How to Heal From Emotional Abuse in Relationships: Therapist Approved Strategies [2021]

Are you trying to discover how to heal from emotional abuse in your current or past relationship? 

Well, you are in the right place! 

Emotional abuse is extremely painful but you can heal and live your best life yet. 

In this article we will discuss:

Section 1:

How To Recognize Emotional Abuse

Section 2:

Aftermath of Emotional Abuse

Section 3:

Healing From Emotional Abuse

  • Step 1: Acknowledge the Abuse
  • Step 2: Change Negative Thought Patterns
  • Step 3: Engage in Self Care
  • Step 4: Set Boundaries
  • Step 5: Know When to Seek Help

Let’s get started!

Section 1: Recognizing Emotional Abuse

therapist discussing relationship issues and emotional abuse

For most people, emotional abuse can be difficult to recognize because it can have less clear boundaries (doesn’t have clear cut boundaries) than physical or sexual abuse. 

Individuals who engage in abusive behavior (Emotional abusers) often make conscious/unconscious attempts to control by causing the victim to question themselves and doubt their own experiences. 

As a result, individuals who experience emotional abuse often suffer silently in confusion and psychological distress. 

Understanding the unhealthy cycle of emotional abuse can enable and empower you to recognize when emotional abuse is taking place and how to take appropriate action against it.

Definition: 

Emotional abuse is an attempt to use highly charged emotions to control the actions of another person by undercutting their sense of self, self-confidence, and/or mental health. 

young man struggling with emotional abuse in a relationship


Examples of emotional abuse can be broken down into the following sections:

Emotional Blackmail

  • Withholding love or being emotionally distant
  • Reverting responsibility by shifting the topic back to you and your flaws
  • Using your values or fears against you “You call yourself a nice person but…”

Unreasonable Expectations/Demands

  • Holding you responsible to meet their needs
  • Becoming angry if you don’t hold their same beliefs or opinions
  • Demanding all of your time and attention
  • Labeling you selfish or needy for having wants or needs of your own
woman in abusive relationship struggling unhappy

Discrediting Your Thoughts and Emotions

  • Being dismissive of your feelings and concerns, “you’re just being overly sensitive/emotional” ,“Your opinion doesn’t make sense” 
  • Invalidating your perceptions “You’re over exaggerating”
  • Attempting to define how you ‘should’ feel
  • Denying having done or said the action in question
  • Gaslighting or attempting to make you feel as though you’re imagining things

Creating an Unstable Environment

  • Sudden mood changes and emotional outbursts that make you feel as if you’re “walking on eggshells”
  • Starting arguments over miniscule things
  • Playing mind games by using contradictory or confusing statements during disagreements 
egg cracked open exposed yolk

Using Verbal Attacks

  • Shaming statements that belittle the entire person, “You’re so stupid”
  • Blaming communications strategies that assign fault or guilt to individual actions, “It’s your fault we never have any money”
  • Condescending and patronizing jokes or statements that insinuate you are inferior or less than  

Using Control Tactics 

  • Constant criticism or negative judgements about your personal choices, friends, or behaviors
  • Keeping you isolated from other healthy relationships with family/friends. 
  • Accusing you of cheating and/or monitoring your activity
  • Demanding to know where you are at all times
abusive boyfriend in relationship holding out hand suffocatingly

Section 2: Aftermath of Emotional Abuse

If you have suffered ongoing emotional abuse you may be struggling with a range of distressing symptoms. Many of these symptoms can resemble those of individuals with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) including:

  • Painful memories and/or flashbacks
  • Experiencing feelings of helplessness, worthlessness, and loneliness
  • A hard time concentrating on the task at hand 
  • Social withdrawal
  • Insomnia
  • Unstable or fluctuating mood 
  • Tension (you didn’t used to have) in your muscles, like in your shoulders that can lead to hypertension.
  • You may feel that your heart is beating more quickly than it should
  • Unexplained aches and pains
  • Hypervigilance & strong startle response
  • Night-terrors
  • Chronic pain
teen holding neck and dealing with emotional pain from abusive relationship

You may also struggle with low self-esteem, excessive shame, fear, guilt, anxiety, and/or confusion.

