Why it’s tricky to recognise emotional abuse

Updated: Jun 11, 2021

“This is abuse,” our therapist said. I was kind of shocked to hear this word. I went away, thinking about it. She was right. This was abusive behaviour. This was not just anger. This was not just frustration. I called my best friend to tell her about it. “I was thinking about it as well, this is actual abuse,” she said.

I couldn’t grasp it. Isn’t abuse something that needs to be clearly evident? If someone slapped you, you would know that’s abuse. Why hadn’t I realised that, even though I knew inside me how wrong this felt? And why did naming it made something inside me click?

When the therapist used this word, my feelings of injustice, rage, frustration, the screaming in my head “this is not right”, finally found a resolution.

After lots of therapy, I think this is what happened...

At a very deep level I felt awful, at my core I felt miserable. Yet I didn’t have the tools to understand why. The therapist gave me two gifts. One practical, one emotional. The practical: a new word, a tool, knowledge. The emotional: validation. My emotions not only could finally be understood by someone, but they were seen as rightful.

This is why therapy is essential to overcome abuse. As Lisa Feldmann Barrett, author of How Emotions Are Made said, “Partly what you’re doing when you go to a therapist [...] is that you are relearning how to make sense of your physical sensations. That might mean learning new emotion concepts, expanding your emotion vocabulary, so that you can be more resilient, [...] knowing more emotion concepts, and expanding your emotion vocabulary, doesn’t just improve your ability to communicate about emotion, it actually improves your ability to make precise emotions, and this has direct health benefits.”

This was not the only word that came as a revelation to me. Another one was “gaslighting”. I’d never heard of this word; a newly single woman casually mentioned toxic relationships and gaslighting at the pub. I went home and googled it: “manipulate (someone) by psychological means into doubting their own sanity”. Ding ding ding!

It's shocking but true, emotional abuse is not as easy to spot, especially when the abuser is very intelligent, manipulative and gaslighting you. There are so many stories online of embarrassed people - of all genders - who could not see what’s happening. Writer, Breanna Mroczek, wrote that it was through reading about other people’s experiences that “I started to realise that I was in an emotionally abusive relationship, and I had to leave”.

I will go into why it’s not always easy to understand our emotions in a different post. What I do want to stress here is that it's not possible to improve your situation and find tranquility if you first don't understand why you're feeling bad.

Words are humanity’s way to validate our reality. And that’s why, as society evolves we need new words, because our needs, our emotions need to be voiced. When therapists reveal these words to their patients, they give someone a tool they’re missing, a tool that other people de facto have – because they had a loving family, because they had a more supportive environment, or a tool other people didn’t need to have because they weren’t traumatised.

Finding the right words gives us the confidence to recognise and own our feelings. So that’s where we will start with this blog. Finding the words. Then checking in with ourselves, how we feel, and why we feel this way.


Self-check in:

• Do you feel intense emotions but are not able to say what exactly you feel and why?

• Do terms of basic emotions such as anger, sadness, feel inadequate to express your emotions?

• Has there been a word that had an intense impact on you?

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