The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, Chapter 4: The Pre-Abuse Set-up
We continue our Thursday series blogging through “The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse.” The first post in the series is here.
These two statements are both true:
1) The perpetrator is always responsible for the abuse, and
2) Some people seem pre-disposed to wind up in relationships where they are abused.
People may have a hard time leaving an abusive system due to others’ opinions, fear, and being dependent, among other reasons. But there are two “emotional currents” that run particularly deep: the person is powerless, and the system is a trap.
Learned powerlessness: Although “survivor” is often used in a positive sense, this chapter has survivors and martyrs as two sides of the same powerless coin. Some people have been held back from learning needed skills and life becomes like being a 3rd-grade baseball player thrown into a high school game: they will survive but not thrive. On the other side of the coin is the martyr, the person who holds themselves back from their own potential. An elephant at the circus has learned to act as if it is powerless to pull up the little stake and walk away. This is learned powerlessness.
Shame-based relationships set people up for abuse. Guilt is different from shame. Legitimate guilt is a flare that ignites, a signal that indicates behavior in need of change. Shame is the destructive message to you that you are a bad, defective, or worthless person. Shame-based relationships use shame as the motivator. People in shame-based relationships receive the message that they are unloved and/or unlovable except when they perform well. They may feel incapable and alone.
Seven characteristics of shame-based relationships are presented. The book offers a dynamic and an effect for each of these.
1. Out-Loud Shaming results in a negative view of self and in turn, shaming others.
2. Focus on performance results in extremes: perfectionism vs. giving up, demanding too much of others vs. expecting nothing, unable to rest when tired, unable to have guilt-free fun. Tends to result in a double life.
3. Manipulation: This may result in you developing a great radar in knowing when people are stressed in a situation and picking up on when people are talking in code instead of saying something straight. It becomes hard to trust people, hard not to read into what they say.
4. Idolatry refers to the false god of appearances; an image of a distant god whose mood depends on observing your behaviors from a distance. It results in anxiety, an urge to control others, and a distorted image of God.
5. Preoccupation with fault and blame: the New Testament leads us to responsibility and accountability. Abusive systems use fault and blame to humiliate and control. Results in being defensive and in being critical of others, and in difficulty accepting grace from God and others.
(From an ATI perspective, I am reminded of how many people were sent home in shame and disgrace, evidence of preoccupation with fault and blame).
6. Obscured reality: You learn to deny your own thoughts and feelings in deference to those in authority. Normal learning experiences by trial and error are off-limits and result in heaps of shame. You are not allowed the freedom to threaten the order of the system, including interacting normally with the outside world. Results in being out of touch with your own feelings, guessing at what is normal, being afraid to take healthy risks.
7. Unbalanced interrelatedness: The extremes of neglect and enmeshment. It may be your responsibility to make everyone else happy even as you look to everyone else to make you happy. Everyone is responsible for everyone else but no one is responsible for himself or herself. Results in fear of abandonment, trouble with self-discipline, feeling selfish for having needs, trouble with boundaries.
Each of these sections in the chapter were so good, it was hard to pare them down to a quick summary. The book has many good statements that are not present here. Let’s pick up a little more about manipulation…
Manipulation involves powerful unspoken rules. It is as if there is a can’t-talk rule that keeps people from saying out loud what is really happening. The can’t-talk rule leads to talking in code, either code words or body language that conveys messages to those in the system.
Many people use the term “triangulation,” this section uses the term “triangling.” A triangle is when person A talks to person B about person C; often this is done to put pressure on person C in some way.
We wrap it up with some unspoken rules that many people struggle with in shame-based systems:
- God rewards spirituality with material goods
- “If I am spiritual enough, things won’t affect me emotionally”
- “I can never say no to those in religious authority”
- Everyone in ministry…must be trusted
- “God needs me to do ministry”
- “The existence of trouble in my life indicates a lack of faith”
- “Talking about problems will make God ‘look bad’’’
- Unity means agreeing about everything
Coming from an IBLP/ATI perspective, I found number 6, Obscured Reality, to be very insightful. There is an emphasis to “yield rights” and not “take up an offense.” The Institute’s booklet about making an effective appeal suggests that when you make an appeal you should come to the place you do not have any will of your own in the matter. Contrary to this, Jesus felt anger against the religious authorities when he healed a man on the Sabbath (Mark 3:5). I feel there is indeed pressure to deny your own thoughts and feelings, leaving you out of touch with yourself and afraid of normal, healthy risks.
Did any of these stand out to you? Any of them that you feel do NOT apply?
Questions for discussion:
Note: please feel free to comment about these questions or anything else that stands out to you about this chapter.
Why is it that believers who have been called by Jesus to life and freedom return to “a treadmill kind of spirituality that produces soul-deadening weariness” (p. 50)?
Why do some people stay in abusive relationships?
Why do some people jump from one abusive system into another?
Do you know anyone who jumped from ATI into an abusive relationship?
Any suggestions for those who are jumping from ATI, to help them avoid jumping into abusive relationships?
Since performance has so much power in these systems, much is brought to bear in order to control it. Reaction is swift and furious toward the one who fails to perform the way the system deems fit. (p. 57)
Shame-based relationships build on an emotional foundation that undermines relational honesty; hinders a maturing individual relationship with God; and fosters dependence upon another, who grows in power as a false leader, building an unhealthy system in which appearance is more important than reality. These systems victimize people and set them up to be trapped in future abusive relationships. (p. 59)
(Click here to continue on to Chapter 5)