When Words Hurt – Recognizing the Signs of Emotional Abuse
Oct 12, 2022
Trigger warning: This article, which is part of our focus on domestic abuse, discusses emotional abuse and how to recognize the signs of it.
This month marks the 35th year of Domestic Violence Awareness month. The 31-day campaign started in October 1987 as a Day of Unity to connect advocates across the country working to end violence against women and children. From there it evolved to a month-long series of events to raise awareness about domestic violence and its impact on families and communities.
For our Muslim communities, this is an important campaign to raise awareness about the ravages of domestic violence inside and outside of the Muslim ummah in ways that too often are hushed, gas lit, ignored and covered in false piety. One organizational study found that, “31 percent reported experiencing abuse within an intimate partner relationship and 53 percent reported experiencing some form of domestic violence during their lifetime.”
Quite often, the focus when it comes to domestic violence is physical abuse, which is frequently the most visible and obvious. However, abuse (to mistreat or misuse) does not have to include physical violence. Statistics indicate that 23 percent of women and 27 percent of men "have experienced severe physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime."
However, domestic violence is not exclusively physical but includes forms of violence that damage victims internally, making it difficult to detect. Abuse can be emotional, mental, verbal, financial or spiritual. Let's focus on emotional, mental and verbal abuse.
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Most of us have heard the phrase "sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me." Unfortunately, that's not always the case. Mental, emotional and verbal abuse can be just as damaging as physical violence. Research shows that verbal abuse can have a long-lasting impact on mental health – even more so than physical abuse.
So what exactly are these often unrecognized forms of abuse? Dr. Mona Alyedreessy, the author of the book The Muslim Narcissist, describes emotional abuse and shares challenges in recognizing these emotional/psychological abuses (which includes verbal abuse), why victims stay so long and the extensive physiological impact on their lives.
Understanding the Characteristics of Emotional Abuse
According to one study, emotional abuse appears to be the most prevalent form of intimate partner violence, with 48.8 percent of American women and 48.2 percent of American men reported having experienced "expressive aggression (e.g. name calling) and coercive control (e.g. isolation tactics or threats of harm)" in their lifetimes. Despite the pervasive nature of emotional abuse, many people struggle to recognize its characteristics.
“Emotional abuse involves controlling another person using emotions to criticize, embarrass, shame, blame or manipulate someone,” Dr. Mona explains. “Mental or emotional abuse can occur in any relationship – among friends, family members, neighbors, spouses and co-workers. The goal of emotional abuse is to control the other person by silencing them and making them feel unimportant.”
“It is more challenging to recognize because it’s often internalized.” says Dr. Mona. “Victims take longer to process emotional and psychological abuse, as they often go through cycles of self-doubt, over-thinking, self-blame and confusion. It is also more difficult to recognize as it’s more subtle than physical abuse and comes in drips. For example, verbal abuse and personal attacks may be sugar-coated as frequent and daily jokes. An abuser may come across as someone who is just having a bit of fun by teasing, but the emotional damage can run deep in the victim.
“Overt narcissists often do not hide their emotional abuse like covert narcissists and aren’t afraid to show people they are abusive because they feel exceptionally powerful,” she says.
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“If you are having trouble discerning whether your relationship is emotionally abusive, think about how your interactions with someone make you feel. If you feel wounded, hurt, depressed, anxious, worthless, stupid, intimidated or inferior every time you interact with someone, chances are high that your relationship is emotionally abusive,” says Dr. Mona. “Many people fall into the trap of telling themselves that the abuse isn’t that bad, minimizing the danger of the other person’s behavior, and making excuses for them. Realizing this can help you stop the emotional abuse cycle.”
The subtle and cyclical nature of emotional and psychological abuse often means that victims have difficulty recognizing the abuse and frequently remain in their relationships for years, negatively affecting their health and well being.
Long-Term Effects of Emotional Abuse
Like physical abuse, emotional and psychological abuse involves long-term damage to victims' bodies. Dr. Mona told Haute Hijab that survivors could experience invisible and physical health problems, including depression, insanity, anxiety, extreme OCD, drug abuse, chronic pain, ovarian cysts and IBS.
“Some women have developed serious health problems from the stress they experience dealing with an abuser,” she says. “Emotional problems manifest themselves as physical problems on our bodies as a way of telling us that something is wrong with our mental health. Unfortunately chronic stress can result in many people developing dangerous diseases, such as cancer.”
