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!
“Welcome to The Mental Breakdown and Psychreg Podcast! Today, Dr. Berney and Dr. Marshall have the pleasure of interviewing Ms. Shannon Thomas, a licensed clinical social work supervisor, the owner and lead therapist of an award-winning private practice-counseling agency in Southlake, Texas and best-selling author of ‘Healing from Hidden Abuse: A Journey Through the Stages of Recovery from Psychological Abuse.'”
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!
I had a wonderful time visiting with Alise Cortez on her radio show:
Working on Purpose.
To listen to the show: Click HERE
A Quest to Improve the Lives of People Who Have Experienced Psychological or Spiritual Abuse
“Let’s face it – relationships of all types can really be difficult. That’s especially true when we find ourselves living, associating or working with individuals who use psychological or spiritual abuse as a method of harm. A surprising number of people exhibit various personality disorder characteristics that manifest themselves in behaviors toward those closest to them. Our guest in this episode has a unique window on this world in her counseling practice focusing on recovery from hidden abuse. In this episode, we discuss Shannon Thomas’s choice to enter the field, how she developed her career into her own business today, the six stages she uses to guide her clients toward recovery, her perspective of how and why psychological and spiritual abuse occurs today, and the signs we might use to recognize that we ourselves are in a toxic relationship and then what we can do about it.” – Alise Cortez
One of the most common things I hear from survivors of psychological abuse is their confusion about why they didn’t notice the red flags sooner in the relationship. It doesn’t matter if the toxic person is a parent, co-worker, friend or love interest, almost all survivors seriously doubt themselves for not seeing the toxicity earlier. Once a survivor’s eyes are opened to the abuse they have endured, they wonder why they didn’t set better boundaries before they found themselves in a world of hurt from the psychological games. Survivors of this type of abuse have their lives completely rocked and thrown into chaos. The common question is “how did I let this happen to me?”
The truth is that this form of abuse is difficult to specifically pinpoint and that’s what makes it so insidious. The abuser works hard to hide their true motives so they lie and shift the blame onto the survivor. In order for the pattern of abuse to be really seen, it takes a survivor many episodes that leave them deeply hurt. It is not a one-and-done type of abuse.
Psychological abuse is a pervasive pattern of covertly harming another person. I often relate the process that survivors go through as collecting pebbles. One pebble represents a negative encounter with a psychological abuser.
In the early stages of a relationship or an awareness that something isn’t right, a survivor will have a few pebbles in their metaphorical bag. The bag isn’t very heavy and only carries a couple weird or hurtful moments with an abuser. Certainly not enough evidence of abuse to cut a family member out of your life, quit your job, break up with a boyfriend/girlfriend and most definitely not enough to end a marriage. It’s only a few negative moments, right? At this point, survivors will rationalize that nobody is perfect, everyone has character defects and good days/bad days. It is human nature to not take too seriously one or two or three or four unpleasant moments with people. We often shrug it off and move on.
However, after time of collecting “pebbles,” the bag becomes very heavy. Too heavy to carry anymore and many survivors describe being crushed under the weight of the abuse and chronic dysfunction of the abuser. Survivors experience physical and emotional issues due to the weight of the bag of pebbles and toxicity of the environment. Some survivors share their During and After the abuse pictures and it is stunning to see how each and every one of them looked overwhelmed and exhausted during the abuse. The After pictures are extremely encouraging that recovery can be complete and permanent.
Are you collecting pebbles of odd or outright abusive encounters with a toxic person? How heavy is your bag right now? If there are just a few pebbles, take note of any patterns of behaviors that are starting to emerge. Be prepared to set boundaries if or when the pebbles start to pile up.
What do you do if your bag of pebbles is so heavy you can’t even lift it anymore and feel suffocated by the bag? First, breathe. Take a minute and pause. You are not crazy. You more than likely have been spun into such a chaotic state that you’re not sure which way is up anymore. Taking care of yourself physically is a great first step towards recovery from psychological abuse. Going to bed earlier, getting enough exercise and eating a little healthier are all helpful towards finding your way out of a dark pit. There are different aspect to being in recovery and each survivor has to figure out what is right for them and their specific situation. Finding a therapist or online support group that specializes in healing from psychological abuse is often vital for people to begin the healing process.
I wish that no one needed to be on the lookout for pebbles of abuse but the reality is that toxic people exist and trying to get a survivor to not notice the pattern is part of the dysfunction. Collecting pebbles helps gather the moments in one place so the true weight of the situation can be recognized.
Keep dreaming big!