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Emotional Abuse

Sexual and physical abuse are just the tip of the abuse iceberg. The bulk of the abuse in the "developed" countries in the world today is emotional abuse. --Steve Hein


What is Emotional Abuse? (1)

Types of Emotional Abuse

Abusive expectations, Aggressing, Constant Chaos, Denying, Dominating,Emotional Blackmail
Minimizing, Unpredictable Responses, Verbal Assaults

Understanding Abusive Relationships

Are You Abusive to Yourself?

Basic Needs in Relationships

Characteristics of Emotionally Abused People

Signs of Abusive, Authority Based Relationships

How to Deal With Emotionally Abusive Parents

How to Help Someone Who Is Being Abused

Emotionally Abusive Mothers

Emotionally Abusive Fathers

Emotionally Abusive Parents

How To Know If Your Parents Are Abusing You

Two Kinds of Parents

Emotional Abuse vs. Emotional Neglect

It's not about me - Message for Parents

Parental Alienation

Susceptibility to Narcissists


Teenagers and Abuse

"I'm fine"

Emotional Bank Account

Letter About an Emotionally Abusive Man

Use your Pain

Notes from book "Emotional Fitness"

Emotionally Abusive Schools...


Emotional Abuse in Romeo and Juliet

Video/Tape of extremely verbally abusive mother

Video of American Judge and his wife beating their 16 year old daughter with belts

New page on Emotional Neglect

Abuse, Self-Destructive Behavior

Psychologist's Advice for Parents: Encouraging Emotional Abuse?

Abusive Governments

Recommended Books

Some Old Personal Notes from S. Hein


- Verbal Abuse

- National Self-Injury Awareness Day

Core Components of EQI.org

Respect | Empathy
Caring | Listening

Other EQI.org Topics:

Emotional Literacy
Invalidation | Hugs
Emotional Abuse |
Feeling Words
Depression |Education
Emotional Intelligence
Parenting | Personal Growth

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EQI.org Library and Bookstore


"Abuse victims are always the best actors.  They have to be, to live their whole lives with the pain and shame, pretending there is nothing wrong.  It's the greatest performance of all."


Letters from the Unloved
: The Hidden World of Teen Depression

This is a book which helps show the link between emotional abuse, self-harm and depression, especially among teenagers. Here is a preview of the book which shows about 50 pages from the book.

Here is a free PDF copy of the complete book.

You can also order this book in paperback from Lulu.com.

S. Hein



I created this page a long time ago, mostly to try to help suicidal and self-harming teens see how they are being emotionally abused in their homes. I want to add now that I am still suffering from the effects of being emotionally abused when I was growing up. Much of my personal writing reflects what happened to me. I don't really like to say that I was abused. I hesitate to use that word. It is easy to use it when I see what has happened, but harder for me to use it when I talk about myself. It is is easier to say things like "They should teach all children and teens about emotional abuse and invalidation and how to show emotional support and be your own best friend when you have no emotional support at home or in school." Sometimes writing about other people's abuse, or trying to help them, is a way of avoiding our own pain, but sometimes it might also help us get in touch with it. In any case, I hope this page helps raise people's awareness.

Steve Hein
Feb 6, 2006

Jan 2012 update - all of the above still applies.

Sept 2013 - All of the above still applies but now I am more willing to say that I was emotionally abused at home. I was also physically abused at school (hit with a board on two occasions by teachers) and I was sexually abused by a university professor. I feel sad when I look back at my "education."

PS - If you are not familiar with me and my site, I'll just say I have been traveling literally around the world trying to find happiness or at least reduce my pain. Now my partner (who was also physically and emotionally abused at home and emotionally and intellectually abused at school) and I are living in Uruguay for the indefinite future. - S. Hein Sept 2013

Teens, Internet, Emotional Neglect

Why Couples Counseling in Abusive Relationships Doesn’t Work

Jan 2010 - It's good to use feeling words..

