Being in a situation of mental abuse is a frightening concept for anyone.

We would never want to think that anyone we respect, care for, or love could treat us in such a way. Sadly, the slope toward mental abuse is typically gradual and goes unnoticed for the most part until severe points are reached. Suppose you’ve had a gut feeling that something isn’t right in one of your relationships (be that with your romantic partner, family, friends, or even work colleagues). You may want to consider whether you’re being subjected to mental abuse.

Here, we define mental abuse, signs that indicate a relationship is abusive, and how you can break free from an abusive situation.

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What defines mental abuse?

When considering mental abuse, most people would jump to a definition of manipulation and violent verbal arguments. However, many subtle signs, particularly early on in a relationship, may not overtly appear to be abusive. These little things will often go unchallenged and gradually build to alarming and more prominent levels. By making yourself aware of what truly defines mental abuse, you can catch the signs early and either confront the other party or cut ties with the relationship before things turn worse.

The main aims of emotional and mental abuse lie in frightening, controlling, and isolating a victim. It won’t involve physical violence but instead use your mind against you and leave you in a constant state of fear regarding physical violence. It doesn’t matter your age or gender, anyone can be the victim of mental abuse, and it is also not only applicable to romantic relationships.

No matter the ideas and beliefs an abuser may force into your head, no one deserves mental abuse and should never have to stay in a situation built upon this abuse. Read on below for common signs of mental abuse that make a situation easier to identify and come to terms with.

Humilaition and criticism

A prime tactic those who mentally abuse will use is humiliation and criticism. This is to break down your spirit and self-esteem, essentially making you easier to manipulate and control. Examples of this include:

Derogatory name-calling

Someone mentally abusing you may often call you rude and offensive names like ‘loser’ or ‘idiot’. They may also use derogatory profanities when talking to you. Name-calling also consists of using your insecurities against you, for example, giving you a nickname regarding your weight.

Character attacking

Mental abusers will make you feel like everything is always your fault and that you’re constantly messing up. This might be when speaking to you or them talking about yourself to others.

Yelling and shouting

Raised aggressive yelling is familiar with mental abuse. Your partner may do this to intimidate or scare you to stop you from speaking up or disagreeing with them. They may not hit you but could hit themself or destroy objects around you.

Patronizing tone

Another way to bring down your self-esteem is to speak to you in a constantly patronizing way. For example, constantly suggesting you are stupid or talking to you like a young child.

Public harassment and embarrassment

An abuser may create arguments and divulge personal information in public or group situations to exert power over you. This can make the victim feel very small, highly embarrassed, and ashamed.

Dismissive tendencies

Your partner may be highly dismissive about the essential things you find important. They may even make you feel stupid for holding these interests in the first place. This can be done verbally or through negative body language like eye rolls, head shakes, and sighs.

Stating that insults are jokes

If you state that something they have said or done has hurt your feelings or made you uncomfortable, they will typically make out like they were only joking about saving face. Taking this one step further, an abuser may even get angry at you and make you feel like an idiot for not realizing their ‘joke’.

Criticizing your appearance

To make you feel small and take jabs at your self-esteem, an abuser may regularly insult your appearance. This could be your face, body, or even how you dress. A romantic partner may do this to make sure you don’t leave them or believe you could ever attract or be with anyone other than them. They may make you feel like they are doing you a favor by being with you.

Belittling your achievements

While you might be keen to celebrate your accomplishments, someone who is mentally abusive is likely to ignore or shrug them off. At worst, it may make them angry, and they will act like you’re showing off or that the achievement isn’t that impressive in the first place. They may also look to claim responsibility for the achievement, essentially stealing your success.

Disregarding your interests

Many mental abusers don’t like their victims having other interests other than theirs. They might disregard or belittle your interests, calling them ‘stupid’ or wasting time. Their aim is that you give up this hobby or other focus and instead spend time and energy with and on them.

Button pushing

Someone who is mentally abusive will identify your buttons or triggers early on and look to push them regularly. Most of the time, this is to be able to start an argument, which they can then blame you for, or to make you feel small and belittled.

Shaming and taking control

Another considerable element of mental abuse is shame and control. This manipulation may manifest to ensure that you do precisely what the abuser wants you to do and make you feel shame if you don’t. Examples of this include:

Regular threats

While mental abusers don’t always act violently, they are likely to threaten it regularly. While some threats may be direct, they will often be vague, like ‘you don’t know what I’ll do when you push me too far’ to keep you in a state of fear and suspense.

Tracking your movements

A mental abuser will want to gain control in every aspect of your life, so this means knowing where you are at all times. They may become volatile, for example, if you question this or don’t answer calls and texts with a sense of urgency they deem appropriate. An abuser might also invade your privacy by showing up to events and locations they weren’t invited to ‘check up’ on you. Typically this behavior goes hand in hand with significant trust issues held by the abuser.

Spying on your personal life

To exert total control, someone who is mentally abusive may always request or demand access to your personal life. This often comes in the form of access to your social media accounts and sharing passwords so they can assess what you’re doing at all times. Many abusers will do this in a romantic relationship to ensure you aren’t cheating on them or talking to other people.


