Why Emotional Abuse Makes You Feel Crazy, Even When You're (Pretty Sure You're) Not

And what you can do about it.

woman looking over man's shoulder wondering if she is crazy or being abused Jurij Krupiak / Shutterstock

At the end of an emotionally abusive relationship, your break up or divorce is unlikely to go swiftly and smoothly, and as the nightmare unrolls, you may find yourself shocked that while your mental health has always been solid, you're now starting to feel yourself slowly unraveling.

You expect to find empowerment now that the relationship all over, but instead, you start wondering if maybe your partner was right.


Maybe you really are the crazy one...

The most obvious cases in which this happen are those in when you stay in contact with that person and they continue to "inform" you that everything that happened between the two of you was entirely your fault.

However, there are typically far more complex issues than at play.

Because it is so difficult to know whether someone has a personality disorder or is simply an abusive jerk, Bill Eddy of the High Conflict Institute coined the phrase High Conflict People as a way to differentiate between those who handle their conflicts in a mentally typical fashion and those who have a pervasive need for conflict in their lives. According to Eddy:


“High-conflict people (HCPs) have a pattern of high-conflict behavior that increases conflict rather than reducing or resolving it. This pattern usually happens over and over again in many different situations with many different people. The issue that seems in conflict at the time is not what is increasing the conflict. The ‘issue’ is not the issue.”

RELATED: I Was In An Abusive Relationship — But You Have No Right To Victim-Blame Me

When dealing with someone like this, whether they're a true narcissist or not, you can read all of the self-help books that exist, but as long as you consciously or unconsciously find their voice to be more important than your own, you'll continue facing too much self-doubt, fear, and triggering to effectively resolve your own emotions and move on.


The longer you remain stagnant in that place of inner-confusion, the more you turn the same stone over and over looking for a different answer, so the more you naturally start to believe this person who seems so completely not confused.

And if they're right, well, darn. Maybe you really must be crazy!

But more likely than not, you're just being manipulated into thinking so.

Here are eight reasons you might start thinking you're crazy in an abusive relationship, and what you can do now to remind yourself that, no, you're really not.

1. Gaslighting.

The standard go-to of anyone whose weapon of choice is manipulation, gaslighting is defined as follows:


“A form of emotional abuse where the abuser manipulates situations repeatedly to trick the victim into distrusting his or her own memory and perceptions… [The term is derived] from the British play turned movie, ‘Gas Light,’ wherein a husband attempts to drive his wife crazy using a variety of tricks causing her to question her own perceptions and sanity.”

People who are emotionally abusive love this tactic for two main reasons:

  • Blaming someone else for all of their troubles keeps them safe from the immense emotional struggle of looking at their own inner-turmoil
  • It works

It works because reasonable people are very much aware that they have faults and that from time to time they get things wrong. Reasonable people are willing to hear their partner out and give their words due consideration.

What you can do about it:


You won’t be able to stop your ex from attempting this strategy, but you can stop yourself from believing them. When your ex says something that makes you feel inferior and doesn’t jive with your own self-perception, give yourself the credit you know yourself far better than anyone else does, including them.

RELATED: 7 Ways You're Being Gaslighted — And You Don't Even Realize It

2. Expectations of reasonable behavior from someone who's already shown you they are unreasonable.

We are taught to believe that everyone is inherently logical and capable of change. Unfortunately, neuroscience shows that this isn't the case.

Those of us with a typical neurological profile only know what it's like to think within a healthy mindset, and so we generally assume everyone else has about the same capacity for reason as we do.


According to The Personality Studies Institute:

“In the case of healthy psychological development… early, extreme and disconnected representations gradually become integrated into more complex, subtle and realistic internal images of self and others. We come to realize that ourselves, and others, have both good qualities and bad, that we can experience disappointments in ourselves or others while still appreciating the good qualities.”

Not so for HCPs, for whom at some point in early development the following occurs:

“Emotionally-charged interactions between the infant/child and significant caregivers, which are patterned and repeated over time, result in the development of specific representations of the self and of significant others, linked by the emotional quality in which they were initially experienced… [Associated emotions] may range from intense love to extreme hatred. In early life, these dyads are not accurate or literal representations of historical reality; rather, they tend to represent polarized, extreme images and effects. Consequently, in response to triggers… an individual experiences himself, and others, in terms of extreme and simplistic representations that are not coherently connected with the representations of self and other that might be triggered by a different event.”


Long, scientific story short, the brains of many people who face intense trauma during childhood never develop the neurological pathways necessary for what we consider reasonable thinking to occur. Meaning, they just don’t think the same way we do — at all.

Understanding that your ex essentially has a form of “emotional dyslexia” can bring about an enormous reduction in your daily dose of banging your head against the wall.

When your ex looks at the page that is your situation, the messages his or her brain sends are jumbled, just like the letters on the page in front of someone with dyslexia. And unfortunately, we don’t yet have significantly effective ways to facilitate emotional processing for HCPs the way we do for people with dyslexia to reprocess the visual information on their page.

What you can do about it:


Remind yourself that your ex’s thinking process does not work the same way as yours, and you will no longer find yourself surprised by their negative behaviors, nor will you take their words and actions so much to heart.

RELATED: 7 Signs You're In A Relationship With A Guy Who's Trying To Manipulate And Control You

3. Venting.

When we go through a difficult time, our friends often make sure to say something along the lines of, “I’m here for you if you want to vent.” We’ve all said it, we’ve all heard and we've all done it.