Oct 2009 Letter from Reader - A not so comforting mother

Letter from 31 Year Old

Abuse, Marriage, Teenagers

Abusive Environments

Emotional Abuse, Parents, Teenagers, Partners | Letter from a Uni student

Suggestions when a younger family member is being abused

What is Emotional Abuse?

Abuse is any behavior that is designed to control and subjugate another human being through the use of fear, humiliation, intimidation, guilt, coercion, manipulation etc. Emotional abuse is any kind of abuse that is emotional rather than physical in nature. It can include anything from verbal abuse and constant criticism to more subtle tactics, such as repeated disapproval or even the refusal to ever be pleased.

Emotional abuse is like brain washing in that it systematically wears away at the victim's self-confidence, sense of self-worth, trust in their own perceptions, and self-concept. Whether it is done by constant berating and belittling, by intimidation, or under the guise of "guidance," "teaching", or "advice," the results are similar. Eventually, the recipient of the abuse loses all sense of self and remnants of personal value. Emotional abuse cuts to the very core of a person, creating scars that may be far deeper and more lasting that physical ones. In fact there is research to this effect. With emotional abuse, the insults, insinuations, criticism and accusations slowly eat away at the victim's self-esteem until she is incapable of judging the situation realistically. She has become so beaten down emotionally that she blames herself for the abuse. Her self-esteem is so low that she clings to the abuser.

Emotional abuse victims can become so convinced that they are worthless that they believe that no one else could want them. They stay in abusive situations because they believe they have nowhere else to go. Their ultimate fear is being all alone.


Emotional abuse can also be called psychological abuse, mental abuse. If it occurs within a family it can be called psychological incest or emotional incest.

Types of Emotional Abuse

Abusive Expectations

  • The other person places unreasonable demands on you and wants you to put everything else aside to tend to their needs.
  • It could be a demand for constant attention, or a requirement that you spend all your free time with the person.
  • But no matter how much you give, it's never enough.
  • You are subjected to constant criticism, and you are constantly berated because you don't fulfill all this person's needs.


  • Aggressive forms of abuse include name-calling, accusing, blaming, threatening, and ordering. Aggressing behaviors are generally direct and obvious. The one-up position the abuser assumes by attempting to judge or invalidate the recipient undermines the equality and autonomy that are essential to healthy adult relationships. This parent-child pattern of communication (which is common to all forms of verbal abuse) is most obvious when the abuser takes an aggressive stance.
  • Aggressive abuse can also take a more indirect form and may even be disguised and "helping." Criticizing, advising, offering solutions, analyzing, proving, and questioning another person may be a sincere attempt to help. In some instances however, these behaviors may be an attempt to belittle, control, or demean rather than help. The underlying judgmental "I know best" tone the abuser takes in these situations is inappropriate and creates unequal footing in peer relationships. This and other types of emotional abuse can lead to what is known as learned helplessness.

Constant Chaos

  • The other person may deliberately start arguments and be in constant conflict with others.
  • The person may be "addicted to drama" since it creates excitement.


  • Denying a person's emotional needs, especially when they feel that need the most, and done with the intent of hurting, punishing or humiliating (Examples)
  • The other person may deny that certain events occurred or that certain things were said. confronts the abuser about an incident of name calling, the abuser may insist, "I never said that," "I don't know what you're talking about," etc. You know differently.
  • The other person may deny your perceptions, memory and very sanity.
  • Withholding is another form of denying. Withholding includes refusing to listen, refusing to communicate, and emotionally withdrawing as punishment. This is sometimes called the "silent treatment."
  • When the abuser disallows and overrules any viewpoints, perceptions or feelings which differ from their own.
  • Denying can be particularly damaging. In addition to lowering self-esteem and creating conflict, the invalidation of reality, feelings, and experiences can eventually lead you to question and mistrust your own perceptions and emotional experience.
  • Denying and other forms of emotional abuse can cause you to lose confidence in your most valuable survival tool: your own mind.


  • Someone wants to control your every action. They have to have their own way, and will resort to threats to get it.
  • When you allow someone else to dominate you, you can lose respect for yourself.