Suspiciousness of people may lead you to push away healthy relationships and find yourself in a cycle of toxic, abusive relationships and isolation from friends and family.

Victims of long-term emotional abuse most commonly develop mental illnesses such as:

  • Anxiety Disorders
  • Clinical Depression
  • Complex PTSD

(To learn more about how to overcome anxiety disorders in specific, check out our blog Anxiety in Teens: How to Recognize Anxiety and Help Beat it FAST [2021])

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Section 3: Healing From Emotional  Abuse

There is hope to heal from the pain emotional abuse creates. 

You are not alone in your journey. Like you, many people have experienced emotional abuse and have found healing and meaningful connections in healthy relationships. 

Below are 5 steps to help you in your healing process.

Step 1:

Acknowledge the Abuse

Thinking about and accepting your past abuse as a real event can be very difficult to do but it’s the first step to healing from your experiences. 

Many people find it difficult to acknowledge their past abuse. This can sometimes be due to a belief that says “I’m shameful for having been abused” OR “What I experienced really wasn’t all that bad”. Other times people repress their past abuse with the hope that if they don’t acknowledge it, it will go away. 

woman struggling in relationship from abuse

One thing can be sure, the longer your emotional pain from abuse is allowed to remain unacknowledged, the more negative impacts it will produce in your life. 

As you begin to acknowledge your abuse for what it was, you will also begin to take back personal power over your life. 

When you decide to engage with your old wounds, be aware that it’s normal to feel the same emotions you felt at the time of your abuse. These painful feelings have remained inside you and will only be healed when you accept and move through them.

Step 2:

Change Negative Thought Patterns

Emotional abusers alter your experience of reality by telling you lies about yourself and about the world until you accept their explanation of reality over your own. After enough time, you begin to accept these messages which affect the way you see yourself. These unhealthy thoughts can become the voice in your head (your self talk) that tells you exactly what your abuser told you. 

As you begin to process your past abuse, one way you can begin healing is by challenging your self- talk and dispensing with the negative thinking patterns you find there. 

crumpled up paper outside of mesh trashbag

Below is a list of unhealthy, negative thought patterns that people who have been emotionally abused often experience. 

Some negative thinking patterns you may be reinforcing are:

  • Black and White Thinking: “I either get it right or I’m a failure”
  • Over-generalization: “All men are like this”
  • Disqualifying the Positive: “Nothing good ever happens to me”, “I can’t ever do anything right”
  • Unrealistic Expectations: “I shouldn’t make mistakes”
  • Name Calling: “I’m so stupid”
  • Self-Blame: “It’s all my fault”
  • Catastrophizing: “I won’t be able to figure out how to do anything without my partner,, then I’ll be hungry and homeless”
  • Should Statements: “I should be further along by now”
  • Emotional Reasoning: “I feel guilty, I must be a terrible person”
  • Personalization: “He’s upset because I’m a terrible girlfriend”
  • False Permanence: “Things are going to stay this bad forever”
  • Magical Thinking: “If I were skinnier, my partner wouldn’t have cheated”
think about things differently sign

Negative thinking patterns have been linked to anxiety, depression, and feelings of shame, guilt, and blame. 

These types of messages will retain their grip on your life and mind until you begin calling them out for what they are and replacing them with new and healthier patterns of thinking. 

Step 3:

Engage in Self Care

Many of the suggestions below may seem trivial but they are extremely important to your healing process. When you begin to take care of your needs, you will have more energy, support, and nutrients to overcome the struggles you’re facing.  

heart with pomegranate seeds

Here are a few practical ways to begin the process of regaining power over your life:

1. Embrace More of Your Wants and Desires

Many victims of abuse recall that their only purpose was to keep their abuser satisfied. 

You may have forgotten likes, dislikes, passions, hobbies, etc. To begin the process of healing from your emotional abuse you will need to rediscover who you used to be and who you want to become. 

