How to recognize mental abuse, and why it's not your fault

November 23, 2021 - 14 min read

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What is mental abuse?

6 signs of mental abuse

6 consequences of mental abuse

What to do if you’re being mentally abused

Emotional abuse versus mental abuse

Bottom line: Mental abuse is not your fault

We often think of abuse as physical. We picture bruises, scars, and other marks delivered by the hands of an abuser. But while physical abuse is all too common — 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have been physically abused by a partner — maltreatment doesn’t always require direct contact. Unfortunately, women and men may also be subject to abuse inflicted through psychological means.

Mental abuse can be severe. However, because this maltreatment can take on different patterns, it can also be easy to dismiss or overlook. The individual on the receiving end dismisses it. As a result, friends, co-workers, and family members often don’t recognize it either.

If you’ve experienced mental abuse, there’s a chance you take on or minimize the blame for the humiliation, verbal abuse, and other ill-treatment you endured.

“She probably didn’t mean to call me stupid.” “He’s right, my clothes would fit better if I lost some weight.”

In reality, this treatment has little to do with you or your perceived faults. Any person that humiliates another, causes them to question their sanity, or otherwise displays unkindness, is after personal satisfaction. Such a person may be correctly labeled an abuser.

To properly understand this treatment, we’ll examine mental abuse and the signs that may reveal it in any relationship. We’ll also look at the consequences of mental abuse, as well as the safest steps to take when confronted with a mentally abusive situation.

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What is mental abuse?

Mental abuse is the use of threats, verbal insults, and other more subtle tactics to control a person’s way of thinking. This form of abuse is especially disturbing because it is tailored to destroy self-esteem and confidence and undermine a personal sense of reality or competence.

Mental abuse has been tagged as ‘mental cruelty and ‘intimate terrorism’ because of the serious dangers of this behavior. In mentally abusive relationships, one person may be led to believe that they are crazy—this is commonly called gaslighting. Here, an abuser might twist reality to cast doubt on memories, and even how things are perceived.

An event that occurred in the summer may be manipulated to have taken place over winter—or perhaps not even at all. When the person being targeted tries to protest or push back on the manipulation, they often seem reactive. They respond out of frustration and confusion and inevitably seem “crazy,” emotional, and irrational. This is how the abuser undermines their own sense of self and their standing and respect among family and friends.

Mental abuse relies on tactics that ridicule, insult, frighten or exploit. Ultimately, reality and self-worth become tied to an abuser.

6 signs of mental abuse

If you look closely, you’ll notice an opening for mental abuse across different relationship groups. As a form of domestic violence, intimate partners may relate in a way that causes one half to have dangerous control over the other. 

However, even other family members can hold excessive influence, as seen in cases of child abuse. Mental abuse may also occur at the workplace, in friendships, and other unlikely settings.

But while different relationships can be uniquely abusive for mental well-being, this maltreatment usually follows a similar pattern of behavior that makes it easy to identify. The signs of mental abuse include:

Name-calling

Abusive words are a common tactic used by abusers to ridicule and demean. Minor mistakes like forgetting to take the trash out, or even mispronouncing a foreign word, are all that’s needed to call a person stupid or embarrassing. 

In other cases, name-calling may happen for no reason at all. It is simply a cruel act they are confident of getting away with.

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Humiliation

Another common thread across mentally abusive relationships is the amount of humiliation endured. As a way to show control, an abuser can poke fun at everything from insecurities, to changes in appearance.

An abuser may poke fun at a hat used to disguise a growing bald patch. To maximize their thrill and cause the most pain, they may even do so in public or around peers. Different things can be used as put-downs in abusive relationships, making low self-esteem another common factor. 

Withholding affection

To get in a victim’s head, abusers will often withhold love, attention, praise, or their presence from a partner, child, or other individuals. This is to gain control or otherwise punish for whatever reason. 

An abuser may refuse to congratulate their child or downplay the achievement. In romantic relationships, one partner might refuse intimacy or communication as punishment for disagreeing on a topic. There’s very little the victim can do to prevent this behavior once an abuser decides to adopt it.

Making threats

Whether it is to leave the relationship, take the children away, or recommend for a demotion — mental abuse will often use threats to gain control over another.

Threats are a way to ensure that a person is placed in constant terror or fear. Through intimidation, a power imbalance is created. This gives one person the upper hand, as the other comes under their control.

Turning tables

To cement their hold in the relationship, abusers will often place the blame for their cruelty on victims. “If you weren’t so clumsy, maybe I wouldn’t call you stupid.” “Next time don’t argue when I correct you. It makes me upset.” 

Another common tactic is for the abuser to claim that they were joking and “why can’t you take a joke?” Often the abuser enlists others — children or coworkers — unwittingly into this charade. This further isolates the individual from sources of support.

Abusers will avoid responsibility for their mean treatment. They’re happy to keep victims on their toes, watching out carefully for anything that might set off abuse.

Indifference

One of the hallmarks of mental abuse is a lack of concern shown by abusers. Victims may be moved to tears or struggle with pain caused by the actions of supposed loved ones. This doesn’t faze an abuser and might even trigger more anger.

When crying, complaints, or clear communication aren’t enough to produce an apology or remorse from an abuser — victims may learn to internalize their pain. By neglecting emotional needs, this can worsen the lived experience of the abuse.

6 consequences of mental abuse

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Living through mentally abusive behavior can feel like navigating a landmine. Over time, the stress and fear of calculating a partner/parent’s mood, stomaching their insults, and accepting their indifference can lead to traumatizing harm.

