Self-Image of “Goodness” and Covert Abuse

Written by on November 20, 2012 in Conversations on the Healing Journey with 13 Comments

praying womanI’m not afraid of mean girls or mean people, per se. It’s the “good” ones who make me nervous. Not genuinely kind and beautifully imperfect people, but those caught in their expectation of what it means to be “good”.

I’m not talking about seeing yourself as a good person — most people are — but identifying with a created image, a self-image, that is closer to an idea of what it means to be “good” than the organic reality.

There’s very little room for the full spectrum of emotions in this image, including, especially negative ones. It may be part of their image to be tolerant of negativity in others, at least superficially, but not in themselves.

And this is where the danger comes in. Because when you force them in any way to feel or look at negativity that has no room in how they perceive themselves, watch out. They will not thank you for making them see something they expend energy on denying.

This is not the same as choosing not to be negative or not to succumb to negativity within you out of self awareness and personal choice. This is denying that negative aspects exist in you at all, except perhaps to confess them occasionally to illustrate humility as a part of your self image of “goodness”. Or to acknowledge them hypothetically as part of the general human condition, not really active in you, but reigned in by your inherent goodness or goodness channeled straight from the Divine.

There’s nothing wrong with having an image. It’s how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us. We have one for every role we play, and one we hold for ourselves generally. The image we portray to others is like an identification card that gives basic information of who we are, a short synopsis so that others may know how to interact with us or what to reasonably expect.

A healthy self-image arises from self awareness, but a self-image can become a trap if it becomes two dimensional, no longer an accurate representation of us, but a strait jacket restricting the fullness of who we are. Even if the jacket is floral print with pleasing colors, if it holds us hostage it’s a prison — one that we, ironically, can defend with great ferocity.

The problem comes not from having a self-image, but the extent to which that image as introduction becomes the entire book of who we are…or who we think we should be. Any reminder that we are not what we claim to be, project ourselves to be or need to be can be perceived as threatening and attacking.

This self-image-now-strait-jacket elicits a loyalty from us it does not merit. It, also, demands that same loyalty from others, requiring those around us to support it, and punishing those who don’t.

The self-image of “goodness” is fertile ground for covert abuse. People use covert abuse when they don’t want to get caught saying, doing or feeling negative things. They express these emotions or choices covertly, under the radar, sometimes from their own selves. However, even though a person may not want to own their negativity, doesn’t mean they don’t have it.

The unnatural expectation of what it means to be good, usually entailing the absence of any real negativity within the person, makes it necessary for the negativity that does exist to be covert.

But it doesn’t preclude overt abuse

In truth, one of the most traumatic displays of overt rage can occur when self-image-of-goodness people are forced to acknowledge what they don’t want to. Being forced to acknowledge negative feelings — even those that are legitimate and understandable — can trigger severe psychological and emotional backlash.

Some of the cruelest, most rage-filled outbursts I have ever witnessed have come from “good” people — spiritual people, devoutly religious or steadfastly rational people, sweet girls and good guys.

When you are in a relationship with a person like this, you are drafted into the service of upholding that image. Acting in any way or finding yourself in any situation, no matter how normal, that necessitates the self-image-of-goodness person to look at or feel an uncomfortable amount of negativity within them can have dire consequences for you.

An example could be something as innocent as disagreeing or making a suggestion. It’s not so much the disagreement they can’t handle or you pointing out something they might have missed. It’s the negative emotions they feel inside as a result. What may make us feel awkward or unappreciative in situations where there are differences of opinion can drive the self-image-of-goodness person toward crisis mode, depending on the level of conflict they feel inside.

Feeling miffed or put off or even angry is okay for other people. But for them it’s unacceptable because they’re above that. And God help you if you bring it to their attention they are not.

Another example might be the changes a relationship goes through, maybe even ending it or breaking up. No one likes to have someone break up with them, especially when they aren’t ready or desiring it. But the self-image-of-goodness person would rather be in that position than to be the one initiating the break up.

