No one deserves to be treated in an abusive way, yet it is fairly common to see this happen. Yet, if you are in the middle of emotional abuse, you might not always see it.
Emotional abuse can come from a spouse, a parent, a boss, a co-worker, a church member, children, a caretaker…really anyone who is in a relationship. But it is important to clarify what emotional abuse is and isn’t –it is more than negativity in a relationship, or saying things you don’t like—it’s more than hurting from a relationship break up or being yelled at once –It’s more than ordinary conflict.
Emotional abuse happens when talking becomes screaming or yelling, arguing involves name-calling or attacks on your self-worth. It is aimed at disrespecting and controlling a person and can happen in secret or in front of others. Emotional abusers deflect from their own emotional pain by targeting another person. They blame or find fault and take their own lack of worth and displace it on those around them.
The fallout of emotional abuse is significant. Feelings of confusion, fear, moodiness, hopelessness, and shame result. When emotionally abused, you can have muscle tension, aches and pains, nightmares, and a racing heartbeat. Over time, anxiety, chronic pain, guilt, insomnia, social withdrawal, or loneliness can develop.
The Bible tells us, “Reckless words pierce like a sword” Proverbs 12:18. And that piercing creates wounds that need healing.
Therefore, if you are being emotionally abused, reach out for support. Emotional abuse is hard to fight alone. Talk to a trusted friend or family member who will listen without judgment. If that’s not an option, consider joining a support group for people who have experienced abuse or trauma. Or find a professional counselor who can help bring accountability to the relationship. Ask if the abuser would be willing to attend counseling with you. If not, go yourself to learn how to respond to emotional abuse when it happens.
In addition, here are some basic principles to put into practice:
- Learn to assert yourself in terms of what type of behavior you will accept. Be specific as to what is considered off limits and abusive.
- Be calm and direct regarding what is inappropriate, e.g., say, “That was an unkind remark and it hurt me. Please stop.”
- Tell the person how you will respond if they become emotionally abusive again, e.g., “I will hang up the phone, walk away, end the conversation until civility is restored.”
- Be consistent and follow through with your planned responses to abuse. If safety is a factor, talk to a professional mental health therapist to guide your work.
- Do not negotiate when it comes to abuse. It is wrong and needs to stop.
- Do not allow the person to isolate you. Keep people in your life who will support your healing journey and pray with you.
- If you can, limit your exposure to emotionally abusive people. You don’t need friends who treat you this way. Use 1 Corinthians 13 as your guide when it comes to love and respect, “It [love]is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs…It always protects…” There is no reason to engage with a person who is emotionally abusive if you do not have to do so.
- Find your voice. Know who you are in Christ and believe you deserve to be treated with love and respect. Do not justify emotional abuse for any reason.
- Get spiritual help from a pastor, small group leader or someone designated to help with your spiritual life. Husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her Ephesians 5:25. Women are not to submit to ungodly behavior. The fruit of the Spirit should be evident as a marker of living the Christian faith—this list does not include abuse. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law” Galatians 5:22-23. Nothing in Scripture supports emotional abuse.
- Get professional help if you find yourself avoiding all social situation, feeling depressed, anxious, or fearful, have nightmares and/or sleep problems and are tempted or have turned to substances to medicate emotional pain.