Emotional Abuse: Signs, Examples, and Effects

Published on: 03 Oct 2022
Clinically Reviewed by Jill E. Daino, LCSW-R
woman yelling at man

Not all abuse is the same, so exactly what is emotional abuse? Simply put, it’s a form of abuse where one person (the abuser) uses emotions to control someone else. Emotionally abusive people may use insults, criticism, threats, and other tactics to hurt and control their victim.

Emotional abuse or psychological abuse refers to a pattern of mistreatment, rather than a standalone incident. Over time, it can distort the victim’s perception, eroding their self-confidence and damaging their mental health. This form of abuse can be difficult to spot, which is why it’s vital to know the warning signs. Read on, as we look at emotional abuse examples,  signs everyone should be aware of, and how an online therapist can help.  

Signs of Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse isn’t always obvious, which can make it hard to recognize. Even in cases where the mental abuse is more noticeable, emotionally abusive people go to great efforts to manipulate victims and make the effects of their abuse seem lesser. They often will go so far as to deny any abuse happened at all. 

“Emotional abuse starts slowly and happens over time. It’s hard to recognize the signs and symptoms when the behavior and words become normalized or minimized. For this reason, it can take time for someone to recognize that emotional abuse is occurring. Take the time to learn what needs to be done to safely navigate away from the situation. Ask for help from professionals and friends and family.”

Talkspace therapist Minkyung Chung, MS, LMHC

When examining a relationship, it can be helpful to focus on how behaviors make you feel. Remember that you deserve to be treated with respect and kindness, and you should never put up with any form of abuse whether it’s emotional abuse, narcissistic abuse, verbal abuse, or otherwise. Some emotional abuse examples include:


Abusers frequently use accusations to manipulate victims into behaving in a certain way. Being accused of bad behavior can put you on the defense, even if you haven’t done anything wrong. For example, an abuser can accuse you of cheating, suggest that you’re neglecting responsibilities, or say that you would behave differently if you cared about them.


Emotional abuse often involves implied or overt threats. These threats can create an environment of fear and be used to manipulate you into behaving a certain way. An abuser could make threats of violence toward you or your loved one. They might use threats in other ways, too, like threatening to have you fired or saying they’ll report you to authorities (even if you’ve done nothing wrong).


An abusive person often tries to shame or humiliate victims in public and in private. This could include lectures about shortcomings, public outbursts, or even spreading flat-out lies. For instance, an abuser might falsely claim that other people said your behavior was embarrassing.

Ridiculing and teasing

Insults and name-calling are common emotional abuse tactics. Abusive people can make nasty comments or use hurtful nicknames. When this behavior is confronted, the abuser often insists that they were being sarcastic or just making jokes. They may even belittle you for being so sensitive and taking offense.


While some forms of criticism can be part of a healthy relationship, emotional abusers use it to hurt and devalue their victims. You may be subjected to constant criticism or critiques that are extremely harsh. While constructive criticism can help you improve, abusive criticism can leave you feeling worthless.


Emotional abusers may try to make their victims feel as though they’re unimportant or don’t matter. It’s common for them to dismiss accomplishments or take credit for successes. They may also insult your hobbies or interests or use patronizing language to belittle you.


It’s very normal for an abuser to try to control their victims. Controlling behavior can include digital spying (especially on social media), constant monitoring, and taking over important decisions can give abusers more power in a relationship. These tactics often isolate you, making it harder to exit the abusive relationship. 

