Emotional Abuse

Note: Dr. Stosny posted some of this same material and much more on emotional abuse on the Oprah Winfrey Website.

 verbal abuse can turn into compassion

Mistakes and miscommunication do not lead to abuse. Anger and abuse in relationships begin with blame: “I feel bad, and it’s your fault.” Even when they recognize the wrongness of their behavior, resentful, angry, or emotionally abusive people are likely to blame it on their partners: “You push my buttons,” or, “I might have overreacted, but I’m human, and look what you did!” Angry and abusive people feel like victims, which justifies in their minds victimizing others.

Angry and abusive partners tend to be anxious by temperament. From the time they were young children, they’ve had a consistent sense of dread that things will go badly and they will fail to cope. They try to control their environment to avoid terrible feelings of failure and inadequacy. The strategy of trying to control others fails to satisfy them for the simple reason that the primary cause of their anxiety is within them, not in their environment. It springs from one of two sources: a heavy dread of failure or fear of harm, isolation, and deprivation.

The Silent Abuser Not all emotional abuse involves shouting or criticism. More common forms are “disengaging” (the distracted or preoccupied partner) or “stonewalling” (the partner who refuses to accept anyone else’s perspective).

Partners who stonewall may not overtly put anyone down. Nevertheless, they punish by refusing even to think about their partners’ perspectives. If they listen at all, they do so dismissively or impatiently.

Disengaging partners say, “Do whatever you want, just leave me alone.” They’re often workaholics, couch potatoes, flirts, or obsessive about something. They try to deal with their sense of inadequacy about relationships by simply not trying – no attempt means no failure.

Both stonewalling and disengaging tactics can make you feel:

  • Unseen and unheard
  • Unattractive
  • Like you don’t count
  • Like a single parent.

 

No One Escapes the Effects of Verbal Abuse or Emotional Abuse

Everyone in a walking-on-eggshells family loses some degree of dignity and autonomy. No fewer than half the members of these unfortunate families, including the children, suffer from clinical anxiety and/or depression. (“Clinical” doesn’t mean feeling down or blue or worried, it means that the symptoms interfere with normal functioning. They can’t sleep, can’t concentrate, can’t work as efficiently, and can’t enjoy themselves without drinking.) Most of the adults lack genuine self-value (based on realistic self-appraisals), and the children rarely feel as good as other kids.

When it comes to the more severe forms of destructiveness, purely emotional abuse is usually more psychologically harmful than physical abuse. There are a couple of reasons for this. Even in the most violent families, the incidents tend to be cyclical. Early in the abuse cycle, a violent outburst is followed by a honeymoon period of remorse, attention, affection, and generosity, but not genuine compassion. (The honeymoon stage eventually ends, as the victim begins to say, “Never mind the damn flowers, just stop hitting me!”) Emotional abuse, on the other hand, tends to happen every day. So the effects are more harmful because they’re so frequent.

The other factor that makes emotional abuse so devastating is the greater likelihood that victims will blame themselves. If someone hits you, it’s easier to see that he or she is the problem, but if the abuse is subtle – saying or implying that you’re ugly, a bad parent, stupid, incompetent, not worth attention, or that no one could love you – you are more likely to think it’s your problem.

Important questions to ask of yourself:

Do I like myself?

Am I able to realize my potential?

Does everyone I care about feel safe?

Do my children like themselves?

Are they able to realize their fullest potential?

Do they feel safe?

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Verbal Abuse, Emotional Abuse & The Mirror of Love

How We Learn How Lovable We Are

Everyone who loves another is susceptible to some form of emotional or verbal abuse, by virtue of the Mirror of Love.

Attachment relationships – those held together by strong emotional bonds – serve as mirrors of the inner self. We learn how lovable we are and how valuable our love is to others only by interacting with the people we love.

Young children never question the impressions of themselves they get from their parents. They do not think that their critical, stressed-out mothers or their raging fathers are just having a bad time or trying to recover from their own difficult childhoods. Young children are likely to attribute negative reflections of themselves from their parents to their own inadequacy and unworthiness.

Suppose you had internalized your body-image based on reflections from a fun house mirror, which made your hips look a mile wide. You would think you were in deep trouble and that no diet could help. Once you’ve internalized a negative image, you distrust even accurate mirrors – people who are gaunt from eating disorders  actually see themselves as fat when they look in a mirror that reflects little more than skin and bones. Even those who do not have eating disorders but who were told repeatedly as children that they were too thin are likely to see themselves as thin adults, despite mirror reflections that show a few extra pounds.

When it comes to physical appearance, at least we have lots of other mirrors to compare to the distorted funhouse reflection; this gives us a good chance to overcome an internalized negative image of the body. But there are no reflections of love other than those we get from the people we love. If you judge how lovable you are based on reflections from someone who cannot love without hurt, you will have a distorted and inaccurate view of yourself as a loving and lovable person.

