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When you can’t see the symptoms of manipulation or emotional abuse, do either actually exist? Is there a way to tell when you’re being mistreated?

Yes. And I’ll explain what to look for when you don’t see the signs in this article.

You absolutely deserve to be treated with respect and kindness. Don’t let anyone ever make you think otherwise. I want to share with you how you can recognize emotional abuse when you can’t recognize it.

In other words, emotional abuse is one of those insidious, compounding, day-after-day behaviors that you may not see in the moment. It takes a bigger context, a zoomed-out perspective of the relationship that you’re in, whether it’s romantic, family, friends, or co-workers so that you can look at it from afar.

You can see all the days combined and all the behaviors combined that give you the big picture of what’s really going on. When someone is being emotionally abusive in a subtle way and somebody else witnesses that, they’re not going to see it as emotional abuse. Whereas, if you’re being exposed to it day after day after day, you’re going to feel it, but you still may not be able to identify it.

The feeling part is what I really want to focus on today because if you can’t identify the behaviors of emotional abuse, then at least start getting used to how you feel when you’re in communication with someone, and if that conversation makes you feel negative in some way.

When you get in touch with the feeling that’s happening inside of you, then you don’t necessarily have to pinpoint the behaviors.

We’re going to cover the first few assessment items from The M.E.A.N. Workbook. I created that workbook to not only help you determine the level of emotional abuse in your relationship but also as a guide on what to do to start healing.

The very first question is all about how you feel:

During and after many conversations with your partner, you feel _____?

The seven answers are:

  • Embarrassed
  • Ashamed
  • Guilty
  • Anxious
  • Angry
  • Uneasy
  • Blamed / Responsible

I’m going to go over these, one by one.


The emotional abuser will make fun of you in front of their friends, and they’ll make fun of you in front of your friends. They’ll make fun of you in front of anyone that belittles you, which makes you feel insecure inside.

The more insecure you feel, the more you’re going to need to rely on them to feel secure. It’s an odd way to look at it, but what they’re trying to do is put you in that insecure place because they know that you’ll be coming back to them for that secure feeling.

That gives them a level of control that they want. When you’re being emotionally abused, the abuser’s goal is to control you to get what they want. Also, “You are subservient or submissive to me so that I always keep you uneasy”, and we haven’t even gotten to that checkbox yet. That is one of them.

“If I can embarrass you in front of other people, you’re going to get mad at me at first.” I’m being the emotional abuser in this example. “You’re going to get mad at me at first, and you’re going to be upset. But guess what? You’re going to want the relationship to last. You’re going to want the relationship to heal; you’re going to want to see the good side of me. What you’re going to do is come to me and talk to me and try to figure things out. Maybe you’ll even tell me that you’re angry that I said certain things about you. You’re waiting for that compassionate response. Until I can create that compassionate response, you’re going to look for it.”

The emotional abuser has you in a spot that makes you want them to do something, and you keep seeking it. You keep searching for it because they know you’re not going to leave. And if you don’t leave, they can continue doing these things to you without accountability because the emotional abuser is not accountable until you leave. That is their gauge; that is their guide.

If they’re being emotionally abusive and you don’t leave, then they win. That’s how it normally works, unfortunately.

Fortunately, as you learn this stuff, as you continue to read these posts, and as you go through The M.E.A.N. Workbook, if you have it, you’ll understand the exact behaviors that outline emotional abuse so that you can tell when it’s happening.

This addresses the situation in which you can’t tell it’s happening and when you don’t know the behaviors. One of them is you feel embarrassed after a conversation. If you feel embarrassed, then they have some level of control because you’re going to want to make up. That’s what they’re counting on.


If you have values, they will be used against you. If you have kindness, that will also be used against you. If you have ethics or morality, they will be used against you too.

Can I say that with 100% certainty? Not with everyone, no, but I’ve seen this over and over again. Anything that you feel is positive inside of you, anything that you value, and anything you feel good about will be turned around and used against you.