This is uncomfortable for anybody, but it takes on new meaning here.

The self-image-of-goodness person doesn’t want to hurt you…not because they care about your feelings as much as because they don’t want to appear to be the bad guy. So they try to push you out of the relationship, sometimes engaging in emotional and verbal abuse, under-the-radar abuse that keeps their self image of “goodness” intact to others, but pressures you to be the one to leave or “abandon” the relationship.

Or they remove themselves emotionally or physically and deny there’s anything wrong. And you’re expected to take the hint, not ask too many questions, not try to work things out, just fade into the sunset.

If you don’t take the hint and fade out or don’t take the role of bad guy, your thick headedness, your just-not-getting-it can trigger a hailstorm of fury.

Pushed over the line, back against the wall, the smile disappears, the energy shifts and “Well, I didn’t want to hurt you but…” becomes the momentary warning they give right before they do everything to do just that. A slew of accusations, a litany of wrongs and caustic assaults gleaned from their knowledge of you having shared your greatest vulnerabilities with them blow you away.

You go into shock, because even with the covert abuse that may have been appearing earlier, you, too, was a believer, to whatever degree, in this person’s image of “goodness”. At any rate, you do not expect this.

There may be legitimate objections amidst the tirade. They may have a point about a thing or two. But all that is irrelevant when you’re not in the flow of open communication but in the line of fire. And the purpose is not to work anything out or for understanding but to justify and punish.

But good people aren’t punishing, so they need to call it something else. Through the miracle of rationalizing they change the dirty mess of their emotions into empowerment. They aren’t being cruel or mean. They aren’t being hurtful. They are being good to themselves, doing what is best for them. And you’re supposed to appreciate that. If not now…soon. And if that’s too much for you, then “oh well”.

After having all their emotional pent up garbage dumped on you, you’re supposed to be okay about it. Don’t even think about acting in such a way as to suggest that they really hurt you.

Because you know, they feel better now. Who wouldn’t after finally releasing all that suppressed negativity? You may not feel better, but don’t inconvenience them with that. Don’t remind them they might have been not nice.

The fact is real people who are good people do sometimes hurt others. They can make demands that are not welcomed by others. They can sometimes say things or make choices that either feel mean or are mean to another person. They can hurt people’s feelings. Sometimes in being true to yourself, you must break another person’s heart. Sometimes being human you just mess up.

Good people don’t try to hurt people, but they know sometimes they do, and they own that. Part of owning that is not blaming other people for your choices or holding them responsible for not making it easier for you. Another part is allowing people to heal in their own time — compassionately, not dismissively.

Self-image-of-goodness people have your “healing”, the wounds of which they hold you responsible, set to a timer. Anything longer than what they are willing to tolerate will be portrayed to others as you unjustly holding a grudge. To themselves, they see it as another transgression by you to imply with your pain that they did something bad.

You know, what’s sad is that it really isn’t about whether someone is a good person or a bad person. It’s about being fully human, striving to be good, to reach higher in our ideals and expectations for ourselves and others and balancing that with compassionate acceptance of where we and others are.

Some of us wear our images like white or black hats, but reality doesn’t work that way. The hats may not be real, but be careful with the person who wears one. They may be packing.

~ Demian Yumei

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About the Author

About the Author: Demian Yumei, author, singer/songwriter and artist activist, uses spoken, written word and original songs in her human rights activism. She's a long time traveler on the healing journey and has a lifelong love affair with the creative process. .


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  • Where There's Smoke: Covert Bullying and Abuse says:

    This post took me longer to write than I had anticipated. A LOT of processing involved. Hope you like it. Let me know what you think and if you could relate to any of it.