Start Small: Do something you love. Ask yourself what you have been wanting to do. Have you been wanting to join a bowling team, go to a painting class or take up underwater basket weaving? DO IT! And after that, do something else you have wanted to do. This is your time to reclaim your mind and life. 

woman in chair laughing and reading

Oftentimes, people who have experienced emotional abuse can carry excessive shame when it comes to being their authentic self

For more information on this topic check out a leading researcher Brene Brown’s video on how to overcome shame and self worth → HERE

2. Make your Physical, Emotional, and Spiritual Needs a Priority

Part of the healing process from emotional abuse is caring for yourself. When in an abusive relationship you can quickly lose sight of what a healthy, normal lifestyle should look like. 

Loss of self-esteem is one of the hallmark consequences of emotional abuse victims because they are led to believe they don’t matter or they aren’t valuable. We take care of the people who matter to us. When you take care of your needs, you will begin to develop the belief that you matter.

self care isn't selfish sign

Treat yourself like you’re valuable and you will begin to feel like you’re valuable too. 

Get Yourself Moving

Begin by asking yourself what type of exercise would you enjoy most? Remember, whatever you decide to do is entirely up to you, so do something you love. 

Exercise releases endorphins in your brain. These endorphins are often referred to as your brain’s “happy drugs”. They are responsible for regulating your mood.  Doing aerobic exercises for as little as 90 minutes each week can help to reduce your risk of depression and help you sleep better. 

woman stretching in dance floor room

Eat Right

When you’re in an emotionally abusive relationship, your focus is always on the other person. Not only this, the intense emotions in these volatile relationships can lead you to eat in unhealthy ways and amounts. When you begin to eat right, you will find that your body has the nutrients it needs to better regulate your energy levels and emotions. 

  • Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables
  • Be sure to get your protein
  • Drink plenty of water
  • Don’t skip meals
  • Don’t eat lost of fast food or processed foods
healthy meal from above of veggies and fruits and whole grains

Get Enough Sleep

There is no better way to keep yourself from making progress than being exhausted all the time. Try some of the following:

  • Creating a routine gives you more control over your life (And enough sleep) . Create a habit of going to sleep at the same time each evening, getting a solid 8 hours of sleep and then waking up at the same time each morning. 
  • Create a relaxing evening routine that helps you wind down (What helps you relax?). Over time, your brain will associate this evening ritual with sleep and you will begin falling asleep faster.  
  • Exercising during the day will help you be sufficiently tired in the evening. 
  • Don’t use electronics before bed. 
  • Be sure your room is sufficiently dark. 
alarm clock at 7:00 AM

Below are some different relaxing activities you can do before going to sleep:

  • Put on some calming music or sounds of rainstorms, the ocean, etc. 
  • Do 3 minutes of deep breathing
  • Do 5 minutes of mindfulness exercises
  • Read a book
  • Dim the lights
  • Drink bedtime tea

Be sure to check out our breathing and mindfulness walkthroughs → HERE

woman in sunlight breathing with eyes closed

3. Create Healthy Relationships and Allow Others to Support You

Friends, family, and faith communities can support you as you work through difficult situations (even if you don’t feel comfortable sharing with them).

While you never have to do anything you don’t want to do, it can be very helpful to find one or two trusted friends or family members who will listen without judgement and offer the empathy and compassion you need to heal. 

If this isn’t an option, we suggest you think about joining a support group with other people who have been through traumatic and abusive situations. 

friends fist bumping in greenhouse

Abusive relationships break down your trust in other people and keeps you isolated. 

Remaining socially isolated can keep you feeling down and dependent on unhealthy relationships. 

It is also common for individuals who receive constant criticism, judgment, and rejection from past abusers to experience feelings of unsafety in social relationships or a fear of being negatively evaluated and rejected by others. If this is the case, make sure to check our blog  Social Anxiety Disorder: The Ultimate Guide to Overcome it NOW [2021]

If social isolation has crept up on you, it’s time to reconnect

Healthy relationships have been linked to increased sense of worth and belonging and decreased stress. Not only this but engaging in healthy relationships also increases the release of those happy neurotransmitters called dopamine, giving you feelings of happiness and fulfillment.

Consider doing the following:

  • Go to lunch with a friend you have spoken to in a while.
  • Invite a family member you enjoy to a movie.
  • Say yes to an invitation when your feelings are telling you to stay home. 
  • Engage in a social hobby to meet new people.
friends arms over each-other looking at sunset

Section 4: Don’t rush yourself, healing can take some time

Be patient and empathetic with yourself as you heal. Remind yourself that it’s okay to feel confused, scared, tense, angry or any other emotions that come up. 

