What is emotional abuse (and when should I seek help?)


How do you spot the signs of emotional abuse? Is it really as bad as other kinds of abuse? We answer your top questions about emotional abuse and explain where you can find help

Abuse can come in many forms, affecting people of all ages and genders, from different walks of life. It’s estimated around one in 15 children in the UK have experienced emotional abuse, while one in 11 adults is thought to have experienced emotional abuse before the age of 16. Official figures estimate 4.5% of adults under the age of 60 have experienced partner abuse in some form in the past year. Some reports estimate that more than a third of women in the UK have experienced psychological abuse – and nearly a third (28%) don’t trust the legal system to help them.

Emotional abuse is one of the most difficult types of abuse to identify. Often taking place alongside other forms of abuse (physical abuse, sexual abuse, child abuse, domestic violence), emotional abuse can be hard to define and easy to miss if you aren’t the one living through it. Victims of emotional abuse may downplay their experiences, or over time, come to think that it is normal.

Abuse is always wrong. No matter what the relationship is or how long things have been going on, no one should have to accept abuse as part of their lives.

We explain more about emotional abuse, common abusive behaviours and signs to keep an eye out for, and how to find help if you or someone you love is experiencing abuse.

What is emotional abuse?

Also known as psychological abuse, emotional abuse includes a wide range of behaviours and actions. When someone tries to control you by using emotions to blame, embarrass, criticise, shame, guilt or manipulate you in some way, that’s a type of abuse. Over time, this can become a pattern of words and/or behaviours which can affect how you feel about yourself, your self-worth, and your overall sense of wellbeing.

Counselling Directory member Leigh Taylor explains more about emotional abuse and finding help through counselling.

Is emotional abuse domestic violence?

Domestic violence, also known as domestic abuse, can include lots of different kinds of behaviours and types of abuse including emotional and/or psychological abuse. Often, people experience many types of abusive behaviours as part of domestic violence, including:

  • coercive control (when someone uses intimidation, degradation, isolation, or control through using or threatening physical or sexual violence)
  • physical abuse (intentionally harming someone physically, such as through slapping, punching, withholding food, or more)
  • sexual abuse (using unwanted sex, sexual violence or exploitation)
  • financial or economic abuse (withholding access to your own money, savings or income; controlling or limiting your ability to earn, save or spend money without permission)
  • emotional or psychological abuse (when someone uses gaslighting, emotional manipulation, belittling, silent treatment, or other verbal/emotional means)

Is emotional abuse still abuse?

Emotional abuse is still abuse. Some people worry that being abused emotionally isn’t ‘as bad’ as other forms of abuse, where there may be physical marks or scars left. But emotional abuse can be just as hurtful and damaging for individuals.

As the signs can often be more subtle or others may not even know what to look out for, someone can experience emotional abuse for a long period of time before they may realise something is wrong or that they need help.

Others may try to minimise or downplay the impact psychological abuse has, as they think it may not be intentional or deliberate. Abusive behaviour is never ok, and is never your fault. Help is available.

Signs of emotional abuse

Emotional abuse isn’t always easy to spot in your own relationships or in others. Common abusive behaviours and signs can include:

  • Using intimidation or threats to make you feel small or stop you from standing up for yourself.
  • Shouting or acting aggressively.
  • Name-calling, belittling, or criticising you no matter what you do.
  • Refusing to acknowledge your successes, strengths, or accomplishments.
  • Undermining you, making you doubt yourself, or accusing you of being overly sensitive if you react in a way that they don’t like.
  • Using emotional blackmail (eg. making you feel guilty or ignoring you until you do what they want).
  • Trying to shame or judge you, your behaviour or your lived experiences.
  • Emotionally abusive parents may treat you differently from your siblings or other family members, putting more pressure on you or trying to make you do things you aren’t comfortable with.
  • Using isolation to make you more reliant on them (and feel unable to reach out to other friends or family members).
  • Withholding things to try and control you (affection, money, sex, basic necessities).
  • Setting unrealistic expectations that you cannot realistically meet.
  • Using gaslighting to dismiss your experiences, perspective, or what really happened.
  • Using threats to make you do or stop doing something (eg. threatening divorce if you do not do what they want).

Is yelling emotional abuse?

Yelling or screaming can be used as part of an emotionally abusive relationship. If someone resorts to screaming, yelling, or shouting to try and talk over you consistently, and refuses to listen to you, believe you, or while using other common emotionally manipulative or abusive behaviours, this can be a warning sign.

Is silent treatment emotional abuse?

