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Emotional Abuse

Updated: Jun 26, 2023

What is emotional abuse?

Emotional abuse is when one person purposefully uses emotions to shame, criticize, blame, humiliate, degrade, embarrass, manipulate and even make another person (the victim) feel guilty for something that they did not do. A relationship* is said to be abusive when there is a consistent pattern of one person using abusive words and bullying behavior towards another person (victim). Emotional abuse leaves a negative impact on the victim’s self-esteem and over all mental health.

*relationship – Please note that it can refer to any relationship with parents, siblings, friends, teachers, employers, colleagues, classmates, partners etc. Relationships do not refer only to couples who are dating, in a relationship, in a courtship or are married.

How is emotional abuse different from other forms of abuse?

Generally, physical and sexual abuse leave overt prominent signs of injury or marks on the victim’s body. However, emotional abuse is a form of abuse that does not leave any visible injury or mark on the victim. All the scars, marks, injuries, trauma, pain and more, are left on the victim’s mind and hence, invisible to our naked eye.

When people are being physically or sexually abused, they know that what is happening with them is wrong. They know that they are being abused but when it comes to emotional abuse, it may be surprising to know that people who are being emotionally abused, don’t even realize that they are being abused emotionally until a third person points out this fact to them. Due to the intangibility of emotional abuse, people also tend to deny its occurrence and find it very difficult to accept and realise that they were emotionally manipulated and abused.

Where can emotional abuse happen?

Abusive people tend to abuse those with whom they share a close relationship. However, emotional abuse can occur in any of the following relationships -

  • with a parent or caretaker

  • with extended family/relatives and family friends

  • with a friend

  • with a romantic partner/spouse

  • with one’s in-laws/spouse’s family

  • with colleagues, employers, team-mates etc

How to know if you are being emotionally abused?

Emotional abuse can take many different shapes because the abuse differs from relationship to relationship. However, broadly we can divide emotional abuse into categories based on what the abusive person is trying to do. We are going to talk about some of these categories below.


Controlling behavior can be one of the most obvious signs of emotional abuse and a major red flag in any relationship. Here are some examples of controlling behavior:

  • Constantly making realistic and unrealistic demands (mostly unrealistic demands) and expecting the victim to fulfil them immediately.

  • Taking major decisions on behalf of the victimor cancelling victim’s plans without asking.

  • Continuously monitoring the victim’s whereabouts via texts, calls, location trackers or even showing up unexpectedly just to check if the victimis not lying about their whereabouts.

  • Demanding immediate responses to calls and/or texts.

  • Exerting financial control over the victim, by keeping bank accounts in their name or giving them strict allowances.

  • Spying on the victim by going through their phone, laptops or other personal electronic devices. Checking their internet search history and communications with other people (texts, call records, emails etc). Spying on the victim can be in a non-electronic form too, such as going through one’s personal belongings like diaries, journals, letters, cards, photographs, etc.

  • Having a rule in place about demanding the victim’s passwords for phones, social media accounts emails etc at anytime (rules against privacy).

  • Treating the victim like a child and telling them where to go, what to eat, what to wear etc.

  • Yelling, which is frequently used as a scare tactic to let the victim know, who is in control.

  • Using the victim’s fears to manipulate or control them.

  • Abusive people may punish victim for what they term as “bad behavior” by withholding affection or making the other person feel that they are undeserving of love.

  • Giving excessive gifts with the implication that the gifts may disappear anytime like a reminder to the victim of the consequences if they decide to leave the relationship


Abusive people tend to make the victim feel shameful for their faults and flaws or may want to make the victim feel unworthy or worse as people because of their faults and flaws. Shaming the victimgenerally takes the following forms:

  • Lectures: The abusive person may give lectures about the victim’s behavior to make him/her feel inferior.

  • Outbursts: Not doing what an abusive person wants may result in an outburst of angry behavior from them. It is both a way to control the victim and make them feel shame for “not listening.”

  • Lies: Abusive people may lie by telling the victim false opinions from their friends about their “bad” behavior.

  • Walkouts: Abusive people may leave a situation rather than resolve it. In a disagreement at home, for example, they may remark about how the victim is ‘crazy’. This can put all the blame on the victim and make them feel ashamed while also never solving the issue.

