Understanding different types of abuse and the psychological harm they cause
Updated 26 November 2014
by Sarah Graham
Wednesday 26 November 20141194 3520
Abuse comes in many forms and can cause serious psychological harm to anyone who is subjected to it. Of course, different types of abuse will naturally have different impacts on the victim, and different people will not all respond in the same way to abusive experiences. We asked RSCPP therapists to explain the impact of different types of abuse.
There are many ways you can be abused - physical, sexual, psychological, emotional, financial, or by neglect - and each has its own nuances, but I think there is a fundamental commonality between them: the experience of an attack on your personal boundaries and personal integrity, and of your sense of self being threatened. This leads to various responses, such as fear of strangers or intimates, difficulty in trusting others or even yourself, perhaps some shame and/or guilt, rage, bitterness, hurt - betrayal when abuse is by someone you have trusted. Often people feel all these things, and more. It can be very difficult to talk about because of all these feelings, and because it is often hard to admit that you have been abused. It is very, very personal and you may feel it was in some way at least partially your own fault or responsibility.
If someone is hitting, punching, pushing, restraining, or harming you in any way it is physical abuse. As physical abuse lowers your self esteem and self worth, you may find excuses for the perpetrator, by understanding or rationalising why they did it or even thinking that you deserved it. You may be frightened to leave the person or situation for fear of further abuse, injury or even death. This is part of the effect and the cycle of the abuse. Physical abuse can lead to medical conditions as a consequence of an injury, and can also lead to addiction, depression, self-harming, post traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues. If you were abused in the past, you may find it affects your relationships or mental health even long after the actual abuse stopped.
Sexual abuse may evoke feelings of shame, making it harder for you to speak to someone. It may have happened a long time ago, or more recently, by someone you know, or a stranger. It is important to remember you did not cause this. You may feel as though you don't have a voice, or won't be believed. You might feel confused, or angry. All of these feelings should be explored in a safe environment.
Psychological abuse can happen to anyone at anytime in their lives. As it can be more subtle than other types of abuse it can be difficult to spot at first. Most abusers begin in small ways, testing the waters as it were to see how far they can go, before it becomes overwhelming and devastating for the victim as it becomes more threatening. As with other forms of abuse it is a way of one person exerting control over another through manipulation to leave them feeling powerless and worthless. Examples of psychological abuse include name calling, mocking, threatening to remove something important, shouting, excluding and ignoring and other humiliating behaviours. Some signs of psychological abuse can be believing you have too many shortcomings, that your feelings don't matter, or having trouble making decisions of your own.
If you've been emotionally abused, you may feel confused by an experience of being undermined and then made to feel special by the abuser. There may be aspects of subtle, or not so subtle, control: having to say where you have been and with whom, not having full access to money, needing permission to do something new, access to friends and family being restricted or forbidden. At work or while studying, the abuse could take the form of bullying. You may be shunned, ridiculed, humiliated, then made to feel it is your own sensitivity that is to blame. Very often there is no obvious evidence of abuse and therefore it is more difficult to counter. You may feel very isolated and vulnerable, questioning all of your judgements and decisions, which can lead to debilitating anxiety. It can be damaging to your well-being and takes enormous courage to find help.
According to the NHS, financial abuse "aims to limit a victim's ability to access help. Tactics may include controlling the finances; withholding money or credit cards; making someone unreasonably account for money spent/petrol used; exploiting assets; withholding basic necessities; preventing someone from working; deliberately running up debts; forcing someone to work against their will and sabotaging someone's job."
Financial abuse is a horrendous example of where money is used to exert control and manipulation. This type of abuse is often coupled with emotional and/or physical abuse. Financial abuse can be subtle, controlling, scary and dangerous; the secret of escaping the clutches of the abuser is to find an organisation or a trusted individual that can assist you. Staying silent increases your vulnerability and also isolates you, which is exactly what the abuser wants to happen. You may feel too ashamed to disclose their position regarding the abuse - this is common, regardless of race, age or profession. You may experience a huge loss of confidence and self esteem, which acts as an additional deterrent to speaking out. If you want to break away from a financial abuser, you should try to minimise the risks associated with your escape, use professionals who are familiar with this type of abuse and devise a comprehensive safety plan.
Neglect is a form of abuse that may receive less public attention than others. It can be an indicator of other kinds of abuse, or it may exist in isolation. Fundamentally it involves a failure to meet the basic needs of the child, such as adequate housing, basic cleanliness and comfort, nutrition, education, security and proper affection. Abandonment is one form of neglect. Neglect can be wilful or arise from alcohol/drug abuse or inadequacy. The effect can be far reaching, including failure to thrive in childhood and a tendency for the child to self blame. In adulthood, the legacy could include a sense of shame, poor self esteem, low self confidence, anxiety or difficulties in forming secure relationships. It is important to break the cycle and not to pass on problems to the next generation.
Discriminatory abuse/hate crime
Hate crime is a crime against you, your friends, your family or your property because of your actual or presumed sexual orientation, gender or transgender identity, disability, age, ethnicity or religion. Hate crimes can take many forms, including: physical and verbal attacks, vandalism and graffiti, cyber bullying, abusive text messaging and hate mail, offensive signs or gestures and threatening behaviours. Hate crime may affect you in every area of your life - work, school and home. If you experience such crime, you may feel guilty, humiliated and too embarrassed to complain. It may leave you feeling isolated, hated and vulnerable, and can impact on your other relationships.
If you are currently being abused, there are services which can support you. You can speak to your GP, nurse, midwife or health visitor, or contact one of the helplines listed below. In an emergency, call 999.
- Women being abused can contact the National Domestic Violence Helpline: 0808 2000 247. This helpline operated 24 hours a day and is free from a landline. It is run in partnership between Women's Aid and Refuge, who also offer refuge accommodation to women fleeing abusive situations.
- Men being abused can contact the Men's Advice Line on 0808 801 0327 or Mankind on 01823 334 244.
- Broken Rainbow UK provides support to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people experiencing domestic violence. Their free helpline number is: 0800 999 5428.
- If you have experienced sexual abuse, women can contact Rape Crisis on 0808 802 9999. Men can contact Survivors UK on 0845 122 1201.
- Children experiencing abuse or neglect can contact ChildLine on 0800 1111 or the NSPCC on 0800 1111.
- Hate crime can be reported to the police by calling 101.
Even if you are no longer in the abusive situation, therapy may help support you through the long-term psychological impact of that abuse.
You can find out more about symptoms and causes of Abuse
, including how to find a therapist. If this route is not appropriate for you, your GP can assess you and direct you towards support.