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Emotional abuse isn’t always obvious: ‘You start to think something is wrong with you’

Signs someone may be in an emotionally abusive relationship
WATCH: Signs someone may be in an emotionally abusive relationship

Emotional abuse can be “masked and hidden” and for some, experts say it’s hard to figure out whether you’re experiencing it in the first place.

Maneet Bhatia, a clinical psychologist based in Toronto, tells Global News that emotional abuse has a range of expressions: “verbal insults, criticism (and) negative comments aimed to discredit, devalue and otherwise dismiss the victim.”

“Unlike physical or sexual abuse, there are no physical markers or harm to one’s body, but it is a persistent and pervasive relational pattern that serves to cause psychological and emotional distress and pain.”

Tara of Toronto, who did not share her full name with Global News for privacy reasons, escaped an abusive relationship in 2006.

The 35-year-old remembers being 18 and meeting her abusive ex-boyfriend for the first time during a photoshoot.

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“He was so charming, cool and patient … but gradually he began to use anger and coldness and would try to control my behaviour.”

He would “shut down” if the couple was having a happy moment or would go into angry outbursts for long periods of time. At that time, Tara could not recognize this as a form of abuse.

Like Tara, those who experience emotional abuse can have significant changes to their mental health and sometimes fall into unhealthy relationship patterns, Bhatia said. Many people don’t know their relationships are emotionally abusive.

READ MORE: Signs you’re in an emotionally abusive relationship and how to get help

“I only thought actual violence could be abuse,” Tara said. “A year after I escaped, I came across the term psychological abuse.”

She eventually left her abuser when he made threats to hurt people in her life, she said.

In 2012, she launched her own advocacy work to help others in the community.

Emotional abuse doesn’t just happen in romantic relationships — it can include any type of relationship or interaction with others, including family members, friends or co-workers.

“Constant emotional abuse negatively impacts self-esteem, self-worth and sense of self,” Bhatia said.

“It can lead to feelings of worthlessness, powerlessness, hopelessness and helplessness, and is linked with depression, anxiety, and health problems.”

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The signs of emotional abuse

Bhatia said the signs of emotional abuse can include things like the abuser attempting to invalidate you, trying to control you or placing unrealistic demands on you.

“[This can also include] being argumentative, name-calling, attempts to act superior and ‘better’ than you,” he said. “All of these serve to make the victim feel less than and inferior.”

Dawn McIlmoyle is an abuse advocate and founder of Dawn’s Awareness For Abuse Peer Support Network. As a veteran, she was part of a class-action lawsuit filed against the Canadian military in 2018. 

The lawsuit alleged that discrimination, assault and harassment was widespread among military ranks. In November, the Federal Court approved a $900-million agreement settling multiple class-action lawsuits, including the one Mcllmoyle was part of.

These days, McIlmoyle supports others living with abuse. She says there are many different aspects of emotional abuse.

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“It leaves you feeling like you’re at fault and you’re doing something wrong … when you’ve really done nothing wrong,” she said. “There’s a lot of blame and shame causing the other person to feel guilt and a lot of entrapment where you can’t get out, either.”

She says signs of emotional abuse are often not obvious.

READ MORE: How to support and respect survivors of family violence

Gaslighting, for example, is when someone undermines another person’s feelings and McIlmoyle says she hears this often from clients. This can include a partner who repeatedly is emotionally abusive, but follows up with phrases like, “I’m not a bad person.”

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“They are tricking you into it,” she said. “It is a part of manipulation.”

Sometimes you may be controlled and not even recognize it, she said. Some abusers control aspects of money, scheduling (deciding where you should go for family gatherings, for example) or even deciding whom you speak to.

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“When your everyday behaviours are being constantly picked at … you really start to think something is wrong with you.”

Another example is when someone controls your clothing options or even what you eat, McIlmoyle said. This could mean choosing which clothes you wear when you go out in public or telling you not to eat something if it’s “unhealthy.”

She said the hardest thing to pick up on is tone. Sometimes, emotional abusers don’t yell or even curse — they can be speaking in a completely “normal” tone.

Some people don’t reach out for help

And while we know survivors of any type of abuse are often hesitant to reach out for help, McIlmoyle said those who experience emotional abuse may not reach out for years.

This can have a severe impact on their self-esteem and self-worth.

“The hardest part is breaking out of the cycle of believing what everyone is saying.”

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Like physical abuse, emotional abuse can also be a cycle, both experts said. Often, someone who is emotionally abusive “makes up” for it by being romantic, buying someone gifts or apologizing for their behaviour.

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“The hardest thing to do is leave an abusive relationship you’ve become comfortable with,” McIlmoyle said.

She said sometimes you’re financially dependent or share children, making it harder for some people to leave.

When it is your family, it can be even harder to leave.

“If it’s in your family, it’s more than likely you’re going to end up with someone emotional abusing you in your relationship and then you’re going to think that’s all you deserve,” she said, adding this is how emotional abuse becomes normalized.

Paying attention to interactions

If you start noticing some of these signs in your relationships or with the people in your life, Bhatia said it is important to start paying attention to them.

“[Look at the] interactions you are having with this person, and ask, ‘How do these interactions make me feel?’ and ‘How do I feel when I engage with and after I engage with this individual?'”

If you feel hurt, upset, criticized, depressed or anxious, or find yourself engaging in unhealthy self-thoughts and perceptions and behaviours, it could be a sign of emotional abuse.

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“If you are experiencing this in intimate relationships, and feel safe enough, it may be important to reach out to a therapist or a support person for professional help to assist you.”

READ MORE: Are you experiencing abuse? Here’s how to get help

Sometimes, it’s about setting boundaries with the abuser, he adds, and working towards self-care.

“Work to stop blaming yourself or taking responsibility for someone else’s negativity and abuse, build and rely on your support system, and prioritize your own mental and physical health.”

He said it is important to remember it’s not your fault.

“Unfortunately, we cannot change people and have to accept that people are who they are and our focus has to be on what is best for our well-being, and finally, consider the possibility of having to leave the relationship.”

Where to get help

If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.

The Ending Violence Association of Canada, Assaulted Women’s Helpline (Ontario) and Canadian Network of Women’s Shelters & Transition Houses all offer ways of getting help if you, or someone you know, may be suffering from mental health issues.

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For additional resources, click here.

— with files from Sarah Deeth, Greg Davis and the Canadian Press

arti.patel@globalnews.ca