One of the most common misconceptions I see online in the abuse recovery community are people posting that psychological abusers are just wounded people who don’t know any better. Victims to their childhood abuse who went on to hurt people similarly. You know the saying, “wounded people, wound people.” As a certified trauma therapist, I find this assumption to be false about psychological abusers and would like to unpack the topic a little more than can be done in an Instagram comment section.
I want to make it clear that both forms of abuse, emotional and psychological, are damaging to the victims, create life chaos, and are unacceptable in any relationship whether that be in a family, romantic relationship, among peers, at work, or in a place of worship.
The driving motivations behind emotional and psychological abuse are where the two topics split from one another and victims need to be well-versed in the underlying reason for the behaviors.
Can someone be both an emotional and psychological abuser? For me, the clinical answer is no. It is one or the other and depends on why the individual is behaving in harmful ways.
Let’s look at the differences.
Emotional abusers react out of their core wounds that have never been healed. They can trace back where they learned maladaptive coping skills and are continuing to hold on to them into adulthood.
Emotional abusers are authentically remorseful for their actions. They know something is wrong in the way they react to every day stressful situations. They are truly embarrassed by their behaviors.
It’s not that emotional abusers don’t know any better. They don’t know how to do any better. There is a huge difference between these two.
Emotional abusers hold a deep sense of shame about their brokenness and how it manifests in their life and those who are close to them. They know they are perhaps repeating verbal abuse patterns they loathed while growing up in an unstable home.
Emotional abusers may have an untreated, or poorly regulated, mental health diagnoses that can make maintaining stable moods a true challenge. I do not include personality disorders in this criteria. Diagnoses such as bipolar, schizophrenia, PTSD, or major depressive disorder can cause someone to have unregulated emotions that can cross over into unintentional emotionally abusive behaviors.
Emotional abuse is a common byproduct of addiction and chemical dependency. The addict’s life focus is on feeding their addiction and can become incredibly emotionally abusive in the singular pursuit of their drug of choice.
Emotional abusers often have chaos in many areas of life functioning. Maintaining a stable, calm existence is a challenge for many people who are also emotionally abusive.
Emotional abusers can change.
They can learn new coping skills that give them the tools to stop themselves before lashing out verbally. They can go to addiction treatment and live a peaceful life, clean and sober. They can do the daily work to maintain their mental health in a way that keeps them emotionally stable and regulated. I will say it again for emphasis, emotional abusers can and do permanently change for the better.
Psychological abusers never change.
Psychological abusers believe their assessment of you, and everyone else around them, is correct. They are not open to learning new coping skills and why would they? In their assessments, they are as close to perfect as someone can be and it is everyone else who needs the help.
Psychological abusers will pretend to be remorseful for some of their abusive behaviors, but no lasting change ever comes. They always return to their toxic baseline. Their “regret” is a façade to keep the victim in the relationship and available for more abuse.
Psychological abuses blame other people for their actions. They rarely give an authentic apology for being abusive because to do so would be to admit they are flawed just like everyone else.
Psychological abusers enjoy the game of making people frustrated. They create chaos on purpose because they find it entertaining to watch those around them react.
Psychological abuse is rooted in power and control of those around them.
Psychological abusers do not have other true mental health or addiction issues that could be the cause of some of their abusive behaviors. They choose to harm out of their free-will. Narcissistic Personality Disorder is not the same diagnosis category as bipolar, schizophrenia, PTSD, or major depressive disorder. NPD is not a true mental health, biochemically-based, condition. It is a personality disorder. I believe NPD is not a brain-based malfunction, but repeatedly choosing not to express empathy for others. If trauma can change brain function, not living in an empathetic manner could, and does, as well.
Psychological abusers know when to turn on and off their abusive behaviors. They are always trying to fly under the radar so no one can pinpoint their actions and accurately accuse them of being an abuser.
Psychological abusers are in control of their actions. Their lives tend to be high-functioning, or at least normal functioning. They can manipulate people around them into meeting their needs, while selfishly not being concerned by the needs of others.
