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Emotional Abuse: The Hidden Killer

sad child photo “Emotional abuse is an attack on your personality rather than on your body, and it can be just as harmful as physical abuse,” says Sandra Horley, Chief Executive of Refuge, a shelter for abused women.

She cites as an example of emotional abuse gaslighting. Gaslighting is a term taken from the movie Gaslight, starring Ingrid Bergman as a woman driven crazy by her husband, who convinces her she is suffering from delusions when in fact he is rigging things to make her feel that she is imagining things. “Abusers manipulate their victims carefully and purposefully; they switch readily between charm and rage, like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Indeed, to an outsider, the perpetrator may appear to be the perfect, caring partner,” Horley adds.

There are a hundred ways to gaslight a person. Husbands and wives can do it to each other and so can parents do it to their children. A parent, for example, can make their children think that their judgments are stupid and laugh at them whenever they say anything about anything, and they inspire other members of the family to treat the gaslighted victims the same way. This affects the young child’s development and self-esteem in severely negative ways.

One of my clients, who I’ll call Robert, was the youngest child. He had two older sisters and an older brother, and from the time he was born he was treated as if he were a misguided, stubborn nuisance who did nothing but cause trouble for the family. He was the laughingstock of the family and was made to feel that not only his judgments but also his thoughts, feelings, and behavior were made to seem ridiculous.

Once Robert didn’t want to eat broccoli. His mother said to him, “You’re just being stubborn because you want to spite me. Your whole life is about spiting your mother. You’re going to eat that broccoli if it takes all night.” His mother sat with him for hours after his siblings and father had gone to bed. All of them saw things from his mother’s side: he was a stupidly stubborn boy.

His older brother was encouraged and treated with respect, while he was treated like a second-class citizen. As a young adult he had no self-esteem whatsoever and was full of anger that had built up over the years. He could scarcely function in life. He was always getting into confrontations on the street because somebody walked toward him and didn’t move aside for him, and often the confrontations would lead to fights. He was desperate for approval from women, but they often used him as a plaything, didn’t take him seriously (mirroring his family), and eventually rejected him.

Another kind of emotional abuse is called “soul murder.” “Soul murder” is a term coined by Leonard Shengold, a psychoanalyst. He defined it as “the deliberate attempt to eradicate or compromise the separate identity of another person.” He goes on to say that the victims of soul murder remain in bondage to their victimizer (usually their parents). The child feels helpless and terrified, and under those conditions is brainwashed by the tyrannical parents, who are usually psychotic or sociopathic (he compared them to prison-camp guards,) and comes to think and be whoever the parent wants her or him to think and be.

Similarly to gaslighting, soul murder severely affects the development of the victims’ self-esteem and functioning in the world; often they haven’t a clue of who they are and what they believe. They have never been allowed to grow up and individuate. When they become adults they have no “soul,” by which Sheldon meant they have no real sense of themselves or their place in the world.

A young woman patient had a repeating pattern of going after unavailable men or men who lived so far away that she couldn’t possibly have a relationship with them. She grew up the youngest in a family of three older brothers and parents who were always fighting and never had any real time for her. However, the family mythology was that her family was a super family in the sense they that were well off and were all in the know.

My young woman patient, who I’ll call Mary, was both gaslighted and soul murdered. Her mother, who had discovered her own mother dead (she had committed suicide) at the age of 12 and was left without parents, had to grow up on her own. She developed a compensatory personality in which she became a micro-manager, especially of Mary. The mother dealt with the trauma of finding her own mother dead by inculcating her daughter with the fear of “people suddenly dying on you.” Since the mother had had to grow up without parents, she developed the attitude that she knew best.

Thus she treated her daughter, Mary, as if she never knew best. The mother was overprotective to an extreme, and pounced on any trouble that the girl got into. “See, I told you so,” was her frequent reaction. Her parents, as mentioned before, were always fighting, and it wasn’t until later that the girl found out that the father was a hidden homosexual who had been acting out his homosexual urges since the beginning of the marriage.

By the time Mary was 34 she had never been married and had a commitment phobia. Her parents’ marriage, full of fighting and falsehoods, did not encourage her to find a mate, nor to have any idea of how to have an intimate relationship. Because her mother always made her feel inadequate, she also had no real confidence in herself nor any real sense of who she was.

Emotional abuse can be even more impactful than physical or sexual abuse, in that it is subtle and undetectable. It is truly a hidden killer. One can be abused without knowing it, with disastrous consequences. Victims of emotional abuse can develop all kinds of disorders, and the abuse can also lead to suicidal feelings and to suicide.

Emotional Abuse: The Hidden Killer

Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D.

Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D. is a licensed psychoanalyst in New York and has been practicing for over 37 years. He works with adults, couples, families, adolescents, and children. He has graduated from three psychotherapy institutes and received a Certificate in Psychoanalysis from the Washington Square Institute in 1981. He has been an Adjunct Assistant Professor of psychology at the Borough of Manhattan Community College since 2002 and has authored thirteen books on psychotherapy and psychoanalysis as well as four novels and a book of poems and drawings. More recently he wrote 20 screenplays (winning four first-place awards at festivals) and produced and directed two feature films.

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APA Reference
Schoenewolf, G. (2018). Emotional Abuse: The Hidden Killer. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 1, 2020, from


Last updated: 26 Jun 2018
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