Someone may also try to use silent treatment or ignore you completely as a form of emotional manipulation. While some people may become silent when they do not know what to say or want to avoid conflict, others use it as a way of manipulating others to control or influence how they behave. When someone is using silent treatment to make you do something or to influence you, this is when it can become a form of abuse.

Is gaslighting emotional abuse?

Gaslighting is considered to be a very effective and potentially harmful form of emotional abuse. Through the use of gaslighting, someone can make you question how you are feeling, your thoughts, reactions, and even if how you remember events happening were real. Gaslighting can lead to people doubting their own sanity.

Who can be emotionally abused?

Anyone can be emotionally abused. While most people picture a woman in a heterosexual relationship being abused by a man, anyone, of any sexuality, at any age can experience abuse.

Emotional abuse can also take place outside of romantic relationships. Children and teens may experience emotional abuse at the hands of a parent, carer, teacher, or other trusted adult. Even babies and toddlers can show signs of emotional abuse.

How can emotional abuse affect you?

There may not be any physical signs you can spot, however, there are signs you can still look out for in children and adults. These can include:

  • seeming unconfident or lacking self-assurance
  • struggling to control or deal with emotions
  • difficulty making or maintaining relationships
  • acting in a way that isn’t appropriate for their age (eg. a child that acts much older or younger)

Some people find it hard to put a label on what they are experiencing, and may not wish to call it abuse. When you think about the person who may be using emotions to manipulate or hurt you, ask yourself: How does this person make me feel?

If you find yourself feeling anxious, confused, frustrated, misunderstood, or worthless some of the time or frequently after speaking with them, it could be a sign of emotional abuse. It is not normal for someone to make us feel like this some, most, or all of the time.

Over time, emotional abuse can lead to isolation, low self-confidence and self-esteem, and may even trigger feelings of depression or anxiety. Some people turn to alcohol, drugs, or risky behaviours.

Shame, guilt, and feeling worthless are often feelings caused by those who use emotional abuse to manipulate us. By making us feel that it is our fault, that no one else could love us, or that it is our fault for ‘letting things get like this’, they keep us feeling stuck in the cycle of abuse. You are not worth less than others. Change is possible. You can be happy and confident again – you just may need support.

Is emotional abuse a crime in the UK?

Ongoing emotional and psychological abuse is considered a criminal offence. Referred to as coercive control, when there is a pattern of controlling behaviours that has been used to isolate someone, take away their independence, and control their everyday behaviour, this can now be considered a criminal offence.

Am I being emotionally abused?

If you’re worried that someone in your life may be emotionally abusing you, it’s important to take a closer look at your situation. What is it that is making you uncomfortable? How is this person making you feel? Don’t dismiss your worries because of uncertainty or worry that there aren’t physical signs you can show someone else. Emotional abuse can be subtle, and the signs are easy to miss, but without help, things can build over time, happening again and again.

Maggie’s Resource Centre has created a checklist to help you better spot abusive behaviours you may not realise you have been experiencing. Healthline also has an in-depth list of the tactics emotional abusers may use to undermine your self-esteem and attempt to gain control of you.

If you are worried about yourself, or someone you care about, do not just dismiss your worries as overthinking or an overreaction. Speaking out and seeking help is the first step towards breaking away from your abuser, and getting the support that you need.

How to get help for emotional abuse

Speaking to someone is often the first step towards accessing help. By talking with someone, you no longer have to feel like you are dealing with this alone. This could mean speaking with a helpline, to another friend or family member, a teacher, or someone you trust.

Speaking with an outside source like a helpline or a therapist can be particularly helpful, as it can take away any pressure, guilt or anxiety you may feel about opening up to a loved one who is closer to the situation.

Counselling Directory explains more about what you can do next to start prioritising your mental and physical health, work toward an exit plan, or even support someone else you’re worried about who isn’t yet ready to walk away.

Citizens Advice shares a list of places where you can get help in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

If you are feeling increasingly isolated from friends and family, are worried about how you are feeling, or think that their behaviour towards you may be getting worse, it could be a sign that the time to seek help is now.

Whether you’re ready to speak with a counsellor or therapist or want to learn more about emotional abuse, visit Counselling Directory. It’s never too late or too early to seek help. If you’re worried that you or someone you care about may be experiencing emotional abuse, speak with someone.

Find out more about where you can find free information, support and guidance for abuse with Mind’s comprehensive list of charities and support services, visit Refuge’s website or call their 24/7 free national helpline to help women and children experiencing domestic abuse.


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