Is this really happening?
This is often our initial response to covert abuse. The very covertness of covert abuse causes us to question our senses, our experiences and our reality. Doubt plagues us, at times paralyzing and rendering us incapable of responding in any meaningful way.
We think we must be mistaken. Our friend, our loved one couldn’t hurt us like this…not intentionally. Even if the abuse becomes more obvious it can still be hard to call it for what it is if it involves someone we care about, who we believe cares about us.
We may refuse to connect the dots, telling ourselves each incident is an isolated one. Perhaps they just had a bad day…perhaps it was something we did. And it doesn’t help matters any, when the covert abuser tells us there’s nothing wrong, it is us.
So we continue to second guess ourselves, accepting flimsy excuses and miraculous repentances way too quickly and much too frequently. And each time we do, each time we are betrayed, we suffer damage to our self esteem. We come to distrust our own judgments at a time when we need them the most.
If covert abuse involves people we dislike, we may still be hesitant to accuse them of covert abuse. We may believe in “fighting fair” and forget that others don’t necessarily live by those standards. Or we may be uncertain as to whether we’re actually interpreting things correctly.
Did what I think just happened really happen?
What if we are mistaken? We’d feel awful if we accused anyone of such underhandedness and it turned out to be false. It’s easy to call out aggressive or ignorant behavior when it’s apparent, but when couched behind the subtlety of manipulation it can be tricky.
We might want to make sure we don’t wind up looking stupid or come across as paranoid or vindictive or overly sensitive…or just petty. Covert abuse can often involve petty acts. If we call them out, the attention can sometimes fall on us for our accusations and not the aggressor for their behavior.
That is a chance you take, but you can mitigate the fallout if you remember that calling someone out on their abusive behavior doesn’t have to be done in an abusive way. Even though covert aggressors will often accuse you of abusing them for merely being held accountable, you can still be mindful of how you handle yourself, and honor what you see instead of sweeping it under a rug of disbelief.
If you don’t tell anyone else, tell yourself the truth. If you’re falling and falling fast, you need to be cognizant enough to pull that ripcord or sprout wings before you hit the pavement. If someone is not your friend, you need to know that. If someone is not trustworthy, you need to stop trusting them.
But our disbelief doesn’t just come from us, our own reasons. Our disbelief is, also, a result of the covert manipulation of the covert abuser.
Covert abusers are adept at disorienting people. They want you to be confused. They throw dust in your eyes, use smoke and mirrors to confound and mislead. Their intent is to undermine you, to disarm you. And they’re really good at it. They need you to doubt your own senses.
It’s how they control the situation, and one of the reasons they choose covert abuse over overt abuse in the first place.
Whenever people talk about “denial”, they are usually referring to people with problems who refuse to admit it. Like the alcoholic who denies they have a drinking problem or the domestic abuse victim who refuses to admit they’re battered.
But denial is used by abusers, as well. Not so much to to deceive themselves (which they do), but to deceive you.
If a person has character, and you have a question about their behavior or motives, you can go to them. You can count on them to tell you how they feel, what they may or may not have done and why. You know the words you two speak will be for communication, to resolve the issue and to maintain or respect the relationship — regardless what direction it may go.
Whether you like or don’t like such a person’s choices or reasons is not the point. The point is you can trust them to be honest and real with you. You will know where you stand, even if you are standing where you did not want to be.
With a covert abuser, you will never know that. You will never get that sense of resolution, either a strengthening of your relationship or a departure. It’s never that clean. With covert abusers, words are not used to convey true thoughts or to validate real experiences or circumstances. Words are for control…and punishment.
And the worst punishment is not name-calling, which can be pretty bad, but invalidation. Telling you the sky is green when it’s blue…or dark blue when it’s pale. Not out of genuine difference in perception, but to mess with your head, or protect their own interests or shake your confidence, just a little bit more…and a little bit more…and a little bit more…
And when your confidence is gone, so is your independence, and with that, your strength.
Talking with a covert abuser, even if they tell you what you want to hear, will always leave a part of you feeling insecure and fearful. And you…will…change.
The bottom line is if you can’t believe what you think you’re seeing, then the solution is not to dismiss it but to look closer. Let your incredulity bring you vision.
Look closer at them, look closer at the relationship, and most importantly, look closer at yourself.
When you look at your abuser, turn down the volume, hit the mute button. You can always turn it back on. Don’t pay attention to what they say, at least, not until you’ve let yourself take a good, long, hard look at reality. I know to some this might seem to go against that practice of “deep listening”, and I’m a big time believer in that, BUT no one says you can only listen to words.
Sometimes words get in the way. In the case of a covert abuser, that’s what they’re for.
Listen to behavior. Actions do speak louder, and a pattern of hurtful actions, done with entitlement and no remorse (not to be confused with performance tears — more on those later) tells you exactly what they think of you.