If I could describe the impact and aftermath of emotional abuse in one word, it would be invisible. Emotional abuse may leave no physical marks, but the depth of the scars and the weight of the pain creates a burden that people can’t see—or don’t want to.
According to Psychology Today’s Andrea Matthews, emotionally abusive tactics include constant criticism and/or control, verbal assault and/or abuse, shaming and/or belittling language, mind games, refusing to communicate at all, and isolation of the victim from supportive friends and family:
“I know what’s best for you. Your friends don’t care about you the way I do.”
“What are you talking about? I never said that. You’re making things up.”
“You won’t leave me…and I won’t let you if you tried.”
“You’d look more honest if you wore less makeup.”
The cycle of abuse, as developed by Dr. Lenore Walker and survivors, includes four stages—tension building, incident, reconciliation, and calm—that also apply to situations of emotional abuse.
Each stage works to hold the victim under the abuser’s control, and to keep them in a state of unreality where the victim is made to feel like they are not able to believe their own experience.
The anguish of being isolated, put down, and controlled by someone you love, work with, or share a personal relationship with carries immense consequences that can stay with the victim/survivor for years.
Depression, anxiety, and complex post-traumatic stress disorder are common among survivors of emotional abuse, and the healing process can be made even more difficult by lack of support or outright disbelief when victims come forward.
Your experience was valid—no matter how hard people try to take that away from you. You deserve to be heard, and to heal.
When an emotionally abusive relationship of any kind comes to an end, there is often a massive question that takes its place: “now what?” We decided to create our own answer. We spoke with survivors of emotional abuse and came up with the following:
1. Take your time.
In an emotionally abusive relationship, time is often used to tie your attention, affection, and efforts to the abuser. Time is power, and abusers will do everything they can to keep you from having it.
Whether you were not “allowed” to hang out with a certain friend, told that your long-term dream was a waste of time, or otherwise constantly questioned, controlled, and/or gaslighted on the who, what, when, where, or why of how you spent your time, being out of that relationship can often feel more frightening than freeing—and that is completely normal.
“I went from the love of his life to a [complete] source of frustration and a burden. Every time I wanted to spend time with him, it would cause a fight,” said Eva of her past abusive relationship of three years.
“Threatening to leave me or actually leaving me for short periods of times were his way of asserting his power onto the relationship,” Eva continued. “If I wasn’t exactly how he wanted me to be, he would start threatening me in that way.”
Your abuser wants you to feel feel lost, scared, and alone, and like there is a massive hole in your life without them, but that is not the reality. It never was.
Your life is your own to live, and you can take as much time as you want, on what you want, who you want, and where, when, and how you want to do it.
While the consequences of abuse may impact your ability to act on these things, there is no time limit on healing.
Self-care on your own terms.
That slam poetry group you’ve always wanted to join, getting the pet you’ve wanted for years, or chasing that dream job across the country… use your time however you want.
2. Re-draw your boundaries.
Boundaries are an essential part of practicing love with yourself and others.
As explained by online counseling service 7 Cups, boundaries allow you to define your limits — where they begin, where they end, and the terms that apply as you interact with the people around you.
When healthy boundaries are established through consistent communication that holds the people involved with accountability, compassion, and understanding.
“For me, healing meant recognizing that my needs matter and that they are my responsibility, and that I can choose who I surround myself with,” said Jordan, who was impacted by emotional abuse from her parents. “I knew that was the right choice for me, because I felt less stressed and angry, and had fresh mental space and time to surround myself with people who did support me.”
While Jordan still shares family ties with her parents, she has gradually been able to proactively make and enforce her own boundaries with physical distance and time away from them.
It may not feel like it now, or for a long time, but the power is now back in your hands now. It’s not going anywhere, and will be there whenever you are ready to redraw your boundaries.
The best part? It’s all about you.
3. Forgive yourself.
What the abuser did to you was wrong. You never deserved it. The guilt, shame, and fear over if you somehow brought this upon yourself is not where your energy belongs right now, or ever again.
Out of all the things that you deserve, self-forgiveness is towards the top of the list.
