What Is Emotional Abuse – Are You Just Being “Too Sensitive”?

Emotional abuse is a lot more common than physical or sexual abuse.

Most psychological abuse is verbal. Racial slurs, insults, derogatory remarks and threats are blatant examples of explicit psychological abuse but more commonly it’s concealed and secret in more normal interpersonal exchanges. A lot of the time the damage is done by tone of voice and verbal accent… for example remarks made at a contemptuous or accusatory tone. Based on the degree and duration of the experience it’s capable of producing harmful and lasting behavioral and attitudinal changes in the sufferer.

Overt and Covert verbal abuse

In explicit verbal abuse the anger, hatred or contempt are normally quite evident. In covert psychological abuse the anger and hatred are muted or appear to be absent. Covert abuse is usually delivered without evident anger or yelling. The tone of voice might appear normal, but to people who listen carefully, a hint of criticism or contempt can typically be heard. The motives that drive covert abuse are inclined to be the desire to manipulate, shame or punish the other.

Some of the more subtle types of covert abuse include:”withholding”,”discounting”,”verbal abuse called jokes”,”blocking and deflecting”,”trivializing” and”undermining”. The perpetrator may communicate in ways that are vague, confusing or ambiguous. After the victim misunderstands or misinterprets these communications they’re unfairly, but hurtfully, criticized or disregarded as being inattentive, lazy, selfish, stupid, uninformed etc.. .

Knowing two VERY common types of psychological abuse


In verbal gas-lighting, as from the 1944 movie of the name, the perpetrator tries to create the sufferer doubt their own perceptions and judgements and accept those of the abuser. This could be done intentionally or unconsciously, but if the sufferer loses confidence in their judgment they get easily swayed and take the perpetrator’s point of view, strategy or decision.

Since cumulative psychological injury creates psychological damage considerably more frequently than single traumatic episodes, when gas-lighting is persistent and intense, general mental health might be affected and rising self-doubt may result in psychological breakdown or even suicide at the sufferer.

The Double Whammy

From the double whammy, two emotionally hurtful or insulting remarks are made, separated by a communication (usually a demonstration ) in the sufferer. The 2nd violent comment is typically an assault on the victim’s response. “Of course you’d say that. . You always play the victim.” The first comment hurts and shames and the next invalidates the demonstration or denies the hurtfulness of the initial remark:

“I was just kidding… you have no sense of humor”
“You are too sensitive”
The perpetrator’s second opinion is often a kind of gas-lighting.

Ruined relationships, destroyed lives

When these abusive tactics are experienced from childhood it’s hard to grow and develop into a confident, competent adult. Repeated undermining and derogation create pervasive feelings of lack of value, hopelessness and depression that make effective and joyful life more challenging.

These verbal attacks destabilize the sufferer creating lasting anxiety, shame, guilt and anxiety. In the long term these behaviors destroy love, trust, or collegiality between social or intimate partners.

How we learn it

North American men have often unwittingly been educated to use speech to control others. Sons learn it by watching their fathers and other male role models. Women follow the examples of the mothers and other female models that, particularly in the past, have tended to minimize, excuse, discount or dismiss dominating abuse that’s directed at them.

Feeling inferior, searching for help…

Most perpetrators and lots of sufferers are unaware, (or only partially or temporarily conscious ) that these interactions are abusive. When they are successful the sufferer may genuinely feel that their decision-making or thinking is poor, incorrect or based on unacceptable assumptions. The feelings of incompetence, low self-esteem, anxiety, depression and hopelessness that lead many people to seek psychological help for their”weakness” often have deep roots in the early experience of psychological abuse.

An everyday event

Regrettably, since this subtle but hurtful kind of misuse is part of outside culturally sanctioned pattern of social interaction, the majority of us will do it at some time or another. When it’s unconscious, unintentional or infrequent, it can be considered a”psychological defense”… an effort to control the other so as to feel sufficiently powerful or safe.

But since these behaviors are so ubiquitous it may be well if each of us analyzed our own behavior and resolved to purge these regrettably common and hurtful verbal habits from our interactions. We must be less prepared to silently bear psychological abuse and we will need to be alert, aware and responsive when it’s aimed at us… or at other people in our existence.