'You're Nothing Without Me' – What You NEED to Know About Emotional Abuse

Trigger warning: this article discusses emotional and psychological abuse

‘How could you be so stupid?’

‘You’re nothing without me.’

‘You have no right to speak to another man without my permission.’

These aren’t just harmless jibes or threats to shrug off. They are forms of emotional abuse, and they can be toxic. Why? They’re designed to control and manipulate. To make you feel small, little, worthless and dependent on someone else. They’re an invasion of your autonomy, liberty and integrity. And they’re all lies. This is what emotional abuse can look like.

What is emotional abuse?

Lindsay Henson, executive director at Lawyers Against Abuse – an NPO that provides holistic legal services and psychosocial support to victims of gender-based violence – explains: ‘Emotional, verbal and psychological abuse is defined in the Domestic Violence Act as “a pattern of degrading or humiliating conduct towards a complainant, including: (a) repeated insults, ridicule or name calling; (b) repeated threats to cause emotional pain; or (c) the repeated exhibition of obsessive possessiveness or jealousy, which is such as to constitute a serious invasion of the complainant’s privacy, liberty, integrity or security.”’

It’s using predominantly verbal methods to control, belittle and manipulate you, putting you at the mercy of your abuser. While it may not leave visible bruises and wounds, the psychological and emotional damage can be huge. It often leaves you feeling depressed, low, meaningless and with no freedom to make your own choices. For some, it can leave them suicidal.

According to People Opposing Women Abuse (POWA), emotional abuse can also include isolating you from others, such as cutting you off from your friends, your job, your support network. This one’s an especially common tactic of abusive partners: telling you they don’t like your friends and ensuring you see less and less of them until, one day, you realise you’re isolated and now dependant on your partner. It’s about taking away your power, and it’s devastating.

As with all types of abuse, it doesn’t have to be a romantic partner who is abusing you. Anyone who holds power of you, whether as a guardian or breadwinner, or perhaps as a manager at work, can be emotionally abusive.

Red flags

Here’s the thing: you don’t deserve to be talked down to. You do not have to put up with being called names, isolated, singled out or belittled. So when it comes to relationships, don’t settle. Early on, look out for red flags and call it quits as soon as possible if these persist:

  • Your partner talks over you – a sign they don’t value your opinion
  • You’re not consulted equally in decision making. Your opinions are often ignored
  • Your partner teases or mocks you in public and/or in private
  • When you’re in a group, your partner may say things to embarrass you or make you appear stupid, uneducated or ignorant
  • Your partner doesn’t like your friends and/or family, and avoids spending time with them. They also try to create excuses or reasons for you not to see them. Perhaps they get upset or angry whenever you make contact with them
  • When you’re disagreeing, your partner’s go-to defence is to name-call you or put you down
  • Your partner threatens you in any way
  • You only receive affirmation from your partner if you’re doing what they want, how they want it – the focus is always on them and their wants or needs
  • Your partner creates rules regarding your behaviour, including who you see, what you wear, how you shop or cook or behave, etc.

A healthy relationship is one where there is balance and mutual respect. None of us is perfect, but we should all want the best for those we love. And if your partner doesn’t build you up with honest but positive feedback and advice, or accept your friends and family, they may not be the right person for you.

What can you do?

According to Henson, ‘You can apply for a protection order under the Domestic Violence Act.’ This can prevent your abuser from being in contact with you, and provide safety from future abuse. If you’re worried your abuser could turn violent, speak up when logging a case with police or applying for a protection order as this may change the kind of protection you receive, and how urgently it is attended to.

It’s also important that you empower yourself to walk away from an emotionally abusive relationship. If it’s a home relationship, take these steps:

  • Build a private source of finances that will allow you to walk away from the relationship and be independent, without having to rely on your abusive partner.
  • Keep a diary of the emotional abuse. This will not only act as helpful evidence if you’re building a case, but will also identify to you if you’re in an abusive relationship and why you should consider leaving. Keep any other evidence, including WhatsApp messages, notes, e-mails or recordings.
  • Be aware of red flags early on in relationships, and follow your gut: they may have other alluring qualities, but leave if they do not treat you well or respect you.
  • Seek counselling (see helplines below) to overcome any self-doubt, anxiety, self-blame or emotional or psychological trauma you’ve encountered as a result of being emotionally abused or bullied.

If it’s a work relationship, try these things:

  • Calmly point out to your colleague or manager some instances where you felt humiliated, embarrassed, bullied or emotionally abused. Explain how it made you feel, and how you’d like them to change their behaviour moving forwards.
  • Report any emotional abuse confidentially to your HR manager.
  • Document any evidence of emotional abuse. Keep WhatsApps, e-mails or notes. Keep a diary of what was said, when, with a time and date, as well as how it made you feel. Once you can show a pattern of emotionally abusive behaviour, use this to build a case with your HR manager, or even an external labour lawyer if needed.

Get help

Lawyers Against Abuse

Legal Aid Advice Line (free)

  • Call 0800 110 110 (toll-free) or the Please Call Me service through 079 835 7179
  • Legal-aid.co.za
  • They will also be able to tell you which Legal Aid office is closest to your location


  • Call their HQ: 011 642 4335
  • Download the free POWA GBV app for Android or iOS to report abuse and find help centres near to you


  • Call 0861 322 322

TEARS Foundation

  • Dial *134*7355#


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