Why You’re So Confused by Covert Abuse: The Doubt-filled Mind and Dysregulated Brain


“Is he really abusing me?”
“Is it really that bad?”
“Am I over reacting?”
“What if it’s me?”
“What it I’m the toxic person?”
“Should I leave?”
“What if I’m wrong?”
“Does he know what he’s doing?”
“What if he can’t help it?”
“Maybe he doesn’t mean it.”
“He’s being nice. Is it real this time?”

is he really abusing me? why am I so confused? covert psychological abuse

Just about every day I hear from women wondering these things.

These are deep, genuine, agonizing questions that cry out for an answer. But there’s a deeper problem here.

I can tell you
“Yes, he really is abusing you”
“It really is that bad”
“No, you’re not overreacting”
“It’s not you”
“You’re not the toxic person”
“You aren’t wrong”
“Yes, he knows what he’s doing”
“He can help it”
”Yes, he does mean it”
“His being nice is just love-bombing”
“These questions are symptoms of being abused and every victim wonders the same thing”
and I understand that you need to hear those truths over and over. But have you noticed that while being told these truths might help for a while, eventually the doubt creeps back in, or you spend time with your abuser and you are confused again.

Hearing an answer to your question doesn’t solve the real problem that you’re facing. Why? Because to make good choices for yourself and fully heal from abuse, you don’t need an answer to a specific question, you need to understand why you are so confused that you can’t yet see the answer yourself.

I want you to get your clear mind back, so let’s look at the real problem.

All quotes in this article, unless otherwise indicated, are from Don Hennessy’s book “How He Gets Into Her Head.” Hennessy has worked with abused women for over 20 years.

Drilling down to understand what’s really behind the confusion we live with

Covert abuse changes our perceptions so deeply that we can’t clearly see what is going on and we are unable to live in truth. We have literally been brainwashed by the abuser. This is why I hear women say “His therapist told me he knows exactly what he’s doing, but I just can't see it.”

Christian abusers brainwash their victims by preventing them from thinking clearly

Brainwashing: the activity of forcing somebody to accept your ideas or beliefs, for example by repeating the same thing many times or by preventing the person from thinking clearly.

Oxford dictionary


Our reality has been changed to the reality the abuser creates. This is why, when we begin to see the abuse, we switch back and forth between believing it and not believing it. Every covert abuse victim goes through this because of brainwashing.

I used to live in this agony

I was living in an internal hell of confusion and self-doubt. Around and around I would go, “Is it me? Is it him?” “He says it’s me and he’s very convincing. But why am I so afraid? And if it’s me, what else can I do?” “It is abuse. It’s not abuse.” “He can’t really mean to be doing this.”


While going through the long, painful process of recognizing that I was being covertly abused, I’d write in my journal that it was true that I was being abused. Then I’d get confused, start to doubt it, and read what I had written and it sounded like nonsense to me.

I couldn’t figure out if I was deceived when I wrote it or if I was deceived right then in not believing it.
And always, in the back of my mind was that terrifying fear that I was losing my mind because one way or the other, I wasn’t seeing the world the way it was.

covert narcissistic abuse causes confusion, self-doubt, and the fear that you are losing your mind

And this was happening long after I was no longer living with him!

Even my counselor, who specializes in trauma and abuse, has since told me that, 7 years ago, she was amazed at how, even after the divorce, I would come into a session all confused about whether he really was a covert abuser, sort it through with her and get to the truth, walk out feeling strong, and repeat that same process over and over, week after week, month after month.

I had no me, no core, no center.

This is the depth of what abusers steal from us- our very own reality, our ability to trust and maintain our perceptions, and to think clearly.

Every woman who has been in a long-term abusive relationship has lost the ability to think for herself. She has lost contact with the voice of her own instincts…with her own inner world and can no longer give it a voice.
— Don Hennessy

How does this happen to us?

This evil dismantling of our inner self is the result of systematic brainwashing.

First the abuser pretends to be the perfect partner for us. He says he loves us and treats us wonderfully. We are convinced that this is who he is.

Then he begins his tactics, and slowly he invades our mind to contaminate and control our thinking.

We think he’s the wonderful man he convinced us he was, so we never imagine that he is brainwashing us. We thought the Dr Jekyll/Mr. Hyde story was just fiction. He is subtle and careful and, like the frog in the water that’s heating up, we don’t notice what is happening.

covert Christian narcissist abuse tactics include gaslighting, accusations, playing the victim, word twisting, false promises, manipulation

The covert tactics cause brainwashing: gaslighting, blame shifting, confusing conversations, accusations, manipulations, twisting reality, playing the victim, analyzing our faults, fake promises of change, false apologies, excuses, being told we’re untrusting, suspicious, seeing things, and paranoid.


Over time we lose our self and become more and more confused. When we begin to suspect that something is wrong, we have already lost our sense of reality and we doubt our perceptions.

