A Book For The Grown Up Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers
For weeks I’d been watching news releases for Jennette McCurdy’s release of her first book, “I’m Glad My Mom Died.” Featuring a cover picture of McCurdy in a stylish pink outfit, smiling while holding an urn – the woman knows how to capture your attention! But there was a reason I was attracted to this book beside the captivating and drama-inducing title.
For decades now, women have come to the Guided Wellness Counseling office to talk about every hard topic you can imagine. Sexual abuse. Debilitating trauma. Betrayal by an intimate partner. Paralyzing anxiety and depression, and so much more. But what has always stood out to me as a therapist are the moments when we talk about the unseen things that play out in our pain and recovery.
McCurdy’s book is a tale for those of us who struggle to put a finger on why we are hurting. It’s for those of us who are struggling with all the “inappropriate” (i.e. not kind and fearfully selfish) things we might think, feel, want and need as we address and heal from our pain. This is for those of us who have experienced and are recovering from covert abuse.
What is covert and overt abuse?
Before we jump into covert abuse, let’s address its better known sibling: overt abuse. Overt abuse is the most well known and best understood type of abuse. The word “overt” refers to things that are openly and obviously done. Overt abuse is done in ways that lack any attempt to hide, explain-away or confuse the act being done.
A simple way to think of overt abuse is to ask yourself this, “If this were happening on the news, would people generally agree it is bad?” Overt abuse includes common yet heartbreaking experiences such as:
- Hurting or injuring someone physically
- Emotional abuse via name calling, shaming or blaming
- Stealing or damaging one’s belongings
- Sexual interactions with children and non-consenting adults
- Verbally threatening someone’s well being (including their finances, loved ones / pets, security, safety, reputation, job, etc).
What is covert abuse exactly?
One of the things that McCurdy’s book does so well is illustrate and address covert abuse. Covert abuse is something we often address at Guided Wellness Counseling. As a therapist, it often starts with a client saying, “I don’t know why, but I never felt right about XYZ.” They can’t quite put a finger on the source of pain or are afraid of being dramatic or placing blame on someone.
So what is covert abuse? The authors at Confusion to Clarity offer this excellent insight: Covert abuse is emotional and psychological abuse that doesn’t involve outwardly controlling behaviors such as raging, belittling, threatening, and blaming. It is also called ambient abuse, stealth abuse, hidden abuse, and passive/aggressive behavior.
Rather, covert abuse can involve tactics such as:
- Evasion / Avoidance of the hurt that was done
- Feigning ignorance
- Word twisting
- Covert aggression such as sarcasm and belittling
Further, when covert abuse is occurring the abuser uses the pretense of love and caring to make sure that their subtle, covert tactics are off-the-radar and hidden. They may always have just the right response, explanation or noncommittal apology – offering the appearance of empathy and trustworthiness.
The end result is that you doubt yourself, blame yourself and feel broken for even considering that the experience you’ve had is less than nurturing.
Am I Experiencing Covert Abuse?
While I cannot provide an exhaustive list of covert abuse, I think it would be helpful to offer some real life examples inspired by the women who seek us out for trauma counseling in Southern Utah as well as the wider world of survivors and overcomers.
With this in mind, controlling covert abuse can look like a person or partner who:
- Interrupts you when you’re talking
- Speaks for you
- Doesn’t allow you choices
- Avoids taking responsibility for their behavior or it’s impact
- Would rather people see them favorably (even if it means making you look ‘crazy’ or ‘emotional’).
- Would rather have your sympathy over addressing your hurt feelings
- Pretends to have self hatred and guilt / shame or acts hurt (often to gain your sympathy)
- Use your imperfections or choices to explain away their bad behavior. For example, being upset that you accidentally saw their inappropriate emails rather than addressing that their emails are
- Makes everything an accident. A common example is an adult who was not overtly sexually abused (e.g. physically touched, etc) as a child, but whose parent(s) often “accidentally” walked in while they were getting dressed or taking a
- Uses put-downs, often mixed with a compliment. For example, someone saying to a working mom “I love that you’re so independent, even if it means your children won’t know what an intact family really ”
- Pretend things didn’t happen or often “forget” what they said or did that was hurtful to
If you are struggling to identify whether or not you are experiencing covert abuse, you can refer to the list we found and were inspired by at Power of Positivity, “14 Signs of Covert Abuse Never to Ignore.”
Examples Of Covert Abuse In, “I’m Glad My Mom Died” by Jeanette McCurdy
Warning: if you have not read the book, this next section may include some spoiler alerts. However, if you are wanting further examples of covert abuse and the role of codependence, this section will be useful to you. McCurdy’s book gives several examples of covert abuse that are worth highlighting.
Covert Example 1: Weaponizing / Manipulating Their Own Vulnerability
One of the first that comes up in the book is McCurdy’s experience of her mother’s breast cancer. Despite her mother’s ‘survivor’ status and several years without a recurrence, the mother often (weekly) made McCurdy watch a video depicting critical moments of her cancer journey and used her ‘cancer story’ to win favors with others.
If McCurdy had tried to mention to her mom that her cancer remission was worth celebrating or a ‘thing of the past’ she would have been met with her mother’s anger and claims that McCurdy was insensitive to her mother’s trauma. This was often followed by silent treatments. Imagine being told, ‘Well if you’re tired of hearing about my pain, I just won’t overwhelm you with my life anymore. You’re welcome.’ [cue silent treatment]
Covert Example 2: Self-Centered “Helping” Behavior
A second example is that of the frequent shared bathing and bathroom hygiene interventions that McCudry received by her mom. Specifically, McCurdy’s mom showered her (sometimes w/ her older brother present in the shower as well) for years past her ability to do it independently and effectively – well into her teen years.
