Emotional abuse: two nasty words that carry a lot of powerful connotations in our society. Obviously, it’s not a good thing. That’s something everyone I’ve talked to agrees on. And a lot of people seem to agree on what emotional abuse is.
Usually, people think of spousal abuse. The idea is that the abuser deliberately uses emotional abuse to erode the self-confidence of the victim before starting physical abuse. These people are depicted as nasty, controlling assholes with vicious tempers. The other image people get is of big-time bullying or hazing. In these cases, the images of the abusers are nearly identical. These extreme images stick because the extreme cases are the most vivid, memorable, and most emphasized.
These types of emotional abuse do exist, but so do others. There are many kinds of emotional abuse that are never aired and may not even be identified – by any of the people involved.
Wait. I thought emotional abuse was a deliberate manipulation. How could the person doing it not know? This is where I hit a sticking point with the generalization. It’s also why abuse can go unrecognized.
You see, emotional abuse does not have to be deliberate, and the person causing it does not have to be a nasty, controlling asshole. There are many ways to demean and damage a person’s self-confidence and emotional wellbeing without being aware of it.
Say that a group of friends is hanging out, and Sam makes a joke about Tim being a weakling. The rest of the guys raz him that night, and he shrugs it off and laughs. Well, if it stopped there, it would be one thing, but sometimes things grow. Having people laugh because you did something funny is a big rush. And Tim didn’t seem to mind. Without even thinking about it, Sam (and the other guys) could easily turn it into a running joke. None of the friends are deliberately trying to hurt Tim, but there’s a good chance that the repeated jokes about his strength will make him insecure about it.
Is that on the same level as spousal abuse? No. Is it a type of emotional bullying? Yes. Are the guys thinking that they’re bullying their friend? No. Are they trying to hurt him? No. I’m sure you could think of a dozen similar situations where a joke turned into bullying without anyone in the group even being aware. You can probably think of times when you were the Tim in the situation and other times when you were the Sam.
The main point is that the person doing the emotional abuse doesn’t have to be a horrible person. They don’t even have to be doing it on purpose. Repeated comments and behavior can be damaging, however unintentionally. Yes, we should be considerate of other people’s feelings, but if we thought of all the possible repercussions of every statement, we’d never talk at all.
That’s why it’s important to tell people if their behavior is bothering you or hurting you. Most people will stop once you convince them it’s important. If they don’t listen and keep doing it, then they fall back toward that asshole category.