Emotional Abuse: Making Sure You Feel Small and Worthless

Woman considering her choices
Woman considering her choices

Emotional abuse is harder to pin down than physical abuse, but it is much more common.  It pops up at school, with friends, in the workplace, in the home, and on every screen and device you can imagine.

Sometimes there is a tangible benefit to the person spouting emotional abuse; looking cool, eliminating rivals, controlling a partner or child’s ambitions.  But often the point is to remind the target that escape or resistance is futile, and that the abuser turns punishment and rewards off and on at will.  Crudely stated, the message is “You are who I say you are and nothing more.”

While anybody can be a target of emotional abuse, females have been on the receiving end of “soft control” for centuries.  Creative or ambitious women and girls, even in the most egalitarian of times, face layers of suppression, some of it in the form of comments and evaluations that specifically aim to disable their efforts and blunt any stirring of desire for success and recognition.

Are you female?  Did you aspire to a profession, write a book, compose a poem or symphony, create a painting? Enter a photography contest?  Do any of the following sound familiar?

She didn’t write it, but if she did…

She shouldn’t have. (It’s political, sexual, masculine, feminist.)

She wrote it, but look what she wrote about. (The bedroom, the kitchen, her family, other women.)

She wrote it, but she wrote only one of it. (Jane Eyre, poor dear.  That’s all she ever…)

She wrote it, but she isn’t really an artist, and it isn’t really art. (It’s a thriller, a romance, a children’s book, science fiction.)

She wrote it, but she had help. (Robert Browning, Branwell Bronte, her own “masculine side.”)

She wrote it, but she’s an anomaly.  (Virginia Woolf, with her husband Leonard’s help…)

She wrote it BUT…

(Cover, How to Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Russ)

This list focuses on women as writers.  By changing “write” to “invented, discovered, explored, painted, sculpted, started a business”, the same “but” can be applied to a wide variety of situations.

We invite you to make your own list of things you’ve been told about your dreams, talents, ambitions, and goals.  While this can be an emotional exercise in the moment (you might get really angry), reclassifying the items on your list as “emotional abuse” is a positive move toward repairing your self-esteem and restoring joy and purpose in your life.

NOTE:  Even people in your past or present who are not abusers, who genuinely care about you, can be unwitting vehicles for emotional abuse.  This exercise might help you uncover subtle abusers, but the real value is labeling dismissive comments about your talent and worth as abuse, no matter who is transmitting the message.  You can put these statements in the discard pile, and move forward without endlessly wondering if they are true.

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