Emotional Abuse: A manual for self-defense
Zak Mucha, LCSW
“… there is no real difference between physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. All that distinguishes one from another is the abuser’s choice of weapon.”
We have been socialized to believe emotional abuse is not serious. We have been taught emotional abuse itself is nothing more than “hurt feelings” and there is no “real” evidence other than the victim’s complaints. And if the only evidence is the victim’s complaints, we wrongly justify, there is no way to verify whether a person was “actually hurt.” The victim of emotional abuse is dismissed precisely because he or she cannot “prove” their feelings. Emotional abuse creates a vicious dynamic where the victim is taught his or her feelings do not count and any pain suffered is, somehow, their own fault.
Like any other abuse, emotional abuse is about power. Whoever can define reality has the ultimate power. In emotional abuse, the aggressor attempts to define reality with statements like, “You’re too sensitive,” and “I couldn’t help it. You made me mad.” Each statement is an attempt to shape how another person perceives reality.
Emotional abuse teaches us to blame ourselves for being hurt. We learn to redefine ourselves in the hopes that we do not get attacked again. In redefining ourselves we retreat to new, constricted boundaries -- where we can go, what we can say, and how we “should” feel. We do this in an effort to avoid pain. When we cannot escape emotional pain, we try to tell ourselves, “It’s not that bad.” We minimize our own pain, criticizing ourselves for being hurt. We imitate and incorporate the aggressor’s accusations, repeating the same things they told us about ourselves and the world. The abuser will present layers of excuses and justifications while the unstated truth continues to be, “I will continue doing this as long as there is no cost.”
A young man named Tyler Clementi was videotaped having sex with a partner in the privacy of his own room. When he learned his roommate and another accomplice were behind this, live-streaming the video on the internet, Clementi took his own life. When the roommate and accomplice were arrested, their first response was to deny any involvement. Once the police refuted that lie, the roommate and accomplice said they were guilty of the act, but did not mean for Clementi to commit suicide. Maybe they did not expect Clementi to commit suicide, but their justification they meant no harm does not stand scrutiny. What did they mean to do? Show their support? Love? Respect? Friendship? How did they expect the young man to respond? Did they honestly think he would enjoy the prank? Did they think he would sue them, or get a gun and shoot them? Or did they think he would not respond in any way dangerous to them? If they thought the young man would retaliate in any way, would they have destroyed his privacy? They did what they thought they could get away with. They only meant to demean the victim, not kill him. This is a common response from the abuser -- they say they never meant to hurt the victim; they claim no responsibility for the victim’s response.
The aggressors justify: If someone is hurt, they must be overreacting. They must be too sensitive. They didn’t get the joke. As a society, we remain willing to accept the abuser’s minimizations. It is easier to blame the victim. The righteous indignation and efforts to stop the abuser in cases of physical and sexual abuse does not exist when the abuse is emotional or psychological. Instead, we accept the abuser’s excuses: I didn’t say that; You misunderstood me; I was angry; You made me mad; I have a right to say what I want; I couldn’t help myself; You’re too sensitive; It was a joke; let’s forget it and start over. I was just being sarcastic…
This is why emotional abuse is a weapon equal to, if not more damaging than, physical or sexual abuse: We have been taught to accept the abuse. Emotional abuse becomes the perfect weapon when the abuser’s excuses are accepted by the victim and by the community. The perfect weapon is one no one sees. The perfect weapon is one the aggressor can hand over to the victim to use against their own self. The perfect weapon is self-perpetuating. The perfect weapon leaves the victim believing they deserved the attack.
Here’s the simple definition of emotional abuse from author Andrew Vachss who, for decades, has changed how the culture and the legislature perceive crimes against children:
“Emotional abuse is the systematic diminishment of another. It may be intentional or subconscious, but it is always a choice of conduct, not a single event. It is a pattern of behavior in a relationship, designed to reduce a person’s self-perception to the point he considers himself unworthy... This perceived unworthiness manifests itself in the victim’s belief they do not deserve respect, love, safety, caretaking, or choices.”
As children, we are dependent upon adults for everything. Food, shelter, clothing, warmth, love, and empathy are all requirements for life. Children want these things without even understanding what they are. Dependent upon adults, children create definitions of themselves, their relationships, and the world, based on each interaction. Children absorb whatever is presented to them.
As children we learn definitions for the world we inhabit -- not just in terms of concrete nouns and verbs, but abstract emotions as well (“This feeling is…”). And we learn to diagram how relationships operate (“If I do this, they do that…”). Most of this is so subtle, we do not notice the process. A child’s world is colored by the experiences and the lessons the adults impart. We learn the importance of work, education, food, family, money, racism, ethnicity, religion, gender, and sex from the people around us. We are not born with any sets of beliefs, behaviors, or emotional connections. No children are born wanting to join hate groups. No children are born wanting to be doctors or artists. No children are born believing love must include a degree of verbal abuse. We are taught such things, directly or indirectly.