I am writing about what it means to be emotionally abused because I was recently emotionally abused… that’s not bragging. It definitely wasn’t on my bucket list. Most of my learning comes from firsthand experience, which is great because experience is the best teacher for engraining the lesson in your head, but some things are preferably read in a book… you know, like being emotionally abused.
I should point out that people need to be very careful when using the “a” word about a situation. You should never casually throw it around because it can be very hurtful to the accused, which can lead to a bad situation. This is especially important because abuse is different than an attack or someone just being mean. It’s deeper than that. I’ve worked with people who claimed they were abused and when I ask questions about the situation that wasn’t the case. The common situation is a person says their partner verbally abused them and when I ask if their response was fearful silence like someone in the metaphoric fetal position taking the hit, they’re surprised and say something like, “Of course not. They were yelling at me, so I had to yell back.” This is not abuse. This is a fight. If it’s two parties equally lashing out, that’s not abuse. Abuse is more about one person being beaten down without the ability to fight back. When there’s abuse, the recipient will leave like their soul has been a little bit crushed.
A couple points to consider are:
- Being emotionally abused is not a sign of weakness: Even people like me who strive to be a role model of emotional health can end up being put into this position.
- It’s a surprise: When emotional abuse happens, it’s like a tsunami wave that takes you by surprise. There’s no real way to prepare for it, which leaves the recipient vulnerable. This is why it can happen even to a trained therapist like me. Afterwards you might be able to see there were warning signs, but in the moment it’s quite overwhelming.
- You get bottled up: After my situation I had to vent to get out the feelings. I chose to yell in the car for awhile and then I talked to my wife about it. The person who attacked me would have still been angry after our situation to vent, but they dominated the situation while I took it for fear of making things worse.
- The attacker likely has depression or anxiety: It can seem strange, but people who emotionally abuse likely suffer from depression or anxiety, which is why the attack ends up being so cruel for the other person. Their issues add to their lack of empathy or understanding of the other person’s feelings.
As stupid as it sounds, my lesson on emotional abuse happened during a therapy session I was leading. I’ve had some really volatile situations in my office and I’ve always been able to calm them down, but not this time. When I’m in my therapist chair I’m very assertive and confident. When I’m not in my chair… that can be a very different story, especially when talking to a celebrity: “Huhn huhn, you’re like famous… wow… cool.” Yeah, it’s that sad. Like any first session, I go over some basic questions and then I teach an exercise, and in this case, I chose to use a tool I commonly use to help explain the dynamics of conflict. It’s a very good exercise… ironically it led to a very bad situation. After 45 minutes into the session things were pretty normal until I said a very simple comment that triggered something and it went very, very badly; hence, I’m writing about being emotionally abused. This person was like Thanos from the Marvel series, where whatever is used against him, it’s turned into a weapon and thrown back. To be honest, it was kind of impressive how creative this person was at spinning everything. They twisted things I’ve used that have helped some very angry clients. Not this time. Everything failed. I essentially had to resort to just taking what the person said. This whole thing lasted about twenty five minutes and part way through I could feel myself shaking from the anxiety that had built inside me. In a normal situation I would’ve taken a five minute time out to regain my senses about ten minutes into the attack after trying some things, but for this, I just wanted it to end and hopefully get paid, so I had to just take it. I claim this was an experience of emotional abuse and not just a disagreement because of the following:
- The one person is clearly dominant: There was no question in this situation who dominated the situation; for every one sentence I said before being interrupted, there was two to five minutes of them talking.
- Anxiety: During their one lengthy talking spell, my body started shaking from anxiety. It was the kind of feeling that makes you want to curl into a ball and hide in the corner.
- Emotions are high: This person never yelled, which means it wasn’t verbal abuse, but the bitterness and contempt they had was palpable.
- Passive Aggressive: This person was classic passive aggressive communication style. They used mind games, guilt trips, said sorry without meaning it, twisted everything I said and used it against me, and there was absolutely no remorse. Emotional abuse always comes out of passive aggressive behaviour, but not all passive aggressive behaviour leads to emotional abuse.
- Playing the victim: This is also a passive aggressive move, but it’s so fundamental in emotional abuse I wanted to make it its own point. This person played the victim so well when I very gently said that I felt hurt by the way they spoke down to me, they twisted it to angrily say how much that hurt them. When I said that I felt anxious because of the way they spoke to me, they spun it that my feelings didn’t matter because they were all the more. Everything was all about them.
- It’s hard to accept you were abused: A passive aggressive person is more likely to claim they’ve been abused when they weren’t (they want to play the victim) while the passive person who is abused will likely just take it. If I hadn’t had my training, I would’ve just assumed it was a terrible moment, but it was in fact an abusive situation.
- Threat of death: You know you’re in the emotional abuse category if the other person says something like “If you leave me, I will kill myself” or “You’d feel bad if I died.” This is clearly a severe control and punishing move.
- Lack of other awareness: During this twenty five minute experience, I saw the partner of the attacker visually shrink. They looked terrified. They looked the way I felt. Again, even though the other person said they were the one who was hurt, they were the one talking and talking while the partner and I were visually scared and there was no hint of concern because they were more worried about themselves. You could argue the attacker was feeling guilt, so that spurred on the attack, but this person seemed very self absorbed.
- Confusing: When it’s over, you’re confused. Because it was like a tsunami wave, you’re left wondering what just happened and why the person was so upset. There wasn’t any physical violence and there wasn’t any direct insults or yelling, but there was this condescending cruelty that took place, which is why it falls under emotional abuse.
- Questioning yourself: Emotional abuse can make you feel like you’re crazy or you did something wrong when the other person just twisted everything.
Tip: If someone in the relationship is too scared to talk, that’s a sign there’s a power imbalance and something needs to be addressed.
Important Point: If the person who abused me read this, their response would likely be to say I was the abuser, which is another reason we want to be careful using the “abuse” title for a situation, especially around the accused. I’m safe because this happened awhile ago and there’s no way this person is reading my post.
Important Fact: It is our responsibility to prevent this from happening again. I may have been surprised when it happened, but it’s up to me to prevent it from happening again.
This week may you learn how to protect yourself and your relationships from imbalanced attacks.
Rev Chad David, ChadDavid.ca, learning to love dumb people