On Emotional Violence

This article is a sequel to On Physical Violence, and carries forward a lot of its themes.  However, I think a lot of the issues around emotional violence are less clear cut, and so the intent of this article is much more speculative and investigative.

What is Emotional Violence?

Some examples of emotional violence are:

  • making threats
  • trying to incite feelings of guilt or inadequacy
  • constant non-constructive criticism
  • isolation
  • intentional public embarrassment

ire430cWhat do these actions have in common?  They are intentional, and they are an attempt to elicit an emotion; and furthermore, the emotion is an unpleasant one.

However, I don’t think the unpleasantness of the emotion is the defining characteristic here.  If you’re in a bad mood, and some horribly cheerful person comes up to you and tries to cheer you up, I think this falls under emotional violence as well — not as severe, certainly, but nevertheless unwelcome.  I suggest that emotional violence be defined as intentional elicitation of undesired emotion.

In other words, emotional violence is what is commonly called emotional manipulation, but with the addendum that the manipulation be toward emotions that are not wanted by the victim.

Does this correspond in any way to physical violence?

Recall that I suggested that physical violence be defined as deliberate infringement on physical person or possessions.  Emotional violence is similar in that the emotional state of the victim is being infringed in an unwelcome way.

Certainly not everyone will agree with my definition of emotional violence.  If I’m right, then emotional violence is a lot more common than physical violence; and many people see nothing at all wrong with many forms of it.  It is very common indeed in cases where one person has social dominance over another, or if they are engaged in a struggle for social dominance, as in the workplace or between adults and children.  I have engaged in it myself — there are certain kinds of emotional violence that I find all too easy to engage in.  But, as I’ll discuss below, I think it’s possible that emotional violence is even more serious and damaging than physical violence.

Why does emotional violence happen?

Like physical violence, it can arise from simple sadism.  But it can also come from a desire to control — to manipulate someone.  Emotions provide a point of leverage at least as potent as the physical body.  It can also be a means to an end — to get someone to do something for you, for example.

Emotional Violence and Disciplining Children

Emotional manipulation of children is a particularly sensitive topic.  Most people agree that physical violence against children is unnecessary, counterproductive, and cruel; but it’s much less common to see the same said about emotional violence.  Threats, isolation, guilt trips, intimidation, and public embarrassment are commonly used as disciplinary tactics, and they are usually more effective than physical discipline.  Whether they are better for children is actually an open question.

Imagine that a child, Susie, is doing something undesirable — say, sticking her tongue out at the table, especially when said tongue has a full load of cheesy noodles on it.  Here are some disciplinary options:

  • Smack the child:  physical violence.  The most likely effect is that Susie will remember the beating more than the lesson, and, depending on Susie’s personality, harbor resentment or fear against the adult.
  • Threaten to smack the child:  emotional violence.  This will have pretty much the same effect as an actual smack, but may be less memorable.
  • Force Susie to sit by herself (physical isolation):  physical and emotional violence.  This is usually called a “time out”, which makes it sound like a nice little rest.  The effect here varies with the age of the child.  Very young children are instinctively afraid of being alone, and view it as a form of rejection.  Older children may realize they are not being rejected, but may grow bored and chafe against the physical restriction.  The result is fear in the first case, and resentment in the second case.  (And oh yes — I have used this many times!)
  • Telling Susie she should know better, the parent is disappointed, etc. — i.e. attempting to elicit feelings of guilt or shame:  emotional violence.  If this works, the child feels guilty; though it may backfire and cause resentment.  (And yes, I have done this a lot, too.)

All of these may work, but if what you want is a child who cheerfully changes her behavior, none of these are optimal.  Other than outright bribery (which is unappealing for other reasons), what else could be done?  I think it varies with the age of the child.

If Susie is old enough, she should simply be calmly presented with a choice:  if she doesn’t stop, then there will be a consequence.  The intent here is not to create fear or shame in the child, but to let them know why the behavior is unacceptable, and what will happen if it continues.  The nature of the consequence is crucial; it should be matched with the misbehavior.  For example, if Susie can’t act right at the dinner table, then a reasonable consequence is that she will not be taken out to restaurants in the future, since restaurants do not allow that kind of behavior.

If Susie is too young to appreciate this subtle logical consequence, then she may be too young to be expected to control the behavior.  In that case, either she should not be expected to follow the rule, or she should be removed from situations which tempt her to break it.

