Podcast: Understanding Emotional Abuse



What are the signs of emotional abuse? Can you be a victim or a perpetrator and not even know it? In today’s podcast, we welcome psychotherapist Beverly Engel who explains how emotional abuse can sometimes slide under the radar and may even be mistaken as care. In truth, it’s all about control.

Join us for a nuanced discussion on the many forms of emotional abuse and how to detect it.



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Guest information for ‘Beverly Engel- Emotional Abuse’ Podcast Episode

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Beverly Engel is an internationally recognized psychotherapist and an acclaimed advocate for victims of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse. The author of 22 self-help books, her latest book is entitled, It Wasn’t Your Fault: Freeing Yourself from the Shame of Childhood Abuse with the Power of Self-Compassion. Engel is a licensed marriage and family therapist, and has been practicing psychotherapy for 35 years.

Beverly’s books have often been honored for various awards, including being a finalist in the Books for a Better Life award. Many of her books have been chosen for various book clubs, including One Spirit Book Club, Psychology Today Book Club and Behavioral Sciences Book Club. Her books have been translated into many languages, including Japanese, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Greek, Turkish and Lithuanian. 

In addition to her professional work, Beverly frequently lends her expertise to national television talk shows. She has appeared on Oprah, CNN, and Starting Over, and many other TV programs. She has a blog on the Psychology Today website as well as regularly contributing to the Psychology Today magazine, and has been featured in a number of newspapers and magazines, including: Oprah Magazine, Cosmopolitan, Ladies Home Journal, Redbook, Marie Claire, The Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, and The Denver Post. 

She regularly conducts training workshops throughout the United States and the United Kingdom, for both professional and lay audiences.    

 About The Psych Central Podcast Host

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Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations, available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author. To learn more about Gabe, please visit his website, gabehoward.com.

Computer Generated Transcript for ‘Beverly Engel- Emotional Abuse’ Episode

Editor’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.

Announcer: You’re listening to the Psych Central Podcast, where guest experts in the field of psychology and mental health share thought-provoking information using plain, everyday language. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.

Gabe Howard: Hello, everyone, and welcome to this week’s episode of The Psych Central Podcast, I’m your host Gabe Howard and calling into the show today we have Beverly Engel. Beverly is an internationally recognized psychotherapist and an acclaimed advocate for victims of sexual, physical and emotional abuse. Beverly is a marriage and family therapist and the author of 22 self-help books and frequently lends her expertise to national TV shows including Oprah, CNN and Starting Over. But today she’s here with us. Beverly, welcome to the show.

Beverly Engel: Thank you, I’m glad to be here.

Gabe Howard: Today, we are going to be discussing emotional abuse. Now, this is one of those phrases that everyone has heard, yet most people don’t really understand. It’s often mocked when abuse victims seek help. And this, of course, provides cover for the abuser. Beverly, from an expert point of view, would you please define emotional abuse and maybe give us some examples?

Beverly Engel: Sure, technically, it’s any non-physical behavior that is designed to control or intimidate or punish or isolate another person, and it can be through the form of degradation and humiliation and fear. Good examples are verbal assaults, dominance, isolating, ridicule. One interesting one is the use of intimate knowledge for degradation. It’s like getting to know someone intimately. When we first get involved, we tell each other our stories and an emotional abuser will often throw our past in our face. They’ll use intimate knowledge that we’ve shared with them for the purpose of degrading us and the overall purpose of emotional abuse is to control their victims.

Gabe Howard: It sounds a little bit like emotional blackmail or well, frankly, it kind of sounds like actual blackmail, like they take what you have and threaten to maybe expose it or use it against you in some way to get you to do what they want. Is that a reasonable analogy?

Beverly Engel: Not really, that’s another form of emotional abuse, the intimate knowledge thing is just daily to put you down, not necessarily threatening that they’re going to tell somebody else. It’s just a way of reminding you of your past or a way of using something against you on a daily basis.

Gabe Howard: Gotcha. So a good example would be, can I drive the car today? No, because you got in a car accident five years ago and you almost killed everybody in the car. Is that. I

Beverly Engel: Yeah,

Gabe Howard: Know that’s.

Beverly Engel: And that would even, and that would be a very direct way of saying it,

Gabe Howard: Gotcha.

Beverly Engel: An emotional abuser will say something like, are you sure you really want to drive with your history? With your driving history? It’s more subtle. It’s a little less blatant.

Gabe Howard: Ok, I’m starting to understand now, and that actually makes a little more sense to something that you explained to me while we were preparing for this show, which is that often people who are emotionally abused don’t realize they’re being emotionally abused.

