What is emotional abuse?
Emotional abuse, sometimes called psychological abuse, is a form of manipulation and control that can harm a person’s mental health and emotional wellbeing.
Emotional abuse is an ongoing pattern of behaviour to emotionally hurt someone, which is sometimes difficult to recognise, as it can take the form of subtle or deceptive behaviours. It can happen on its own, or there may also be other types of abuse happening at the same time (e.g. verbal abuse, financial abuse, or physical abuse).
Signs of emotional abuse
Emotional abuse can cause serious harm to a person’s mental health and wellbeing and can have long-lasting effects. It is important to recognise the signs of emotional abuse and to seek help if you or someone you know is experiencing it.
- Constant criticism or belittling of a person’s actions or opinions.
- Yelling and name calling – it’s normal for people in relationships to raise their voices or yell now and then, but ongoing and repeated verbal abuse is a cause for concern.
- Intentionally embarrassing the other person or belittling them in public.
- Threats or intimidation.
- Gaslighting – manipulating someone into doubting their own reality or memories.
- Constantly making the other person feel scared or unsafe.
- Ongoing mood swings where a person is nice one minute and mean the next, making the other person feel like they are ‘walking on eggshells’.
- Withholding affection or attention as a bargaining tool or out of anger.
- Constant criticism of a person’s appearance, intelligence, or abilities.
- Controlling a person’s finances, such as preventing a partner from working or accessing their own money.
- Isolating a person from friends and family or controlling who they can see or talk to.
- Being very jealous of time spent with other people.
- Wanting to know what the person is doing all the time and staying in constant contact.
Emotional abuse can happen in any relationship, not just in romantic partnerships. It can also occur in family relationships, friendships, and carer relationships.
What to do if you are a victim of emotional abuse
If you are a victim of emotional abuse, seek support and help. You can talk to someone you trust, such as a friend or family member. You can also reach out to a psychologist or counsellor who can help you process the abuse and develop a plan for going forward. Helplines such as MensLine, 1800RESPECT, and Q Life can also provide support. The Australian Government’s Services Australia website has useful resources and links to get help.
If anyone’s safety is at risk, call 000 immediately.
Remember that emotional abuse is never your fault and that you deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. Seeking help and support can make a significant difference in your journey towards healing and recovery.
How to help someone experiencing emotional abuse
Emotional abuse can have long term impacts on those affected, including ongoing loss of confidence and trust. If you think someone you know may be experiencing emotional or psychological abuse, here are some ways you can help:
- If a family member or friend is being isolated through emotional abuse, you can try to reach out to them and keep regular contact.
- Let the person know you are there to listen and validate their concerns. Let them know that they are not alone and that you are there to support them.
- Don’t force the conversation – if they don’t want to talk, you can still let them know you are concerned.
- Assure the person they are not to blame, and that emotional abuse has long term effects, even when not coupled with physical abuse.
- You can let them decide the next steps, so they feel in control of their choices.
- If you are worried about the safety of the person experiencing abuse, you can suggest they have a safety plan in place and help them find assistance to develop one.
- There are a number of free options for information and support that can help you or the person you are worried about.
- Encourage them to seek professional help from a counsellor, psychologist, social worker or other health worker. You can offer to accompany them to their appointments.
- Be patient and understanding. Healing from emotional abuse takes time, and recovery is often not a linear process. Continue to offer your encouragement throughout their journey.
Steps you can take to stop using emotional abuse
If you realise that you have been emotionally abusing someone, here are some steps you can take to change your behaviour:
- Acknowledge your behaviour: Take responsibility for your actions and understand the harm they have caused.
- Seek help: Consider seeing a health professional or counsellor who specialises in abusive behaviour to help you address the root causes and develop healthier coping strategies. Our free Changing for Good violence prevention program may be right for you.
- Practise self-reflection: Regularly check in with yourself and examine your thoughts, feelings, and behaviour to identify any patterns of abusive behaviour.
- Communicate respectfully: Make a conscious effort to communicate in a way that is respectful and non-threatening.
- Learn healthy conflict resolution skills: Seek out resources to learn healthy conflict resolution skills such as active listening, compromise, and problem-solving.
- Apologise and make amends: Part of your apology can involve taking steps to repair the relationship and make things right.
- Avoid triggering situations: Identify the situations or triggers that lead to your abusive behaviour and avoid them or find healthier ways to cope.
- Surround yourself with positive, supportive people: Seek out positive and supportive relationships that can help you maintain a healthy perspective and avoid abusive behaviour.
By seeking help and taking steps to change, you can make a positive difference in your relationships and the lives of those around you.
If you’re experiencing family or domestic violence you can call MensLine Australia on 1300 78 99 78, access online counselling, or visit 1800RESPECT.
If it is an emergency, call 000.