The Big Dog

Other situations where we struggle for social dominance — such as at work — frequently present us with fewer options.  Giving the boss a smack to get him to raise your salary is not generally advisable; and it may seem as if emotional manipulation is the only way to achieve our goals.  However, it is worth thinking long and hard as to whether those goals are worth compromising the emotional well-being of others.

Is emotional violence ever justified?

Sometimes Spirit itself presents us with isolation, public humiliation, guilt and shame…  And many times these situations are among our most powerful teachers.  Is Spirit itself engaging in emotional violence?  Not necessarily.  Is Spirit really the cause of these situations?  Or do we call them upon ourselves?

Perhaps there some people who cannot (at present) learn without fear.  Does this mean that emotional pain is the only way certain lessons can be learned?  Is this the only way Spirit can get our attention?

My intuition is that no lesson must be learned with fear or emotional violence, but subconsciously we may be demanding that Spirit teach us in this way.  I don’t know why that should be, though.

The Effects of Emotional Violence

In the article on physical violence, I argued that since physical pain was temporary and short in the context of the many lives of the soul, that the self-defense of the victim was less important than the lesson that the perpetrator needed to learn, and that might be more compassionate for the victim to choose to accept — in fact, encourage — the violence.

However, I’m not certain that the same logic holds for emotional violence.

  • The evolved and enlightened mind cannot be a victim of emotional violence, for no unwanted emotions can be elicitied in it.  If you have sufficiently practiced your meditations against fear, no amount of threats, intimidation, isolation, or guilt-tripping will have any effect.  No such impregnable fortress can be built against physical violence.
  • But if emotional violence does work, its effects may last long after the death of the physical body.  This makes it much harder to justify the pain involved to the victim.

It would seem, then, that self-defense is essential for cases of emotional violence.

What defense is there against emotional violence?

The simplest answer is just to eliminate fear.  You are the one who decides what you will feel;  therefore, if you decide to eliminate your fear, you are impervious to emotional violence.  Training to be fearless is as long and arduous a process as learning martial arts or any physical defensive technique, but every bit of progress helps, and the rewards are immeasurable.  I will discuss this more in depth in an article I’ll make available later this week.

Protecting others from emotional violence.

If you want to protect someone from emotional violence, there are only two ways to do it:

  • Physically remove them from the violence
  • Teach them how to defend themselves from it

Notice that if the person doesn’t WANT to be liberated, then the liberation itself is violence, and shouldn’t be directly attempted.

For example, if Frank is browbeaten by his father for smashing up the family car, and Frank feels like he deserves the guilt and shame his father is serving up to him, then attempting to cheer him up or teach him self-defense techniques is at best a waste of time, and at worst emotional violence.

The path to peace for Frank is not straightforward.  His friends and spirit guides may help him work on some other area — say, his self-esteem — which will eventually change his mind about wanting to be browbeaten.  Then — and only then — will he allow himself to learn the necessary emotional self-defense techniques.

So if Spirit does try to avoid emotional violence, this may partly explain the convoluted paths — the unlikely chains of coincidences, the years of uncertainty –that many sprit guides seem to use to teach us our lessons.  They can’t just smack us over the head with the lesson book, because that would be emotional violence.  Perhaps they have to lead us, step by step and crisis by crisis, to the point where we can ask for and accept the help we need.



  1. I only very quickly scanned this (and intend to come back and read more thoroughly later) but I found myself having major problems with this one passage:

    “For example, if Frank is browbeaten by his father for smashing up the family car, and Frank feels like he deserves the guilt and shame his father is serving up to him, then attempting to cheer him up or teach him self-defense techniques is at best a waste of time, and at worst emotional violence.”

    This might be very wise and noble in theory, but in practice it can be cruel. Speaking as someone who suffered from continuous emotional abuse as a child, I know that a person who has experienced “browbeating” and other forms of emotional manipulation for a long period of time (especially when it comes from a parent) may have difficult and ambivalent feelings about “what they deserve.” To wash your hands of a person in such a situation and proclaim that you can’t help them because they don’t want to be helped is irresponsible at best. It can be viewed, by the victim of abuse, as a kind of abandonment, even a silent sanction of the abuse that’s occurring, which only helps to reinforce the belief that such abuse really is deserved.