Beverly Engel: In fact, I would say almost always they don’t realize it. That’s what’s one of the major obstacles in the way of a person being able to actually end an emotionally abusive relationship is that they don’t know what’s going on with them. One of the most damaging aspects of emotional abuse is that it confuses the victim. The person ends up feeling confused. They end up feeling off balance. They’re not quite sure what’s going on. They tend to blame themselves because the emotional abuser, of course, is either subtly or overtly blaming them all the time. And yet the confusion is a major obstacle for people who are being emotionally abused.

Gabe Howard: Now, this sort of sounds a little bit like another concept that we hear a lot about, and that’s gaslighting. Is emotional abuse a form of gaslighting? Is gaslighting a form of emotional abuse?

Beverly Engel: Yes, gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse. Gaslighting is purposely trying to confuse the victim, purposely trying to make the victim doubt themselves. And it’s based on the movie Gaslight. It’s an old 1938 movie. And in the movie, the husband is intentionally trying to make his wife feel like she’s going crazy. And in those days, the houses were lit by gaslights and he would lower the lights. He would lower the amount of gas coming in and she would say, what just happened? The lights are dimming? And he would deny it. And so gaslighting is doing something purposely to make the victim feel crazy, denying that something happened, denying that he said something, saying that she did something when she didn’t do it. That’s what gaslighting is.

Gabe Howard: And all of this is designed to control your victim, really. That’s the motivation of the abuser. So emotional abuse is about control. Is that a fair statement?

Beverly Engel: Absolutely, yes.

Gabe Howard: I understand that emotional abuse is one of those concepts that’s a little bit nebulous or difficult to understand, but isn’t being controlled something that people innately understand? And the reason that I’m asking this question is because I know a lot of people who are being emotionally abused stay in the relationship. Don’t they realize that they’re in a very controlling relationship?

Beverly Engel: No, no, it can be very subtle, it can be as subtle as always, having your opinions dismissed. So you’re in a conversation with friends and your husband or wife and everybody’s talking freely. And so you say your opinion and your husband says, oh, no, that’s ridiculous. That’s that. What a stupid idea. So constantly being dismissed, perhaps your partner rolls his eyes every time you say something or makes fun of you, makes fun of your clothing, makes fun of how you talk, makes fun of what you cooked. It’s very subtle. It’s not obvious at all. And the more it happens, the less the victim trusts her perceptions and trusts her feelings. That’s again, another intention is if I can get you to second guess yourself and really not have a sense of security and even what you say and do, then I’m going to have control over you. It’s much more subtle. It’s very difficult for a lot of people to figure it out, actually, that they’re being emotionally abused.

Gabe Howard: When they figure it out, how do they feel? It sounds like it’s something that happens slowly. So you’re unaware of it, but it also seems like something that reaches this critical mass. And then suddenly you reflect back and realize that this has been happening to you for months or even years. What’s that like for the victim of the abuse?

Beverly Engel: Some get angry and realize it and get angry and want to do something. But what happens with emotional abuse that happens so subtly over such a long period of time and the victim has grown to distrust her feelings and perceptions, is she can get it one minute and the next minute talk herself out of it and the next minute feel like, well, maybe I’m exaggerating. Maybe this isn’t really happening. That’s that confusion again. So the confusion and being disoriented and not trusting your feelings and your perceptions that can last for a long time where the person goes into it saying, OK, yes, I got it. And then they will distrust themselves and they’re constantly blaming themselves. They’re being blamed all the time by their partner. And so they say that this is happening. It must be my fault. I must have done something.

Gabe Howard: If I understand correctly, it seems like shame is the primary motivation of the abuser.

Beverly Engel: Absolutely, absolutely. I’m generalizing here, but most abusers are very insecure people and they feel very inadequate. But what they’ve done with it is they’ve covered all that up with this air of authority or this air of entitlement. They’ve kind of pushed themselves up to look better than they are. And so they’re actually very fragile themselves. So what they do is they go about trying to shame and to control their partner so they can gain control because they don’t have any other way of feeling confident in themselves. The only way they can feel confident is to put another person down. And the thinking also goes like this, although it’s not conscious. If I can put you down before you put me down, then I’m ahead of the game. So a lot of abusers have been deeply shamed themselves and they’re desperately afraid of being shamed again. So if they’re constantly shaming somebody else, then they feel more secure.

Gabe Howard: Originally, I felt that emotional abusers did this intentionally, but based on what you explained, is it possible that some people are not aware that they’re emotionally abusing their loved ones and they’re unaware of the harm that it causes?

Beverly Engel: I work with a lot of, and I’m saying man as the abuser, but women can be abusers, too. But I work with a lot of women and men who did not realize they were being emotionally abusive toward their partner. And very often they don’t realize it until their partner has gotten to the place where she says, OK, I’m being emotionally abused. I’m going to get out of this relationship. And then suddenly the abuser will say, whoa, what’s going on? And the reason for that is that some abusers are doing it unconsciously. 

