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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I’m not quite sure if this is for personal experiences or if it is for professional insight. From a young age I feared my Father. I was never allowed to have my own opinion in front of my him, (my parents are divorced by the way). If they weren’t his views they were unacceptable and I’d get yelled at, even if I asked the wrong question i’d get screamed at. I remember one time when I was 5 or 6 years old, dinner was served and I asked if it was home made. My father took it personally and yelled at me saying I disrespected him in front of my brother, two step brothers, and my step mother at the time. Me being the age I was I started to cry, then proceeded to get yelled at for crying. I remember another time when I was 4 years old I was screamed at for asking what snack we were having after dinner. I’ve never asked this before I was just curious because we were given a different snack every night before bed. I still remember it to this day how he slammed his plate of food down and said how I’m so ungrateful, then stormed his way upstairs. Another memory from my childhood with him was a house party we had, or maybe just a party with the neighbors I can’t quite remember. I was outside catching fire fly’s like he told me to, minding my own business. All of the sudden he comes storming towards me, picked me up, and carried me to my room saying I was being bad. Being 3 I did cry loud and obnoxiously like 3 year old’s do and was yelling for my mom. What did I do? That question stayed in my head for years up until I was 17. It clicked. He didn’t want to watch me because he had company over, so he yelled and said I was bad in front of everyone to make it seem he was doing the right thing by making me go to bed, when in reality he didn’t want to deal with me. With these experiences I started to keep quiet in front of my father. Only spoke when spoken to, and made it the answer he wanted to hear. If my dad wasn’t in a good mood then no one could be in a good mood. Learning how my dad was I tried to make him happy. When I was 7, me and my mom made snicker-doodle cookies together. There was an extra batch we made so I could bring some over. I was so proud to share them because I helped make them. But he didn’t care, he cared that they came from my moms house. Yelled at me and said never to do something like that again. Even till now (me being 19) its still like this. If I look at him the “wrong” way I’ll get yelled at. When I was 15 we all went to the zoo. On the car ride there my brother was being a little out of hand but nothing that were not use to (he has down syndrome). He gets yelled at. Now I’m looking out the window at this time but I feel this tension. Like someone is staring at me. I look up into the rear view mirror and notice my father is looking at me from the seat. But I still wasn’t quite sure because he had sun glasses on. I looked away but that feeling still remained. I looked back up again and this time held my stare, trying to figure out if he was looking at me. Turns out he was and I was yelled at again with him saying “What are you looking at?” I’m thinking what the heck did I do!? You were staring at me! I can’t quite remember any more bad experiences with him because I try to block them out, for if I think about them it gives me major anxiety and leads me to have panic attacks. ALL the memories I have if him are bad accept for one, but that was when I was 3 and I’m 95% sure my parents were still together. You may be thinking, why not stick up for yourself, why not fight back? Well that’s because I’m scared, still am. Every time I’m around him I my whole body tightens. Like I’m walking on egg shells around him, or like he is a ticking time bomb ready to explode. Because of him I’m terrified of confrontation and can’t stick up form my self because I’m afraid I’ll get screamed at like he did to me all those year ago till I was 17. But that’s only because of certain circumstances that got me and my brother out of his house for good. I don’t know if this is the mental abuse this page is talking about, this is just my experience.

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