You have been mentally coerced in a way that invades your analytical thinking and quietens your instinct is thinking. This invasion took place without you knowing it.
— Don Hennessy

And that is why we question everything: our thoughts, our reality, our experiences, our conclusions. Were any of us taught that men like this even exist? It’s beyond the reaches of our imagination and beliefs about the world we live in.

In addition, there’s no one outside of us that’s confirming our experience.

We go to friends, pastors, even counselors, and are told the same thing our abuser is telling us– we’re over-sensitive, it’s a communication problem, we’re being too critical, it’s our fault.

Nobody wants to believe that a seemingly normal person "would want to destroy the persona of his partner."

Everyone around us is confirming the brainwashing. We are being gaslighted by our whole world.

Most people don’t believe that a person can manipulate the world’s view of what is going on.
— Don Hennessy

What brainwashing does to us

“The effects of intimate brainwashing are … profound. The constant access to her inner world allows the abuser to invade her psyche. Once inside, the skilled offender will begin to dismantle her own emotional defenses. He will identify and destroy whatever it is that the woman uses to shield her own emotional life.”

The brainwashing is happening in secret and the brainwashing itself takes away our ability to protect ourselves from further brainwashing.


Brainwashing removes our capacity to protect our own emotions and thoughts, and allows the abuser to invade our inner life.

“After a period of time the target woman will lose her the ability to trust her own thoughts. She will begin to qualify any thoughts she has with the analysis of what her abuser might think of that idea. She is not aware of what is happening to her. The skilled offender can infiltrate the mind of a kind, capable woman without her even knowing it.”

Christian covert narcissists invade our mind through gaslighting, blame-shifting, lies

Because we don’t know what he’s doing, we are constantly trying to deal with the effects of the brainwashing without knowing what’s causing them.

The brain is affected by the trauma of abuse

Trauma directly affects our brain and cognitive function, and this increases the effect of brainwashing.

Bessel van der Kolk, the world’s leading expert on trauma and PTSD, has done extensive research on the brain and has discovered that as a result of trauma:

~ the filtering system does not function efficiently so it’s hard to distinguish between what is relevant and not, making it difficult to focus on and engage in the present
~ the system that is devoted to your experience of yourself gets blunted, which dampens your understanding of your experience
~the brain’s ability to use imagination is shut down, and if you can’t imagine things, you can’t change your life.

In addition, living with abuse dysregulates our brain and body chemistry (oxytocin, opioids, cortisol and dopamine) making it extremely difficult to manage emotions or make logical decisions.

In other words, our brains aren’t functioning properly so experiences and information we have about our life aren’t processed correctly and we are unable to draw proper conclusions.

Let’s look at the questions again

Now we understand that while living under abuse, we are being brainwashed and are dealing with an improperly functioning brain. So let’s look at exactly how this brainwashing affects our ability to know the answers to the questions posed at the beginning of the article. The quotes from Don Hennessy explain how you’ve come to be confused.

Please, please, please remember: THIS IS NOT YOUR FAULT.  You didn’t choose to be brainwashed, and you had no idea it was happening to you.

“Is he really abusing me?”

“The target woman begins to quieten the voice of her own instinct. She becomes unclear about her definition of events and behaviours. She will begin to question what her intentions are... Gradually she will come to distrust her own analysis and accept that the abuser may be right in how he sees things.”

the narcissistic abuser brainwashes the victim until she only hears his voice in her head. This is crazy-making

Without her knowing it, what she finds in her head is no longer her own voice or reasoning but the voice of the skilled abuser who has begun to influence her thoughts and opinions.”


“What if I’m wrong?”

The abuser causes “the woman to question her memory of what actually happened…to question her ability to recall or judge events. She will be reminded of things she may have said or done which are slightly different from the reality she recalls.”

She will gradually “become afraid that her memory or judgment is inadequate” and she becomes “more reliant on memory and judgment of her abuser. This fear will keep her in a constant state of anxiety. She…becomes more convinced the abuser is right.”

 “Is it really that bad?”

“It is well documented that a common tactic of control (by the abuser) is to minimize the behavior. What is not readily recognized is that the woman becomes as good as her abuser at minimizing the behavior…unable to recognize the true impact of her experience. This inability to measure the extent of her wounds is an essential purpose of the brainwashing.”

“Am I over reacting?”

“She has a hard time explaining the patterns of abuse because he is still in her mind, controlling her thoughts, emotions, and reality—using all the intimate knowledge he has of her to brainwash her with the idea that his treatment of her is ‘normal’ and also ‘her fault.’”

He sets it up so that “the targets sensitivities come to be seen as weaknesses. She is constantly being told that the abuse is not a problem but that her unreasonableness is making the relationship tense” and she feels “over sensitive to her own suffering.”

“What if I’m being unfair?”

“She will begin to listen to his voice which says that the real problem is that she cannot forgive and forget. The long-term effect of these tactics is that the target woman sees herself as over sensitive and cruel. The skilled offender manages to attack and undermine the core element of her personality which is her kindness.”

“What if it’s me?” “What if I’m the toxic person?”

The abuser does everything he can to make her thinks the problems are her fault.