  • Calibans Sister says:

    Dear Demian, I really like your writing.  This post is wonderful and nails my narcissistic mother to a T.  She has an image of herself as a “good mother” and god help anyone who punctures that. The image is all that matters.  Nothing else is allowed to permeate it.  Her worst treatment of me is always dismissed as a momentary lapse, before she returns to her self-image as a “good enough” mother. There’s a difference between  a truly good enough mother and one who uses the term to dismiss her own covert abuses. “Well,” she’ll say, “nobody’s perfect and I’m no exception.”  She’ll let herself off the hook by saying she was a “good enough mother.”  Those invested in the image rather than the real thing will always be the first to let themselves off the hook.  I’ve linked to a few of your posts over at my blog,

      • DemianYumei says:

        Hi Calibans Sister! Welcome to the blog, and thank you for your kind words! I’m glad you found this post helpful. What I notice is that narcissistic people have a tendency to define *everything*, including your feelings and your experience. So it’s not a big deal for such a person to determine that they were “good enough” for someone else.
        I find that presumptuous as it robs the other person the right to have or convey their own experience of the situation! I can perhaps assess that my efforts were good enough for *me*, but not necessarily for someone else. Or that in whatever capacity I was good enough according to *my* expectations, but not whether I was good enough for someone else’s. That remains for the other person to decide. 
        Again, welcome, and I look forward to exploring your blog. I will definitely check it out. 🙂

      • DemianYumei says:

        The above link is an email link. Here’s the link to your blog:
        I read your Thanksgiving post this evening and look forward to reading more. Maybe I’ll see you there. 🙂

        • Calibans Sister says:

          @DemianYumei Thanks for the link.  I really enjoy your writing, and the center of gravity in your voice and style.

  • Sarah72 says:

    I absolutely love this post! It is so well-written, well-explained, and makes total sense.  
    Absolutely love your conclusion to the post because it sums up what life is all about:
    “You know, what’s sad is that it really isn’t about whether someone is a good person or a bad
    person. It’s about being fully human, striving to be good, to reach higher in our ideals and expectations
    for ourselves and others and balancing that with compassionate acceptance of where we and others are.”
    Seems to me that if everyone truly did that, this world that we live in would be a far
    better place to be.
    I have always said that as long as we inhabit God’s green earth, there is no such
    thing as the ‘perfect person’.  And this is a good thing.  There is no shame in
    being fully human and experiencing the full range of emotions.  It seems the
    issue starts when an individual labels certain emotions as “bad” and then does
    not want to give themselves permission to express them.  They deny those
    emotions any outlet and suppress them.  They internally label those emotions
    as shameful and wrong and further stuff these ‘wrong’ emotions inside themselves.
    This seems to be the case particularly with women and anger and/or
    women and being assertive.  It has been my observation, myself included
    that there is a cultural message that ‘good women don’t get mad’.  Or,
    ‘good women don’t say no’.  Even if the message is not stated, it seems
    to be implied.  
    It was so freeing when I gave myself permission to be angry over the things
    that mattered, such as injustice.  It was freeing when I gave myself permission
    to feel angry at a loved one and to realize it did not make me a bad person
    or diminish who I was.  It was especially freeing when I learned that there are
    diplomatic ways to say “no” without ‘being a bitch.’  Prior to that, I never said no
    because I was afraid that saying ‘no’ was hurting people. I was afraid that
    I would be labeled ‘a bitch’ if I either said no or even gently asserted the notion
    that I had individual needs as well.
    Luckily, if one is able to have insight, one is able to change.
    If one has insight, one can accept someone else’s criticism without
    immediately turning to rage.
    I have observed that it is usually the people who are not capable of any
    insight that turn to rage when they are questioned or corrected. These
    are also the ones that participate in black and white thinking.  Everything
    is either “all good” or “all bad”.  But the truth of the matter is that much
    of life is a paradox– and that is okay.  We can make peace with it
    in ourselves once and for all.
    Thanks again for the post, Demian.

