How do you recognise emotional abuse?

One of the hardest things to recognise and understand as an untrained person is: what is emotional abuse?

Some similarities here to bullying, which has slowly come to be highlighted through public awareness campaigns over the last twenty years; emotional abuse is perceived as a relatively recent issue to be discussed.

Emotional abuse can consist of very subtle, easily disguised or dismissed verbal behaviours and non-violent physical actions which have to be seen as a whole pattern. This makes it particularly hard for people with experiences like mine to pinpoint when abuse started, or even to define it as abuse in later life. When someone has grown up with a dysfunctional or abusive parent(s) those behaviours will simply come to be seen as “how X is” or “how my parents are”, if they’re not challenged by other adults or by seeing clear examples of others’ lives that reinforce what is wrong.

Unfortunately, my mother’s behaviour and actions were never pointed out to me as wrong or inappropriate and it has taken a very long time to realise what precisely was happening. That includes having experienced bullying at school, and then later on in the workplace, and still not understanding what I was experiencing through my relationship with my mother.

What should be stressed is that there is no 100% absolutely accurate checklist that you can fill in to find out if your mother is an emotional abuser. Nor does visiting a counsellor or therapist necessarily provide instant help. I’ve visited websites and read books documenting different experiences and information about mental health issues and personality disorders. It is only by comparing information from different sources, alongside my own experiences, that I became certain I’d been a victim of emotional abuse. Without having a professional diagnosis of my mother’s mental processes; the closest fitting and apparently most likely explanation is that she has some form of narcissistic personality disorder.

Perhaps one of hardest things about finding out that that my mother’s behaviour is identical to some which are typical of a person with NPD is that she is unlikely, at this point in her life, to ever be capable of expressing genuine love or empathy for me. Or indeed anyone else.

To keep engaging with her in the hope that her behaviour might improve for the better, that she might be a loving mother as other people’s mothers are, would be a complete waste of my time and emotional resources, no matter how much I might wish things were different.

So what kind of behaviours and actions did I notice?

As mentioned above, the pattern of behaviour only became apparent to me over forty years with an acceleration or increase as she became older and once I moved away and there was a greater physical distance between us. The following covers the major aspects.