While emotional abuse is a defined form of domestic violence, according to The National Domestic Violence Hotline, people still hesitate to believe or support survivors.
“When it’s been with people who didn’t know him, everyone has been incredibly loving and supportive,” said Eva of the experiences she’s had telling others of what she went through from her abusive ex-partner.
“However, when I talk about it to people who knew us together, though they completely agree that it was toxic and horrible and I was being manipulated, they seem to get very uneasy around the use of the word abuse,” she added. “It’s almost as if my experiences is missing something for them to consider it abuse; or they are just [un]comfortable with the word.”
Abuse in any form is never your fault. It doesn’t matter who the person was. It doesn’t matter how they got into your life. It doesn’t matter how long the relationship was. It doesn’t matter why you stayed.
None of that matters, but here’s what does: You made it through. You survived. You’re free. You did it.
4. Knowledge is power.
Trying to make sense of the abuse, and what to do after, seems like a difficult task on the good days, and entirely impossible on the bad ones.
After however long you were forced to only know and understand the world through the abuser’s perspective, it is absolutely normal to experience confusion—even fear—over where to start.
For many, therapy can also be a powerful tool: “[With therapy] I learned to ask for help and take breaks when I needed them,” said Katie who was affected five years ago by an emotionally abusive friendship.
In the process of confronting the abuser and their actions, Katie lost her best friend of 18 years. “When I was able to talk about what happened without crying or having an attack, I knew I was starting to really heal,” Katie added.
Depending on the available resources in your area, there may be relevant workshops, classes, or seminars you can attend. A quick search online can turn up local organizations, communities, support groups, and more.
If resources are difficult to access or you are unable to get to in-person courses for any reason, the Internet is your friend.
There are thousands of articles on everything from defining emotional abuse, to what to know on how to love again after emotional abuse, to the why and how of moving on from sites like BetterHelp, Love Is Respect, The Center for Relationship Abuse Awareness, and more.
From creating healthy boundaries to conflict resolution techniques, there is a class or article out there waiting for you—and the knowledge you gain from it will be yet another tool in your arsenal.
5. Take back your story.
People who emotionally abuse others often force false narratives onto the victim to justify the abuse. This often places the abuser as always being right, and the victim as having no authority or say on what the abuser says or does, except to affirm their perspective and decision-making.
Abusive false narratives can sound like a lot of different things. Among the many types of lies abusers tell their victims, the receiving partner may be told they are incapable of living their life without the abuser, that they are “damaged goods” in some way, or that nobody else will love them.
This also a form of gaslighting—the abuser is attempting to change your reality by altering how you see yourself. The conflicting emotions from being told a false, harmful story about yourself from someone that you trust or love can be heavily damaging, and with long-lasting effects.
After an emotionally abusive relationship, the lies that the abuser told you about you may continue to affect the way that you see yourself.
When the abuser is safely and securely out of your life, it’s your opportunity to take back your story. The undoing of the abuser’s lies and manipulations through your self-actualization can feel like an awakening, but can also be very emotionally difficult to process.
Rebuilding your story is a highly personal step, and you don’t have to do anything that you don’t want to— including going public with your story, or sharing it at all. Regardless of where you take your story from here, all the choices are yours now.
Emotional abuse and its consequences are difficult to heal from. You are rebuilding yourself from the aftermath of months, years, or decades of harm, and it is very common to feel like you’re struggling, because you are. You were abused, and that is what abuse does.
Healing is not linear, and the process can take months, years, or decades. Everyone heals on their own time.
Your journey can take on many different directions as you address each part of your situation, and there are resources available at each and every step of the way.
Above all, know that you are loved, and that you are not alone.
Sophia Stephens is a freelance writer, journalist, speaker, educator and advocate based in Seattle, where she/they work with local and national organizations including The Stranger, Kids & Race, Seattle Theatre Group, Distinction Music Management, Youth Radio, and Northwest Asian Weekly. Sophia’s work primarily engages with issues of radical intersectional social justice, politics, and popular culture, but they will always write a good story about their cat for you if you ask. If interested in connecting, you can find Sophia on Instagram and Twitter: @sophia_akiko.