    • DemianYumei says:

      @Sarah72 Oh, yes, the “nice girl” syndrome that many women cannot grow out of, because until recently, anyway, most women were not allowed to grow up. Mandated that we be little girls forever. I remember learning at a very early age, pre-kindergarten, that it was an honor, a compliment for a little boy to be referred to as man, but laughable for a young girl to expect that same kind of pride in being a woman…to even consider that she may become one.
      And involved in all that is the image of the “good woman” or the “nice girl”. Nice girls don’t get mad, don’t get frustrated, always share to the point of sacrifice, etc.
      But real people can’t live like that all the time, and that’s when you get into trouble. That’s when the anger everyone feels from time to time turns into covert abuse, the sideways anger that comes out messy and toxic!

      • Sarah72 says:

        @DemianYumei  @Sarah72 
        Hello Demian,
        You mentioned something in your post above that might connect to a theory I have had about why (statistically at least) little girls are more frequent targets of sexual abuse than little boys.  
        When you refer to it being laughable for a little girl to have pride in one day being a woman, I have to totally agree.  
        I have noticed this great society-wide misogyny toward women but not toward little girls. I have noticed for many years that both the physical and emotional characteristics of little girls are idealized in this culture and many others.  It may not be as blatant an idealization in American culture as it is in others, but it is still a present and influential force.
        There is this duality expected of women if they are to be socially acceptable.  The duality occurs when the grown woman is expected to be a leader and an emotional rock to her children, while caring for all of their physical and emotional needs.  She is also supposed to be a “good mother” to her husband by creating a warm and peaceful (AND SPOTLESS!) sanctuary of a home where she is ready with ‘home-cooked’ meals and slippers as he walks through the door.  This is the good wife/good mother. The duality occurs in relationship to her sexuality with her husband behind closed doors.  She is supposed to be sexually well-versed in bed and meet his needs, while at the same time enjoying what little (or what A LOT) her husband has to give during love-making, but having no demands of her own.  Yet, she is somehow supposed to partake of this sexual experience with her husband in a naive/innocent/virginal way and not show that she enjoys it too much.  (Women who enjoy it too much have been marked as dangerous throughout history).  Yet, if she enjoys it too little, she is ridiculed as someone who is cold. When we look at all of the paradoxes and duality involved in trying to meet all of these opposing roles at the same time, it becomes clear that this is a very subtle form of misogyny.
        Then, there are the actual (physical) little girls of the world who do not have to begin to live up to these standards.  They are just supposed to be sweet, kind, innocent, naive, and to provide never-ending sweetness and entertainment to the adults that interact with her. And like you said, they are not supposed to have pride in being a grown woman one day.  
        Well, the modern woman, at least post first-wave feminist era American woman, does not fit into the role of the good mother and virginal wife and she is mostly self-assured, accomplished in her own right, and usually uninhibited about her sexuality.  Men are not able to find the archetypal good mother/virginal wife in these women, so they unconsciously start to idealize the little girls of the world who are symbolic of the virginal wife, the ‘innocence’ that men demand, and also the docility (i.e. controllability) that many men seem to demand. 
        They can no longer find an easily-controlled and docile peer to themselves, so they start to idealize actual little girls.
        And an outgrowth of this can be seen in the media where the age of Hollywood stars is younger and younger and 12-year-old girls are made to look and dress like adult women.  (Hannah Montana, etc).
        I have this very foreboding and undeniable feeling these days that little girls are slowly being introduced into the minds of adult men as ideal partners.  And if this is the case, we can expect to see an incredible rise in sexual abuse against young girls.
        Anyhow, these are literally just raw thoughts I have been formulating because I have had this very strong feeling that different groups are working behind the scenes to normalize pedophilia and I have been looking at some of the cultural signs that might add clues to the “why’s” of this dangerous phenomenon.

  • Hi Demian, 
    I just found your blog through my friend Caliban’s links. I like it very much. Covert abuse is a great, important topic and I look forward to reading more about it…This post reminds of a Bertrand Russell essay I read many years ago about “nice people.” It also reminded me of my sister, who took the fundamentalist religion route out of our abusive family-of-origin, and who gets furious at any suggestion about her own anger. In her efforts to leave her FOO behind, she has dissociated from all her shadow aspects that remind her of them, and has become the poster child for the self-image of goodness that you describe here. When I stopped coddling her around this, it was pretty much the end of the relationship. And yes, I was the bad guy. Still am.
    FYI, not saying that religion is a guarantee of dissociation from our shadow aspects, but it certainly can be, particularly for people who come from a painful background they’d rather not deal with. Another topic, I spose.