  1. The sole subject she could talk about at length was herself. Okay, so talking about yourself isn’t necessarily an immediate sign of a serious personality disorder. Plenty of people do this. The key thing with my mother is that this was her default conversation at all times. Discussing books, music, films and t.v., crafts, food and cooking, clothes, sports, etc., was very rare, unless it was something that directly affected her or her interests. Otherwise she would simply use me as a convenient ear for her problems (see below). An example of when she did talk of other topics that interested her would be a passion for watching tennis on television. Despite many years of telling her that I didn’t watch tennis she would always talk to me as if I did, ignoring my repeated mentions that I was not interested in that particular sport. If she was interested then I had to be too.
  2. Extreme negativity, criticism and undermining.  Few people, subjects or situations would ever be talked about in a completely positive or enthusiastic way. Any experience that my mother had, be it going out to the local shops or having a luxury holiday in a fabulous location, nothing would ever occur without some detail, usually fairly minor, which was turned into a major point for drama and criticizing the entire thing. No matter how expensive or thoughtfully planned an event or trip or gift, nothing was ever quite good enough for her standards. This also applied to me with the feeling that nothing I could do or say would ever be sufficiently good enough to receive praise or attention. People she claimed as being her close friends or family she liked best would be ruthlessly criticized for incredibly petty things; a woman who chose to have two different cakes at her birthday buffet; “She was ripped off there by the caterers, think of the expense, no-one needs two whole cakes!” Or my cousin on her wedding day; “If I’d been her mother I would’ve had a word with her, she’s far too thin for that dress, poor thing, it doesn’t suit her at all. She looks terrible.” The list could go on and on. When I started my own business, although she was was quick enough to want jewellery for free that she liked, she would belittle what I made overall as “these are for kids, really aren’t they?” or making it clear it was below the style of her wealthier acquaintances and therefore herself too. Not once would she ever spontaneously offer a kind word, a supportive gesture or genuine enthusiasm, unless it was in public and would either garner her praise for being such a “caring person” or would’ve been commented on if she didn’t and then make her look bad.
  3. Any emotional experience I talked about would either be ignored or have to become about her. This was perhaps the single most damaging aspect to our relationship when growing up; that my mother couldn’t show empathy or offer positive physical and emotional support, especially when I experienced emotionally difficult situations. Whether that was bullying at school to the time when I had my first bout of depression in my twenties. This shifted somewhat over time; in pre-teens and teenage years she would claim that my father’s chronic and terminal illness and her role as primary carer meant that she was too stressed and overworked to look after me too. This can be extremely legitimate as a problem because being a carer is highly stressful and it was also at a time that carer support networks were not as widespread or funded as they are today. It is no slight on struggling carers who are parents and face incredible financial and emotional difficulties. However, narcissistic parents have very different motivations and leaving any pre-teen or teenager to sort out their own emotional well-being and health-giving support is not usually a recipe for success. During my teens I became her primary emotional support, which she was incapable of being for me. In later life talking of any personal difficulty would have the conversation turning to focus on her problems and a default ignoring or dismissal of what I’d just said. Alternately it would be; “You think your problem is bad, wait until you hear what happened to me!” which would lead into a situation that I couldn’t possibly refute without seeming callous, unloving or entering into an escalating competition. My problems were never as severe, dramatic or, in her mental perspective, important and valid compared to her own situation.
  4. Being an emotional vampire.  I’d never understood the relish she displayed in retelling stories of friends and acquaintance’s personal problems. It always seemed to be verging on sheer delight for a woman who rarely showed obvious happiness or joy at anything. The simple answer I avoided acknowledging was that there was nothing she enjoyed quite so much as oozing fake sympathy for those who had suffered. In relating someone’s tragic tale of loss, illness or accident she had the spotlight of attention and the sympathy that was being invoked for the person involved. It breaks my heart to think of the many people she has managed to fool and pull into her circle over the years. Those who have shared their problems thinking they had found a caring, listening friend would be devastated to know she only did that to use their words as a way of getting people to pay attention to her, to bolster her social standing with gossip and taking private, malicious glee and pleasure in the pains of others.
  5. Breaking friendships. As an isolated child, it was rare for me to form lasting friendships at a young age as this was another aspect that both my parents exercised varying degrees of control over. One friendship did manage to last through various storms of separation and adolescence from the age of eight until my early twenties. Then my mother decided to break it up as revenge for being slighted. In hindsight; it seems likely that my mother’s interference and manipulative behaviour towards my friend caused a massive disagreement. My friend decided it was best not to tell me. Unfortunately my mother used my friend’s silence to get her story in first. After a routine health check, she said she was going to need further tests for cancer after abnormal cells were found. On the very same day as the initial test report, and apparently for no obvious reason, my friend had launched into an unjustified verbal attack during a phone call and said she didn’t want any further contact with my mother. This forced me into having to make a choice, did I support my apparently callous friend or my emotionally distraught, possibly seriously ill mother? I didn’t see through my mother’s lies and manipulation then and never spoke to my friend again. It was years later that I found out that my mother had lied as she had completely forgotten (or blanked) about the incident and accidentally revealed she had never received an abnormal cell result or ever been referred for cancer tests.
  6. Lying/re-writing events to suit her internal narrative. As the above shows: when feeling threatened by external circumstances, my mother had little compunction about constructing her own version of events that suited her needs. This also was one of the earliest signs, to me, of the difference between her perception of reality and mine. She was, in her own mind, never wrong about anything. This obviously caused some serious contortions of the truth to make things fit, either consciously or unconsciously. This was a pattern that repeated itself over and over. When confronted by something that would put my mother in a harsh or unsympathetic light, she re-imagined it so she was the wronged party. This massively effected family and friend relationships for years.
  7. Consistently ignoring boundaries. I’d only become aware of the severity of this once I’d instituted a more controlled contact method. It was the inability to respect my stated boundaries on the frequency of phone calls and letters that made me go no contact, as I realised that my mother simply did not believe that it could apply to her. Unfortunately, this can be a very common and exceedingly stressful behaviour to deal with.
  8. What others thought of her was always more important than my feelings. The last time I saw my mother one of the things that stood out the most was her obvious inclination to pretend all was “normal” according to her standards. In coming back from the painful meal I discussed in this previous post she spotted the adult daughter of one her neighbours walking up the road. Eager to show off her absolute control of social matters by revenge humiliation; she yelled out my old (dead)name for half the street to hear as a means of calling me over to be introduced. I refused to do so, ignoring her calls and giving her “angry looks” as she later called it. When she later ranted at me via letter about this incident her single concern was that I made her look bad in front of the neighbours. This was not new behaviour as her primary concern throughout my childhood was less about me as a child, my feelings or healthy development than “what the neighbours think”. Her anxiety and snobbish fears about her level of social status and being caught out, exposed as an abuser and penalised might have contributed to constraining her from consistent physically violent abuse, which I had experienced on two or three occasions. I am grateful for that, at least.

These are some of the general behaviours and problems I encountered, others I may write about as I process memories.

If any of these points seems familiar, then I thoroughly recommend doing more reading and investigation into mental health topics and learning from your own experiences. The hardest part can be in believing yourself, but the more you learn the more you can try to fight against being manipulated by emotional abuse in future. Fight on, my friends.