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The Recovery Expert
with Sharie Stines, Psy.D.

Coping with Covert Abuse

maskCovert abuse is hard to identify because it isn’t as obvious as other types of abuse. It flies “under the radar” and is hard to detect. If your abuse happened in childhood it is even more insidious because your points of reference are limited.

Before proceeding, let’s define what covert abuse is.  Covert abuse includes any type of underhanded and deceitful behavior on the part of the abuser used to manipulate others in order to gain power and control. 

Emotional incest is one type of covert abuse. Emotional incest, also known as covert incest, may or may not involve sexual abuse. This type of exploitation happens when a parent consistently looks to a child for the emotional support normally provided by one’s spouse or another adult.

Covert abuse tends to contain the following dynamics:

  • Abuses occur “casually.”
  • It is subtle, which makes it easy to ignore, deny, and minimize.
  • It rarely occurs only one time.
  • Interactions can include one or all of the following: criticism, boundary violation, sensuality, gaslighting, confabulation, or cognitive dissonance.
  • The abuser tends to be perceived by others as a “good guy or gal,” friendly, or even above reproach.
  • The abuser is very convincing.
  • Victims become desensitized to their own experiences over time.

Ways to identify covert abuse:

Most of the symptoms occur in the target.  The victim of covert abuse often believes that he or she is irrational, questions his or her own reality, feels anxious and depressed, or senses that something is just “not right” in the relationship, but can’t pinpoint what it is.  Victims tend to blame themselves.

How do you heal from covert abuse?

Healing requires self-empowerment. Be prepared to heal alone and learn to trust yourself without much support from others, because this type of abuse is very hard to explain to others.  Most people won’t get it and may even think you are ungrateful, crazy, or even abusive yourself. Covert abuse is a much more lonely abuse to heal from than more blatant forms of injuries.

There is one basic method for overcoming covert abuse, and it takes time to develop: It is learning to trust yourself.  You have to get to the point that no matter what the abuser says or does, or what others say to invalidate your experience, you will believe yourself.

In order to trust yourself you begin by looking inside and learning to pay attention to your intuition (gut instincts) and your feelings.  Here’s how:

  1. Mentally state inside your head what your gut is telling you.
  2. Ask yourself what physical feelings you are experiencing in your body.
  3. Ask yourself to label your emotions. Try to identify three feeling words; for example, angry, betrayed, confused.

Realize that common feelings of covert abuse include guilt, fear, confusion, and shame.  These feelings are indications that you are being invalidated by the other person.  Invalidation is a great factor in enabling you to be manipulated and controlled.

Once you have identified what is happening in your inner world, step away from any interaction with the person that is covertly abusing or trying to manipulate you and allow yourself to “detox.”  Take a time out. Debrief. Write, pray, talk to a friend, or do something non-aggressively physical.

Do not re-enter the interaction with the manipulator until you find yourself feeling sufficiently grounded in your own reality.  Your wiser self may even decide that re-engaging with the challenging person may not be something you are even willing to do at all.

It is okay to honor yourself by setting healthy boundaries with people where you intuitively feel that something is just not okay.

 

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Coping with Covert Abuse


APA Reference
Stines, S. (2016). Coping with Covert Abuse. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 18, 2019, from https://pro.psychcentral.com/recovery-expert/2016/10/coping-with-covert-abuse/