How to Recognize Mental Abuse

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There are several types of abuse, and throughout the month of March 2019 you’ll be able to find articles on the following types of abuse:

But first, let’s define what “abuse” actually means.

The word comes from Latin and Old French words that mean “misused” and “to use wrongly.” Basically, something’s happening that shouldn’t be happening! It’s wrong.

If nothing else, the one thing you should always remember is that abuse is NOT your fault.


Mental Abuse

Also known as psychological abuse, mental abuse is targeted at your mind and your sense of sanity and trust in yourself and others. Like most types of abuse, psychological/mental abuse is intertwined with the rest of them. Experiencing sexual abuse can cause psychological damage, as can domestic abuse and financial abuse.

It’s never fair to say you experience just one when they’re all linked together in some way.

Abuse is abuse. It doesn’t have to be physical to be damaging.

What Is It?

Mental abuse is very close to emotional abuse, and can sometimes feel interchangeable. But in some ways, mental abuse is darker and more insidious. Mental or psychological abuse results in psychological trauma like anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress.

(Side note: I don’t want to call post-traumatic stress a disorder because I don’t think experiencing post-traumatic stress means something’s wrong with you.)

Perhaps the best example of mental abuse is gaslighting, which is when the abuser subtly manipulates your reality to make you lose trust in your own senses and become entirely reliant upon the abuser.

You can read more on gaslighting in this post.

How to Recognize It

What does psychological or mental abuse look like?

  • Bullying behaviors, both in children and adults
  • Gaslighting
  • Ghosting jobs, partners, friendships, and other relationships
  • Defamation and false accusations without legal recourse
  • Degradation, fear, and humiliation that make you believe there’s something fundamentally wrong with you
  • Stockholm syndrome

I actually want to focus on ghosting here. Ghosting is a term used a lot by the millennial generation for abandoning a relationship or job without any contact whatsoever.

Examples of Ghosting

  1. John, an otherwise outstanding employee at his company, one day doesn’t show up for work. He didn’t text or call his boss or coworkers, he hasn’t posted anything on social media, and nobody at the company (including HR) knows what happened to him. In reality, he found a new job and just didn’t tell his old job.
  2. Mike arrived at the restaurant to meet his girlfriend, but she never showed up. He’s so worried because she’s never done anything like this before and he doesn’t know what happened to her. She’s not answering her phone, and over the next few weeks, he comes to grips with the fact that she’s gone and not coming back. It’s almost like she died… But in reality, she abandoned the relationship and cut him out of her life without allowing for any closure.

Ghosting is the coward’s way out, no doubt about it. It seems to stem from a lack of personal responsibility—of not caring about others or the ramifications of doing something like that, especially in a professional setting.

Companies aren’t blind to this—my own workplace is starkly aware that many of the younger generation—my generation—do not have the same view about “job stability” as our parents did, and for some industries, it’s becoming a very complicated problem.

Back to our regularly scheduled content.

What to Do About It

When you’re in the midst of experiencing mental abuse, it’s very difficult to recognize. Many women who are suffering such abuse can’t see it for what it is. Like Leigh Stein, it’s easy to see a woman with bruises and identify domestic abuse but remain completely unaware of the psychological damage you’re experiencing on a daily basis.

So what do you do about it?

Establish Boundaries

No matter what, my friend, you need some boundaries in your life. You need clear lines that, when crossed, prompt you to follow a pre-established consequence that is designed to keep you safe.

Boundaries do not govern what the other person does.

Please remember this! There’s a great podcast episode on boundaries from The Life Coach School that you should listen to as soon as you’re done reading this!

The trap with boundaries is allowing third, fourth, fifth chances. Some behaviors are Strike One, You’re Out. Others can allow a bit more flexibility if you’re not sure they actually meant to cross it.

An example of a You’re Out behavior on the first strike is physical violence. Even if there are immediate apologies and tears following a physical blow, the fact is that the physical blow still occurred. No one with true respect for you would lose control of themselves enough to physically harm you.

Get Perspective

Maybe you aren’t sure that what you’re going through is really enough to count as mental abuse. Others have it worse, right?

Don’t be fooled—someone else’s “worse” situation does not invalidate your own experiences.

It might be hard to do at first, but try to look at your relationship from an outsider’s perspective. If you saw another couple with behaviors identical to the ones you’re experiencing, what would you think?

If you saw someone bullying his or her partner in public, would you maybe think to yourself that they’re in a bad place?

Why wouldn’t you think the same of your own abusive relationship?

Sometimes the best wakeup call comes from being blunt with yourself and not mincing words.

Oftentimes a great “outside perspective” is your parents’. They know more than you might think they do! Did your parents show disapproval (blatantly or not) about your relationship? Did they have a knack for knowing which of your “friends” were a toxic influence?

Despite how much we resist it, our parents do know what’s best for us… For some things. Try looking at it from their point of view. Try to understand why they don’t like your partner or friends, and just for a moment, give them the benefit of the doubt.

Theirs could be the perspective you’ve been needing.

Leave the Relationship

It’s easy to feel trapped. Sometimes, part of psychological and mental abuse is the feeling that you can’t leave. Maybe they threatened you. Maybe they threatened someone you love, like your parents, children, friends, or pets.

And maybe, they’re serious about it.

But what’s non-negotiable is that you need to leave the relationship or friendship. You might not be able to up and leave immediately, and that’s okay. Take time to prepare. Gather important documents, essentials like your laptop, tablet, phone, chargers, and medical supplies.

Think of it in the same way you would think of a house fire. If you had to leave the burning house (your relationship) what would you need to take with you that you count as irreplaceable?

Resources & Helplines

There are plenty of resource guides on what to do when you need to get out. Please take some time to go through The Center for Relationship Abuse Awareness.

Mental abuse is not something to ignore. If you need help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or the National Domestic Abuse Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.

Call to Action

Are you suffering psychological or mental abuse right now, or have you in the past? What warning signs did you see that you ignored for a long time? What red flags should others look out for? Join the discussion below.

Want a PDF version of all installments of this Abuse Series packaged together for easy reference?

Download your copy now!

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