The deal with emotional abuse
Let's talk about the form of abuse that rarely sees the light of day.
We hear about abuse all the time. Our hearts break when we hear of a mother who bullied her child to death, or of a child who was rescued, starving from his grandparents’ home as well as innocents getting raped.
However, what we never seem to hear about are the silent victims of emotional abuse.
What is emotional abuse?
Emotional abuse, according to senior clinical psychologist Desiree Choo, is a relationship where an abuser “behaves in a way that terrorises, shames and denigrates the victim”.
It is a form of verbal abuse that makes the victim feel less worthy, by creating a climate of fear and eroding their self-esteem. In emotional abuse, the abuser puts down their victim by threatening or coercing them into doing things they don’t want to do. In some cases, they even isolate the person socially.
These abusers also make their victim feel like they “deserve” the horrible treatment they receive, which could potentially lead to depression.
Desiree added: “It is important to note that emotional abuse is not an isolated incident. Rather, it is a pattern of abusive and coercive behaviours used by the abuser to maintain power and control over the victim.”
Unlike physical and sexual abuse, emotional abuse is generally considered “invisible”. It rarely gets reported, due to the lack of awareness and the victims’ unwillingness to speak up.
For example, perhaps your boyfriend constantly talks down to you and makes you feel inferior and undeserving of affection all the time. That is emotional abuse.
Maybe your parents constantly twist the things you say, making you feel like your memory is unstable. Or they play favourites and turn you against your siblings. That is also emotional abuse.
What can we do about it?
If you think that someone you know may be being emotionally abused, the first thing you shouldn’t do is to rush into a confrontation. Be sensitive, and try to approach the victim when they are away from their abuser.
Desiree recommended listening to them supportively and without judgement. Make sure they know that it is not their fault, and assure them this abusive behaviour is not acceptable. Encourage them to continue confiding in you by promising confidentiality.
The next thing you can do is encourage them to seek support, by sharing relevant resources with them.
If you think you might be a victim of emotional abuse, it is important that you find someone you trust to share your experiences with and to help you feel less isolated.
For instance, there are people you can talk to at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH). They will help provide a safe space for you to talk about your experiences, as well as provide you with all the support you need to get through it.
If you are worried that speaking up about it will do absolutely nothing, know that there are laws in Singapore, such as The Children and Young Persons Act, that will protect you and intervene if you are under 16.
If you are above 16, you can go to The Women’s Charter, which protects individuals of both genders against family violence. You could also call helplines such as ComCare Call (1800-222-0000).
Just because emotional abuse seems like a form of “invisible” abuse, remember that it is not.
There are people who can help. You just need to take that first step.