Gaslighting is when someone tries to make you feel crazy or manipulate you into a narrative that suits them and their needs. Mental abusers use this tactic regularly to break down their victims. You may feel like you no longer trust yourself and your judgment because you are constantly being made to feel wrong in what you say.

Taking charge of decision making

A mental abuser will look to take charge of both of your lives jointly and essentially strip you of your autonomy in an attempt to control. This may look like canceling appointments without your permission, insisting you stop work or change careers, and dictating what you wear and eat.

Financial control

Not only will the decision-making be in their control, but so will your finances. It may be that they consider any money you have to be theirs, insists that any bank accounts you have been in their name and control, or constantly guilt you into giving them money. They may also need constant proof that you aren’t buying things they haven’t stipulated you are ‘allowed’ to buy.

Emotional blackmail

Emotional blackmail is used to manipulate another person’s feelings, usually through guilt. This involves the abuser making you feel so bad you either do or give things to them that you would otherwise not choose to do. Typically an abuser will play the role of a victim here to manipulate you for personal gain.

Constant lessons

No matter how small of a mistake you make, this will result in a lengthy lesson and lecture from a mental abuser. They will ensure you are made aware of your ‘failing’ and all other past ones to make themselves feel better than you.

Giving orders

Someone mentally abusing you might also give orders and demands rather than requests. For example, ‘you will wait here for me until I get back’. In a work environment, although bosses, to an extent, give their employees orders, this should be done with respect. An example of mental abuse in the workplace would be, ‘get this project completed now. I don’t care if you have to stay here all night or you won’t have a job by the morning’.

Regular volatile outbursts

You may never feel safe around a mental abuser because they are prone to volatile outbursts at any given moment. You might feel like you have to walk on eggshells or suppress your genuine thoughts and feelings to maintain a sense of calm in the relationship. These outbursts may be over small things, and the abuser is likely to react far more emotionally than is necessary.

Pretending to be helpless

Some mental abusers will always seek their way by deploying a tactic of helplessness. This might be pretending not to know how to do something so that you will do it for them or guilt you into giving them money or access to you after a breakup.

Unpredictable demeanor

A mental abuser may have significant mood swings that leave you never really knowing where you stand. For example, they could have been screaming and shouting at you over something and then 5 minutes later be kissing you and telling you how much they love you. This can leave a victim highly confused and feeling like they can never truly relax in their presence.


In another attempt to leave you feeling vulnerable, a mental abuser might regularly abandon you as a punishment. If you’ve upset them, for example, they might leave you at a party where you can’t get home on your own. A romantic partner might regularly leave and walk out, not returning for days or answering their phone.

Accusations, denial, and blame-shifting

A mental abuser will start to create a mindset that places them above you in terms of power and importance. Examples of this include:

Jealous nature

They will regularly accuse you of cheating on them or flirting with others due to insecurity and jealous tendencies.

Expectations that aren’t realistic

A mental abuser will often hold you to unrealistic standards and expectations. For example, calling multiple times when you’re out in the evening with friends to check in.

Denial of abuse

If you approach someone about mental abuse, they are likely to deny all claims and make you feel like you are exaggerating or lying.


When you express how something has hurt or upset you, they might make you feel invalidated or that it’s ‘not that big of a deal’.

Hold you accountable for their life’s problems

In times of argument, an abuser could blame you for everything wrong in their life to make you feel guilty and bad about yourself. For example, ‘everything in my life has gone wrong since meeting you’.

Destruction of your property

While a mental abuser might not hit you, they may destroy things around them or your property. For example, if they accuse you of calling and flirting with someone else, they could smash your phone in anger.

Emotional neglection and imposed isolation

When someone is mentally abusing you, they will place their emotional needs before yours. They are also likely to isolate you from friends and family, so you depend more on them. Examples of this are:


They will make you feel like less of a person by ignoring you or talking over you to make your voice less heard.

Prevents you from seeing others

They could restrict your plans for seeing friends or cause arguments before going out to see family to prevent you from leaving.

Breaks down your family relationship

An abuser might take a dislike for your family and expect you to do the same out of loyalty towards them. You may cut ties with a supportive family unit out of fear or to keep the peace.

Withholds affection

If you have done something to upset them or not done something they have asked, an abuser might hold off or reject affection. They might refuse to touch or look at you until you do what they ask.

How to remove yourself from an environment of mental abuse

Environments of mental abuse can be difficult to distance yourself from, but with the right help and support, you can move forward with your life in a healthy direction. Some things to consider:

You can’t fix them

A person with abusive tendencies needs professional help, and you staying with them will never make them change. Remember that you can’t force someone to seek help, either.

Don’t blame yourself

No abuse you receive is ever valid or your fault. The only person who is responsible in any way is the abuser.

Put yourself first

Be selfish and put your own needs first. Whether taking some time apart from the other person or cutting ties completely, make sure to meet your needs and no one else’s.

Cut contact

In most cases, the best thing to do with an abuser is to cut all contact. Block them and maybe even consider relocating for a fresh start.

Build a safe network of support

Seek solace and support from people who care about you and want to help you move on from this negative experience.