what is psychological abuse?
Photo by Mario Azzi- Unsplash.com
by Abigail DeWitt
This blog is meant to help you understand more about what psychological abuse is, and perhaps help you start the healing process if you too have suffered from psychological abuse. I am sharing parts of my story to help reveal what it can look like.
I was a victim of psychological abuse.
Psychological abuse is a form of abuse that uses words and non-physical actions to mentally and emotionally weaken, manipulate, hurt, or frighten the victim. In this form of abuse, the abuser seeks to change the victim’s sense of self and harm their wellbeing. They do this by distorting, confusing, or influencing the victim’s actions and thoughts in their daily lives.
This kind of abuse can be so hard to spot, especially in the beginning stages of the abuse and it is even more challenging for the victim of the abuse to recognize that they are being abused. The abuser takes their time regularly and deliberately sabotaging the victim’s interpersonal thoughts and shatters them, and then surrounds them with love and affection. It’s like if a parent was teaching their child to ride a bike then stuck a rod in the tire once the child succeeded causing them to fall off, and then ran over to the crying child giving them hugs and telling them it’s okay. The child wouldn’t know if they should be angry at the parent or grateful that they were there to comfort them when they fell. This abuse has no limits for who the roles of the abuser and the victim can belong to.
In my case, it was my first dating relationship. I knew him for years and thought I was going to be safe if I dated him because of his publicly kind demeanor and reputation. He volunteered, didn’t drink, talked about his moral standards, was gentle to people, was a valued employee at his steady job, etc.- no clear red flags. From the outside, it was impossible to know that it was possible for him to be an abuser. No one knew, I didn’t know. In the beginning of the relationship everything was great. My list of boundaries was held up and even esteemed, sweet words and moments were constantly poured over me, and I was displayed around his social circles, family, and workplace as a huge value to his life because of my achievements, goals, and sociable personality. All these things made me feel like I was truly treasured, so any subtle degrading comment or action was hard to believe happened because it went against my initial belief that I was valued.
That’s the thing with psychological abusers. They set the stage so they can’t fail, they can’t be called out on their actions. It provides them a major cushion of “Oh, but remember how I did ___”’s so that the victim believes that they are the one in the wrong for thinking that the abuser could have ever done anything wrong. Not only does it confuse the victim, but the people surrounding the victim can also be blindsided by the abuser as well. Every manipulative and hurtful action is followed by sweet words or loving actions. Over time this breaks the victim’s sense of self down because they feel like they can’t trust their own thoughts. One moment they think they are in danger and being harmed and the next they think they can’t be in danger because of how nice their abuser was that day. How could a nice person be abusing someone? The fact is, they aren’t nice.
After my abuser set his well decorated stage, he commenced his footwork towards stomping me down. It started subtly- re-arranging tiny details of events and little comments about my outfits here and there, some more about how much I was working, slight jabs about my future career choice. Then all of those would be followed by asking if maybe we both had a hard time remembering something or occasionally admitting his mistake and compliments about my appearance and how he was proud to have such a hard working girlfriend who had big career goals. The complete opposite. As the abuse grew the small details and comments changed to more serious accusations and manipulations. He couldn’t handle being in public with me because of the anxiety and anger towards other men I caused him because my clothes drew too much attention towards me. My early morning job was upsetting because I interrupted our time when I had to leave earlier to get up earlier, not to mention that I was making more money than he was. But surely, I was working too hard and he was the hero for suggesting I work less since I was a workaholic. Desiring to go to graduate school for my then dream career and save up money so I could pay for it out of pocket was less important than him buying a new set of rear view mirrors for his vehicle. Because what a waste to go to graduate school if he just wanted me to be a stay at home mom. It was unrealistic for me to desire to serve people through work and be a mom. These transitions to extremes took time, but it made the extremes seem less extreme and almost went unnoticed. To outsiders, he was just having “slip-ups” in the relationship because again, he was so “nice”.
Some of those tactics were attempts to limit my social life, to isolate me-another common tactic famously connected to psychological abuse. If you are isolated, they gain more influence over the victim’s life. More ability to say and do what they want to the victim. When it comes to the remarks, psychological abusers do not start with extreme remarks. First, they build your trust in them and start with the subtle digs, then they go for the extremes. If they start off as strong as they end up, the victim would put their internal walls up before the abuser would have a chance to control their thoughts and change their sense of self.
They also target their victim’s vulnerabilities. Whatever the vulnerable part of the victim’s life may be, the abuser will amplify it. It will become a tool in their hand to either weaken the victim with, or build the abuser up as a hero in the eyes of the victim only to later break them again with it.
Over time the constant manipulation and confusion wears the victim down. The abuser slowly gains more control and power over the victim. They find themselves doing things they would have never considered doing before, feeling almost like they are in the wrong space everywhere they go away from the abuser because they can’t recognize their thoughts without them. Time with them is not great or memorable, yet being away from them feels unbearable but they don’t know why. Second guessing each thought they have, but not knowing why.
When I had been worn down by the person who abused me, I felt like a shell of a human. In pictures of me taken at that time, my eyes literally lost their sparkle. Prior to the relationship I used to love my eyes and had so much joy filled in them. The abuser knew my eyes were the one part of me that I truly loved, and he told me that they weren’t his favorite feature and then would continue to tell me about how the only good part about his “crazy” ex girlfriend was her eyes. He had never seen eyes as beautiful. So, my eyes died. Literally no more sparkle. My mind was in so much agony and my heart was so broken that my body reflected the pain. I had extreme shoulder pain for several months. Mentally, I couldn’t even remember what I dreamed of for my life anymore. I was so fired up about missions and travel and speaking to people for Jesus before, but then I couldn’t remember what that fire felt like or why it had been there before. Maybe it wasn’t there before and I made it up for attention. Did I really want to work and be a mom, or did I even want kids beforehand? All of my dreams were dead and gone but I couldn’t trace where they had gone. The entire identity of who I was, who I loved to be, was absolutely gone.
Luckily, God was on the move to rescue me. He saw everything that had been done to me and was set on His way to redeem me. He began speaking and revealing to my family that something was wrong. They began asking me questions and then revealing the heart behind some of the abuser’s actions. Their help began to help me connect the dots that something was off and then I began feeling God chasing me too. I was so scared to break up with the abuser because I thought I would be so alone and broken if I got away from him, and I didn’t know if I could fully make a clean cut from him. One day after a great talk with a friend and a family member, God gave me the courage to end it. I ended it and it was one of the most emotional nights of my life, and I was then able to see how much danger I had been in with that person.
I felt so lost, confused, and damaged after the relationship. I was nothing and I would never be anything. Life would slowly pass and every day would be sad and dull until it would finally end. That’s what I thought I deserved, but God said no! He stepped in and told me to draw close to him, so I pushed through the pain and shame and ran to Him. It was there that He rescued me! He healed my deep wounds that I thought would never be healed and then moved my whole life and showed me my identity in him. He restored the sparkle in my eyes and then gave me the best of the best gifts when I thought I deserved nothing.
If you have been psychologically abused, God can and WILL do the same for you if you run towards him. He is ready to rescue and redeem you. He will reveal who you are in him and place dreams and desires in you again. The abuser does NOT have the last say. God does.