Emotional Blackmail

  • The other person plays on your fear, guilt, compassion, values, or other "hot buttons" to get what they want.
  • This could include threats to end the relationship, totally reject or abandon you, giving you the the "cold shoulder," or using other fear tactics to control you.


  • The abuser seeks to distort or undermine the recipient's perceptions of their world. Invalidating occurs when the abuser refuses or fails to acknowledge reality. For example, if the recipient tells the person they felt hurt by something the abuser did or said, the abuser might say "You are too sensitive. That shouldn't hurt you." Here is a much more complete description of invalidation


  • Minimizing is a less extreme form of denial. When minimizing, the abuser may not deny that a particular event occurred, but they question the recipient's emotional experience or reaction to an event. Statements such as "You're too sensitive," "You're exaggerating," or "You're blowing this out of proportion" all suggest that the recipient's emotions and perceptions are faulty and not be trusted.
  • Trivializing, which occurs when the abuser suggests that what you have done or communicated is inconsequential or unimportant, is a more subtle form of minimizing.

Unpredictable Responses

  • Drastic mood changes or sudden emotional outbursts. Whenever someone in your life reacts very differently at different times to the same behavior from you, tells you one thing one day and the opposite the next, or likes something you do one day and hates it the next, you are being abused with unpredictable responses.
  • This behavior is damaging because it puts you always on edge. You're always waiting for the other shoe to drop, and you can never know what's expected of you. You must remain hypervigilant, waiting for the other person's next outburst or change of mood.
  • An alcoholic or drug abuser is likely to act this way. Living with someone like this is tremendously demanding and anxiety provoking, causing the abused person to feel constantly frightened, unsettled and off balance.

Verbal Assaults

  • Berating, belittling, criticizing, name calling, screaming, threatening

  • Excessive blaming, and using sarcasm and humiliation.

  • Blowing your flaws out of proportion and making fun of you in front of others. Over time, this type of abuse erodes your sense of self confidence and self-worth.

Understanding Abusive Relationships

No one intends to be in an abusive relationship, but individuals who were verbally abused by a parent or other significant person often find themselves in similar situations as an adult. If a parent tended to define your experiences and emotions, and judge your behaviors, you may not have learned how to set your own standards, develop your own viewpoints and validate your own feeling and perceptions. Consequently, the controlling and defining stance taken by an emotional abuser may feel familiar or even conformable to you, although it is destructive.

Recipients of abuse often struggle with feelings of powerlessness, hurt, fear, and anger. Ironically abusers tend to struggle with these same feelings. Abuser are also likely to have been raised in emotionally abusive environments and they learn to be abusive as a way to cope with their own feelings of powerlessness, hurt , fear, and anger. Consequently, abusers may be attracted to people who see themselves as helpless or who have not learned to value their own feelings, perceptions, or viewpoints. This allows the abuser to feel more secure and in control, and avoid dealing with their own feelings, and self-perceptions.

Emotional abuse victims can become so convinced that they are worthless that they believe that no one else could want them. They stay in abusive situations because they believe they have nowhere else to go. Their ultimate fear is being all alone.

Understanding the pattern of your relationships, specially those with family members and other significant people, is a fist step toward change. A lack of clarity about who you are in relationship to significant others may manifest itself in different ways. For example, you may act as an "abuser" in some instances and as a "recipient" in others. You may find that you tend to be abused in your romantic relationships, allowing your partners to define and control you. In friendships, however, you may play the role of abuser by withholding, manipulating, trying to "help" others, etc. Knowing yourself and understanding your past can prevent abuse from being recreated in your life.

Are You Abusive to Yourself?

Often we allow people into our lives who treat us as we expect to be treated. If we feel contempt for ourselves or think very little of ourselves, we may pick partners or significant others who reflect this image back to us. If we are willing to tolerate negative treatment from others, or treat others in negative ways, it is possible that we also treat ourselves similarly. If you are an abuser or a recipient, you may want to consider how you treat yourself. What sorts of things do you say to yourself? Do thoughts such as "I'm stupid" or "I never do anything right" dominate your thinking? Learning to love and care for ourselves increases self-esteem and makes it more likely that we will have healthy, intimate relationships.