  • Trivializing: If the victim wishes to talk about their issues or problems, the abusive person may criticize them for even having the issue or tell them that they are making a big deal out of nothing.


Blame typically stems from the abusive person’s sense of insecurity. By blaming the victim, they do not have to feel their shortcomings.This may take many forms, such as:

  • Jealousy: Jealousy can be an abuse tactic. The abusive person may regularly confront the victim for talking to or ‘flirting with’ other people. They may accuse the victim of cheating on them regularly. Abusive people might even accuse the victim for spending time with people other than the abusive person. Example:- the abusive person accuses the victim for spending too much time with their family, friends, colleagues etc.

  • Playing the victim: The abusive person may try to turn the tables on the victim by blaming them for the issues the abusive person has not dealt with. They may even accuse the victim of being the abusive one in the relationship.

  • Instigating the person: The abusive person typically knows how to get the victim angry. They may irritate them until the victim becomes upset, and then blame them for getting upset.


Many times, an abusive person’s actions or words seem to serve no purpose other than to humiliate the victim. This type of behavior includes:

  • Name calling: Abusive people may blatantly call the victim ‘stupid’, ‘an idiot’ or other harmful names. If confronted, they may try to pass it off as sarcasm or as a light joke.

  • Joking or sarcasm: Although sarcasm can be a tool for comedic release if both people enjoy the joke, sometimes, abusive people disguise their derogatory remarks as sarcasm. If the victim feels offended, the abuser may make fun of them further for “lacking a sense of humor.”

  • Harmful nicknames: Nicknames or pet names may be normal in relationships. However, name-calling that hurts is unacceptable.

  • Public displays: Abusive people may openly pick fights in public, only to blame the victim if they become angry. They may also pick on the victim or openly make fun of them in social settings.

  • Patronizing: This may include talking down or degrading the another victim for trying to learn something new, or making it obvious that the victim is “not on their level.”

  • Insults on appearance: An abusive person may insult the victim’s appearance around others.

  • Cheating: Abusive people may cheat on their partners to hurt or humiliate them, or to imply that they are highly desirable.


Abusive people may seem to make situations chaotic for no other reason than to keep the victim in check. Unpredictable behaviors may include:

  • Drastic mood swings such as from being very affectionate to being full of rage and breaking things.

  • Emotional outbursts

  • Starting arguments for seemingly no reason.

  • Self-contradiction such as making a statement that contradicts the one they just said.

  • Gaslighting such as denying facts or making the victim feel as though they do not remember the situation correctly.

  • Acting two faced such as being charming in public but completely changing the minute they get home.


This category of abusive tactics is closely related to the category of control tactics but the main goal here of the abusive person is to make the victim feel isolated from others. This is usually done by:

  • Telling the victim that they cannot spend time with friends or family

  • Hiding the victim’s access to a vehicle to reach someone else or go out. Hiding the other person’s money, which is done by hiding actual liquid cash or taking complete control of the victim’s assets.

  • Stealing, hiding, or even destroying the victim’s cell phone or computer

  • Making fun of or belittling the victim’s friends or family, and making the victim feel bad for spending time with them.

  • Taking up all of the victim’s free time.

  • Locking the victim in a room or the house.

What can you do if you are a victim of emotional abused?

The following are the steps you need to follow if you are a victim of emotional abuse:

  • Once you realize that you are a victim to emotion abuse, the first major step is to accept that it is not your fault that you went through the abuse.

  • The next step is to speak to someone you trust. This person could be a family member, a friend, your romantic partner, mentor, colleague etc.

Caution: You could speak to someone who may or may not know the person who is abusing you. If you do speak to a person who personally knows you and the abusive person in your life, then you need to ensure that this person you are speaking to in confidence, won’t go behind your back and talk to the person abusing you. If this happens then it could make your situation worse than it already is.

  • Whether you have someone you can trust and talk to about the abuse, you can always choose to seek help from a mental health professional. This could be a counsellor or a therapist. A mental health professional will be unbiased towards your experiences of being abused. Mental health professionals also have the expertise for helping clients deal with different situations of abuse.

Help from mental health professionals is always available. It is you who needs to take the first step and ask for help. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness. Once you do ask for help, your mental health professional will be your emotional support as you deal with all the problems, trauma, pain and the person who abused you.

- Nishita Vaswani

Counsellor - Cinq in


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497 views3 comments


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