    • DemianYumei says:

      @Brave New Kitty Hi Brave New Kitty, and welcome! Thanks for bringing this point up about religion or spirituality and dissociation from our shadow aspects. I’d say anything upon which we confer the absoluteness of religion, even our own reasoning capacity if we put it on a pedestal, can become something we hide behind, something we use to cut parts of ourselves we don’t want to own through dissociation.
      In my experience some of the scariest people are the ones who continually smile, until they are screaming in your face. Although, I do have to admit an avowed atheist I know is just as vain in his intelligence and image as a “good guy”, as a religious person might be in their piety, and can tear you a new one if you do or say anything that even hints that he might not be such a “good guy”.  Because like Sarah72 said, it’s black and white. If he’s not a “good guy” then he’s the worst piece of shit on the face of the planet, a loser, a total jerk, an asshote — even though you never intimated such a thing — and he will punish you for daring to suggest such a thing that was never even on your mind….but obviously on his.
      The healing journey is not a smooth path. Unfortunately, in our efforts to break free from toxic relationships, sometimes we wind up using dynamics that are either toxic in themselves or eventually become toxic through our use like your sister. I’m glad you have the self awareness to spot this dangerous game she is playing and not allowing yourself to get sucked into it.
      Sometimes it can be very difficult to perceive. A person with a good image can be so convincing and so genuinely warm and nice, especially if we never see them in a situation where they are threatened, that often our first reaction to a tantrum or melt down is one of disbelief and rationalizing when we do witness it.
      Some of the “nicest” people are awful passive aggressors, who can take that passive aggression to the point of downright scarey, to depth of cruelty that can take your breath away.
      I’m sure I’ll be writing more on this topic. It’s a significant part of covert abuse. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and your situation. Being true to yourself and to honesty is not only the best thing you can do for yourself, but for your sister. Although it doesn’t sound like she’ll be thanking you for it any time soon. Still, I salute you, Kitty, for taking a stand for living a healthy, authentic life!

  • Macoeur says:

    Demian!  Where have you been all of my life! 🙂 
    After having spent most of the morning reading many of your posts I’ve got to say that I found nothing at all that felt “wrong” to me and TONS that felt so right!  I love the way you are so careful in how you make your points and don’t ever (from what I’ve seen, anyway) come across as abusive toward the abusers you speak about…(I’ve seen a fair amount of that elsewhere, believe it or not)….because even though those of us who’ve been manipulated (almost into oblivion at times) are most certainly angry and have every right to be, I’ve sensed that aggression in the reverse direction would be a huge mistake.  I really like that  your way of communicating doesn’t at all tempt me to go there.  You come across as someone who truly and deeply understands the whole dynamic well enough to know the healthy way through it to healing.  Thank you so much for this information.  I’ll be one the first to buy your book when it becomes available!

  • DemianYumei says:

    @Macoeur Oh, my goodness! What a gracious and kind comment, Macoeur. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it! My youngest will be going to school for the first time since 1st grade. I’ve home schooled her all these years (plus my two older ones) but starting this fall, she will be attending a school of the arts and complete her last three years in high school there….which means for the first time in 25 years, if you’re counting from 5 years and up, I won’t be home schooling someone!…which means I can devote myself to writing…full time! 
    This is a big transition for me. You know, no more excuses, can I really do it, etc. So your beautiful words encourage me that I can do this and I can embrace my writing full on! Your feedback is wonderful. I must confess though I’ve done my share of ranting, but mostly in private environments. I think we all need to do that…I just choose to share the fruits of what I glean from my experiences and not necessarily publish the entire process! I think the world can be spared that 😀

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