    To use another example–what about a person in an abusive spousal relationship? It’s so common to hear people “blame the victim” and declare that, if a woman (or man) is being abused by her spouse, why doesn’t she just leave? And if she doesn’t leave, well, some part of her must want the abuse, right? But that argument is, in my opinion, complete bullshit. Most counselors of abuse victims know that the situation is much more complicated than that, and when it comes to emotional violence by parents or other family members (when the “choice to leave” can seem almost as impossible as leaving one’s own DNA behind), it’s downright cruel to suggest that victims of emotional violence cannot be helped or shown kindness and “cheering up” because they allow themselves to suffer. That’s a circuitous argument that only serves to exacerbate the suffering, condemning the victim of violence to more violence and even less likelihood that they’ll develop the strength and support to resist it. In such a situation, it’s no wonder that people try to convince themselves that they “really deserve it,” as no other explanation for the continuing violence (taking place right in front of others who sit back and allow it) seems to make any sense. Without the support of people with the strength of conviction to reject such violence as undeserved no matter what, this might be someone’s only viable method of coping. Victims of long-term emotional violence would rather believe they deserve it, than believe that everyone around them is really so apathetic and cruel. But I, for one, would rather “waste my time” trying to help a person suffering from such violence than justify my own inaction and allow another person to go through what I had to experience. Sometimes, we need other people to assert our worth as a human being when our own sense of self-worth has been so corroded and compromised.

    I think, in both this and your discussion of physical violence, the main flaw of your argument is that you assume that there are occasions when the only form of action is a form of violence, and therefore inaction (or emotional apathy/indifference/detachment) is the only appropriate response. I prefer to believe that there is always a positive, creative, loving act that we can pursue to engage other people as unique and free individuals, without either resorting to the violence of force or the violence of indifference. It may be difficult to pursue such loving acts (not least because they require responsiveness, creativity and courage from us), and pursuing such acts doesn’t always guarantee that others will respond the way we hope. But that doesn’t excuse us from trying.

  2. Jeff Lilly says:

    Ali — well said! I (basically) agree.

    I think you may have read that paragraph out of context. Immediately after it, I suggested not that Frank’s situation be approached with detachment, but by engaging in a different way — by offering Frank different gifts and guidance that he can freely accept, gifts and guidance that will hopefully allow Frank to grow in self-esteem or whatever other things he needs, so that eventually he CAN freely take the help he needs to escape emotional abuse. And this may take years.

    So, yes — compassion and assistance of any and every kind is called for. What I’m saying should be avoided is deliberately manipulating Frank to stand up for himself. Examples of deliberate manipulation would be saying things like, “How can you let her say that to you? How can you let him treat you that way?” This replaces one kind of guilt-trip with another! Believe me — I’ve experienced it many times. It seems to me much preferable to help Frank develop greater self-esteem and self-regard by, for example, encouraging the growth of friendships and interests outside of the abusive relationship, so that Frank can experience healthy relationships and, in time, realize that the abusive relationship is Wrong, and call for help.

    Frank may even eventually ask to be emotionally manipulated… Many of my own prayers take that form. 🙂

  3. Emotional violence….a subject I will climb onto my soap box for, but this is not the place to do so.

    For years I was in a marriage that was controlled by physical and emotional violence. It was a hard hard place to be in. Yes for a time you allow stuff like that to happen, but the you wake up, you realize you have a voice, a brain and you are allowed to have an opinion………when I realized that I mattered and that my opinion counted for something and that I refused to be spoken to in a derogatory manner, the physical violence increase because he realized that he was losing control over me. And That’s what violence of any kind is all about….CONTROL.

    For the first few years I thought he was right, that I was doing something wrong and that the beatings and the verbal abuse were my fault and that I deserved it, but being analytical by nature I took a long hard look at “why I had deserved” beatings and verbal abuse and it took working for a psychiatrist to help me see clearly….that it was HIS way of wanting to control me and the family.

    It took 16.5 for me to be strong enough to break the cycle. I will not allow any type of violence in my home ( there is enough of that in the world already), if anyone wants to argue, they can go outside.

    Unless you have been through it, you cannot really understand, it’s OK to say get out of the situation, but it’s always easier said than done.

    I cannot comprehend how a person can be so cruel to another. Through those years I have learnt a LOT. My daughters have also learnt so much by having been witness to my treatment, my son’s will not follow their father’s footstep. So through all this there is something positive!!

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