The emotional abuser hopes to make you feel bad or ashamed. For example, if you value being a kind person, they will find ways to call you unkind, mean, hurtful, and spiteful. They’ll usually do so when they’re in the midst of bad behavior themselves.

For example, they’re being very suspicious and you’re going to check their text messages. Or they’re doing something wrong and you catch them doing it. Or they’re saying inappropriate things to somebody else.

And even though they’re doing something wrong, they should put their tail between their legs and say, “I’m so sorry, you’re right, you’ve caught me, and I’ve been wanting to talk to you about my behavior.” But they don’t.

Instead, they make you feel ashamed. “How dare you pick up my phone?”

That is the worst thing one can do as a partner. When the controlling and manipulative person wants you to feel shame, they’re going to overshadow their bad behavior with yours.

Maybe that’s a bad example. Maybe you might think, “I shouldn’t look at that person’s phone anyway.” If that’s the case, we don’t even have to look at their phone, we can just ask them a question: “Who are you talking to? Who are you texting?”

And typically, if the emotional abuser is guilty, they’ll find a way to make you feel ashamed about prying into their life as if you’re doing something wrong.

I’ve seen this a lot. The emotional abuser, the manipulator, the person that’s trying to deceive you, gets more defensive. It is sometimes a red flag. Not always, but it’s sometimes a red flag that they’re trying to hide something. I can’t say that it’s true for everyone, because some people can get offended: “What? Why are you snooping on my private stuff? Why are you asking these questions?”

But this is all part of the compounding signals and red flags that you’ll see to help you put together a bigger picture. If you feel embarrassed or if you feel ashamed, these are components of emotional abuse. And again, this is only the first question of a 200-point checklist to help you identify what’s going on in the relationship.


Guilt is probably one of the most valuable tools for the emotional abuser. Whatever they know you’ll feel guilty about, they’ll use it. Whatever they know you’ll feel bad about, they’ll use it.

One example happened here just not too long ago in my own home. There wasn’t emotional abuse, but my girlfriend recalled that her ex-husband continued to call her a bad mother to their son.

At a deep level, she believed what he said. And she took that belief of about 10 to 15 years ago into today. At the time, she had a 17-year-old son and she was feeling like she had been a bad mother. She could even recall times that she “mistreated her son.”

In all these years, she felt like she was a bad mom because she wasn’t doing all the things that the “good moms” were doing, according to her ex.

She believed it! And she took that belief from all those years ago into today, the present day. She eventually talked to another mom and asked her “What did you do when your child was crying? Did you squeeze their cheeks and smile and laugh with them all the time? Or did you put them down and do your thing?”

She had to ask these questions to learn that she wasn’t a bad mom at all. She was completely normal. She was doing what she could, the best she could, and she did a great job, but she didn’t realize it until recently.

She didn’t realize it until she asked her friend because things didn’t make sense to her, they weren’t adding up. She couldn’t put the pieces together that she could have been that bad of a mom. Thankfully, she realized that she wasn’t that bad at all. She was the best parent she could be.

If you’re in any type of relationship with someone who makes you feel guilty about something, maybe it’s nothing that you did, and everything that they’re doing to you.

Again, in the bigger context of the red flags of emotional abuse, you have to put all these signs and red flags together to figure out the bigger picture. Don’t carry any guilt forward if it’s not yours. If it’s theirs, and they’re putting it on you, it’s time to re-evaluate – and it does take a while to do that. You might have some healing to go through when you have all these guilty feelings.

That is definitely a sign: When you feel guilty after a conversation with an emotional abuser. That’s often a tactic they’ll use.


You’ll get angry because you’ll be so frustrated that somehow they’ve turned your words against you or they’ve blamed you for something that they’re doing.

They could make you believe something is your fault and you can’t figure out why you can’t convince them otherwise. You get angry, you get frustrated, and there’s just no proving your point or convincing them otherwise.

