15 Signs of Emotional Abuse We Don't Talk About


A lot of us don’t know or aren’t taught the signs of emotional abuse — especially when it’s a loved one in our life engaging in the abusive behavior. In fact, some of us who have experienced emotional abuse may not even realize we have, simply because it was the only reality we knew in important relationships in our lives.

Maybe your experience with emotional abuse has left you with steady internal monologue of not good enough, not good enough, not good enough whenever you try to accomplish a task. Maybe you have trouble believing others can love you — all of you. No matter what your experience looked like, the reality is, many people have experienced emotional abuse, and it’s important to talk about the signs. Understanding them may help you feel validated in seeking help — or perhaps these behaviors can help you recognize someone you know who needs help but doesn’t yet know how to ask for it. 

We wanted to know some “signs” of emotional abuse that don’t get talked about, so we asked our mental health community to share, in hindsight, the things they experienced because of emotional abuse.

Here’s what our community shared with us:

1. Flinching

“When a person flinches and gets scared when someone speaks/laughs in a loud tone or lightly pats the other one gently in a joking manner.” — Sana H.

2. Chronic Guilt

“How anything and everything makes you feel guilty. I hide behind the face of a smile when inside I’m blaming myself and apologizing consistently for things that others do.” — Rebekah S.

3. Being a People-Pleaser

“Being a ‘people-pleaser’ or a ‘yes man.’ We are so afraid to do or say anything that might make people unhappy with us, so we basically become doormats. Emotional abuse causes low self-esteem and fear of even the most minor conflict. We will do everything we can to just keep the peace. Many of us won’t even assert our own opinions because we have zero confidence in anything we feel or have to say.” — Anastasia A.

4. Constant Second-Guessing

“Being unsure of yourself, being so full of self-doubt [that] you question even the most basic things. Like if a person asks you for directions to a place you know, but part of you doubts the information as your self-esteem and self-worth are so low.” — Rachel V.

“Constantly second-guessing myself, even if it is something trivial that doesn’t really matter. Also needing constant reassurance because of a lack of self-esteem that comes from the abuse.” — Jessica E.

5. Becoming Uncharacteristically “Shy” or “Introverted”

A once energetic open child that becomes a closed off, quiet adult. A born extrovert squished into introversion.” — Lauren S.

6. Intense Fear of Failure

“Afraid of starting tasks because of risk of failure or negative criticism… and with that, reactions to failure or criticism. Do they brush it off and keep going or is it defeating and [debilitating] to them? This is something I’ve noticed I deal with and have dealt with since I was a child. The words spoken over me play over and over and often prevent me from accomplishing things I wanna do or even start a new task.” — Erin R.

7. Doubting Own Perception of Reality

“Doubting your reality. So many who are emotionally abusive convince the abused (and sometimes even those around them) that the abuse is their fault. In adult relationships or teenage relationships they often even convince them that they’re the one being abusive. This feeling of not knowing whether you’re the bad guy or not persists even long after the relationship ends.” — Benji Y.

8. Difficulty Expressing Emotions

“After divorcing my emotional abuser, it took me a long time to show any personality or emotions to anyone. I had mentally curled into a ball to protect myself and it took years to get out of it. I started to emerge but was socially awkward, often saying things wrong so people were confused or insulted. So many times my words came out all wrong… I was so anxious I didn’t know how to express myself anymore. My family and therapist encouraged me through this phase to keep trying. Even when I said the absolute worst thing, they were glad I was saying anything at all instead of just silence. Now I’m back to my ‘normal’ introvert social awkwardness, but it was a very rough few years emerging from that protective shell.” — Rebecca F.

9. Defensive or Passive Aggressive Behavior

“Becoming extra defensive when someone criticizes you. Or even if they aren’t actually criticizing you, but you think they’re judging you.” — Sarah P.

“Constant passive aggressiveness. It doesn’t even give you the right to defend yourself because technically you ‘don’t have any reason to.’” — Monica M.

10. Feeling Age-Inappropriate Pressure to Take Care of Parents

“When the parents put their health problems on their kids. Making it their job to make sure their parent is ‘OK’ over their own health.” — Sayer G.

Parentification and covert incest. Children shouldn’t be turned into their parent’s partners, best friends or parents. This robs them of their childhood and puts a tremendous amount of responsibility on them that they are not equipped to emotionally handle.” — Monika S.

11. Fear of Conflict

“I start immediately crying when someone raises their voice.” — Erin A.

“Being constantly cussed out makes me go into a fetal position.” — Brandi G.

12. Constant Apologizing

“Excessive apologizing, even when you aren’t in the wrong because you will do anything to please that person, because they make you feel it is always your fault.” — Kate E.

Apologizing for things even if you didn’t do anything ‘wrong.’” — Kayla S.

13. Questioning Self-Worth

“That feeling you get: ‘Don’t make them upset.’ Constantly feeling you’re never good enough and they make fun of you and call you names.” — Stephanie G.

14. Trouble Articulating

“The inability to put my thoughts into words. It is difficult to find the right words because of not being allowed to voice anything.” —Christina C.

15. Giving Too Much of Oneself

“A sign of emotional abuse that isn’t talked about enough is how easy the person is willing to give their love — physically and emotionally — no matter how they are treated or if it’s not deserved.” — Samantha W.

Getty Images photo via Marina Zaam


Find this story helpful? Share it with someone you care about.


Related to Mental Health

woman reading book while relaxing on hammock

The Mental Health Advice My Mentor Gave That Changed My Life

I thought I knew all about how to manage mental illness. I’ve been in recovery for 15 years (though I’ve been mentally ill for 27). I’ve been in counseling off and on for 10 years. I’m currently studying to become a counselor so I’m learning more about mental illness and how to cope. I’ve started [...]
frog

The Metaphor That Describes Why My Childhood Didn't 'Look' Abusive — Even Though It Was

Though I definitely grew up in an abusive household, it was only within the last year or so that I recognized and attached the word “abuse” to my upbringing. Since coming to this realization, my sister and I both have been plagued with questions. Why didn’t we realize we were being abused? Why didn’t we [...]
woman and nicaraguan flag at protests with burning barricade

What It’s Like to Struggle With Mental Illness While Your Country Descends Into Chaos

I was born and raised in Nicaragua, a colorful country in the middle of the American continent. During the past two months, peaceful protests have been received by the government with deadly violence. Over 200 lives have been lost, more than a thousand are hurt, and almost 100 just “disappeared.” Persecution is on. Fear, anger [...]
woman sitting on floor upset next to table with medication

The One Thing I Wish People Knew About Finding the Right Psychiatric Medication

You know, I talk a lot about God and the healing He has brought me over the years. I also talk a lot about how real my struggle is. I talk about therapy a fair bit, too. Something that doesn’t come up much though is the topic of medication. Well, I think it’s time to [...]