Covert emotional and psychological abuse is sneaky. Many people don’t recognize it. They don’t recognize when they are participating in it and they don’t recognize when it’s happening to them. In many (sub)cultures, covert emotional and psychological abuse is normalized. In many dysfunctional families, covert emotional and psychological abuse is normalized. The victims are broken down, brainwashed and gaslighted so much that they believe what they are being told. Some of them feel anger when the covertly abusive act happens, but they usually blame themselves and buy into the abuser’s explanation: they are just too sensitive, they are imagining things.
Here are a few examples of covert emotional and psychological abuse that I experienced.
Smearing someone behind their back with the aim to control the narrative and turn other people against that person:
This is one of the nastiest things that can happen to you. I have been a victim of this so many times, most heartbreakingly in my family of origin.
The covert abuser wants to control the narrative. For example, they are afraid of your influence on someone they are controlling and manipulating, someone, who is a provider to some sort of narcissistic supply to them.
They fear losing control over that person and when they see that the person might be getting close to you, they need to stop it. You won’t know that it’s happening. You have done nothing wrong, there was no conflict, but suddenly, people in the manipulated social group are treating you differently. You can’t put a finger on it but you are suddenly an outcast. No one has spoken to you but they have been talking about you without you. Or maybe not about you, but about an alternative version of you created by the manipulative abuser to suit their toxic needs.
It’s painful. If you try to open the eyes of the manipulated people, you will most likely only strengthen their conviction that the manipulator is right. Manipulators are kindness embodied to those they need to have in their narcissistic supply matrix. Their fake persona is usually a masterpiece, and people who are naïve and themselves validation and approval seekers are likely going to fall for it.
It takes quite an evolved person to see through the nasty game and chances are that there are no sufficiently evolved people in that social group that is just shunning you.
Sometimes, the manipulative abuser might be jealous or envious of you. You wake up in them their insecurities and they need to cut you down, create a lesser, faulty and unworthy version of you through controlling the narrative about who you are.
Sometimes, you know too much about the abuser’s problems. You have been a victim of their other abusive behaviours (overt and covert). They cannot own it. They have to make everybody believe that you are lying or that their behaviour was somehow OK whilst yours was not.
They have to control the story and make everybody believe that you are the one that is difficult and behaving inappropriately.
The need to deny abusive behaviour usually drives toxic parent who will insert himself or herself between you and everybody else in the family. It’s extremely painful. Most of the time, you have to let go of everybody in that infected group. Perhaps one day those people will wake up and see what they have done to you. But most likely not.
It’s soul-killing and infuriating to be treated as a villain that you are not. Ostracizing and shunning someone based on what someone else says about them is a horrific form of covert abuse. In the past, stuff like that could kill people. Fortunately, the world of today is big and connected, and there is a lot of knowledge out there about these problems. You have a good chance to eventually find people who will see you and accept you for who you are and will not listen to toxic manipulators trying to smear you to gain control.
Passive aggressive triggering
Covert abusers are very skilful in getting a reaction out of you that will make you look like the out of control one. It’s quite difficult for a normal person with moral values to face someone who is lying and denying their behaviour without batting an eye lid.
They can also use your weaknesses against you to trigger your insecurities to get a reaction out of you. There might be a grain of truth in what they are saying about you. You might be emotionally over-reactive, for example. That, however, doesn’t make you stupid, incompetent or demented. That doesn’t mean that it’s OK to disregard you as a person.
Invalidation, making you feel stupid, insignificant, that you are not supposed to speak because you are something less
It took me a long time to fully embrace the fact that I have the right to own my voice and speak the truth of my experience. It took me a long time to realize that I am allowed to be what I want to be and do what I want to do. For a long time, I thought such a privilege was only reserved for some. Not for me. For a very long time, it seemed to me that if I try to be the person I want to be and speak my truth, I would be ridiculed and laughed at.
It turned out that this belief was instilled in me by my dysfunctional parents, by the toxic eastern European culture that I grew up in, by the covertly misogynist men I was in relationships with.
I was constantly shrinking in order not to provoke somebody’s disdain.