These are but just a few of the differences between emotional and psychological abuse. The motivation of behaviors should help victims better understand what they are facing and make life choices that are right for them.
There are no excuses for any abusive behaviors going untreated or unchanged.
Remember, keep dreaming big!
As a therapist, I work with people on a variety of topics that can range anywhere on the intensity spectrum. Some individuals want to work on setting and reaching personal development goals, while others seek me out because I’m a certified trauma therapist and they’ve walked through the searing fire of life-altering experiences. Even though the spectrum of counseling is wide, there are several common themes that may be present, such as a wave of grief that often accompanies reaching new levels of healing and growth.
As the therapeutic process continues, people begin to see a transformation happen within themselves. They can point to tangible evidence that shows they’re getting healthier and feel themselves coming to life from achieving their goals. Each person who reaches this place of growth expresses heartfelt gratitude, but can also be surprised that the other emotion they’re now feeling is grief. This grief centers around the years lost and wasted moments that feel unredeemable. Often, this grief can turn into self-blame for feeling like you could’ve done things differently or not waited so long to begin making healthy choices.
With all growth, whether after trauma or personal development, there comes a wave of grief. It sounds like, “Why didn’t I do this sooner? Why did I let myself live like that for so long? How could I have wasted so much time? How could I have been so blinded by what was happening?”
While we don’t expect sadness to accompany reaching a milestone in our growth, it’s a common experience. Once we’ve tasted the goodness of restoration in an area of life, we kick ourselves for not having made the changes sooner. In order to fully enjoy our growth, we must address this new grief.
The good news is that the bouts of sadness that come with growth are often short-term. It’s not the sort of grief that lingers and drains your soul. If addressed properly, growth grief should only last a few weeks. Once acknowledged, this grief dissipates rather quickly because regret isn’t the same as a fresh trauma experience or remaining stuck without hope for change. It’s sadness for what could’ve been sooner.
I believe the grief would linger longer if growth wasn’t the catalyst. In other words, if change hadn’t already taken place, the sadness would be a present issue, not looking back at lost days. The sadness would be about being stagnant, not having already overcome. This helps move the growth grief needle along quickly and for that, I’m grateful. It would be terrible to work hard at making lasting changes only to get trapped in a box of shame for what could’ve been sooner. What a complete waste of time and effort towards growth.
Radical acceptance is at the heart of moving past any grieving experience that’s associated with personal development. Once we feel regret settling in, we can move forward by acknowledging exactly what’s been lost during the years of stagnation or trauma wounds. This form of acceptance doesn’t mean we force ourselves to be okay with the harm done. Not at all. Radical acceptance means that we face our sadness, regret and feelings head-on and that might be confusing after reaching a positive milestone.
Any personal growth we experience must be celebrated because it’s not easy to change our habits and hang-ups. As the saying goes, if it were easy, everyone would be doing it. All we need to do is look around to see plenty of people who aren’t putting in the hard work to change themselves for the better or find true healing post-trauma. If you’ve been confronted with the unsettling emotions of regret and sadness after the high of personal growth, be gentle with yourself. You worked hard to achieve the healing, so don’t allow this new season to get bogged down by unnecessary shame or regret. Change happened when you were ready, so enjoy and embrace every moment.
Keep Dreaming Big!
To place a pre-sale Kindle or paperback order, click HERE
There are no words to describe my joy of having finished my new book, Healing from Hidden Abuse: A Journey Through the Stages of Recovery from Psychological Abuse.
I wanted to write the book, and the personal reflections journal in the back of the book, because I felt that outlining the actual stages of recovery from this form of abuse had not yet been done in the genre. There are other books that do a wonderful job of telling a survivor’s personal story and sharing their experience in finding healing. A few other therapists have also written on the topic, but Healing from Hidden Abuse is unique as it outlines the process that people navigate through regardless of whether the abuse took place in a relationship, family, friendship, work, or church/ministry.
Within the pages of Healing from Hidden Abuse, the reader walks through the six stages of recovery.
The stages are:
The book is currently on pre-sale in Kindle and paperback format. The book will be released August 30th!