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Addiction and Emotional Abuse

“The truth is that the few times he was physical with me were tiny blips on a long timeline of subtle manipulation, public humiliation, controlling behavior and gaslighting.” So writes Leigh Stein of her abusive boyfriend in her Washington Post essay, He Didn’t Hit Me. It Was Still Abuse.

Despite the deeply painful impact of emotional abuse, many people don’t grasp its significance. There are no bruises and broken bones, so does it really “count”?

Our answer: it certainly does. Emotional abuse is real, and it causes untold personal damage every day. In this post, we’ll explore emotional abuse and how it can lead to addiction.

What is Emotional Abuse?

Like verbal abuse – emotional abuse falls under the larger umbrella of psychological aggression, which the CDC defines as “the use of verbal and nonverbal communication with the intent to harm another person mentally or emotionally, and/or to exert control over another person.”

Basically, emotional abuse is anything that assaults a person on the heart level. It’s any behavior that purposefully undermines their emotional stability.

HealthyPlace defines emotional abuse as “any act – including confinement, isolation, verbal assault, humiliation, intimidation, infantilization, or any other treatment – which may diminish the sense of identity, dignity, and self-worth.”

Examples of emotionally abusive behavior include, but are not limited to:

  • Gaslighting (a form of manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt)
  • Forms of verbal abuse such as name-calling and personal insults
  • Isolation or confinement or exclusion
  • Purposeful humiliation
  • Infantilization (treating an adult like a child)

The Negative Impact of Emotional Abuse

Mainstream American culture has yet to fully appreciate the negative impact of emotional abuse. Yet as more research is completed and more people speak up, we’re coming to understand this issue in a deeper way.

For example, we now have evidence that emotional abuse can be even more harmful to the human psyche than physical abuse!

As Stein noted in her Washington Post piece:

“Some studies have shown that abuse in the form of degradation, fear and humiliation is more psychologically debilitating in the long term than physical violence; psychological abuse can in fact sustain the relationship, as the victim becomes consumed with self-doubt, depression and low self-esteem.”

We also know that depression and addiction often go hand-in-hand, and that depression is one of the major risk factors for substance abuse.

The Link Between Emotional Abuse and Addiction

Emotional abuse is tied to mental health conditions such as depression … and mental health conditions are tied to substance addictions.

Our experience is that dual diagnosis – an addiction combined with a mental or emotional health condition – is the rule rather than the exception.

The underlying core issues that drive substance abuse are mental and emotional conditions such as depression, anxiety, despair, and hopelessness.

Dr. Lance Dodes, author of The Sober Truth, describes addiction in these powerful terms:

“Addictive acts serve as a way to restore a sense of power when a person feels helpless. The drinking, gambling, cleaning, eating expresses the great anger people feel at being made powerless, and at the same time the act itself restores a sense that they can control their own feelings through their own actions.”

This explanation emphasizes connection between the addictive act and the person’s feeling state. When a person feels hurt and powerless on an emotional level – as they would in the wake of emotional abuse – they’re extremely likely to use.

Healing from Emotional Abuse

Here’s a key piece of healing from emotional abuse that many people don’t understand: it needs to happen on the emotional level.

This may seem obvious, but consider how many times we as a society try to rationalize our feelings. We reason with ourselves and debate with ourselves and others … anything but actually working with our emotional aspect.

But the truth is that we can’t think our way out of an emotional-level problem! If only it were that straightforward! We have to feel our way out.

Fortunately, there are proven, effective, and evidence-based therapeutic techniques that can help us to heal the emotional hurts we carry.

Working with Gestalt

The truth is that when we apply love to the parts of ourselves that hurt, we heal. One powerful way to do this is through the modality of Gestalt psychology.

Of course, it’s best to have a trained professional guide you at the beginning, but you can also do this independently.

Just go to a safe, solitary place and quiet your mind. Center yourself and feel love and compassion in your heart.

Then grab an empty chair and invite the emotionally wounded part of yourself to come and converse.

Speak with this wounded part out loud; pretend that it’s actually in the room with you. Tell it what you want it to know, and ask it any questions you may have. Be patient, listen closely, and work with whatever comes up. Cry, yell, or do whatever you need to release the emotions you feel.

Then, ask the wounded part of yourself what it needs to feel loved and safe. Commit to following through on the request. Resolve to protect, guard, and love yourself as you wished that other people would have earlier in your life.

You may not have been able to avoid emotional abuse in the past, but as an adult, you are the captain of your own ship. You get to decide what kind of relationships you have in your life.

With your newfound power, choose connections that nourish and support your true self … and watch your desire to drink or use decrease dramatically.

World Kindness Day happens on November 13th; and International Survivors of Suicide Day is November 18th. In honor of these days, commit to protecting yourself from emotional abuse, and helping others who are struggling within abusive situations.

Addiction and Emotional Abuse

Joe Koelzer

Joe Koelzer is a co-founder and CEO of The Clearing. He has years of counseling experience and a master’s degree in Spiritual Psychology from the University of Santa Monica.

After observing how depression and substance abuse impacted his wife Betsy’s life, Joe realized how broken our current system is for addiction and related mental health treatment.

He witnessed firsthand how an evidence-based approach coupled with Spiritual Psychology saved Betsy and enabled her to gain control of her life.

In co-founding The Clearing, Joe realized his dream of creating and sharing this innovative approach with others in a structured clinical setting.

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APA Reference
, . (2017). Addiction and Emotional Abuse. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 31, 2020, from


Last updated: 13 Nov 2017
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