Covert Verbal Abuse and How it Lives On

August 23, 2019 Katlyn Brinkley 

Covert verbal abuse is a type of verbal abuse which can come in many forms and at many speeds. But at any rate, it can be detrimental to your self-esteem both during that relationship and as you live your life even after the abuse has stopped. Covert verbal abuse can have lasting effects that are just as impactful to your psyche as severe verbal abuse. It was really hard for me to identify this as the root behind a lot of my problems with confidence afterward.

Covert Verbal Abuse Has the Potential to Escalate

Covert verbal abuse can make you dislike yourself. I've always been a little self-conscious about my physical appearance, but I remember certain times being harder than others. When I was 21, I moved in with my partner of a year. We had a great relationship, initially. He was motivated and interested in my success; we were partners always pushing each other to be better. However, after a year, he started making comments that I knew were inappropriate for a partner to be concerned about. It started small, like asking why I parted my hair differently. Later, he questioned if I was sure I wanted to wear certain outfits on a night out.

While these hardly seemed like comments to break up with someone over, I couldn't ignore my discomfort. I wondered why he cared about these tiny things. Did they really bother him so much that he had to say something? My unease started to stack up over time, and so did his comments. I began to feel like this was less about his lack of a filter and more about control; he was using covert verbal abuse to control me.

He started pulling my shoulders back when we would shower. He'd make comments about what I ordered at restaurants regardless of the presence of waiters. He bugged me about going to the gym constantly. I've always enjoyed staying fit and healthy, yet his relentless suggestions evoked a resentment in me that came in the form of stubborn resistance and I stopped exercising altogether. I also ate more, maybe to prove that I didn't need anyone micromanaging my decisions or maybe because I was unhappy. I discovered in therapy later that these were my ways of regaining control in these situations. I had let his comments build over a three-year relationship, and it was starting to affect my mental and physical states.

The Lasting Effects of Covert Verbal Abuse

When I ended the relationship, I eventually found my groove, working out and eating healthy again. However, although these were positive changes, they soon became extreme. I obsessed about what I was eating and the way my clothes looked. There was a constant battle of feeling like I should eat less to be thinner, but then feeling so hungry that I would eat a lot. This was followed by extreme guilt. Then the cycle would start all over again. Food and my appearance were at the forefront of my mind every minute of the day. I soon learned I was on the path of developing an eating disorder and started to seek help.

Better Late than Never: Addressing Prior Verbal Abuse

After lots of mindfulness techniques, therapy, yoga and time, I learned to challenge the maladaptive beliefs and anxiety surrounding my appearance. While, of course, some thoughts still peep their ugly heads out, I've learned that self-love doesn't mean working toward perfection, but accepting imperfection and celebrating individuality.

Verbal abuse doesn't always come in the form of cursing or yelling; gaslighting and emotional abuse are forms of it as well, and it can be all too easy to ignore small, but harmful comments. I had a hard time identifying covert verbal abuse, so I encourage you to listen to your gut and address verbal abuse in any of its forms.

Have you experienced covert verbal abuse? How have you dealt with your experiences since?

APA Reference
Brinkley , K. (2019, August 23). Covert Verbal Abuse and How it Lives On, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 24 from

Author: Katlyn Brinkley 

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November, 13 2019 at 12:58 am

I'm 56 and I've survived childhood sexual abuse, ran away and was trafficked as a prostitute from the age of 15 until 18. Throughout that time I had been beaten, raped, arrested. Never in my life have I been suicidal, yet three times ( since I started Adderall, and now Ritalin) my covert narcissist husband has called 911 stating that I am. Once I was asleep when the EMT showed up. On October 10 th he called 911, he's 14 years younger, 250 lbs, he was holding me face down on the ground outside, the police showed up, handcuffed ME behind my back. One much younger and bigger cop had his knee in my back and kept me restrained to the ground for 40 minutes. Having a history of trauma, I panick when I'm being held down, I was pleading for them to flip me on my back, I felt like I couldn't breathe. They said " if you are screaming you are breathing". I have a pacemaker and weigh 110 lbs. I was hyperventilating and when I tried to lift my chest off the ground they slammed me down... two firefighters showed up, I begged them, told them flip me on my back...I'm not a threat to anyone they just chitchatted until the ambulance arrived. On the five minute ride to the hospital they saw my shoulders, my hands were bleedings, I had a fat lip and was scared, and hurting. Six hours earlier I texted my advocate from the organization for prostitution survivors that I need a safe house and foster care for my three little dogs. I tried to tell the police, the EMTs then the hospital staff in the emergency department. Not one person showed me and kindness, no one would even talk to me. I told them I've never been suicidal, and I know my rights, I asked to call my advocate a hundred times. I told them I was scared for my dogs, they ignored me, barked at me, slammed the door in my face and when I put one foot out of the room the "sitter" called a code grey!. They had huge security gloving up ready to restrain me because I disobeyed their orders to "shut up and sit down". The Dr refused to take pictures of my injuries, did not ask any questions, did no assessment, and certainly not treatment. I had to ask for a bandaid. They held me 24 hours based in the lying husband's smear tactics. Even the police report said I was not detained. The " social worker" stood in my doorway after eight hours, again no assessment, no empathy, said that my husband was calling over and over telling them not to let me out so she was referring me to the mental health professional. Now, I have a degree in psychology and spent thirty years working with the mentally ill inpatient, outpatient, crisis response,and emergency crisis triage. I know mental health law, I know how to treat a person with dignity I am skilled in de-escalation and patient centered care. I was appalled at the lack of professionalism and the culture of discrimination and neglect towards the " psychiatric" patients. No one heard me. No one wanted me to speak at all. They were bullies from the cops to the nurses and the medical assistants. I was released by the mhp who sat down and determined that I was reliable, not a danger, and the abuser who tried so hard to have me detained drove me home , as I was putting my key in the door he casually mentioned that my 16 year old Yorkie ran away. 24 hours of being treated like a criminal, a hostage, and punitively ignoring me, I was beat up, and the very thing I was so scared of the entire time had happened. I spent four nights looking for him, two nights staying in the car freezing with my two remaining dogs. I requested my medical records, 128 pages? How does that happen when the only thing they did was retraumatize me more? And they think I am going to allow them to Bill my insurance? I have written several letters. The state said they investigated, found no wrongdoing...really. all my years working I've never imagined treating an abused person so disgracefully. I've had nightmares since, I spent two weeks scared to leave my house. Everytime I see a police car I have anxiety. I changed the locks, called dv advocates, sitting here waiting for his next move. There's no relief, no recourse, and unfortunately , suicide has never been an option!

November, 14 2019 at 7:32 am

Wow, love. This is such an inspiring and incredible story. I'm deeply sorry for what you have experienced and saddened that the system did not show you kindness when you needed it. It sounds like you have the inner strength and resilience to overpower that and all of your other trauma though, despite the odds. I think this is an amazing story and I think you should feel strong, powerful and brave. I'm sure all of your patients truly appreciate you now that you work in the field. Thank you for sharing, and I hope you're now living a happy life because you deserve it. Love and light, Katlyn.

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