SUBTLE EMOTIONAL ABUSE
We know and recognize that physical abuse is destructive. We also know that verbal abuse is destructive. What many people don’t recognize is subtle emotional abuse. This type of abuse does not involve physical intimidation, name calling, or obvious threats. Subtle abuse can be seen in any relationship that involves two people. It can affect relationships between parents and children, siblings, friends, neighbors, employers, co-workers, and friends.
Any relationship that sucks the life force out of you may be abusive. Any relationship that consistently makes you feel badly about yourself and your abilities is probably abusive. Any relationship that leaves you feeling demeaned, belittled and crazy is definitely abusive. How does this happen and how can we recognize the quiet abusive relationship?
There are countless forms of emotional abuse. The first thing to be aware of are patterns that somehow make you feel you are in the wrong even when you did not do anything wrong. Guilt equals manipulation, always in the best interest of the person using the guilt and never for the person on the receiving end. That is a strong statement. Think about it. You are talking to someone and they sigh, maybe roll their eyes, and follow up with a criticism that appears valid on the surface but in reality is demeaning and guilt inducing. For example, “The show I wanted to watch started when you were in the bathroom so I didn’t bother to watch it tonight”. Since when do we always need company when watching a TV show? Can we really control when we need to use the bathroom?
Everything you say is wrong. The other person in the relationship is not yelling at you or obviously demeaning you. They simply don’t seem to agree with anything you say to the point that you begin to think you are not very smart and you start to keep your thoughts and opinions to yourself. You are left feeling discounted on a regular basis. Maybe the other person in your life is a withdrawer and you are on the receiving end of withdrawal from emotional intimacy. It may not be the silent treatment per se, but the other person is quiet or obviously directs their interactions to other people.
Another form of subtle emotional abuse is the chronic use of joking and sarcasm to put you down and then discount you even further when you try to address the abuse and are told you just can’t take a joke. This results in a double bind where whatever you say puts you in the wrong and you are left unheard and feeling crazy and “overly sensitive”. When you are never allowed to say what you are thinking or have a different opinion, you may be in a relationship with a narcissist. Other versions of subtle abuse involve being made to feel that everything that goes wrong is your fault, even when the situation or event is unrelated to you. You distracted the other person so their getting lost is your fault is a good example. You don’t know how to do anything so you are not allowed to do anything on your own, even purchase something at the store. Even who you are friends with becomes under the other person’s control.
When most of what you say or want is trivialized and you are teased and rebuked for your desires, that pattern also constitutes subtle emotional abuse. This may involve undermining your work, how you dress, what you read, what you like to do in your spare time. This is very common in the workplace when a co-worker is jealous or a supervisor is threatened. You may find yourself feeling as though you have no valid opinions. The underlying message is that you are incompetent. This often goes along with subtle threats, such as loss of promotion or raise, being reported to a supervisor, or a threat of leaving in a personal relationship.
Chronically forgetting something important to you, chronically being late, or simply dismissing what you want but in a pleasant fashion may suggest you are in a relationship with a passive/aggressive individual. This often goes hand in hand with denial when you try to confront the issue so you are left feeling empty, angry, confused, and demanding. If your relationship seems based on this pattern, your self-esteem will not take long to be eroded.
If you are in any relationship that chronically leaves you feeling confused, embarrassed, intimidated, insecure and anxious, angry, unheard, and “crazy” you may be in an abusive relationship. What can you do about this? If the other person is in a position of authority and you love your job, you will have to learn to not personalize and if this just does not work for you, you may have to transfer or find another job. While this may not be fair, no job is worth being miserable over. If the other person is a so called friend, try and communicate your concerns and even suggest seeing a psychologist together. If you are told it is all you and you are crazy, maybe this is not really a friendship. What are you getting out of this relationship? Is this relationship mostly based on history? It may be time to walk away. Family is a trickier issue. Depending on the family relationship, you may have to distance or even disconnect. Especially if the other person is a romantic interest or spouse.
Suggest counseling and if the other person refuses or does attend but dismissed it, work on yourself until you become stronger and more confident and then what ever you decide will just flow naturally. Remember, you can emotionally die from constant long term pin pricks just as much as from an emotional knife wound.
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