These feelings are a normal part of the healing process and there is no rush to get past them. They are yours and it’s okay to sit with them and experience them. Having and experiencing painful feelings doesn’t make you anything except courageous.

woman looking in mirror smiling

Step 4:

Set Boundaries

Asserting your boundaries when in an emotional abusive relationship can often antagonize abusers and escalate tension in the relationship. This happens because abusers don’t want you to have control of your life. The more control you begin to take back, the more they begin to feel out of control and chaotic. 

Learning how to implement and assert healthy boundaries between you and other people is a necessary step in your journey to retake control over your life

What is a boundary?

Healthy boundaries are indicators that let you and others know when they are crossing over from their space into your space. Just like the fence with a gate in your front yard or your front door, some people should be allowed in and some people shouldn’t

People who are being abused often have no boundaries and are completely enmeshed with their abusers. 

black and white broken fence

After people have been hurt, they can often erect impenetrable boundaries that keep EVERYONE out. 

Both of these are unhealthy. 

Healthy boundaries allow the right people in and keep the wrong people out.

Boundaries also let you and everyone else know where YOU begin and where YOU end; what areas of your life are under your control and which are not. 

orange and teel house with clean white fence

Below is a list of everything that should be within your boundaries, and therefore under YOUR control. 

  • Your thoughts
  • Your emotions
  • Your attitude
  • Your choices
  • Your behaviors

Healthy boundaries give you control over these areas and allow you to recognize when others are attempting to take your control from you. 

In addition, healthy boundaries let you know when others are holding you responsible for areas you are not responsible for: their thoughts, emotions, attitudes, choices, and behaviors.

When you have healthy boundaries you should notice these changes:

  • You won’t need to defend yourself: You don’t need to defend yourself for anything within your boundaries or feel guilty for having your own needs, wants, or desires. This is as ridiculous as defending what things you keep in your house to your neighbor. It’s not their house and so it’s not their business.
red traffic light
  • You won’t take it personally: When someone has a problem with what’s in your boundaries, it’s exactly that, their problem. If an abuser doesn’t like the way you act, think or feel or hold you responsible for how THEY think, act or feel, this is also their problem, not yours. These things have nothing to do with you so you should not feel ashamed, guilty, or anything else about it. 
  • You won’t try to make them understand: Trying to make other people understand and approve of what is within your boundaries is like trying to explain to your neighbor why it’s okay for you to love that ugly brown couch you’ve had since college. If that couch is in YOUR living room, the only person’s approval you need is your own!
woman in front of blue wall with two thumbs up smiling

(For more information on how to set boundaries, check out this videos by Dr. Henry Cloud, author of the book Boundaries HERE)

Step 5:

Know When to Seek Help

Knowledge is power. 

Emotional abusers want you to depend on them to determine who you are and how you should see the world. The more knowledge you have, the more power you will have to get your life back under your control. 

woman taking notes off a laptop with mental health on screen

While working through past and present abuse and the emotional trauma it brings into your life is a difficult process, there are many resources and avenues available to help you along the way. 

The old adage “You don’t have to wait until the house if falling apart to fix the windows” is true. Therapy can be a helpful resource for you no matter where in the healing process you find yourself in.

woman holding up sculpture

Here is a list of indicators that may be helpful to you when considering if it’s time to seek professional help.

Personal Safety:

  • You feel unsafe in your current living situation but aren’t sure how to find solutions. 
  • You feel your situation is explosive or potentially destructive. 

Emotional Processing

  • Your feelings are too powerful to face alone and you want help to process. 
  • Your past trauma is too much to handle alone.
  • You think you may be depressed. 
  • You feel afraid or anxious often. 
  • You’re experiencing nightmares, flashbacks or your startle easily. 
  • You find that you’re not able to manage your day to day responsibilities. 
  • You’re having problems sleeping
  • You have been using mood altering substances to cope.
couple in relationship counseling

If you practise the strategies discussed in this article, you will be well on your way to healing from the wounds of emotional abuse.

What did you learn in this article that you didn’t know before? 

Let us know in the comments! 

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