Basic Needs in Relationships

If you have been involved in emotionally abusive relationships, you may not have a clear idea of what a healthy relationship is like. Evna (1992) suggests the following as basic needs in a relationship for you and your partner: (I have changed this from "rights" to "needs" and made other small changes- S.Hein)

  • The need for good will from the others.
  • The need for emotional support.
  • The need to be heard by the other and to be responded to with respect and acceptance
  • The need to have your own view, even if others have a different view.
  • The need to have your feelings and experience acknowledged as real.
  • The need to receive a sincere apology for any jokes or actions you find offensive.
  • The need for clear, honest and informative answers to questions about what affects you.
  • The need to for freedom from accusation, interrogation and blame.
  • The need to live free from criticism and judgment.
  • The need to have your work and your interests respected.
  • The need for encouragement.
  • The need for freedom from emotional and physical threat.
  • The need for freedom from from angry outburst and rage.
  • The need for freedom from labels which devalue you.
  • The need to be respectfully asked rather than ordered.
  • The need to have your final decisions accepted.
  • The need for privacy at times.

See also human emotional needs

Recommended Books

  1. The Emotionally Abused Woman: Overcoming Destructive Patterns and Reclaiming Yourself, Beverly Engel
  2. The Emotionally Abusive Relationship: How to Stop Being Abused and How to Stop Abusing, Beverly Engel
  3. Evans, Patricia. The Verbally Abusive Relationship: How to Recognize It and How to respond. Holbrook, Massachusetts: Bob Adams, Inc., 1992.
  4. Stalking the Soul: Emotional Abuse and the Erosion of Identity

  5. Emotional Fitness

Having Your Needs Denied

One way of looking at emotional abuse is being denied the thing you need when you need it the most. John Bradshaw says something similar to this. He said we were most shamed at the times when we were most in need.

Here are some examples. They are based on true stories we have heard over the years from teens. Some of these stories have been collected in our book, Letters from the Unloved.


Teenage David goes into his room with his girlfriend who is crying and very upset about some problems at home and school. He locks the door because his mother and father have been walking in on the two of them without knocking. Just as he is giving her a supportive hug, his father tries to come in and finds the door is locked. He is furious. He bangs on the door. David opens it. His father accuses him of locking the door so he can have sex, embarrassing David and upsetting David's girlfriend even more. As punishment, the father takes the door off the hinges and removes it completely. He says, "This is my house and I won't have anyone locking the doors on me!"

Later that month, with the door to his bedroom still removed, David and his girlfriend are up late watching TV. His parents go to bed. David and his girlfriend wait till they think it is safe and then sneak downstairs to the basement and start making love. Suddenly the father comes in and turns on the lights.

When David needed privacy his father violated it. Even worse, he humiliated and shamed him.


When Becca was 12 she went to her father and said "I feel like crying...." She wanted and needed to be comforted. She needed reassurance and wanted to know she would be accepted by her father, even when she not happy and smiling. Her father said uncaringly, "Well go cry then."

When she needed comfort, acceptance and reassurance, she got rejection. (See more stories about crying.)


Carolyn did not feel understood or accepted by her mother, so she spent a lot of time on the Internet writing poetry in her online journal and chatting with her friends who had similar problems with their parents. Her mother decided Carolyn was spending too much time on the Internet, so she had it canceled completely.

When Carolyn most needed emotional support and a safe outlet for her feelings and thoughts, she was denied it by the person society has entrusted and empowered with filling her basic emotional needs.


Characteristics of Emotionally Abused People

Here are two lists of characteristics of emotionally abused people:

List 1 - Based on studies of Adult Children of Alcoholics

This list is from the work of Janet Geringer Woititz. She did her original work on adult children of alcoholics, but I believe her findings can be generalized to people who were emotionally abused in general. Certainly all children of alcoholics were emotionally abused.