“Her instincts tell her that she does not deserve all the blame, but this internal voice is quietened by the voice of the skilled abuser…the voice of her heart and her gut is over-ruled by his voice in her head.”

“The power of this…blame-shifting results in the acceptance by the woman that she alone is responsible for the quality of the relationship. She becomes convinced that the reason she is sometimes unhappy in the relationship is because of her failings and not her partner’s behaviour.”

“The motivation for deflecting blame is…getting her to look in the wrong place for an explanation…instead of clearly examining the behaviour of her abuser.”


Once she believes his version of the relationship—that he is ‘good’ and she is ‘bad,’ that he is ‘right’ and she is ‘wrong,’…she has stepped into a dangerous twilight zone of distorted perceptions. Accepting his version of reality means she must give up hers.
— Susan Forward
a covert abuser changes our perceptions of reality and makes us confused about what's going on

“Should I leave?”

“If she can accept that her mental and emotional life is being dictated by her abuser, she may realize that she is not inadequate. If she can be helped to accept that she has and is being brainwashed by her abuser, she may be persuaded to protect herself from his ever-present voice.”

“When he is no longer able to qualify her thoughts, when she can begin to think her own thoughts, then she is beginning to be in a place to make a choice. She is not in that place while she remains infected by his voice.”


“What if he can’t help it?”

“The most difficult aspect for the client to accept is that the abuser is capable of stopping the abuse whenever he chooses to do so.


“What if he doesn’t mean it?”

“The extraordinary ability of the male offender to reframe his behavior in language that avoids such words as abuse, violence and crime is very apparent when we hear the target woman use descriptions of his behavior that also avoid these terms. She will describe his behavior as unintentional.”

“Does he know what he’s doing?”

“Many clients do not want to accept my answer to this question. You, and all other kind people, want to believe that no one could be so bad that they would want to invade the spirit of another, and that they would intentionally do so in a deliberate and skillful way. 

He has never abused you without knowing precisely what he was doing, and without being certain that he would achieve whatever he wanted. Knowing your intimate thoughts, he confidently intimidated you using his most efficient tactics.”


“He’s being nice. What if it’s real this time?”

Every abuser says these kinds of things:

“I promise things will be better.”
“Yes, you’re right, I will change.”
“This time will be different.”
“I’m sorry.”
“I want to build your trust again.”
"God has shown me the ways I've wronged you."
“If you forgive me this time, I’ll never do it again.”

“The purpose of the deliberate tactics of re-grooming is to return the relationship to the status quo. In other words, it is designed to have the target women ignore the abuse and to continue to live as if nothing happened.”

And here’s the kicker, folks. Don Hennessy works with women who are being physically abused. He sees this all this brainwashing and confusion even when the woman has physical evidence of abuse. How much more difficult is it for us whose abuse is covert?

Every woman who gets away from her abuser and heals can look back at these questions and know the answers without one doubt. And they often marvel at how they could have been so confused by what now seems obvious to them.

Brainwashing, gaslighting, covert abuse, and the effect of trauma on our brain- it creates a thick fog of confusion over our thinking, and constant self-doubt.

The Woman of Faith’s Battle

For women of faith, the brainwashing is all around us. The church is also teaching us to believe lies:

women of faith are told lies and spiritually abused by their churches

~ that as a wife it’s your job to support and not contradict his views
~ that he is the head of the household
~ that you should trust him implicitly
~ that you need to submit to his ways and beliefs
~ that you need to let him lead
~ that you need to try harder
~ that it “takes two”
~ that it’s his place to give you feedback about your “sin” because “iron sharpen iron.”


Not one of these statements comes from an understanding of abuse and they are all dangerous to the mind of a woman who’s being abused.


This is why we have cognitive dissonance

I hope you are starting to get a feel for how deeply the brainwashing affects you and how it’s creating the confusion you live in. The brainwashing and brain dysregulation cause the cognitive dissonance you are battling. (Cognitive dissonance is the confusion caused by trying to live with two opposing realities).

Different women face different levels of confusion depending on the depth of the brainwashing and brain dysregulation, but we all have it to some degree.



Remember, you are facing brainwashing about him and about yourself.

You’ve been brainwashed into thinking that he’s okay and you are at fault, when the truth is the exact opposite of that.

You are battling 2 realities- the one he wants you to believe, and the truth.

He has brainwashed you away from seeing truth and reality.

covertly abused women are brainwashed by narcissists to not see truth and reality

There is hope

The first step of healing is to continually expose yourself to the truth that you are being covertly abused, to learn the tactics, and to understand why you experience such confusion and self-doubt. For some women, this is enough, over time, to counteract the confusion.

Many of the techniques to calm down PTSD symptoms will also help regulate the brain with repeated use over time.

Some women find they need guided help to overcome the brainwashing and brain dysregulation by working with a counselor or coach who specializes in trauma and covert abuse.

You can heal from this! I’m fully healed, I have my mind back, and I don’t live in any confusion anymore.

There are women in our private Facebook Community for Women of Faith who have healed. Please come join us!

Am I being abused? symptoms of hidden covert abuse

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