Emotional Abuse

“I wanted to tell you all my secrets, but you became one of them.”

– Author Unknown

“It’s my fault,” she cried. “It’s all my fault!”

Father and I had arrived on the scene of a vehicle fire – an old pickup truck ablaze on the side of a country road.  We were just returning from town when we happened upon it. A man wearing coveralls was standing next to a sobbing woman and a boy about ten years old.

“I can’t do anything right,” said the woman. “I do everything wrong.”

“What’s happened here?” asked Father.

The man shrugged. “Truck belongs to them.” He motioned with the thumb to the woman and boy. At the time, the boy was a few years younger than I. His face was expressionless.

The man – a farmer – happened to be working in a nearby field, and when he saw the commotion came over to investigate. Apparently, the truck had quit suddenly, and when the farmer opened the hood to assess the reason, everything immediately went up in flames.   

“I should have known better,” she said, sobbing. “I’m so stupid.”

Right then, we heard a large whump. The gas tank had exploded, and the whole vehicle was now engulfed in flames. The woman crumpled to the ground with a whimper.

“It’s hopeless,” she sobbed. “I’m such a fool.”

“Yep,” said the boy. “You sure are stupid.”

Looking back, I realize that I was witnessing the response to a crisis from a person with exceptionally poor self-esteem. I discovered some time later that the woman was involved in an emotionally abusive relationship with her husband. No doubt the boy – having witnessed his father’s treatment of his mother – began to look at her with equal disdain.

Unlike physical abuse, the scars of emotional abuse are within. Emotional abuse undermines our sense of self-worth and destroys our self-esteem. And emotional abuse can happen between parents and children, a husband and wife, and even relatives and friends.

Wondering if you’re in an abusive relationship? Consider the following questions. Does someone

  • make fun of you or put you down in front of others?
  • complain that you’re too sensitive if you take offence?
  • tell you that your thoughts or opinions are wrong?
  • regularly ridicule or dismiss your feelings?
  • remove or withhold love and affection?
  • constantly violate your boundaries?
  • remind you of your shortcomings?
  • belittle your accomplishments?
  • treat you like a child?
  • lack empathy for you?

Emotional abuse is any behaviour designed to control and subjugate another person.  It can include verbal abuse and constant criticism to more subtle tactics such as intimidation, manipulation or trivializing. Even when under the guise of teaching, guiding or managing, the results are similar – the eroding of self-worth and personal value loss.

No one would set out deliberately to be abused – at least not consciously. Often, children who were verbally abused by a parent (or by a sibling) will find themselves in a similar regrettable situation as adults. Suppose someone else constantly defined their experiences and emotions, judged their behaviour, and invalidated their feelings and opinions. In that case, they may seek out someone in a relationship to continue the process – someone with whom they can feel at home.

Studies have shown that emotional abuse recipients struggle with feelings of being powerless and unworthy – overwhelmed by fear and inadequacy. Oddly enough, abusers often share the same sentiments – only the abuser will project their feelings outward. Thus abuser and abused find themselves strangely attracted to each other. The abuser feels secure and in control while the abused feels a curious sense of familiarity and, oddly enough, comfort.

Recognizing the patterns of abuse in relationships is the first step toward change. In truth, we often allow people into our lives who treat us as we expect to be treated. If we feel poorly about ourselves, we may choose a partner who reflects this image back to us. If we feel unlovable or unworthy of love, we may choose someone incapable of expressing love.

This is a form of self-abuse – getting only what we feel (at some level) we deserve. Consider the words you might hear from an abuser – they might be the same words you’d say to yourself: “I’m stupid, I can’t do anything right, I should have known better, I’m hopeless.”

Breaking destructive patterns of abuse is a process that will take time, self-awareness and likely professional intervention. Perhaps the first step is to acknowledge the elements of a healthy relationship. Sadly, many people do not know what a healthy relationship looks like.

Suppose I were to create a bill of relationship rights. In that case, it might read like this: You have the right to emotional support, to be heard and treated with respect, to an opposing point of view, to your feelings, to a sincere apology when you’ve been hurt or wronged, to encouragement, to a life free from emotional and physical threats, anger or manipulation, to be without unwarranted criticism or judgment, to be loved, honoured, cherished and respected.

It seems the element most lacking in emotionally abusive relationships is compassion. Compassion for others and ourselves blossoms forth naturally from healthy self-esteem.

Steven Stosny, PhD, relationship expert and author of Love Without Hurt, writes, “Emotional abuse does not result from storms of anger. It emerges during droughts of compassion.”

Learning to love and care for ourselves is an aspect of healthy self-esteem. The better our self-image, the more likely we are to find ourselves in a healthy, mutually compassionate relationship.

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