  • Can only guess at what healthy behavior is.
  • Have trouble completing things
  • Lie when they don't need to. Lying might have been a survival tactic in the home. (She explains that perhaps the child learned from parents who lied to cover up problems or avoid conflict. Or simply to avoid harsh punishment, or to get needed attention. But as an adult, that tactic is no longer appropriate.)
  • Judge themselves without mercy.
  • Have trouble accepting compliments.
  • Often take responsibility for problems, but not successes.
  • Or they go to the other extreme and refuse to take any responsibility for mistakes while trying to take credit for the work of others.
  • Have trouble having fun since their childhoods were lost, stolen, repressed.
  • Take themselves very seriously or not seriously at all.
  • Have difficulty with intimate relationships.
  • Expect others to just "know what they want." (They can't express it because they were so often disappointed as children that they learned to stop asking for things.)
  • Over-react to things beyond their control.
  • Constantly seek approval & affirmation.
  • Feel different from others.
  • Are extremely loyal, even when facing overwhelming evidence that their loyalty is undeserved.
  • Are either super responsible or super irresponsible.
  • Tend to lock themselves into a course of action without giving serious consideration to alternative behaviors or possible consequences. (This impulsiveness leads to confusion, self-loathing, and loss of control over their environment. The result is they spend much energy blaming others, feeling victimized and cleaning up messes.)

She also makes this observation:

Intelligent people, through their ability to analyze, often realize things which are disconcerting, which others would not see. They also are often capable of feeling more deeply, both pain and joy.

Janet wrote this before the term emotional intelligence was popularized. Now we could say that emotionally intelligent people, through their ability to feel and analyze, often realize things which are disconcerting, which others would not see. They also are often capable of feeling more deeply, both pain and joy.

-- Adapted from Struggle for Intimacy, by Janet Gerringer Woititz

List 2 - Source unknown

  • Feelings of low self- esteem (they say as a result of being criticized.)
  • We perpetuate these parental messages by judging ourselves and others harshly. We try to cover up our poor opinions of ourselves by being perfectionistic, controlling, contemptuous and gossipy.
  • We tend to isolate ourselves out of fear and we feel often uneasy around other people, especially authority figures.
  • We are desperate for love and approval and will do anything to make people like us. Not wanting to hurt others, we remain "loyal" in situations and relationships even when evidence indicates our loyalty is undeserved. (I would say not wanting to lose them, having an extremely hard time "letting go.")
  • We are intimidated by angry people and personal criticism. This causes us to feel inadequate and insecure. (I would say it further adds to our feelings of inadequacy and insecurity.)
  • We continue to attract emotionally unavailable people with addictive personalities.
  • We live life as victims, blaming others for our circumstances, and are attracted to other victims (and people with power) as friends and lovers. We confuse love with pity and tend to "love" people we can pity and rescue. (And we confuse love with need)
  • We are either super-responsible or super-irresponsible. We take responsibility for solving others' problems or expect others to be responsible for solving ours. This enables us to avoid being responsible for our own lives and choices.
  • We feel guilty when we stand up for ourselves or act in our own best interests. We give in to others' needs and opinions instead of taking care of ourselves.
  • We deny, minimize or repress our feelings as a result of our traumatic childhoods. We are unaware of the impact that our inability to identify and express our feelings has had on our adult lives.
  • We are dependent personalities who are so terrified of rejection or abandonment that we tend to stay in situations or relationships that are harmful to us. Our fears and dependency stop us form ending unfulfilling relationships and prevent us from entering into fulfilling ones. (I would add because we feel so unlovable it is difficult or impossible to believe anyone can really love us, and won't eventually leave us once they see how "bad" we are.)
  • Denial, isolation, control, shame, and inappropriate guilt are legacies from our family of origin. As a result of these symptoms, we feel hopeless and helpless.
  • We have difficulty with intimacy, security, trust, and commitment in our relationships. Lacking clearly defined personal limits and boundaries, we become enmeshed in our partner's needs and emotions. (ie become codependent)
  • We tend to procrastinate and have difficulty following project through from beginning to end.
  • We have a strong need to be in control. We overreact to change things over which we have no control

See also this list of Characteristics of Emotionally Abusive Mothers

Signs of Abusive, Authority Based Relationships

This page has moved here.

