Note: This post was written by Andrea Lee and originally appeared on her site here. We are sharing it with her permission. –Michael


It’s simpler than you think, and yes you may be doing it (a little or a lot)

Sometimes when I chat with people about emotional abuse, I get questions that make it clear: we aren’t really sure what emotional abuse is.

This is a problem, just like if we don’t know why a tree is sick, there’s not a lot we can do. So we just sit and watch the tree being sick, and infecting others, and eventually the whole tree rots, and topples over, never reaching its full height or potential.

Obviously this is an analogy for people, and it’s personal because when I think about how I used to be, and the harm I caused without understanding it, I know that not only was the tree that was me desperately sick, but that one of the trees around me was getting punished because I wasn’t getting any better.

In the years since I was in this place, there are so many more resources for:

  • identifying emotional abuse for what it is
  • getting personal, direct help like in counselling or coaching sessions
  • getting general help in the form of books, and people like me who are sharing possibilities
  • taking courses that are specifically focused on being abusive, and how to stop

There’s help for this thing called being emotionally abusive. Now it’s about supporting people – you, maybe, or, someone near you – to say yes to putting in the effort to stop.

So what is emotional abuse really?

There’s a lot that could be said about this. For now, here’s just one take.

Emotional abuse is any behaviour one human does that creates unnecessary fear in another person.

Unnecessary fear can be fast and intense, but only once in a while – like a parent who occasionally has an angry meltdown.

Yes, they, or you, may be under pressure and you may have every reason to be upset. But that doesn’t need to mean you create fear in your family. You can be upset and stressed without abusing others.

Unnecessary fear can look like tension on an ongoing basis – like the parts in a movie when you know something bad is going to happen, except you don’t know when.

Waking up in the morning is a good example of this. It used to be that I would wake up and immediately be angry because of something I felt was wrong about my husband, or his behaviour. (It really doesn’t matter what I was angry about, it could have been nothing and I would have still been upset.) So for him, on a daily basis, for years, he experienced the fear of not knowing what blowup was waiting when Andrea got out of bed.

Unnecessary fear can look like both of the above, combined – a mix of ongoing pit-in-the-stomach fear, with a sense of ‘oh shit, is something going to hit the fan.’ So think of it like a damaging storm that doesn’t stop, with tornados once in a while.

Emotional abuse is causing that fear, with little behaviours and big behaviours, obvious actions and invisible actions.

Even if you don’t intend to cause that fear, it’s still emotional abuse.

Fear isn’t a bad thing in and of itself…

Which leads me to a clarification.

Fear can be okay and reasonable. It’s not inherently bad, in its proper place. So how can you be in relationships where there might be fear, and not be abusive? How can you feel afraid and not be abusive, taking your fear out on the people you love?

Scenario #1: Fear without reassurance.

A parent loses their job and the family’s financial situation becomes insecure. This is a frightening thing.

Here is an example of an abusive reaction in this scenario:

Upon getting home after being laid off, the parent yells at the family for being wasteful with money and food, blaming them for not being better with money.

The family becomes afraid, not just of the financial situation, but of the parent lashing out. They are in a double whammy situation: unsafe in both (1) the new financial emergency, and in (2) the emotional danger from the parent. The first reason they’re afraid is reasonable because of the job loss. The second reason is unnecessary, and that’s where the emotional abuse comes in.

The second reason causes harm that does not need to be caused.

The second reason the family is afraid makes things way worse than the original job loss.

Scenario #2: Fear with reassurance.

A parent loses their job and the family’s financial situation becomes insecure. This is a frightening thing.

Here is an example of a non-abusive reaction in this scenario:

Upon getting home after being laid off, the parent tells the family that they have some bad news. They might say:

“So unfortunately I have some bad news. I lost my job today. It’s scary isn’t it? I’m going to find another job as quickly as I can, but right now it’s just scary – for all of us. I’m so sorry for this bad news. Are you okay?

Do you think we could look at our spending together? Maybe everyone can do a little bit, and help out? I think it if we all do our part, we will find a good way to get through this.”

Of course, if you’re the parent, it might seem really impossible to be reassuring in this way. It’s true. It’s not easy. However, it is possible. You can learn how to be scared, and reassure yourself. You can learn how to be furious or wildly upset, and, still be reassuring. It takes work to notice where you’re causing unnecessary fear and more work to get the skills to stop. But you can do it.

You don’t want to be worse than the original problem, right? I know you don’t.

In my view, many instances of emotional abuse are preventable, but we – the people who are being abusive – are the ones that need to say yes, I get it, I’m working on understanding it more, and one day at a time I’m sorting out how to stop.

The next time you’re up in arms, feeling big emotions and afraid, ask yourself:

Will I cause unnecessary fear by doing ______.

(Fill in the blank with whatever action you were going to do. Maybe you were going to blame someone, blow up at someone…throw something, punish someone.)

With all that I have going on right now (my feelings) what can I do that will not cause unneccessary fear?

(The more options you can identify for yourself here, the better. Some of mine are: write, walk/workout, wail into a pillow, etc.)

Does your family wake up afraid or feeling safe? Do you? Do you wake up and people are afraid, or feeling safe and happy to see you?

Waking up in the morning these days, sometimes, I hear my hubby baking, or clanging around doing something – he’s super creative and loves mornings. I used to be furious at this – how dare he wake me up, how inconsiderate I felt he was being, I was such a victim of his horribleness (he was the opposite of horrible, it was all me.)

As a result, he lived in fear every day, not knowing how Andrea was going to wake up and come at him this time. It didn’t matter what he did or didn’t do, I was going to be mad, and that led to years of unnecessary fear for him.

When I really let myself think about it, I am truly horrified, and feel sick that I did that. Day by day I had built a life where fear pervaded the house. Fear on the level of terror and heartsickness was the center of our relationship.

Only when I understood what I was doing was I able to start stopping. It’s cliche but it’s true. It starts with awareness.

That awareness and realization, even if it is horrifying to face at first, is my wish for you, and why I write these articles. I hope that as you understand what emotional abuse is, you’ll be able to take the steps you need to get yourself better.

Getting your needs met so you have less fear yourself, is a good way to begin. What are you really most afraid of when you lash out? Comment below.