easily discernible marks on the fighter-survivor. I think that is the number one reason that makes it so easy to ignore. The focus is on physical evidence. And without irrefutable evidence, then it is always one person’s word against the other. Although, as I have mentioned in My Father Broke My Brain the brain goes through defensive modifications in response to abuse. Those can be seen using fMRI. The downside is that a person walking down the street can’t see that.
The second is the definition. Have you Googled ‘emotional abuse’? Go ahead, do it now. I will wait. The results are quite a few, and none definitive. Because there is a link between emotional and other forms of abuse, you will find references to it under domestic violence, psychological abuse, verbal abuse, and physical abuse. Emotional abuse can include all of those other abuses, and usually, it does, but that doesn’t help to identify it when we see it. It is an extensive range of actions and behaviors that constitute emotional abuse.
A non-exhaustive list of examples of behaviors considered emotionally abusive from WomensHealth.gov:
- humiliating you in front of others
- calling you insulting names
- belittling you
- threatening to harm themselves
- threatening to harm you
- threatening to harm people or pets that you care about
- telling you how lucky you are to have them
- what would you do without them
Explaining Emotional Abuse
There are so many other examples of emotional abuse than what I included in that list above. How the abuse manifests in real life can look even different from the many examples that you can find online.
There are other factors involved, like the type of relationship with the abuser, circumstances of the abusive moments, and who is around to witness the abuse. Abusers are very good at masking their abuse so that most people would not recognize it for what it is.
With all of those different variables, we expect the fighter-survivor to be able to describe that abuse. To the outside observer, the nuances of emotional abuse are hard to see. How can we expect the abused person to realize it and reach out for help? And yet, we expect them to do just that.
I remember one of the times that I tried to convey what was going on to a doctor. I didn’t have the words and said the first thing that came to mind. I blurted out, “my mother hates me.” The doctor looked at me for a moment. I had a split second of hope that she would hear me. She replied, “oh, I am sure she doesn’t hate you.” Or not. Funny thing, the other day, my mother had told me just that.
Inside on the Outside
So how to describe what it is like being emotionally abused? That is a very tough question. I have tried over the years to explain what it is like. And that is another reason emotional abuse is discounted is that it is so hard to describe. There really isn’t a feeling that I can compare it to that anyone who hasn’t been through it would understand.
I used to wish the emotional cuts and brokenness that was my inside would appear on my outside. I thought that if the abuse would manifest and people could see it, then maybe I would be heard. And then I would get help. That is what I used to hope—something, anything, to see that pain on the outside. I am glad that my wish never came through. I would have a lot of scars.
The following are the phrases that I would repeatedly hear for most of my young life.
- What am I going to do with you?
- What is wrong with you?’
- I just can’t deal with you right now
- You make me sick, get out of my sight
- What were you thinking? Oh, you weren’t. That is obvious.
- All you needed to do was (insert whatever task). And you couldn’t even do that right.
- I wish I had never had any children
- You ruined my life
- Can’t you do anything right? Just once?
Those words, sitting there in that purple box, seem so innocuous, don’t they? I can hear them now as I type them. Those words are not harmless. It still hurts those things that were said to me. Those words were weapons, said with such malice and vehemence that it would make anyone cringe.
Someone Finally Listened
For me, as a child, hearing those things, I hated myself. I was worthless, and I couldn’t do anything right. Everything I touched turned to shit. I internalized those and so many other words like them that I heard over the years. As a child, I had no choice but to stay and endure. I had tried to get help, and no one would help me until someone did.
And that person who listened validated my story, and validated me. She helped me to escape and provided a safe place to live. That was twenty-seven years ago. It was the summer I turned eighteen, just before the beginning of my senior year of high school.
What Can You Do?
Listen when someone comes to talk with you. Don’t minimize other’s experiences. And don’t let the person you are talking with minimize their abuse either. And believe me, they will. I still minimize mine, even as I was writing out the list of abusive phrases, I kept thinking, ‘those aren’t that bad.’ They are, and they were.
I would also suggest paying attention to how people interact. I am an introvert, so that comes naturally. It is one of my favorite things to do actually, sit back and observe. You will see it a lot when you do. Emotional abuse can be very subtle. Reaching out can be really difficult. There is a lot of shame around being abused. Be there for them when they are ready.
Refer people to professionals and organizations that can provide the level of support that person will need.
A place to start is the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
If you are a parent or caregiver and are looking for support National Parent Helpline has a lot of resources for you.
If you are a kid experiencing abuse there are a lot of resources at Childhelp