3 MIN READ | Mental Health

Zana Busby

Stay Alert, Stay Safe: An Overview of the Elusive Nature of Emotional Abuse

Cite This
Zana Busby, (2020, July 17). Stay Alert, Stay Safe: An Overview of the Elusive Nature of Emotional Abuse. Psychreg on Mental Health. https://www.psychreg.org/emotional-abuse/
Reading Time: 3 minutes

Any form of disrespectful, insulting, physically and/or psychologically harmful behaviour infused with covert or overt aggression, inflicted upon another human being with the intent to hurt, constitutes as abuse.

Abuse, whether it’s physical or emotional, for the person on the receiving end, can have a devastating effect on their mental health and general well-being. And it can happen at home (domestic abuse), at work (workplace bullying), and it also happens on the shop floor (abusive customers), particularly during the present lockdown period.

Sometimes abuse is explicit, as when you can see the physical consequences of being attacked. However, at many other times the psychological wounds and scars from emotional abuse are not immediately visible to other people.

The signs of an emotionally abusive behaviour might not be even recognised by the victim for some time. Indeed, emotionally draining behaviours such as stonewalling or alternating between being kind, considerate, and short-tempered and contemptuous are confusing to start with, especially when such behaviour happens in the domestic environment.

But, basically any form of disrespectful, insulting, physically and/or psychologically harmful behaviour infused with covert or overt aggression, inflicted upon another human being with the intent to hurt, constitutes as abuse. And it often leads to anxiety, depression, or other psychological symptoms that may result in psychosomatic manifestations in the person who is subjected to such behaviour.

Good that emotional abuse has been recognised as a criminal offence in 2015.

Mostly, abuse occurs in situations where there is an asymmetric power balance partnership:

  • In a domestic situation. You might be controlled and threatened financially by your partner.
  • At work. Your boss might give you unrealistic deadlines and threaten you with losing your job.
  • And in store. The customer is always right. Well, except that this motto can be wrong, because of certain behaviours that actually differentiate unhappy customers from the one who’s abusive. 

Abusive customers are nothing new. Some people are impulsive and quickly become rude and unreasonable. It’s true though that bad customer service can trigger negative emotions. However, this doesn’t mean that as a customer you are entitled to get into an aggressive fit throwing abuse around at the customer service team, especially when many of the retail workers feel the same uncertainty and pressure, as anyone else, from the current situation.

There are reported cases of abusive customers manifesting racism, verbal abuse, and dangerous behaviour including spitting, coughing and sneezing at other people during the lockdown.

And with the new rule on masks being mandatory in shops from 24th July, plus with people being divided in their views on mask protection, it remains to be seen how some customers will react when they are reminded by the staff to put their mask on, or are not allowed in store if they don’t have one. Let’s just hope that everybody will follow the rules without provoking conflicts.

Abuse can come in all shapes and sizes regardless of whether it happens at home, work or in public places, such as our stores and supermarkets. Here are the most common markers of abusive behaviour:


Swearing, shouting, name-calling and/or aggressive body language, or being sexist, racist or homophobic, are designed to manipulate, breed fear and coerce the person into whatever the abuser demands. Also, abusive threats and sarcasm can be perpetuated via social media.

Denial and blaming

The abuser might deny any wrongdoing, can blame the victim for the abusive behaviour telling them that they deserved it. Basically, whether consciously or subconsciously the abuser tries to normalise their behaviour as if it’s not a big deal.

Disposable status

Not giving a second thought about how you might feel, the abuser will choose to humiliate you with degrading comments that make you worthless. The main aim here is to tell you that they don’t need you, but you need them.

Bottom line

Regardless of whether the abuse happens at work or home or any public place, if you are repeatedly exposed to intimidation and abusive behaviour your mental health can deteriorate. Recognising abusive behaviour for what it is and taking appropriate action to stand up for and protect yourself is therefore imperative. Mental health matters, and it’s perfectly OK to ask for help.

And to that end, I’d like to invite you to join my webinar session ‘Wellness with Zana – How to Protect Your Mental Health During COVID-19’, next Thursday 23rd July at 1pm. I will be talking about some of the most important factors that support good mental health and well-being. Please click here to reserve your free seat.

Zana Busby is an experienced psychologist and author, having spent over 20 years studying and practising psychology and psychotherapy. 


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