From a Social Worker in Canberra, Australia

While chatting with a social worker in the YHA here, I asked her which is worse emotional or physical abuse... She said emotional abuse is almost alway present when there is physical abuse because it is loss of trust.

I'd say there is also a loss of security. And physical abuse is emotional abuse because it is using one person to fill another's unmet emotional need to feel in control.

She also said emotional abuse can be worse because it can go unnoticed.She said "If you come to a hospital with a broken bone people will do something about it."

So that made me wonder, "What if you come in with a broken spirit?

S. Hein
April 2, 2011
Franz Joseph, New Zealand

Newsletter: if you would like to be on our mailing list for future articles about abuse, parenting, relationships, please send me a short email. Steve  

National Self-Injury Awareness Day

March 1st is National Self-Injury Awareness Day in several countries including the USA, England and Australia.

Here is an article bout how little news coverage the day gets:


1.Adapted from University of Illinois Counseling Center and http://www.bpdcentral.com/resources/abuse/evabuse.shtml

2. Abuse victims...Richard Dreyfuss in "Silent Fall" (1994) (Morgan Creek Productions - Warner Bros.) Written by Akiva Goldsman

You may not know much about this issue. A Google news search turned up one article, in the independent Charleston Gazette.

I am meaningfully aware that people self-injure only through a friend’s yearly blog post to mark self-injury awareness day:

“We are male and female. We are artists, athletes, students, and business owners. We have depression, DID, PTSD, eating disorders, borderline personalities, bipolar disorder, or maybe no formal diagnosis at all. Some of us were abused, some were not. We are straight, bi, and gay. We come from all walks of life and can be any age. We are every single race or religion that you can possibly think of. Our common link is this: We are in pain. We self-injure. And we are not freaks.”

The American Self-Harm Information Clearinghouse wrote (when last updated in 2002) that about “1% of the United States population uses physical self-injury as a way of dealing with overwhelming feelings or situations,” but the Mayo Clinic estimates “about 3 percent to 5 percent of Americans have deliberately hurt themselves at some point in their lives.” (Neither scope assessment includes harmful eating disorders.)

This is a health and mental health issue affecting a significant number of people, yet the media reflection of ourselves hides it.

I started out blogging on IdeaLab asking What is News? and What is Your Definition of News?

To me, news is what matters: how many people are affected, and how seriously?

By this definition, our major news media fail terribly every day. Self-injury, indeed, is minor in impact compared to the deaths, incarceration, illnesses, mistreatment, challenges, and denied opportunities people face without commensurate or consistent media focus.

One of the only organizations that I know of in the U.S. for covering the day-to-day things that matter as news is not print, but radio- Free Speech Radio News, if only because their reporting doesn’t stop at the border of country or celebrity. (Disclosure: I am on the FSRN board of directors, which has no connection to news policy.)

In most media, most of the time, just about anything big and important that affects a lot of people regularly over a long period of time gets virtually ignored or covered as isolated incidents.

Of course, every ongoing matter of importance is always generating news events. And good news is news too. From my friend’s post again:

I haven’t cut in almost 2 1/2 months. To some, that seems like nothing. Great, you beat it. Not so easy, I’m afraid. It’s a daily struggle, it always has been and it probably always will be. Decisions aren’t so easy to make sometimes, and the decision not to cut is often the hardest decision I have to make in a day.

There has to be some newsprint space among the ads, some television time between the commercials, some reporter talent amidst the cutbacks to dedicate to simply reporting on the human condition.

Creating a day, or a week, or a month for every conceivable cause or issue is a desperate plea for help.

And media must listen.

Forget about the hottest new viral video web 4.x social network. If news organizations don’t cover what affects us, in ways that can make a difference, more and more people will instead be reading (and commenting on) their friends’ writing on LiveJournal.

--- Note from Steve - In 2013, when I checked Google, there were still only 3 results.

From http://www.pbs.org/idealab/2008/03/national-awareness-days-are-a-cry-for-help005/