How Emotional Abuse May Lead to Depression?

There have been many times in the past when I've run into someone at work who could twist my words to suit his own purpose. If I’d challenged him in some way, he would launch a subtle verbal assault that built gradually to convince me he’d been the victim and I’d been the one who had caused the problem. The turnaround could be so skillful and bizarre that I’d often be at a loss, feeling confused and frustrated as to how to respond. He’d have a keen sense of where I was vulnerable – the shame of being me that came with depression. Incapable of accepting any responsibility, he would stay on the attack until my inner doubt about my own worth and judgment left me completely unsure of myself. I’d probably end this by agreeing that the situation was more complicated than I’d thought. Then I’d turn away feeling as twisted as his words, aware that everything I knew to be true had been reversed to put me on the defensive. In disgust, I’d berate myself for not having been able to dismantle his phony logic on the spot. How could I have been so readily disarmed? I’d wind up feeling bad while he’d walk off with another notch in his belt. I had been dealing with a master manipulator who could never be wrong. Instinctively, I knew this person would never change, and rather than repeat this crazy-making experience, I’d usually decide to stay clear of him as much as possible.

John Folk-Williams, Psychological Abuse and Depression

What is Emotional Abuse?

Emotional abuse (can also be called psychological abuse or mental abuse) is any behavior that is designed to control and subjugate another human being through the use of fear, humiliation, intimidation, guilt, coercion, manipulation etc. Emotional abuse is any kind of abuse that is emotional rather than physical in nature. It can include anything from verbal abuse and constant criticism to more subtle tactics, such as repeated disapproval or even the refusal to ever be pleased.

Emotional abuse is like brain washing in that it systematically wears away at the victim's self-confidence, sense of self-worth, trust in their own perceptions, and self-concept. Whether it is done by constant berating and belittling, by intimidation, or under the guise of "guidance," "teaching", or "advice," the results are similar. Eventually, the recipient of the abuse loses all sense of self and remnants of personal value. Emotional abuse cuts to the very core of a person, creating scars that may be far deeper and more lasting that physical ones. In fact there is research to this effect. With emotional abuse, the insults, insinuations, criticism and accusations slowly eat away at the victim's self-esteem until she is incapable of judging the situation realistically. She has become so beaten down emotionally that she blames herself for the abuse. Her self-esteem is so low that she clings to the abuser.

Emotional abuse victims can become so convinced that they are worthless that they believe that no one else could want them. They stay in abusive situations because they believe they have nowhere else to go. Their ultimate fear is being all alone.

Types of Emotional Abuse

There are multiple types of Emotional Abuse, and some of them even are not easy to distinguish as abuse. The provided below classification will help you to understand better your situation and get ready to apply emotional guard to protect yourself from the abuser.

Abusive Expectations

·         The other person places unreasonable demands on you and wants you to put everything else aside to tend to their needs.
·         It could be a demand for constant attention, or a requirement that you spend all your free time with the person.
·         But no matter how much you give, it's never enough.
·         You are subjected to constant criticism, and you are constantly berated because you don't fulfill all this person's needs.


·         Aggressive forms of abuse include name-calling, accusing, blaming, threatening, and ordering. Aggressing behaviors are generally direct and obvious. The one-up position the abuser assumes by attempting to judge or invalidate the recipient undermines the equality and autonomy that are essential to healthy adult relationships. This parent-child pattern of communication (which is common to all forms of verbal abuse) is most obvious when the abuser takes an aggressive stance.
·         Aggressive abuse can also take a more indirect form and may even be disguised and "helping." Criticizing, advising, offering solutions, analyzing, proving, and questioning another person may be a sincere attempt to help. In some instances however, these behaviors may be an attempt to belittle, control, or demean rather than help. The underlying judgmental "I know best" tone the abuser takes in these situations is inappropriate and creates unequal footing in peer relationships. This and other types of emotional abuse can lead to what is known as learned helplessness.

Constant Chaos

·         The other person may deliberately start arguments and be in constant conflict with others.
·         The person may be "addicted to drama" since it creates excitement.

·         Denying a person's emotional needs, especially when they feel that need the most, and done with the intent of hurting, punishing or humiliating.
·         The other person may deny that certain events occurred or that certain things were said. If one confronts the abuser about an incident of name calling, the abuser may insist, "I never said that," "I don't know what you're talking about," etc. You know differently.
·         The other person may deny your perceptions, memory and very sanity.
·         Withholding is another form of denying. Withholding includes refusing to listen, refusing to communicate, and emotionally withdrawing as punishment. This is sometimes called the "silent treatment."
·         When the abuser disallows and overrules any viewpoints, perceptions or feelings which differ from their own.
·         Denying can be particularly damaging. In addition to lowering self-esteem and creating conflict, the invalidation of reality, feelings, and experiences can eventually lead you to question and mistrust your own perceptions and emotional experience.
·         Denying and other forms of emotional abuse can cause you to lose confidence in your most valuable survival tool: your own mind.


·         Someone wants to control your every action. They have to have their own way, and will resort to threats to get it.
·         When you allow someone else to dominate you, you can lose respect for yourself.

Emotional Blackmail

·         The other person plays on your fear, guilt, compassion, values, or other "hot buttons" to get what they want.
·         This could include threats to end the relationship, totally reject or abandon you, giving you the "cold shoulder," or using other fear tactics to control you.


·         The abuser seeks to distort or undermine the recipient's perceptions of their world. Invalidating occurs when the abuser refuses or fails to acknowledge reality. For example, if the recipient tells the person they felt hurt by something the abuser did or said, the abuser might say "You are too sensitive. That shouldn't hurt you."