First explained by her mom as a reason to avoid the all-so-common stains on children’s underwear, it continued long past an age appropriate timeline. When McCurdy asked for independence her mom would burst into tears, clutch at her heart, and comment on how she cannot bear the pain and heartbreak of her little girl growing up.
Why Is Covert Abuse So Painful?
Make no mistake, all abuse is painful. And, every kind of abuse carries with it its own unique sting, injury and baggage. This depends not only on the kind of abuse, but is also affected by who is inflicting the abuse (e.g. a parent, a teacher, a lover, a child), the power dynamic, and the role you were in when the abuse occurred (a child, a student, a partner, a parent).
So know that no kind of abuse is better or worse than another. Having said that, women often book with a therapist at Guided Wellness Counseling to unpack the unique pain of covert abuse. And they are often confused about why covert abuse is so painful. There are a few things that make covert abuse unique.
First, covert abuse is often carried out for a longer period of time because it is… well… covert. It’s sneaky. It’s hidden. It’s twisted in the guise of being helpful or normal. It can be misshapen into a “you problem” and not abuse that is happening to you. It can be more difficult to identify than overt abuse.
Second, covert abuse can also be mistaken for help, love and special treatment. An example of this is when a parent over-shares or shares inappropriate information with you. McCurdy’s own mom often over-shared with McCurdy about the family’s financial debt and the parents’ marital stress. This led to McCurdy feeling both overly-responsible and burdened but also special – her mom’s best friend.
Third, covert abuse has the unique ability to make you feel crazy. In the book, McCurdy herself tries to stop the growing-up process and puberty itself given her mother’s claims that her
baby-girl’s growing up would be “heartbreaking” and would ruin her future in film. Any effort to grow-up or affirm her age was seen as a betrayal.
Can Therapy Help Me Heal From Abuse?
For all the reasons above, women often delay getting help and healing from covert abuse. But let me be clear, it’s the covert abuse that is causing you to feel like you’re the one who has done something wrong; certainly, you have been imperfect and made mistakes but none of this is reason for abuse, manipulation, etc.
Further, you did nothing wrong by: being a kid, being a girl / boy / human, being imperfect.
And finally, you are enough. You were never not enough. You were never too much. You were enough and always will be just the right amount of you. Other people’s inability to cope with that is not a reason for them to be abusive – overtly or covertly.
What Type of Therapy Is Used For Emotional Abuse?
There are many kinds of therapy that can be used to recover from the emotional or covert abuse you’ve experienced. EMDR therapy (Eye Movement Desensitization and
Reprocessing therapy) can be immensely helpful. Other forms of therapy such as cognitive behavioral therapy and interventions that highlight patterns of codependency and the symptoms that survivors often experience: depression, anxiety and trauma can be transformational.
What works best is often based on your unique learning style and the kind of relationship you prefer to have with your therapist. What many people often overlook are two factors that can make or break the impact of therapy on your life.
The ﬁrst factor is that you feel “gotten” by your therapist. That is, you feel seen… heard… understood… respected… and safe in the presence of the therapist you are working with. Research shows that this kind of unconditional positive regard is more healing than any speciﬁc intervention or theory of counseling practice.
In other words, if you don’t feel like your therapist is “picking up what I’m putting down” it is time to consider if you need a different professional. If you don’t feel like your therapist is understanding your thoughts, feelings, wants and needs, again, it is time to consider getting a different therapist.
Second, consistency matters. If you have found yourself a therapist that ﬁts, make consistent appointments a priority. I often tell clients that therapy is like going to the gym. You can go to the gym once a month and it’s not bad for you… but you won’t see gains. But, if you go to the gym consistently and regularly each week… you’ll see
progress in your comfort level, familiarity with the skills and equipment, and gains in your ﬂexibility and strength. Therapy is the same; consistent weekly appointments often lead to:
- Greater insight and personal awareness
- Integration of what you’ve learned
- Increased accountability with your counselor
- Better application of skills
- Reduced distress and greater ease in life
This is why at Guided Wellness Counseling we start with a complimentary 15-minutephone consultation. Our practice manager will explore with you what’s bringing you into counseling and what your goals are. Then they can match you with the best therapist on our team, increasing that ﬁrst factor – that you’ll feel understood by your therapist right from the very ﬁrst appointment.
Next, we’ll make sure that your therapist’s schedule is open and available to you. We
take availability seriously and make sure that you can be seen weekly and without delay. We know that making the ﬁrst phone call to a therapy oﬃce can feel intimidating and vulnerable. So whether you have called, emailed or text our oﬃce for an appointment know that we are ready to respond and conﬁrm your ﬁrst 4 appointments to get you off to a great start.
We’d be happy to answer any questions you have about starting therapy. But if this blog is as far as you go today, know that you are not alone. We see your pain and your ability to survive and thrive. We know that you need no one’s permission to begin healing, whether on your own or with a therapist. The entire clinical team at Guided Wellness is holding a safe space for healing in your honor and for all of the men and women who ﬁnd their way to our therapy oﬃces in Southern Utah.