There’s just no getting through to them and they always seem to walk away in some sort of righteousness. They always feel okay in how they’re responding. They always feel okay that you feel bad. They always, or often, feel like it’s not them, it’s you. “You’re the problem” so you get angry, and you don’t know how to get your point across. It can be very frustrating.

This feeling comes when you start to realize that no matter what you do, the system or the relationship system that is supposed to be equal, fair and fun and loving, is becoming one-sided and difficult to understand.

You’ll start feeling distrustful of all your interactions with them, and you’ll even become distrustful of yourself. You’ll become less secure in yourself. This is the uneasy feeling that comes from dealing with emotional abuse. The more you take on the guilt, shame, and embarrassment, the more you start losing trust in yourself and that is scary because you don’t want to go down that road.

Try to be aware if these things happen. You may lose more and more trust in yourself. Were you this way before the relationship started? Did you have trust and confidence in your abilities and then the relationship started and you started losing them? If that’s the case, it’s time to start re-trusting yourself because whatever is happening is breaking that down.

Blamed / Being Held Responsible

You may feel like you’re blamed a lot or made to feel responsible for all the problems in the relationship. Aside from guilt, this is huge on the list of things that the emotional abuser will do to you.

When they do this to you, it keeps you on the defense so that you spend the least amount of time accusing them or showing them what they did wrong or how they did wrong. They’re going to point the finger at you. “You’re the problem, you’re responsible for all of this.”

They may say something like, “You’re the one who needs therapy, I don’t.” You’re going to take on the brunt of all the relationship problems instead of it being an equal 50/50 split. There won’t be two people in the relationship working on things together.

All of these feelings that you can have after a conversation with someone like this will put you in a vulnerable place. When you’re in a vulnerable place, your defenses get knocked down. You’re more easily exploitable and you’re more easily “blamable”.

It’s easier to lay everything on you and give you the weight of all the problems. Even the emotional abuser’s own bad behavior is now on you to make you think you’re at fault.

When you’re at your bottom and you just have no one else to turn to, the person you turn to is the abuser. This is what typically happens. When we’re in this vulnerable space and we just want someone to understand us and love us, suddenly the abuser turns on the charm and then you feel loved. Then you feel important and significant. And you’re coming back and jumping into their arms, hoping to make up, get through this, work on things together, and heal and grow so that you can be happy again.

This is all part of the emotional abuse cycle. They wear you down and wear you down until you get so worn down you have nowhere to go. Then all you’re looking for is someone to hold you. All you’re looking for is someone to put their hand out or say, “I’m sorry”, or show some compassion and say it’s okay.

When that person is the abuser, you develop what’s known as a trauma bond or traumatic bond. This traumatic bonding that takes place is exactly why I call this show “Love and Abuse”. It is a mix of love and abuse and it’s a cycle that continues to repeat itself like a roller coaster. It’s up and down and it always repeats.

If you think this is the last time, it’s not. It always repeats. You just need to be aware of this. I’m trying to educate you, not necessarily to tell you what to do. I’m not saying that you have to leave a relationship. I’m not saying that you have to blame anyone. I’m not saying that you have to point fingers. All I’m doing is educating you.

If you have someone in your life who makes you feel any of these things after talking with them or being with them for a while, there’s probably more going on that maybe you don’t recognize, or maybe you do.

Maybe you’re already aware of these feelings that you might get after a conversation with them and you know it’s emotionally abusive. If you don’t, this is the time to understand what’s happening so that you have more choices and a bigger perception of what’s going on.

It’s important to understand the reality of the situation or the relationship that you’re in so that you’re not blindly dragged down into something that turns you into a shell of your former self.

Share this with someone who might benefit.

Paul Colaianni

Paul Colaianni is a Behavior and Relationship Coach, and the host of The Overwhelmed Brain and Love and Abuse podcasts.

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