Victims may appear sickly or as constant complainers as symptoms increase, weakening their resolve as their bodies break down from the abuse. Health professionals will unlikely correlate medical issues with emotional abuse. The signs are not as apparent as a black eye or broken arm.
Believing Victims
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In the absence of physical aggression, many people experiencing emotional abuse as well as their friends and/or extended family will not initially detect the mistreatment. “Often, people in emotionally abusive relationships may not understand that they are being abused because there is no physical violence involved,” explains Dr. Mona, “So it is common for people on the outside to have this belief too.
“Many people will dismiss or downplay emotional abuse because they don't think it's as bad as physical abuse and that it can be dealt with easily in counseling sessions. Another reason why people don’t believe victims who complain about emotional abuse is because the victim continues to stay with their abuser. People may ask, ‘If the abuse is that bad, why is he or she staying in the relationship?’ or say, ‘It can’t be as bad as they say it is.’”
Dr. Mona further explains how an abuser’s image can make it harder for people to think of them as abusers.
“It is easy to forget that narcissists (emotional abusers) are very good at looking like great people to the outside world. They are kind, sweet, charming, funny and helpful to people outside the home, and so people will naturally struggle to believe that such a person could be as abusive as their victims claim them to be behind closed doors. They believe the victims are exaggerating, lying or not telling the full truth about what’s going on.”
Many emotional abusers present a mask to the world while manipulating and tormenting their victims, making it harder for people to see past the “nice” guy or girl persona. Victims often remain silent because they fear people disbelieving them, which can devastate them.
It is hard to understand how someone who seems so nice could be capable of such horrible things, but it is important to remember that abusers are very good at hiding their true selves. If you suspect someone you know is being abused, don't hesitate to reach out and offer help. If someone discloses emotional abuse to you, believe them.
Signs of Emotional Abuse
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Abusers thrive on confusing their victims. Many people experiencing emotional abuse do not realize their situation until they’ve been wounded and feel confused and trapped. The patterns of emotional abuse create a cyclical breakdown of the person’s self-esteem, self-worth and confidence in their ability to make decisions. It is critical to recognize the signs of emotional abuse to stop their abuse.
Dr. Mona listed 20 signs of possible emotional abuse:
  • Constant criticisms and insults.
  • Name-calling and sugar-coated personal attacks.
  • Patronizing behavior and regular lecturing and shouting.
  • Public embarrassment.
  • Dismissal of your opinions and feelings.
  • Belittling accomplishments and making fun of your interests.
  • Teasing and provoking you to always react in a negative way.
  • Constantly comparing you to others.
  • Always telling you what you can and can’t do and needing their approval .
  • Monitoring your whereabouts.
  • Threats and demands.
  • Regular gaslighting and making you question yourself and your own memory.
  • They make all the decisions.
  • Emotional blackmailing.
  • They control your access to money.
  • They are quick to be angry at you over petty things and are unpredictable.
  • The silent treatment is used a lot.
  • They always accuse you of things you didn’t do and blame you for their problems.
  • They are very possessive and jealous.
  • They want you to be perfect at all times and withhold affection as a punishment when you’re not.
Dr. Mona also shared some tips on effectively dealing with emotional abuse:
  • Change your mindset and avoid self-blame for the abuse. No one deserves abuse. Even in Islam God tells us that it’s more honorable to divorce in kindness than to oppress someone by abusing them.
  • Don’t be their savior. No one can save the abuser but him or herself. If they don’t have the strong will to change for the better, nothing you do will make them change.
  • Prioritize yourself. Take care of your spiritual, emotional, physical and mental health by reaching out for support and learning to establish boundaries of respect so that you can effectively stand up for yourself when they attempt something, like making fun of you.
  • Go no-contact. If you can, leave the situation immediately, stay with friends or family and cut/block all contact with them everywhere. If you have nowhere to go, seek help from local charities and shelters. If you have children with your abuser, child support services will help you to establish a safe parenting agreement and keep communication only about the well being of the children.
  • Surround yourself with good people – friends and family members who lift you and encourage you to do great things with your life are blessings and will help you on your healing journey. Contact local charities that offer counseling and therapy if you don’t have this support network. Don’t underestimate the power of therapy sessions, especially faith-based ones, as they can help you to heal, understand what you went through and move on from it.
There are many forms of emotional abuse, but they all have in common that they involve the abuser using words and actions to control, demean and emotionally hurt and control their victim. If you're in an emotionally abusive relationship, it's important to understand that this behavior is not your fault and that you can get out of the situation.
Do you have further questions about emotional abuse and domestic violence? Please post in the comments below, and we’ll try and direct you to resources.
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