“They didn’t beat me or anything.”
I’ve heard that a lot as a therapist. Usually after someone describes excruciatingly painful examples of emotional abuse from a parent, sibling, spouse, or even employer. It’s a way to excuse the immediacy and shaming nature of emotional abuse.
The ease with which so many therapy patients and victims in general excuse away psychological abuse as being somehow not as bad because it is not physical abuse perhaps shows us how little we still know about the psyche.
I can tell you, psychological abuse is often more harmful than physical abuse. This is not to discount physical abuse, which creates trauma and stress in the body and mind. The consequences to the body range from mild to fatal. Also most physical abusers are also psychological abusers. Both kinds of abuse produce PTSD. The difference I’m trying to tease out here is that once you get away from the physical abuse (and take measures that they cannot get to you), the physical harm and danger has passed. But with emotional abuse, it can be harder to get away from an abuser, “because he isn’t beating me.” It takes longer to recognize because emotional abuse always includes manipulation, particularly gaslighting, a type of manipulation that twists everything around and causes the victim to blame themselves and question their sanity and memory.
Psychological and emotional manipulation and gaslighting are easier to conceal from others, making it the choice method of abuse for people too smart to do anything that would alert authorities. As a mandated reporter for child abuse, one of the things I was taught in order to assess potential child abuse is if the abuse has left a physical mark. Another is that striking a child with another physical object is considered more abusive than using a hand. What about the kind of abuse that leaves no mark? What about the person who was struck with words and not an object?
I also believe that the emotional state of a manipulator and emotional abuser is completely different than the average batterer. The “cycle of abuse” that I was taught in graduate school: tension building, incident, apology, and then calm, doesn’t fit neatly here. I don’t think that tension and stress hormones have to build up in the same way in emotional abuse as it does for physical abuse. An emotional abuser can delude themselves and manipulate, blame, berate, withdraw from and otherwise punish someone in a slow, steady, and calm process. The loss of self-control that often accompanies the physical abuse, as well as the emotional expressions of apology that can characterize some physically abusive relationships don’t have to be present in emotionally abusive ones.
In these ways it often stays hidden for years, and instead of a climactic episode of running away, a victim realizes they were grossly mistreated in a quiet moment surfing the internet or reflecting in a therapist’s office. And it’s really tough to take the idea that you have been emotionally abused, especially if you know yourself to be a smart and strong person that you wouldn’t think would “fall” for that sort of thing. Be kind to yourself. Part of emotional abuse is being convinced that you are not being mistreated, but rather loved.
So saying, “he/she/they didn’t beat me,” is the psyche’s attempt to deflect the pain of being emotionally abused and the shame of not being able to protect oneself from it. No, if they had beat you, you would have realized it earlier. Someone might have seen and known for sure that they needed to help you. You would have had an easier chance to be believed had you known you were being mistreated and could you have sought help. Instead, your abuser found a way to hurt you and cover his or her tracks. Sadly, for those of you who were abused through neglect, emotional withdrawal, indifference, the abuser refusing to know you, making you responsible for their feelings, or not allowing you to have or show needs, being hit might have at least been a sign that they regarded you at all, and you could have joined the ranks who rationalize their physical abuse by saying he/she only hurts me because I deserve it/he/she loves me and wants me to be better. But then again, tons of people rationalize emotional abuse by saying that the abuser just wants to improve them.
If you have thought about getting some help in processing or understanding the ways that someone you love has hurt you or let you down emotionally, and the above resonates with you, I want you to know something. It is that serious. It is worth getting help over. No, you don’t need to have been beaten to be abused and you have every right to feel pain and get help as someone who has been battered. It is not a contest anyway to see who is the biggest victim, and you don’t need to prove to a therapist that your pain is severe enough to earn yourself a spot on their couch. If you are stuck then you deserve to unpack it so that you can move through it, even if people in your life don’t understand (especially the people who have been prey to the same emotional and psychological abusers as you and who will be the first to tell you that nothing happened and that you are overreacting).
So the next time you start to say something like “he/she/they didn’t beat me or anything,” maybe in a humorous tone, stop yourself. Ask yourself why you need that qualifier, and what’s behind it. Ask why you have a need to defend that person. People come to therapy or talk to their friends and complain about hurts they have suffered from non-abusive people, all the time. They don’t tend to say “They didn’t beat me” about the garden-variety annoyances visited on us by friends and loved ones, like leaving dirty dishes or not returning a phone call. They tend to say it when they are still defending someone from a deeper offense. It’s scary to question the love and treatment of a loved one consciously for the first time. But ultimately, it’s brave and a step on the road to healing the effects of emotional abuse like low self esteem, inability to be one’s true self with others, difficulty regulating emotions, and paranoia and self-doubt in relationships.