Gabe Howard: You raised a really good point there, when we think of victims of emotional abuse, we think of women. But you mentioned that men can be victims, too. Now, can men be victims from other men? Can, I guess what I’m really asking is I really think of emotional abuse being something that a husband does to a wife, I imagine that’s very archaic thinking.

Beverly Engel: Yes, I have a lot of male clients who are being emotionally abused by their partner, whether it’s their wife or in a gay relationship. It’s actually quite common and we don’t talk about it very much. But it’s actually a serious problem. And I’m generalizing here again. But males in general really want to help. They want to protect their partner. They want to help their partner. And if they discover that their partner has a serious problem, which often female emotional abusers do. They, usually starting in childhood, they were deeply abused or deeply neglected. And so, they act out their problems from their childhood, in their marriage. And the husband or the male partner will often feel compassionate toward her and know that she was very damaged in childhood and he will be extra patient and he will put up with a lot more than he really should. And he can get really trapped then in a situation where he’s being constantly emotionally abused. But he is excusing it based on her childhood.

Gabe Howard: It almost sounds like they’re accepting the abuse as a way to make up for something bad that happened to somebody that they love, is that sort of the ecosystem of emotional abuse? I feel bad for you, so I’ll tolerate it.

Beverly Engel: Yeah, absolutely, especially in the case of men being abused, in fact, a lot of us go into marriages and relationships with the idea that I didn’t get this or that in my childhood. And now it’s your job to give it to me. OK, we often do that unconsciously, but in relationships with men who are being emotionally abused, that’s very often the idea. He feels badly about what she didn’t receive. He tries to make up for it. But what he finds is he can never please her no matter what he does. He’s not ever going to please her. And he keeps trying because he thinks that’s his job. Like you said, it’s his obligation to make up for what she didn’t get. And he feels badly for her. He sees how much she suffers because she is suffering, but she’s taking her suffering out on her partner, which is not OK.

Gabe Howard: We’ll be back in less than a minute after we hear from our sponosrs.

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Gabe Howard: We’re back with author Beverly Engel, discussing emotional abuse. Now, in your research, you’ve identified three major strategies abusers use to confuse and control their partners. They’re lying, projecting and gaslighting. Can you give an example of each one, please?

Beverly Engel: Yeah, the lying is self-evident, but there’s some ideas behind the lying, there’s some concepts behind the lying, some concepts like I’m smarter than you, so I need to advise or teach you. That’s a huge lie that emotional abusers use. They don’t necessarily say those words, but it’s a constant. It’s again, this idea that I’m smarter than you, I’m having to put up with you as I roll my eyes and dismiss what you say and you don’t know what you’re doing. And so I have to advise or teach you. And that’s one of the reasons why people who are being abused don’t even know it because their partner seems like he’s being helpful, is constantly advising them. You know, honey, you don’t look that good in that outfit. Why don’t you wear this outfit? I like your hair a lot better with that. Or when we went to that party the other night, I noticed that you were flirting with people. I know you probably didn’t mean to, but you were flirting and you really have to stop that. So this is kind of a constant advice and teaching that goes on. And that’s based on the lie that I’m smarter than you, that I should have a right to teach you or advise you because I’m better than you. That’s a huge lie. OK, another lie like I was just referring to. I had a horrible childhood. So you need to make up for what I didn’t get. And women and men will come into the relationship with that idea that poor me, I had this horrible childhood.

Beverly Engel: So you now need to be the good mother, a good father I didn’t get. And that’s a lie. Your partner is not supposed to have to feel obligated to make up for what you didn’t get. Another lie is you can’t be trusted. I’ve discovered that you can’t be trusted. So I have a right to watch you. I have a right to follow you if I want to. I have a right to check your phone. I have a right to go into your personal belongings. I have a right to do anything I want to because you can’t be trusted. And how did the partner determine that? Probably out of their own head, probably. They have an issue with feeling insecure. They have an issue with jealousy. And so they determined that they can’t trust you. And it may not be true at all. It probably isn’t true. You probably are trustworthy. So that’s a huge lie. Another lie is you need to satisfy my every sexual need. This is a really huge problem in some relationships. If the partner insists that you’re my partner and you have to do what I want sexually, whether you want to or not. And by the way, if you don’t, I’m going to go elsewhere. And again, whether they say that or not, that’s the threat. So those are some common lies that are permeating the relationship.

