Understanding Emotional Abuse

Content reviewed by Karen Rubenstein, LMFT, Chief Clinical Officer at Cliffside Malibu

Abuse is a significant risk factor that can lead a person to use alcohol and other drugs initially and repeatedly. When people consider abuse, they often think of physical abuse. While physical abuse can contribute to substance use, it is not the only form of abuse that may do so.

Emotional abuse is defined as any behavior that skews a child’s sense of self-worth or emotional wellbeing. Emotional abuse tends to be more subtle than other forms of abuse; however, it can be just as mentally and emotionally damaging. It is important to recognize the many different ways that emotional abuse can surface. Doing so, you may find a potential underlying cause for your unresolved emotional distress or substance use. Similarly, you can work to set boundaries with your loved ones to eliminate the long-lasting effects of emotional abuse from occurring in your life.

The Hidden Form of Maltreatment

Emotional abuse may be referred to as the hidden form of maltreatment because it does not leave physical injuries or scars. Since it is typically ongoing, the individual struggling may learn to identify the behavior as normal. It is often overlooked, even during treatment for mental health and substance use, because the individual struggling may not recognize it.

It can also be difficult for individuals to open up about their experiences with emotional abuse, especially if they have not moved past it in their own life. Emotional abuse can leave long-lasting emotional damage that causes an individual to question their worth and deservingness to exist. Emotional abuse is often a precursor to physical abuse. It can also cause a person to internalize their experience for fear of the more significant consequences of seeking help.

Examples of Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse can surface in a variety of ways. It may occur once or occur several times throughout an individual’s lifetime. It can be deliberate or unintentional and causes an individual to experience mental or emotional pain. Regardless, becoming familiar with these different types is vital so that you can identify them if they begin to surface in your relationships.

Examples of emotional abuse include:

  • Intimidation
  • Coercion
  • Ridiculing
  • Harassment
  • Treating an adult like a child
  • Isolating an adult from their family or friends
  • Use of silence to control behavior
  • Yelling
  • Swearing
  • Criticism
  • Threatening
  • Rejection
  • Withholding love, support or guidance

Effects of Emotional Abuse

Aside from a lack of self-worth, many devastating physical, psychological and behavioral effects can result from repeated instances of emotional abuse.

Psychological Consequences

A lack of confidence can develop into feelings of confusion and indecisiveness, which can cause an individual to lack the independence needed to strive on their own. Other psychological consequences can include:

  • Diminished executive functioning and cognitive skills
  • Poor mental and emotional health and increased risk of developing associated mental health disorders
  • Attachment and social difficulties
  • Post-traumatic stress

Physical Consequences

Emotional abuse and child maltreatment are linked to a higher risk of developing several long-term and or future health problems. Some of the physical health consequences can include:

  • Diabetes
  • Lung disease
  • Malnutrition
  • Vision problems
  • Functional limitations
  • Heart attack
  • Arthritis
  • Back problems
  • High blood pressure
  • Brain damage
  • Migraine headaches
  • Chronic diseases
  • Cancer
  • Stroke
  • Bowel disease
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome

Behavioral Consequences

Once an individual experiences emotional abuse, they may exhibit behavioral difficulties to try and compensate for their abuse. These behaviors may continue long after maltreatment ends. Behavioral consequences may include:

  • Unhealthy sexual practices
  • Juvenile delinquency leading to adult criminality
  • Substance use
  • Future perpetration of maltreatment

Treatment for Emotional Abuse

As mentioned previously, emotional abuse may or may not be identifiable. However, if by reading this you suspect that you are or may have been a victim of emotional abuse, it is essential to recognize that there are treatment options available to help you develop your confidence and sense of self-worth.

An excellent first step would be to seek out a mental health evaluation from a professional. This evaluation, alongside a therapist, will help determine your treatment needs and goals. The assessment will also uncover any underlying present mental health or substance use disorders that may or may not be diagnosed.

Your mental health professional will be able to point you in the best direction for treatment. If you present more severe problems, they may recommend a more structured form of therapy, such as residential treatment. A residential treatment program will allow you to focus entirely on healing and recovery. If your problems seem more moderate or mild, or you need to stay engaged with work or school, you may be recommended an outpatient program.

Therapy will teach you to recognize the forms of maltreatment you may have experienced throughout your life and shed light on them. Treatment will also address your thought and behavior patterns, working to alter these patterns more healthily. If you struggle with your sense of self-worth because of past emotional abuse, reach out for help today.

At Cliffside Malibu, we recognize emotional abuse as a shared experience among those who self-medicate with substances. To heal from substance use, you must also recover from the deep and painful emotional wounds that have contributed to it. We offer different treatment programs and modalities to help individualize patient care and make treatment a worthwhile experience. To learn more about the effects of emotional abuse, call us today at (855) 403-5641.