What Can Counseling Do for Emotional Abuse?

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By Abe Clabby, LPC

What Counts as Emotional Abuse?

  • Feelings get hurt accidently every day. But there’s a few people in this world who would hurt a partner on purpose. When we come across it, it helps to be prepared.
  • For a Parent, or a Partner, Emotional Abuse can mean:
    • Explosive Reactions – whether the “cause” is big or small, the abuse can be sudden, fast, loud, and intense. If you’re not used to it, it’s shocking, even confusing how something so small caused such a big fight.
    • Criticism – insulting not just their action, but their character. Not knowing the answer to a question means they’re “stupid”; doing one thing less than expected means they’re “lazy.”  https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-four-horsemen-recognizing-criticism-contempt-defensiveness-and-stonewalling/
    • Blame – some things may be your fault, but sometimes a person pushes hard to make things someone else’s fault. This goes beyond stubbornness and pride (which is believing that they are right), but goes as far as putting substantial energy into putting you down specifically.  Abuse dwells on the idea that you are bad.

Admittedly, there will be gray areas.  When in doubt, it helps to check with someone else and describe the events as clearly as you can remember.  You can call, chat, or text someone 24/7 at the national relationship hotline, LoveIsRespect.org.

What Does It Do to You?

No matter why it happens, this kind of emotional abuse can impact a person for a lifetime, until they address it and heal from it.  Counseling may help you in many different areas:

  • Anxiety: abuse can lead us to think that life is just this stressful, and full of worry and dwelling and regret. Much time and energy can be spent fearing for the future, that the abuse or something like it may happen again, to you or someone else.  They may fixate on avoiding or preparing for future abuse, or may feel powerless to stop it.
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: sometimes, abuse makes us feel overwhelmed, so we come up with a system. The hope is that when the Obsessive thoughts come up, and they start replaying that fear indefinitely, we can just give it what it wants: do the Compulsion, and hope that will give us relief.  In some cases they are related, like if fear of COVID exposure leads someone to regularly deep-clean their entire house, a drastic action in the hope of making a difference.  Other times they are unrelated, like fear of losing loved ones being solved by flipping lights on and off, or by checking again that the door is locked; that connection is symbolic.
  • Depression: if fear is one response, depression is another. You may feel everyone’s this bad to each other, or at least that they are to you.  You may start to believe you’re as bad as they said, too.  Soon you’d lose energy, motivation, and have trouble planning for the future, even with things that would feel good to do.  You start to feel powerless.
  • PTSD: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: you may hear of soldiers, whose intense or repeated experiences left them anticipating the next danger; with civilians, PTSD can come from emotional trauma too. This may happen with relationships like a controlling parent or partner, where the victim had very little control of the situation. https://medlineplus.gov/posttraumaticstressdisorder.html
  • Panic Attacks: sometimes fear can be so powerful that it feels incredibly physical. Rapid heartbeat, fast shallow breathing, gasping for breath, racing thoughts, and a strong feeling of being overwhelmed are some of the signs.  Some helpful Grounding Techniques are outlined here.  https://www.therapistaid.com/therapy-article/grounding-techniques-article

What Can I Do About It?

  • ANTS – Automatic Negative Thoughts:
    There are things most people tell themselves that make themselves more trapped and unhappy. Whenever something happens, we get stuck thinking of it a certain way. But if you can catch yourself thinking it, you can see you have another option.
    Here’s a diagram of 10 negative thoughts that tend to trip us up:

Let’s dive into an example:

  • Mental Filters: We all have our biases. Sometimes we filter the information we see, to fit what we believe.
    If the abuse led you to be hard on yourself, you may start focusing on everything you do wrong – and forgetting or discounting anything you do right.  Depression has a way of losing or blurring memories of positive things, and making the negative seem more important.  When something’s hard for you, you’ll feel like you’re doing worse than other people.
    Even friends and managers can start to seem like they’ll deliberately hurt us or abandon us.

So when you notice this mental filter, challenge it.  Haven’t you had friends who liked you and were there for you?  That shows there are good people out there for you, and that you’ve been lovable and worthy.  When in doubt, check in with other people – think of what you’ve heard people talk about from their own lives, or touch base with one now.
You can catch this negativity before it makes you anxious, depressed, or angry about it, and you’ll be glad that you did.

  • Reality Testing: the abuse told you what the world is like – but not everything in life will be like that. When you start expecting things to go wrong again, and you feel the tension rising, watch to see if it goes right.  Most people you meet will not be abusive.  Some people get much less angry at you, and don’t spite or insult or threaten you for it.  Some people you can just disagree with, and they won’t fight you or hold a grudge.   That intense fear in you, about people hating you, mocking you, criticizing you, may be bigger and more frequent than the problem itself. If that’s true, then this world is less harmful and dangerous than you feared.

If you find that you need additional support to manage the emotional abuse in your life, please reach out to an experienced Thriveworks therapist at 281-667-9790. You can thrive and we can help!

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