Emotional abuse: I see myself


My wife and I spoke about emotional abuse to approximately 85 college students recently.

Millions of women (and some men) live with repeated verbal assaults, humiliation, sexual coercion, and other forms of psychological abuse, often accompanied by economic exploitation. I’ve worked in organizations for 40 years as a leader and consultant, and I’ve never been in an organization that didn’t have abuse as part of its dark side.

Yet few of the students had heard the term “emotional abuse.” It remains one of a community’s dirty, dark secrets. The community needs to illuminate its shadows.

We defined emotional abuse as the chronic use of words and acts (including body language) that devalue and frighten another person for the purpose of control. Emotional abusers rule the lives of victims through the power of words and actions and the constant implicit threat of physical assault.

Consummate name-callers, abusers criticize constantly—nothing is ever good enough. They yell, scream, and drive the victim’s friends away to isolate her. They eavesdrop on phone conversations, censor mail, and expect instant responses to pages, cell phone calls, and instant messages. They control with lies, confusion, and contradictions; they make a person feel crazy. One abuser said to a victim: “I had to keep you down. I was afraid you would outshine me.”

Victims of emotional abuse live in fear and repeatedly alter thoughts, feelings, and behaviors to avoid further abuse. They lose themselves. Emotional abuse, like brain washing, systematically wears away at the victim’s self-confidence, sense of self-worth, and trust in their own perceptions. Whether abused by constant berating and belittling, by intimidation, or under the guise of “guidance, teaching, or advice,” the results remain the same: the victim of the abuse loses all sense of self and lives in confusion. The scars of emotional abuse may be far deeper and more lasting than physical wounds.

After our presentation, a man talked to me. He said, “I see myself in the traits of abusers.” What did he see?

1.Abusers tend to have explosive tempers triggered by minor frustrations and arguments when their egos are threatened,
2.They are possessive and jealous: “I own you. Where were you? Who were you with? What did you do?”
3.Abusers tend to think too highly of themselves: arrogant, entitled, superior, and selfish—everything is always about them, and they always come first.
4.Abusers have a great capacity for self-deception: they play the victim, always have an excuse and deniability for their acts. They blame others for what goes wrong in their lives. They deny and distort their behavior and cannot give an accurate picture of themselves or of their partner.
5.They manipulate: they lie always, can be charming in public, and can convince others of their innocence–family, friends, judges, and lawyers get fooled by them everyday—you must look at their behavior over time to see their patterns.

Emotional abusers learn their behavior, and the man who could see himself in the traits of the abuser spoke for many men who have learned to abuse their power to control others in brutal ways—at home, at work, and in the community.

The rest of us—too often indifferent—need to stand up for our mothers, daughters, sisters, neighbors, co-workers, and friends who are victims and hold abusers accountable for their behavior; they victimize each of us. We must take sides. Neutrality helps only the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the abuser, never the innocent. Indifference to disrespect is a community’s greatest sin.

Young women must be educated about the dynamics of emotional abuse so they can avoid the suffering abusers inflict. Men must be encouraged to stand up to their peers who abuse others and those men who see themselves in the traits of abusers must be directed to resources that can help them change destructive patterns of behavior with women.

Tom Heuerman, Ph.D.
Moorhead, MN
(Heuerman is a former Secret Service agent, executive at the Star Tribune newspaper, and organizational consultant.)