PTSD is a form of mental abuse. Long-term effects might cause regular flashbacks of hurtful situations with abusive people. It may also cause anxiety symptoms like sweaty palms or a racing heart to develop. When the memories of a relationship are clouded by feelings of fear and distress, this could point to post-traumatic stress disorder. 

Eating disorders

With mental abuse, complaining or showing that you are unhappy are easy ways to get on an abuser’s wrong side. Knowing this, a victim is very likely to perfect hiding and suppressing their emotional needs.

This repression is an unhealthy way to cope with emotions. It can encourage developments like eating disorders which provide comfort and a temporary distraction from the pain.

Depression

Again, while mental abuse may not always produce physical harm, its effects can be just as damaging. 

It is next to impossible to remain unaffected by a cool indifference to your pain, insults to your person, constant put-downs, and threats that affect your happiness. This is especially when the source of your pain is someone you share a personal relationship with.

In cases of mental abuse, the frequent and persistent stress can negatively affect mental well-being and may lead to conditions like depression. When you feel a consuming sadness, struggle with concentration, or notice changes in your sleep patterns — these, plus other symptoms of depression can affect daily life.

Decline in self-worth

Mental abuse digs into our most basic requirements for self-respect: pride, happiness, trust — and uses it to an advantage.

When a person has their personal appearance repeatedly criticized, their achievements routinely dismissed, and their need for attention or understanding ignored — this can be belittling to their self-worth.

Beyond an abuser’s cruel words and treatment causing low self-esteem — a person can struggle with self-worth when they wrongly assume direct responsibility for their abusers’ actions. 

Skewed perception of healthy relationships

Toxic relationships provide a harmful blueprint for interactions with others. When a person suffers through abusive behavior, this can color their expectations when relating with people.

A child that lives through constant abuse may consider healthy relationships alien. They might struggle with the basics of relating with older caregivers and peers.

Encourages other forms of abuse

When an abuser considers it normal to distort a person’s idea of reality, there’s little they’ll consider off-limits. This is the same with emotional abuse, where victim-blaming, silent treatment, or other insults can create severe mental trauma.

When a person is mentally and emotionally abusive, it isn’t uncommon to also attempt control by being physically abusive. This can lead to more dangerous outcomes in an abusive environment.

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What to do if you’re being mentally abused

If your experience in a relationship shares the signs and consequences of mental abuse, seeking help while in safety has to be made a priority.

This might not always be easy. The thought of reaching for help can be hard to imagine. Not only for the image of your abuser finding out, but also because it can be uncomfortable to share what you’ve endured with others. 

This can be a source of embarrassment or shame for anyone. It may be more of an obstacle to seeking help if you are in your work environment, or other social circles, where you are in a position of respect or are on a high-achiever track. You stay silent with the very people who could help you out of fear of losing your identity and status in that group. That loss can feel like too high a price for an uncertain outcome.

However, mental abuse can cause very serious harm. This risk is always higher when you’re in a constant environment of abuse. The good news is that if you have work to go to it can be a source of comfort and confidence. The downside is that you are carrying a lot of additional stress and challenges that your manager or supervisor is completely unaware of — trying to lead two lives can be extremely difficult to maintain.

For the first steps against abuse, The National Domestic Violence helpline (1−800−799−SAFE(7233) or TTY 1−800−787−3224 or (206) 518-9361 (Video Phone Only for Deaf Callers) receives calls daily for assistance. Their help spans cases of physical abuse, violence against women, and other less visible forms of abuse.

You can also receive support from local domestic violence organizations. They can assist with counseling and separation from the abuse.

Where possible, it’s also helpful to receive help from friends and family to get through an abusive situation.

Emotional abuse versus mental abuse

Psychological harm is considered a form of emotional abuse, and is often used interchangeably. Both forms of abuse can produce the same effects: PTSD, low self-esteem, eating disorders, etc — and in many cases, they are also accompanied by physical violence.

Mental and emotional abuse often hide in plain sight. This makes physical abuse the most visible form of abuse. However, thoughts and emotions can cause serious harm if they can be influenced and controlled with ease.

When separating both forms of abuse, the following distinctions are helpful:

Thinking and cognition versus feelings and emotions

Emotional abuse targets a person’s feelings, it uses emotions to manipulate, punish, and achieve control. Rather than personal sentiments, mental abuse focuses on questioning and influencing a person’s way of thinking and views on reality.

Psychological abuse can cause a person to question their environment. It can leave a person constantly anxious over possible threats and can influence new behaviors. Emotional abuse will control feelings and can affect mental health.

Doubt and confusion versus shame or fear

Mental abuse is powerful enough to confuse the facts of an event that was personally witnessed. Psychological control can convince a person they just had dinner at 10 in the morning, but emotional abuse will shame them for failing to realize it quickly.

A mentally abusive person will change facts to gain control, while signs of emotional abuse include verbal threats that cause a strong reaction. 

Bottom line: Mental abuse is not your fault

There are different types of abuse. But whether you’ve experienced physical, emotional, or mental abuse, it is important to remember that nothing you had to endure can be justified. It was not, and is not,  your fault.

Abusers are very skilled at dumping the responsibility and shame for their actions on their victims. In reality, their harmful actions are deliberate and intended to cause harm. This, plus possible effects make it necessary to escape abusive environments.

Friends and family, the National Domestic Violence Helpline, and local support groups can offer help with escaping the abuse. There are also different forums on social media that can help.

With the right therapy and support system, it is always possible to overcome mental abuse.

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Published November 23, 2021

Maggie Wooll

Managing Editor

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