When I started writing my first novel, I put a few chapters on a creative writing portal. My mother found it and didn’t like what she read. The book was me dealing with the trauma of my childhood. She shared her discovery with pretty much everybody in the family including my sister. My sister informed me that she was appalled by that ‘shit’ that I had written. That shit eventually made it onto a new writers competition shortlist.
When I was going through a very rough time after I was discarded by a narcissist (who I at that time considered the love of my life), my sister informed me that I had no problems, that I was selfish, that I had no idea what problems were and that I had everything in my life. I was very close to a complete breakdown at that time.
I experienced a lot of abuse on social media mostly from Czech people, the culture of my origin. Czech people don’t seem to recognize that everybody has a right to have an opinion and to voice that opinion, especially if that opinion is based on facts and lived experience. They also don’t have the ability to differentiate opinions from facts. They don’t own the fact that they might, in fact, be lacking experience and sucking their opinions out of thin air.
I have been called laughable when I presented facts. I was told I didn’t have an idea what I was talking about when I was talking about things that I knew first-hand. It used to trigger me a lot. Eventually, I realised that there are a lot of people out there that have some sort of a mental disorder and confuse the contents of their brains with facts, no matter how these contents got into their brains.
Very frequently, entitled people who have been raised in environments that led them believe that everything they do is golden, would get very covert aggressive if you say anything they perceive as an insult to their self-perceived perfection. They cannot comprehend that their opinions or work could have flaws or questionable points. They cannot get it; you must be the problem when you suggest anything like that.
I was once attacked by a former classmate after making a comment on someone else’s facebook post, which actually had to do with something she had worked on (I didn’t even know that). But there were some questionable elements in that issue and I made a comment about it. This jumpy lady had to inform me that she knew better and how do I dare criticize other people’s work. You see? For that person’s underevolved brain, it is inconceivable that she may have done something questionable, because she is oh so awesome, so you have to be the problem.
In Czech society, women are brainwashed to believe that their human worth is directly proportional to their value as sexual objects. From the onset of puberty, they would be compared to other women and evaluated like a piece of meat by all sorts of not very worthy men. The belief would be installed in their heads that as long as men find them sexually appealing, they have a worth. They would be brainwashed to accept sexually inappropriate behaviour as flattering. If a more awake woman protests against such a behaviour, she would be called too sensitive and suggestions would be made that there is something wrong with her. It’s victim shaming and abuse apologetics.
Toxic humour is a very common form of covert emotional and psychological abuse. People are making fun of you, making insulting comments about you. When you object to the behaviour, you are told that you have no sense of humour and that you are taking yourself too seriously. These very same people usually don’t take it too well when jokes are made about them.
Subtly putting themselves above you by shoving unwanted advice down your throat
This form of covert abuse comes frequently from people who are actually below your level, but in their narcissism have a need to install themselves above you.
They can do it by giving you unsolicited advice or making various covertly judgemental statements about you and your life. Frequently, they know close to nothing about you anyway. They don’t want to know anything about your experience and achievements, they just want to put themselves above you. It’s their agenda and no matter how much you achieve in your life, they will still be passive aggressively trying to cut you down.
They frequently value their opinion so much that they will be giving you advice on topics where you have much more experience than them.
Denying your right to have boundaries
Abusive relationships are based on enmeshment. People are not treating each other as human beings but rather as a function that they serve in each other’s lives.
Once one of the parties in the relationship decides to no longer serve the function they were assigned and asserts a boundary around a certain behaviour, they will be bullied by the other party.
In dysfunctional families, children are frequently used as punching bags (metaphorical or literal). The toxic adult would vent their frustration and uncontained anger at the child. If the child tries to set a boundary, he or she will be vilified and punished by the toxic parent.
Toxic men expect their partners to be their servants and accessories and laugh at their toxic jokes. If the woman asserts a boundary, she will be vilified. She will be told that she is not a proper woman and suggestions will be made that she has some sort of an issue.
Ad hominem attacks, grammar fascism
Ad hominem attacks are very common. People want to discredit your opinion by attacking you as a person. They steer the conversation away from the points you have made by making you feel insecure and inferior, as if you have no right to speak.