The problems with talking too much about your trauma, however, are two-fold.

  • Every time you vent your story, you relive it. We think that getting the story out into the atmosphere will somehow remove its weight from inside of ourselves, but getting it out too many times begins to have a counter-effect. Not only does the situation weigh on you, but you have now stewed yourself in a broth of it, and the heavy steam hangs in the around you and pushes you down even further.
  • Make it through number 4 (below) and you'll see... ;)

4. Issues so complex you have trouble explaining them concisely.

Here is the second issue with venting. Because people like your ex constantly stay busy by creating more conflict in lives, the story of any conflict with someone like this is rarely simple. That means it's simply impossible to ever summarize the amount of sheer insanity you find yourself faced with in the kind of 3-minute recap most of our friends actually expect us to give.


Because of this, you're likely to find yourself struggling to find the most convincing arguments to make while leaving out some details and rushing through others so your friends won’t lose interest. In the end, your friend may or may not get it, and you feel all the more overwhelmed, frustrated and, yes, crazy.

What you can do about it:

In order to address both issues 3 and 4 above, choose a small, trusted number of confidantes who you know will be along with you for the full ride. Let others know how much you appreciate their offers, but resist the urge to share the same stories with multiple people over and over again.

5. Confused children.

If the situation is confusing for fully grown friends to understand, it's an entirely foreign language for your children. What’s worse, you can’t even tell your children the gory details in order to help them sort it out.


No matter whether they are toddlers or adults, children neither want, nor do they need, to hear the sordid stories about what either of their parents has done to the other.

Manipulative people don't always stop with adults, however. Some do prey on their children’s trust by attempting to color you as the one in the wrong.

When your kids come to you with untrue or horribly twisted versions of something they were told you said or did, it can be enough to drive you mad... and to make you feel like maybe you are.

What you can do about it:

The good news is that children pay extremely close attention to their parents. They know who you are almost as well as you do.


As hard as it may be, casually shrugging off the lie they were told with a statement like, “I’m really confused, buddy. That isn’t at all what I remember happening. Your mom/dad and I just have different perspectives about lots of things. This seems to be one of them,” can relieve the pressure for all of you.

6. People who've been poisoned against you.

Given that HCPs carry this type of drama across intersecting areas of their lives, they develop coping mechanisms for enabling themselves to retain allies. Isolating partners while keeping friends and family members segregated from one another and sharing different snippets of lies or misleading, out-of-context "truths" leaves everyone around them believing different sets of bad information.

When you were together, your ex probably told you something someone did to them that made you think that person was so reprehensible that you chose to have nothing to do with them. You may now begin to see that stories you'd fully accepted as true may turn out to have been at least partially fabricated in order to limit your relationship and communication with other people.

What you can do about it:


When someone your ex still talks to suddenly throws you the cold shoulder, don’t be surprised, don’t be mad, and don’t take it to heart. Place it within the context of your ex’s dysfunctional behavior and understand that there is no personal offense for you to take. Once upon a time, you believed the stories your ex told you too.

RELATED: Yes, You Can Get PTSD From Staying In An Emotionally Abusive Relationship

7. False documentation.

It isn’t hard to believe your ex will lie to other people about you, but it’s understandably baffling when they lie to you about you. You were there, right? Why would anyone pull something like that?

When someone has anxiety to a pathological extent, “terrible and terrifying events are unremittingly anticipated — whether these are largely imagined or not isn't the point: the problem is that the threats feel real. When something truly appalling is even remotely possible, in the mind of the individual experiencing obsessional anxiety, it feels inevitable.”


Essentially, toxic people so desperately need to convince themselves that they bare no blame that they literally begin to believe their own lies.

Everyone getting divorced is told to document communications with their soon-to-be-ex. Manipulators take this advice to the extreme, documenting not only what occurs, but also things that have not actually occurred.

They may then share this "documentation" with you as a fear tactic, hoping to keep you on the defensive at all times.


What you can do about it:

As hard as it is, don’t give into the fear. Keep a private journal expressing the reality of the situation. Be sure to write only as much as is necessary order to maintain a clear record, or you risk spinning yourself into your own post-traumatic cycle of obsession with logging details. Keep the journal somewhere safe and only re-read if/when necessary for legal action.

8. Playing a constant game of catch-up from it all.

I don’t know how you feel after reading this, but my own head is spinning from writing it all down. These lessons and tips are a lot to take in, especially while raising kids, holding down a job, trying to have a personal life and dealing regularly with life divorce.

The sheer volume of suggestions you receive is enough to shut anyone down. Not being able to put them into practice can lead you back into that defeating spiral of self-blame.


It’s just too much. I get it.

Here is the most important distinction I can make, so if you can only take away one thought from this article, take this:

HCPs do not consider themselves to be HCPs. They do not read articles like this while trying to carefully and rationally self-reflect in order to figure out whether they are turning things back around on someone else instead of taking accountability themselves.

Understanding these distinctions and following the coordinating tips will increase your self-esteem and self-reliance, reduce your reactivity, foster recognition of your own role in codependent patterns, help you manage feelings of anger, and provide at least some small relief from both past and ongoing trauma.


In other words, go be who you are and believe yourself about it.

RELATED: The Painful Reality Of Being Emotionally Abused By An Ex Every Day

Deputy Editor Arianna Jeret, MA/MSW, is a writer, former family law mediator, and recognized expert on relationships and conflict resolution. Her work has been featured in Cosmopolitan, The Huffington Post, Yahoo, MSN, Bustle, Parents and more.