The instinct to believe the information about the self that loved ones reflect weakens somewhat as we grow older, but it remains active throughout life. You would probably laugh — or at least not get angry — at someone who implied that you have green hair, but if your husband or wife says it, you’re likely to run to a mirror. The default assumption is, if your partner is displeased, there must be something wrong with you, and you need anger  or resentment for protection. No matter how much we argue with loved ones about their criticisms and put-downs, we are likely to believe them, at least unconsciously. We might not agree with the particular flaw pointed out, but on some deep level, we’ll perceive a defect that must be defended. Some part of us buys into the “blemishes” reflected in the mirror of love, even when we know intellectually that our loved one is distorting who we are. This hidden pressure from the mirror of love is why successful and powerful people are just as vulnerable as anyone to verbal abuse and to walking on eggshells in their love relationships.

Of course, the mirror of love also reflects good news as well as bad. If you learn how lovable you are and how valuable your love is from compassionate caretakers, you will naturally have a more realistic view of yourself in love relationships. You’ll be disappointed and saddened sometimes, but you will hardly ever feel inadequate, unworthy, or unlovable. Just as important, when you feel sad or disappointed, you will know that you can do something to improve your emotional state, if not your situation. Your sadness will be short-lived – you’ll feel bad for a while, then regroup and do something that will make you feel valuable once again. The mirror of love generates energy when it reflects value, and depletes energy when it doesn’t.

In verbally abusive relationships, the mirror of love reflects mostly flaws and defects, in the form of criticism, sarcasm, resentment, and anger. Everyone in the family begins to confuse “function” with value and “task-performance” with love. The pain is never about the facts or specific behavior — no matter how your partner puts it, you hear: “If you don’t do what I want, I can’t value you. And if I can’t value you, you are not worth loving.” This is the message the verbally abusive partner reflects back at you, no matter how much he or she claims to be talking “facts” or “logic” or “fairness” or “tasks.”

Why We Hurt the Ones We Love: Blaming the Mirror

A distressed or misbehaving child can make us feel like failures as parents and thoroughly inadequate. A raging or rejecting parent can make a child feel powerless, inadequate, and unlovable. A distracted, demanding, or hostile lover can make us feel disregarded, devalued, and rejected. After working for many thousands of hours with people trying to overcome painful relationship problems, I’m convinced that we use resentment and anger to punish loved ones, not so much for their behavior as for our painful reflections in the mirror of love. We want to attack the mirror because we don’t like the reflection.

The only way out of this morass is to stop viewing emotional pain as a punishment inflicted by someone else and learn to act on it as an internal motivation to heal, correct, and improve. This will lead to a deeper self-compassion and put us more in touch with our deepest values, which will, in turn, inspire more compassion for one another. You can love without hurt, but only if you use pain as a signal to heal and improve rather than punish.

 

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Effects on Children of Witnessing Verbal Abuse or Emotional Abuse

Children who witness chronic resentment, anger, emotional abuse, or verbal abuse in their homes often present with a host of symptoms. The usual ones are:

  •  Depression (looks like chronic boredom with little interest in things that usually interest kids)
  •  Anxiety (worry, especially about things kids don’t usually worry about, like safety and whether the bills will get paid)
  •  School problems
  •  Aggressiveness
  •  Hyperactivity (can’t sit still)
  •  Low self-esteem (don’t feel as good as other kids)
  •  Over emotionality (anger, excitability or crying) that sometimes comes out of nowhere
  •  No emotions at all.

They may generally feel:

  •  Disregarded
  •  Untrusting
  •  Powerless, inadequate, or unlovable
  •  Like burdens to their parents

Living in a household where they walk on eggshells increases the likelihood of becoming either an abuser or a victim of abuse as adults. They run a higher risk of:

  • Alcoholism
  • Drug abuse
  • Criminality
  • Mental health problems
  • Poverty

Witnessing a parent victimized is usually more psychologically damaging to children than injuries from direct child abuse. Seeing a parent abused is child abuse.

The Healthiest Thing for Your Children: Be Compassionate to Each Other

Parents model for children how to regulate their own emotions and how to participate in relationships. By watching us, they learn how to:

  •  Cheer themselves up and calm themselves down
  •  Deal with anger – use respectful negotiation instead of bickering, cold shoulders, stonewalling, etc.
  •  Behave like a loving and lovable partner.

When parents model these things, their children develop the Five Rs:

  •   Resourcefulness
  •   Responsibility
  •   Respect
  •   Relationship skills
  •   Regulation of impulses and emotions

Even if your partner does not cooperate with making your relationship more compassionate, you can change your kids’ lives for the better with compassionate parenting:

  • Learn from your children
    • Understand their experience of the world
    • Understand your emotional responses to them
  • Enjoy them
  • Value them
  • Empower them to come up with solutions to their problems – don’t do everything for them
  • Allow them to be themselves

Unless your child’s symptoms are severe, our experience has been that doing the work in the Boot Camps, as outlined in Love without Hurt, eliminates most of the symptoms. Children learn by modeling — by watching how their parents regulate their emotions. When you are less reactive, more authentic, and more compassionate, they will be, too.

Help is available in the Love without Hurt Boot Camps.

