Have you ever found yourself in a relationship with someone who calls you names when they get mad? 

Or someone who throws things when they get frustrated? 

What about someone who mocks you or makes fun of you when you’re in an argument? 

All of these scenarios are examples of emotional abuse. No matter what the perpetrator might say to you, abuse is never your fault. As a psychotherapist for more than 2 decades, I can’t tell you how many smart, accomplished individuals I have spoken to who have ended up in emotionally abusive relationships.

So if this is something you have experienced or are currently experiencing, please know you are not alone. Over time, emotional abuse can damage your self-esteem, self-trust, and self-worth, which can cause you to doubt yourself and your own reality. 

That’s why in this episode I am covering how to identify emotional abuse and some safety steps to take. 

The first step is to raise your awareness of emotionally abusive behaviors so you can identify them. Abusers will mask, deny and downplay their behaviors because as long as they are getting their needs met, they don’t want things to change. They will use psychological tactics to get you to doubt yourself and your own experiences in order to maintain control.

So what is emotional abuse? 

Emotional and psychological abuse includes behaviors to scare, intimidate, shame, or isolate you driven by the abuser’s need for power and control. Emotional manipulation falls into the same category and I did an entire episode on that here. 

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but emotionally abusive behaviors can include:

  • Ridiculing you in front of other people or constant hurtful teasing
  • Persistent criticism and focusing on your weaknesses or “defects”
  • Using affection to reward or punish you
  • Never wanting to socialize with your friends or family and not wanting you to socialize with the people who are important to you
  • Physical intimidation – even if they never lay a finger on you, an abuser can intimidate you with their physical stance or expression
  • Undercutting your achievements
  • Insults and name-calling
  • Manipulating you through threats or stonewalling
  • Screaming and yelling
  • Using something you told them in confidence against you 
  • Using the way you feel about them to control you

If any of these behaviors are familiar to you, the next step is to ask yourself: where have I seen or experienced this before?

From a psychological perspective, those who have experienced or witnessed abuse, whether from a previous relationship or in their family of origin, can be more vulnerable to falling victim to these behaviors in the present. 

While that isn’t always the case, what I’ve found is if you haven’t encountered some form of abuse, you are less likely to fall victim to it because it is out of the norm of your personal lived experience. This kind of behavior would be jarring and startling. 

If any of the abusive behaviors in the list above are familiar to you, taking a closer look at your past experiences and identifying what might have been your “normal” is important to your healing and your ability to break out of the cycle of abuse. 

Inside this week’s downloadable guide, I’ve given you some questions to help you get more clarity around this. You can get the guide here now. 

How do we create emotional safety? 

In an emotionally abusive relationship, you may feel safe in one moment and feel like you are walking on eggshells the next because no trust can be built when abuse is present. 

While change is possible (and that’s where healthy boundaries come in), I want to be very clear that if you are in a relationship or a situation where you are in danger and fear physical violence, under no circumstances should you try to change the person or set a boundary. 

Your safety comes first, and that means you need to create a safe exit strategy to leave the relationship. I created a video on how to safely leave an abusive relationship and you can view that here. 

If you are in immediate danger, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline or call 911.

Some people are emotionally abusive because that’s what they have seen and experienced in the past, and they might not realize what they are doing is abuse. While there is NO excuse for abusive behavior, there are some scenarios in which healthy boundary setting can shift the dynamic.

To create an emotionally safe and more sacred union, you and your partner can agree on your relationship rules of engagement. I also have included a “Fair Fighting” list inside this week’s guide, because there are healthy ways to handle conflict in your relationship. You can grab the guide right here. 

Once you identify the emotionally abusive behavior and connect the dots to your personal history, the next step (if you are SAFE) is to communicate and set your boundaries consistently

Here is a simple 2-step process¹ you can use to set your boundaries in the heat of the moment: 

1. Name the abusive behavior and calmly ask them to stop. You don’t have to convince them of anything. Keep your request simple and clear:

Examples: 

“Please stop calling me names.”

“Please stop using things I’ve told you in confidence against me.”

“Please stop stonewalling me.”

2. If they do not stop, remove yourself physically from the situation. Leave the room, go for a walk or a drive. This is the consequence of emotionally abusive behavior. If in the moment they will not honor your request, they do not get the privilege of continuing to talk to you. 

*IMPORTANT: If you are in a relationship with someone who is violent and leaving will provoke them and put you in any kind of physical danger, this strategy is not for you. If you fear immediate physical violence, call 911 or your local emergency services.