Examples of Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse takes many forms, and people who do the abusing can cause devastating harm to their victims in many different ways. Studies show that emotional abuse in a romantic and intimate relationship is just as harmful as physical. Specific emotional abuse examples include:

  • Emotional blackmail: This form of manipulation uses emotions to control behavior. After making a demand, an abuser, whether this is an intimate partner, verbally abusive parents, or loved one, may use guilt, fear, or humiliation to persuade you to agree with a request. Withholding affection and giving the silent treatment are also common tactics.
  • Unreasonable expectations: When an abuser has unreasonable expectations, nothing you do will ever be good enough. Someone who’s abusive might demand that you spend all your time with them or become angry when you can’t remember specific details about events. 
  • Invalidating your emotions: Instead of acknowledging your feelings, an abuser will try to tell you how you should feel. You may be described as crazy or overly sensitive if you bring up concerns. When you try to express your wants or needs, you could be told that you’re needy or demanding.
  • Nitpicking: It’s common for emotional abusers to be overly critical of everything a victim does. Your abuser could criticize the way you dress, how you speak, or even the way you walk. This can make you feel as though you need to tiptoe around just to maintain the peace.
  • Gaslighting: When you bring up disagreements, instances of abuse, or other events, an abuser may insist that these events never happened, or that they happened much differently than you remember. Gaslighting in relationships can cause you to doubt yourself, your memory, and ultimately, your mental health. 

“Each situation is unique to the person involved, but the basics of what to look for are there. If you’re the person in the middle, it’s important to seek some form of emotional support. Don’t be afraid to contact people from the past. If you know someone, keep trying to be in their lives to help them when the time comes. Emotional abuse can happen in any environment and to anyone. Learning what it looks like is important so you can distance yourself from the situation.”

Talkspace therapist Minkyung Chung, MS, LMHC

Effects of Emotional Abuse

On the surface, emotional abuse may seem invisible compared to physical or sexual abuse, but the effects are just as damaging in many cases. Emotional abuse causes both short-term and long-term effects that can be deeply destructive. 

Short-term effects 

It can be hard for victims of emotional abuse to recognize that they’re being mistreated. This can leave them confused or even thinking they’re responsible for their abuser’s behavior. Someone who’s being abused may constantly feel: 

  • Ashamed
  • Hopeless
  • Anxious
  • Fearful 
  • Worried about what could happen next

Emotional abuse can cause intense stress, even when someone isn’t aware that they’re being abused. This degree of stress may result in physical symptoms including headaches, nausea, and aches and pains throughout the body. Abuse can also interfere with sleep and concentration. 

Long-term effects

Emotional abuse does more than inflict short-term negative effects. Experiencing emotional abuse during childhood impacts brain development, putting victims at increased risk for depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions throughout their lives. Even in adulthood, the stress of mental abuse can have lasting effects on the brain and even interfere with memory. 

People who’ve been emotionally abused are more likely to develop chronic health conditions like chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia. Emotional abuse can shatter a person’s self-esteem, leaving them feeling worthless. This can increase the risk of self-destructive behaviors, including alcohol and drug abuse.

How emotional abuse affects personal relationships

Emotionally abusive people often isolate their victims from friends and family. Even if you leave an abusive partner, by the time you dare to do so, you may not have a strong support system. Experiencing emotional abuse can also make it difficult to trust others, which can interfere with future relationships. 

Dealing with Emotional Abuse

In order to deal with emotional abuse, it’s necessary to first acknowledge that you’re being abused. Instead of making excuses for the abuser’s behavior, you can take steps toward healing after emotional abuse. The following coping techniques can help you deal with abuse and move forward with your life. 

Set boundaries

Tell your emotional abuser that you won’t tolerate any more mistreatment. Clearly outline unacceptable behaviors and set firm consequences for these behaviors, such as ending a conversation or leaving a relationship. If your emotional abuser tries to argue, shut down the conversation and reiterate your boundaries in the relationship

Take care of yourself

Remind yourself that the abuse you’ve experienced isn’t your fault and that you don’t owe your abuser anything. Instead, focus on your own needs and mental health. Open up to people about what you’ve been dealing with and take steps to build back the confidence you’ve lost.

Seek help

Learning more about emotional abuse can help you understand your abuser’s behavior, allowing you to heal from the hurt they’ve caused.

Processing emotional abuse isn’t easy, which is why you shouldn’t try to go through it alone. A mental health professional can provide you with the support and guidance you need during this difficult time. 


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Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

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