June 7, 2011
Emotional, Psychological, and Mental Abuse: Is There a Difference?
I’ve mentioned my personal definition of emotional abuse in several places on this site. However, a lot of people ask about the differences between emotional abuse, psychological abuse, and mental abuse, and I think it’s important to clarify this issue. Is there a difference? The short answer is no. The long answer gets a bit more complicated.
As we all know, the word emotional refers to our feelings. Feelings are, by nature, nonrational. If we categorize abuse according to the effect it has on the victim then the term emotional abuse refers to abuse that affects how we feel. It’s not just about how we feel at the moment that we’re abused but also about how we feel about ourselves and the world around us.
Kieran O’Hagan, formerly of the Department of Social Work at Queen’s University of Belfast in Northern Ireland, wrote an article about this in 1995 for the journal Child Abuse & Neglect. He argued that we use emotional abuse and psychological abuse interchangeably and we shouldn’t. I couldn’t get hold of the full article, but I found the following in the abstract: “Emotional abuse impairs the emotional life and impedes emotional development.”
We may think of “the emotional life” as those feelings that we experience on a daily basis. “To impair” means to damage the way something works. I’ve seen research that shows emotional regulation can be challenging for emotional abuse survivors. We may be emotionally distant when we should let our guard down (for instance, with our partners and children). Similarly, we may over-react to things that someone without an abusive past would be able to take calmly (reasonable criticism, for example).
Emotional development refers to how we learn to trust, take responsibility for our actions, build confidence in ourselves, gain autonomy, and see beyond the boundaries of ourselves. We can see these as relating to the development of emotional intelligence. Steve Hein maintains a site called EQI.org, which includes information on emotional intelligence and emotional abuse. Hein identifies seven things in the development of emotional intelligence: feeling emotions, using emotions (i.e., to take action), communicating emotions, recognizing emotions in others, remembering how emotions are expressed in others, learning from emotions (in other words, learning through emotions to link behaviors to consequences), and managing emotions.
So, O’Hagan tells us, emotional abuse seriously affects how we learn to feel, deal with our feelings, and understand them. These things are important not just in how we’re able to cope with the challenges of daily life but also in how we interact with others.
Mental refers to the mind or the intellect. Dictionary definitions of psychological tell us that it applies to both the emotional and mental. So technically psychological abuse should include both emotional and mental abuse. O’Hagan, however, defines psychological abuse as “impair[ing] the mental life and imped[ing] mental development.” He identifies things like “intelligence, memory, recognition, perception, attention, imagination, and moral development” as part of “the mental life.” So his definition of psychological abuse essentially covers mental abuse, making the two terms synonymous.
Based on this definition, mental/psychological abuse affects how our brain develops. In a 2006 article from Child and Family Social Work (Vol. 11, No. 1), Dorota Iwaniec, Emma Larkin, and Siobhán Higgins state that “[d]ifﬁculties in the acquisition of basic skills, speciﬁcally deﬁcits in reading, languages and maths, are often observed” in children who’ve suffered from psychological abuse. I haven’t seen much on why this happens, but there are several studies I’ve seen that confirm that mental abuse interferes with cognitive development (i.e., how we learn, remember, solve problems, make associations between things, etc.).
Distorted beliefs about the world that our abusers taught us also get ingrained in our minds, and these can interfere with the sort of flexibility that we need to have to constantly assess our environment and curb our actions based on that. For instance, if we’re constantly fed messages that people are hostile and out to get us so we better only trust the family then that’s psychological (rather than emotional) abuse because it impairs how we assess reality and respond to it. Our mind doesn’t follow a pattern of logic based on evidence that we’ve gathered from our environment. Instead, it follows a distorted path of “logic” that ignores reality and drives us to react in maladaptive ways.
Does It Really Matter?
Whether the term we use to refer to this type of abuse really matters depends, I suppose, on what our goal is in using the term in the first place. Such fine-tuning of terms could be useful for research purposes because it could differentiate between effects from impairing emotional development versus effects from impairing intellectual development. For instance, researchers might be able to study whether the effects from emotional abuse are more severe or long-lasting than effects from psychological abuse. Researchers may also possibly be able to assess things like the frequency of each type of abuse, the influencing factors on each type of abuse, and perhaps other precise measurements that researchers go after when trying to understand and explain the causes and effects of social ills.
However, from the perspective of a survivor, therapist, social worker, and anyone else who has to deal with real-life situations, insisting on differentiating emotional abuse from mental/psychological abuse could make things a lot more complicated. They so often occur together that trying to separate the effects from each would, I think, distort what’s really going on. For instance, when we’re manipulated into believing false things about ourselves, we’re also being manipulated into feeling bad about ourselves. Categorizing both effects under one heading, “emotional abuse,” reflects the important link between them in the way we experience them. We can’t heal the emotional effects without also healing the mental effects and vice-versa.
Also, given that emotional and mental development throughout life are so closely linked, I’m pretty skeptical that we should bother to differentiate between these things. Children’s emotional and mental skills, for instance, develop side-by-side. As they learn more about the world around them, they also (ideally) learn how to handle their emotions better because they understand what’s acceptable and what’s not. When they’re being abused, kids may develop distorted beliefs about themselves that lead to feelings that consequently lead to misbehavior.
For instance, I have some neighbors around the corner with a curious little boy. I’ve repeatedly seen him try to share his findings with his father, and his father completely ignores him. I don’t doubt that the father’s intentions are to teach his son how to be respectful, but it’s bombing because the boy usually gets angry and reacts by misbehaving. Many people assume a boy like this is just trying to get attention or hasn’t been taught how to behave properly. They don’t make the connection between this misbehavior, his anger, and the belief his father is instilling in him: You don’t matter. If we separate the emotional and mental consequences of abuse then we ignore the complexity of the human psyche, which exists even in young children.
Even in adulthood, though, our emotional and mental development is happening side-by-side. We often find that distorted beliefs about our capabilities lead to feelings of low self-worth. When we break through those beliefs, perhaps achieving something we set out to achieve like getting a degree or learning some new skill, we get a boost in self-worth and are perhaps even motivated to bring out more of our potential because we feel better about ourselves. So separating the effects of emotional and psychological abuse in adult survivors would not, I think, be very useful either.
In my experience, the majority of researchers don’t draw such fine lines with these terms. Generally they’ll use the term emotional abuse, and occasionally psychological abuse, to mean non-physical maltreatment, whether it’s psychological/mental or emotional. I can appreciate why some researchers want to draw the distinction based on the effects they have on us, but in practice, intellectual and emotional impairment go hand-in-hand and reflect the profound damage that emotional abuse can have on us.