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Invisible bruises: Understanding emotional abuse

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Editor’s note: This is the second part in a four-part series on dealing with domestic violence. The series, written by counselors of Freedom House, will run throughout the month of October, which is Domestic Violence and Prevention Awareness Month.

That didn’t happen.

And if it did, it wasn’t that bad.

And if it was, that’s not a big deal.

And if it is, that’s not my fault.

And if it was, I didn’t mean it.

And if I did, you deserved it.

I have had numerous clients over the past few years tell me that they would rather be physically beaten than emotionally abused. Let that sink in for a moment. Each time I read the Narcissist’s Prayer in a counseling session, my clients stare in recognition at words laying in front of them. It’s as if the entirety of their abusive relationship is summed up into six short sentences; six sentences that help them to understand the emotional abuse they’ve endured.

The Narcissist’s Prayer (author unknown) illustrates the insidious tools of an emotionally abusive person: denial, gaslighting, minimizing, blame shifting and shame dumping. The effects of emotional abuse are far reaching — depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, paranoia, suicidal ideation, PTSD and poor physical health.

The adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” couldn’t be further from the truth. Emotional abuse has been referred to as the invisible scars of domestic abuse. It is not easily seen with marks and bruises or even public slander but rather through enduring, continual subtle messages over time that leave a victim uncertain of what is real and what is not.

Emotional abuse is a way to control another person by using emotions to criticize, embarrass, shame, blame or otherwise manipulate another person. Admittedly, we all say mean and hurtful things to friends, family and children, but it is when we consistently use abusive words and bullying behaviors to wear down a person’s sense of self-worth and undermine their value that it becomes emotional abuse.

Emotional abuse includes criticism, name-calling, belittling, insulting, accusations of cheating (without reason), possessiveness (always keeping tabs), constantly arguing and yelling, contempt (mean-spirited, sarcasm, arrogance, disgust, apathy), isolation, shaming and blaming (all their fault, don’t deserve better), threats (of physical harm or suicide, intimidation, blackmail), not contributing or participating in relationship (ignoring, rejecting, abandonment), and gaslighting (causing a victim to doubt their memories, judgment, reality/sanity).

The question then becomes, how does one even begin to heal from such trauma?

It begins with naming your experience. You must call it what it is — emotional abuse, followed by the realization that it is not your fault, that you cannot fix an emotionally abusive person, and that there is no excuse for their behavior. Not one single excuse. The emotionally abusive person chooses to behave as such, and it is up to them to choose otherwise.

I also encourage my clients to practice self-kindness, self-care and self-empowerment. These may entail further educating themselves on domestic violence; setting clear boundaries with their abuser (disengaging); constructing a support network; and making their mental and physical health a priority. Most importantly, it means making the invisible, visible by sharing their story or bringing the truth to light through documentation of their abuser’s behavior.

Everyone’s journey to healing looks different, but the good news is, healing can be had. The staff at Freedom House is here to help make the invisible, visible through economic and legal advocacy, counseling, and education. If you or someone you know is experiencing emotional abuse, please call us at 800-474-6031.

We see. We hear you. We believe you. And, we stand with you.

Julie Portillo is a counselor in the domestic violence program at Freedom House.