What You Need to Know About Mental Abuse

mental abuseWe are often so focused on physical and sexual abuse that we forget to consider emotional abuse, which is more difficult to identify when it is happening to our loved ones or to ourselves. Mental abuse can occur in any relationship among adults, in adolescent peer groups and in families. We need to become more aware of the signs of mental abuse because psychological trauma is a by-product of emotional abuse just as it is a result of physical or sexual abuse. The trauma includes anxiety, depression, PTSD and other symptoms of mental illness. However, the trauma resulting from emotional abuse may be more severe than that associated with physical abuse because victims of mental abuse are often targeted on a daily basis as compared to the cyclical pattern of physical abuse. The negative thoughts caused by emotional abuse become ingrained in a person’s every day interactions with others and impact how they perceive themselves and live in the world.

The most obvious form of emotional abuse is when the abuser verbally makes negative comments, often-sarcastic questions or public remarks about the individual. Comments may be, “You’re going out in that?,” or “Don’t bother trying to paint. Your work looks like a two-year old’s.”

Another form of emotional abuse that is harder to identify is the silent form, which is when the abuser does not engage verbal abuse, but instead is purposefully distracted or busy with something else instead of interacting with their partner. They may be overly preoccupied with work, television, an obsessive project, exercise, or simply unavailable due to their lack of ability to hear their partner’s perspective. This type of mental abuser often ends up wanting to be alone rather than “bothered” by the company of their partner or child.

Emotional abuse comes in many forms. For instance, Gregory Bateson and R.D. Laing describe and expand on the double-bind theory, which is when the victim is unable to leave a situation and is receiving contradictory messages that are often difficult to untangle. For example, a mother may tell her teenage or even adult child to leave the house or move out, but when the child prepares to leave, the mother then says that she is going to be so depressed if her child is not around. Even as an adult, the child of this mother is being emotionally abused by these mixed messages that create an inner turmoil and uncertainty about what to do. While this example of contradictory messages is fairly obvious, many others are not as easy to identify, especially in the moment. The person who is giving the mixed messages is often trying to intimidate the victim into doing something. However, the “catch-22” in complying is that the victim will somehow be punished whether they do or do not submit to the emotional abuser. Whatever the outcome, the perpetrator is never satisfied.

Patterns of Mental Abuse

There are many patterns of mental abuse that take place within families, couples and in the workplace. These include:

  • Public humiliation, sarcastic remarks or jokes, overly critical comments or judgments, degrading and/or condescending comments
  • Control and acting parental
  • Pointing out your flaws in a non-constructive way
  • Withholding affection, intimacy, and empathy from you
  • Being isolated and emotionally disconnected
  • Codependency; not treating you as a separate person
  • Reversing the victim role to place blame on you

If you believe you are being emotionally abused, seek support through friends, family or a counselor. The help of these individuals in your life can help you come up with a plan to set boundaries, take care of yourself, help you to understand that you cannot fix the abuser, and strategize on how to leave the unhealthy relationship if necessary.


If you or someone you know is in crisis or in need of immediate help, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255). This is The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a free hotline available 24 hours a day to anyone in emotional distress or suicidal crisis.

About the Author

Rachel Walsh Rachel Walsh is pursuing her MA in Clinical Psychology at Antioch University of Santa Barbara where she also received her BA with an emphasis in Child Development and Education. She has worked with individuals who have developmental disabilities and their families for over 5 years, and has taught inclusive yoga classes to help integrate these individuals with the local community. Rachel’s love for these families has led to her volunteering with the Down Syndrome Association of Santa Barbara County, Alpha Resource Center and Mission Community School.

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