·         Minimizing is a less extreme form of denial. When minimizing, the abuser may not deny that a particular event occurred, but they question the recipient's emotional experience or reaction to an event. Statements such as "You're too sensitive," "You're exaggerating," or "You're blowing this out of proportion" all suggest that the recipient's emotions and perceptions are faulty and not be trusted.
·         Trivializing, which occurs when the abuser suggests that what you have done or communicated is inconsequential or unimportant, is a more subtle form of minimizing.

Unpredictable Responses

·         Drastic mood changes or sudden emotional outbursts. Whenever someone in your life reacts very differently at different times to the same behavior from you, tells you one thing one day and the opposite the next, or likes something you do one day and hates it the next, you are being abused with unpredictable responses.
·         This behavior is damaging because it puts you always on edge. You're always waiting for the other shoe to drop, and you can never know what's expected of you. You must remain hypervigilant, waiting for the other person's next outburst or change of mood.
·         An alcoholic or drug abuser is likely to act this way. Living with someone like this is tremendously demanding and anxiety provoking, causing the abused person to feel constantly frightened, unsettled and off balance.

Verbal Assaults

·         Berating, belittling, criticizing, name calling, screaming, threatening
·         Excessive blaming, and using sarcasm and humiliation.
·         Blowing your flaws out of proportion and making fun of you in front of others. Over time, this type of abuse erodes your sense of self confidence and self-worth.

Emotional Abuse in Family Relationship

There is fairly difficult way out of a marriage or life partnership with an emotional abuser. Look at a standard situation, you read in classic literature and you see around you among your friends and acquaintances. A woman meets a charming, even dazzling partner, falls in love, enjoys a blissful time and feels emotionally complete through this intimate bond. But then everything starts to go bad. Minor insults delivered with a laugh, sarcastic comments about everything she says – just enough edge to make her wonder what he means and whether or not she’s meeting his needs.

Things build from there to such acts as withholding intimacy because of something she’s done, blaming her for causing a series of problems, complaining about unreasonable behavior to their children, her family and friends. She’s not sure what’s happening and doubts herself, becoming more dependent on her partner. By then she’s so confused that she loses the ability to act independently or to think clearly in his presence. In trying to resist, she gets angry and appears unreasonable to the people she looks to for help. The angrier she gets, the easier it is for her partner to point out coolly how impossibly demanding and irrational she’s become. He complains to everyone that he’s constantly victimized by her outbursts. The woman finds herself completely trapped.

Short-term effects of an emotionally abusive husband or wife often have to do with the surprise of being in the situation or the questioning of just how the situation arose. Some emotional abusers don't begin their abuse until well into a relationship. Husbands or wives may find themselves shocked to see the new, emotionally abusive behavior. The behavior and thoughts of the victim then change in response to the emotional abuse.

Short-term effects of emotional abuse include:
·         Surprise and confusion
·         Questioning of one's own memory, "did that really happen?"
·         Anxiety or fear; hypervigilence
·         Shame or guilt
·         Aggression (as a defense to the abuse)
·         Becoming overly passive or compliant
·         Frequent crying
·         Avoidance of eye contact
·         Feeling powerless and defeated as nothing you do ever seems to be right (learned helplessness)
·         Feeling like you're "walking on eggshells"
·         Feeling manipulated, used and controlled
·         Feeling undesirable

A partner may also find themselves trying to do anything possible to bring the relationship back to the way it was before the abuse.

In long-term emotionally abusive situations, the victim has such low self-esteem that they often feel they cannot leave their abuser and that they are not worthy of a non-abusive relationship. Adult emotional abuse leads to the victim believing the terrible things that the abuser says about him/her. Emotional abuse victims often think they're "going crazy."

Effects of long-term emotional abuse by significant others, boyfriends or girlfriends include:
·         Depression
·         Withdrawal
·         Low self-esteem and self-worth
·         Emotional instability
·         Sleep disturbances
·         Physical pain without cause
·         Suicidal ideation, thoughts or attempts
·         Extreme dependence on the abuser
·         Underachievement
·         Inability to trust
·         Feeling trapped and alone
·         Substance abuse

Stockholm Syndrome is also common in long-term abuse situations. In Stockholm Syndrome, the victim is so terrified of the abuser that the victim overly identifies and becomes bonded with the abuser in an attempt to stop the abuse. The victim will even defend their abuser and their emotionally abusive actions.

How Emotional Abuse Leads to Depression

It is said that depression is only anger turned inward. Emotionally abused people often given up on emotions, since emotions have proven to be so damaging. They have been beaten down by the emotions of others and struck through the heart by their own emotions in response. No safety, just anger, fear, shame, and guilt. Perhaps, they think, if I punish myself there will be no need to be punished by others. Or, I’m only getting what I really deserve.

It takes a great deal of energy to deal with emotional abuse and stay buoyant. Each emotional assault takes its toll on that store of energy. Some people simply run out of strength to climb the mound of abuse heaped upon them. When that happens, they slip into the pit of depression. Unable to escape from anger, fear, shame, and guilt, they attempt to shut down all of their emotions. With no visible way out, they curl into themselves, isolating themselves from others and imploding their world.

What should you do if you are being emotionally abused?

  • Call 911 if you are threatened with harm or violence.
  • Accept the truth - Admit you are being abused and recognize the damage it has done.
  • Get professional individual counseling with licensed therapist, who will help you to deal with abusive relationship.  
  • Learn how to set boundaries in relationships.
  • Learn to trust your instincts and feelings.
  • Seek support from friends and family.
  • Join local support groups.
  • Educate yourself about emotional abuse.
  • Know that you are not to blame for your partner's abusive behavior.
  • Recognize that you have the right to make your own decisions, in your own time.
  • Recognize that emotional abuse should be taken seriously.
  • Know that emotional abuse can escalate to physical violence.

Sources and Additional Information:


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