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Chronic Resentment, Anger, or Emotional Abuse Cause Self-Loathing

Imagine the worst thing you have ever said or done to someone you love. You were upset or felt provoked, and you said or did something that caused that person emotional hurt.

How would you respond if you saw a stranger do or say the same thing as you to the person you love?

Anger, Aggression, Loathing

Emotional bonds carry with them an unconscious, automatic instinct to protect. If you were to see a loved one harmed verbally, emotionally, or physically by someone else, you would experience anger, an aggressive impulse, and loathing. For that moment, you would hate the person harming your loved one; you’d want to hurt him or her in return.

So what happens to the unconscious and automatic anger, aggression, and loathing when you are the one hurting a loved one? Where do the anger, aggression and loathing go?

When you hurt someone you love, the ultimate object of your anger, aggression, and hatred is you. The unavoidable legacy of spiteful, angry, or abusive behavior directed at loved ones is self-loathing. Every harsh word you say to a loved one and every cold shoulder you turn toward someone you love makes you hate yourself a little more.

The inevitable self-loathing of hurting loved ones is usually hidden. Self-loathing makes us feel powerless. You have probably conditioned states of powerlessness to stimulate some kind of adrenalin rush, usually in the form of resentment or anger. Thus self-loathing is easily covered up with a hollow bravado or self-righteousness, which practically guarantees repeated harm of loved ones.

The tragedy of using anger – or any other adrenalin rush – to mask self-loathing is that the self-loathing is not punishment from which we need protection. Rather, it is motivation to be compassionate to loved ones, which is the only thing that will relieve it. Compassion means always treating a loved one with value and respect, especially when you disagree.

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Are You a Resentful, Angry, Verbally Abusive, or Emotionally Abusive Man?

It can happen to anyone!

Anyone can become emotionally abusive in an intimate relationship. The path to emotional abuse begins at the point where resentment starts to outweigh compassion.

Because resentment makes you feel like a victim – it feels like someone else is controlling your thoughts, feelings, and behavior – it comes with a built-in retaliation impulse. If you’re resentful, you are probably in some way emotionally abusive to the people you love. You likely have devalued, demeaned, sought to control or manipulate and deliberately hurt the feelings of loved ones. But you’ve been so focused on what you don’t like about their behavior that you haven’t noticed what you don’t like about your own. You probably have not grasped that resentment has made you into someone you are not.

  • Does it feel like your wife or girlfriend pushes your buttons?
  • Does she have a way of putting you in a bad mood?
  • Are there times when you don’t want to speak to her or be around her?
  • Do you feel like you overlook a lot or swallow a lot, until you can’t stand it anymore?
  • Does she frequently “do things the wrong way?”
  • Can you be having a nice time and then out of nowhere she says or does something to set you off?
  • Are you sometimes on edge about having a bad or unpleasant evening?
  • Does it feel like you have to criticize her for not being more efficient, reliable, or a better person?
  • Does it feel like she makes you yell or shut down when you really don’t want to raise your voice or be in a bad mood at all?
  • Do you treat her in ways you couldn’t have imagined when you first started loving her?

 

If you answered yes to any of the above, here are some things that your wife or girlfriend probably says about you:

  • He’s so moody.
  • He doesn’t see or hear me.
  • I feel like I’m his possession.
  • I can’t be myself; I have to think, feel, and behave the way he wants.
  • Nothing I do is good enough.
  • I feel like I’m walking on eggshells.

Boot Camps
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Are You a Resentful, Angry, Verbally Abusive, or Emotionally Abusive Man?

It can happen to anyone!

Anyone can become emotionally abusive in an intimate relationship. The path to emotional abuse begins at the point where resentment starts to outweigh compassion.

Because resentment makes you feel like a victim – it feels like someone else is controlling your thoughts, feelings, and behavior – it comes with a built-in retaliation impulse. If you’re resentful, you are probably in some way emotionally abusive to the people you love. You likely havve devalued, demeaned, sought to control or manipulate and deliberately hurt the feelings of loved ones. But you’ve been so focused on what you don’t like about their behavior that you haven’t noticed what you don’t like about your own. You probably have not grasped that resentment has made you into someone you are not.

  • Do you sometimes make your man feel like a failure as a provider, partner, parent, or lover?
  • Do you feel like you have to tell him the same thing over and over and over?
  • Does he tell you that you sometimes yell and scream or lash out at him?
  • Do your girlfriends ever remark that you might treat him badly?
  • Do you automatically blame him when things go wrong?
  • Do you resort to name-calling, swearing at him, or putting him down?
  • Do you demean or belittle him in front of other people or your children?
  • Do you threaten to take his children away so he will never see them?
  • Are you often jealous and want to know where he is at all times?
  • Would your family and friends be surprised to know how you treat him behind closed doors?

 If you answered yes to any of the above, here are some things that your husband or boyfriend probably says about you:

  • She’s a nag.
  • She’s so moody.
  • She’s so unpleasant to be around.
  • I just want her to leave me alone.
  • Nothing I do is good enough.
  • I feel like I’m walking on eggshells.

Boot Camps
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