You are the only person who can create emotional safety for yourself. Setting healthy boundaries consistently can shift you out of a repeating boundary disaster and move you into a state of more empowered emotional boundaries.

Emotional abuse is more common than you might think. It doesn’t always mean the relationship is unstable or unhealthy all the time. In my professional experience, there can be gradations of dysfunctional behaviors, so it’s not like extreme abuse and then no abuse. 

It is up to you to be the Boundary Boss in your relationship and your entire life. You get to decide what is and what is not ok with you. You do not have to tolerate emotional abuse or participate in any abusive situations. 

Again, if you are in a volatile or violent situation, I have resources for you here to help you create a safe exit strategy to leave. 

I hope this episode increased your understanding of emotional abuse, how to identify it and how to make some shifts towards a more empowered, emotionally safe life. 

As always, take care of you. 

¹https://www.focusonthefamily.com/marriage/setting-boundaries-to-create-safety-healing-an-emotionally-abusive-relationship/

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  1. Thank you for these skills! They really do work, and I have a better relationship now. Still, I am astounded as to the prevalence of outward and obvious emotional abuse all over our TV stations news channels and in political discourse! I notice it has come into our schools in playground/cyber bullying leading younger and younger children to actual suicide! I am so grateful that you are sharing this information which every person needs to understand. As a country, I feel that we all have been victimized by witnessing this behavior at the highest levels of government, which has only served to normalize this predatory behavior and cause deep wounds. Social Workers, Teachers, Therapists and others have worked tirelessly to mitigate the effects of emotional abuse, which has long-term detrimental effects on beautiful human beings. Bless you!

    1. Hi Randi,
      I’m glad this resonated with you! I agree that it’s easy to spot this type of emotional abuse in so many areas of life and it’s important to do the work to mitigate the effects. ❤️

  2. Thank you, Thank you Terri Cole… all the signs of emotional abuse you covered are hugely helpful. My previous two relationships showed varying degrees of these behaviours. Being excluded from friends & family social gatherings I couldn’t understand, I believed is was his fiercely independent character trait.

    You are a Godsend Goddess helping us all negotiate this thing called life & relationships. Showers of blessing to you.
    Sending love & hugs xx

    1. Hi Alannah,
      Thank you for being here and for sharing ❤️ I’m glad this resonated and I’m holding space for you with so much compassion ?

  3. I’ve lived my entire life feeling unsafe and unprotected (60 years), and have been in 2 long-term relationships with emotionally abusive men. I realize that the blueprint was set from my mother, who used the silent treatment toward me from my earliest years. I didn’t know when I could trust her or when she would turn on me and either cut me out or harangue the crap out of me, blaming me for her inner unhappiness. This has hijacked my life. I am in two 12 step programs. I often feel adrift and isolated, even though I attend meetings and use the telephone, and have for many years. I’m reading your book and others, listening to you and others, and trying my damnedest to heal. [I do love your book!] Still, though I’ve made progress, it’s been painfully slow and to tell the truth, I’m very lonely. My biggest goal is to develop self-love, and to see myself as a beautiful, creative person with gifts to offer; yet I’m often overcome with inner pain that tears me down, and such intense loneliness. Thank you for reading this and for the beautiful work you do.

    1. Hi Louise,
      Thank you for sharing this and offering your story ❤️ I’m holding space for you with so much compassion as you continue to do this incredibly difficult and rewarding work. ? I’m cheering you on along the way and believing in your strength to continue this path!

  4. Thank you Terri for covering this issue. I have had to confront my latest relationship over this issue as he has had a tendency, when angry to go into name calling, hang up the phone abruptly, and refused to talk to me, etc. I finally wrote down what about this behavior was aggressive and abusive and call him out on it by telling him how much it hurt me and that he needed to find a way to express his anger without doing that . He was angry about what I wrote to him at first, but I made it very clear to him why this needs to change if we are going to stay together. I explained to him because of my background with emotional abuse in my family that it was too much of an emotional trigger for me to accept that from him. It’s been better now since he now understands why I won’t accept that behavior. Identifying the behavior and explaining clearly why it was unacceptable helped a great deal here. There have been no further incidents thus far, and he has a clear understanding of what is acceptable. Your work has taught me a great deal about the importance of boundaries in my life.

    1. Hi Yvonne,
      Thank you for sharing this! I’m so happy to hear that you were able to set boundaries and tell your partner what you are not willing to tolerate. I’m grateful you were able to do this for yourself and for your future self ❤️

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