Gabe Howard: I want to take a moment to say that if you have any of these issues in your relationship, let’s say you and your partner are quibbling, we’ll use quibble, about sex. It doesn’t mean that you’re being emotionally abused or gaslighting, right? You could just be having an intense discussion where you’re both working together to resolve something. I think that sometimes people hear emotional abuse and they think that any argument is an example of emotional abuse. Can you clarify that for us?

Beverly Engel: When you say argument, why would you be arguing around sexuality. If you are willing to listen to me when I tell you that I’m not interested in doing that sexual act with you, that should be the end of it. There shouldn’t be any argument. I should be able to say what I want and you should be able to listen. Now, if I’m saying I don’t want to have sex at all or sex has got to be super limited, that could be a problem. But our partners need to listen to us when we say we don’t want to do something; we should not feel pressured to get involved with any kind of sexual act that we are not comfortable with. And too often, partners pressure each other or make each other feel like there’s something wrong with them if they don’t want to engage in those sexual acts. So there really shouldn’t be an argument. Unfortunately, there often is an argument around that, and often there’s one partner demanding it or threatening to go elsewhere, and that’s where it crosses the line into emotional abuse.

Gabe Howard: Thank you so much for explaining that, and I do agree, if you are pressuring somebody or getting angry that they’re saying no, I realized about halfway through that was probably a bad example. Let’s say that we swap the example out just ever so slightly and say that it’s an intense discussion about where to go on vacation. My wife wants to go to Disney World and I want to go to Las Vegas and we can only afford one vacation this year. So, there’s a lot of back and forth. When would that scenario turn into a difference of vacation opinion versus one partner emotionally abusing the other?

Beverly Engel: Ok, if we, I want to go to Disneyland, and I don’t really care if you want to go somewhere else because I want to go to Disneyland, and if you don’t go to Disneyland, I’ll go ahead and go where you want to go. And I’m going to pout the whole time and I’m going to be critical and I’m going to make your life miserable or I want to go to Disneyland. And if you don’t want to, we’re going to go anyway, because I’m the head of the household and I’m the one who makes the money. And by God, we’re going to go where I want to go. Those are examples of emotional abuse.

Gabe Howard: Gotcha. That makes a lot more sense.

Beverly Engel: A more subtle one might be, you know, honey, I know you want to go to Disneyland, but don’t you remember last time we went, you know, you got a stomach ache on the rides and you didn’t feel good and you’re not as strong as you used to be, and I just can’t see you on those rides. And it’s hot there. And you have a problem with sun. It’s probably better if we go somewhere cooler, but saying it all for the purpose of manipulating the partner. OK, not really saying it out of concern for the partner.

Gabe Howard: That makes excellent sense. Thank you so much for clarifying that. Now, once you realize that you have been a victim of emotional abuse, you have that shame. And if I understand correctly, you have a five-step shame reduction program. Can you go through those steps for us?

Beverly Engel: Yeah, what I talk about in the book is that people who are emotionally abused are actually brainwashed, like somebody in a cult, and so they have to be deprogrammed. And a lot of the first part of the book is really defining emotional abuse and defining how people feel, but also going through how they’re being lied to, the types of lies and really advising people to stop giving their partner so much power. Don’t always believe everything your partner says. Number one, maybe you need to check out with friends and family whether or not you actually are doing the kinds of things your partner accuses you of. As we know, with physical abuse, people who are emotionally abused tend to become very isolated. Their partner can be jealous and doesn’t like them to be around their friends. Their partner maybe decides they don’t like their family. And so slowly they become more and more isolated and don’t have as many people around. But if they do have some people around, I encourage them to ask their friends and family, is this who I am? Is this how I act to get some outside feedback that can become the beginning of the deprogramming process is to get some outside feedback. So I go through different ways of deprogramming yourself.

Gabe Howard: Beverly, thank you so much. Now the name of your book is Escaping Emotional Abuse. Can you tell our listeners where to find it?

Beverly Engel: You’re going to be able to find it on Amazon.com or any, if there are any bookstores open, or online bookstores, any bookstore, you can get it.

Gabe Howard: Wonderful and, Beverly, do you have a website?

Beverly Engel: www.BeverlyEngel.com.

Gabe Howard: Wonderful. We hope all of our listeners check it out and listen up, listeners, if you loved the show, wherever you downloaded it, please subscribe. And if you can do me a really big favor, I would appreciate it. Please take a moment to rate it. Just use your words, tell people why you like it, and that will help us gain following. We really appreciate your help. My name is Gabe Howard and I’m the author of Mental Illness Is an Asshole, which is also available on Amazon. Or you can get signed copies for less money and I’ll throw in podcast swag. Just head over to gabehoward.com and remember, you can get one week of free, convenient, affordable, private online counseling, anytime, anywhere simply by visiting BetterHelp.com/PsychCentral. We will see everybody next week.

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