The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse
David Johnson & Jeff VanVonderen
1991 Bethany House Publishers
The following series of excerpts will be without comment from me in the initial post. I would be interested in reading your thoughts on this book and their ideas.
pp 20 -21
Spiritual abuse is the mistreatment of a person who is in need of help, support or greater spiritual empowerment, with the result of weakening, undermining or decreasing that persons spiritual empowerment.
That's a broad view. Let's refine that with some functional definitions. Spiritual abuse can occur when a leader uses his or her spiritual position to control or dominate another person. It often involves overriding the feelings and opinions of another, without regard to what will result in the other person's state of living, emotions or spiritual well-being. In this application, power is used to bolster the position or needs of a leader, over and above one who comes to them in need.
Spiritual abuse can also occur when spirituality is used to make others live up to a "spiritual standard." This promotes external "spiritual performance," also without regard to an individual's actual well-being, or is used as a means of "proving" a person's spirituality. What constitutes the kind of "spiritual performance" we are referring to? When does an authority overstep his or her bounds, leveling judgment when support is needed?
56 - 60
1. Out-Loud Shaming
The dynamic: This is the "shame on you" that comes from name-calling, belittling, put-downs, comparing one person to another or , asking, "What's wrong with you?" It is any message communicated out loud that says, "Something is wrong with you."
The effects: Negative view of self, even self-hatred; negative self-talk ("I'm no good, stupid, incapable."); shaming others.
2. Focus on PerformanceThe dynamic: How people act is more important than who they are or what is happening to them on the inside. Love and acceptance are earned by doing or not doing certain things. Living up to the standard is what earns acceptance, the result of which is acceptance of behaviors, not people. Or once the standard is reached, it is changed or moved. Kids can't be kids because children are imperfect, messy, loud and ask questions that sometimes perplex or embarrass, none of which is considered acceptable. The effects: Perfectionism, or giving up without trying; doing only those things you are good at; cannot admit mistakes; procrastination; view of God as more concerned with how you act than who you are; cannot ask for help; cannot rest when tired; cannot have guilt-free fun; high need for the approval of others; sense of shame or self-righteousness; demanding of others, or you expect "nothing" from them; living a double life.
3. Manipulation The dynamic: Relationships and behaviors are manipulated by very powerful unspoken rules. These rules are seldom, if ever, said out loud. In fact, when spoken out loud many of them sound ridiculous. No one says out loud, "What people think about us is more important than what is really happening." Yet the unspoken rules communicate these and other shaming messages.
The "can't-talk" rule keeps people quiet by labeling them as the problem if they notice and confront a problem. Because people feel they cannot talk about an unspoken rule, they learn to talk in "code" to convey what they mean.
Coding is an example of verbal manipulation. When we "code," we say something in a crooked manner. Messages are sent through a verbal code that others are supposed to decode. "Oh, you don't have to go to all that trouble," actually means, "I'm embarrassed to ask for this treatment-but I like it!" "Don't you think it would be better this way?" means, "I want you to do it this way." People also code non-verbally with body language-by giving dirty looks, becoming loud or quiet, or leaving the room in a sullen or disconnected attitude.
Triangling is another way to act manipulative in relationships. This simply means to send a message to someone through another person instead of delivering it directly.
The effects: Great "radar" -the ability to pick up tension in situations and relationships; ability to decode the crooked messages of others; saying things in code instead of saying them straight; talking about people instead of to them; message-carrying for people; expecting others to know your code; difficulty trusting people; reading other meanings into what people say.
4. Idolatry The dynamic: The "god" served by the shame-based relationship system is an impossible-to-please judge, obsessing on people's behaviors from a distance, whose mood is dependent on them. It is a god invented to enforce the performance standard and to keep the system intact. This is a false god, or idol. Anything you serve besides God, or anything from which you derive your sense of life, value and acceptance, is an idol. The false gods of the shame-based system are: appearance, or how things look; what people think; power-orientation.
The effects: Distorted image of God; high level of anxiety based on other people or external circumstances; people-pleasing; high need to control thoughts, feelings and behaviors of others in order to gain a sense of well-being.
5. Preoccupation With Fault and Blame The dynamic: 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. People have to pay for their mistakes. Responsibility and accountability are not the issues here: Fault and blame are the issues. In the New Testament, the purpose of confessing a sin is to receive forgiveness and cleansing. The shame-based system wants a confession in order to know whom to shame-that is, whom to make feel so defective and humiliated that they won't act that way anymore.
The effects: The sense that if something is wrong or someone is upset you must have caused it; a high need to be punished for or to pay for mistakes in order to feel good about yourself; defensive "skills" (blaming, rationalizing, minimizing, lying); critical of others; giving others the "third-degree"; need to be right; difficulty forgiving self; difficulty accepting grace and forgiveness from God.
6. Obscured Reality The dynamic: In shame-based systems, members have to deny any thought, opinion or feeling that is different than those of people in authority. Anything that has the potential to shame those in authority is ignored or denied. People can't find out about life through normal trial-and-error learning because mistakes shame. Interaction with people and places outside the system threatens the order of things. The system defines reality. Consequently, you can't find out what "normal" is. Problems are denied, and therefore they remain.
The effects: Out-of-touch with feelings, needs, thoughts; ignoring your "radar" because you are being "too critical"; feel like no one else understands you; guessing at what is normal; threatened by opinions that differ from yours; afraid to take healthy risks; self-analytical; suspicious or afraid of others; narrow-minded; suffering stress-related illnesses; extreme forms of denial, even delusion.
7. Unbalanced lnter-relatedness The dynamic: Members of shame-based systems are either under-involved or over-involved with each other. Another word for under-involvement is neglect. Children of workaholics experience this because one or both parents are not there to teach about life. Consequently, rules take the place of people. There is no relationship structure in which to learn about behaviors and consequences. People find out about life alone and by accident. Another word for over-involvement is enmeshment. This is when there are no clear boundaries between people. Two lies govern: First, it is your responsibility to make sure everyone else is happy and well and you have the ability to achieve this. Second, everyone else is responsible to make sure you are happy and well and they are capable of doing so. Consequently, everyone is responsible for everyone else, while ironically no one is responsible for himself or herself.
The effects: Fear of being deserted; lack of self-discipline; rebelling against structure; high need for structure; a sense that if there is a problem, you have to solve it; feeling selfish for having needs; putting up boundaries that keep safe people away; continually letting unsafe people come close; difficulty saying no; allowing others to take advantage of you; feeling alone; possessive in relationships; feelings of guilt when you haven't done anything wrong; rescuing others from the consequences of their behaviors.
If you have come from shame-based relationships in which you were spiritually abused, you may hold to these or other unspoken rules:
- 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 the ministry is called by God, is appropriate, and 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.
As you can see, shame-based relationships have significant effects upon those who have experienced them. The relational applications of these effects are far-reaching. As pertaining to spiritual systems, the application is clear: Shame-based relationships build on an emotional foundation that undermines relational honesty; hinders a maturing individual relationship with God; and fosters dependence upon an- other, 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.
To this point, we have discussed the general symptoms of spiritual abuse. But not all families or churches or leaders who sometimes slip into legalism, or who occasionally out of insecurity "pull rank" should be labeled as abusive.
END OF PART 1
Part 2 can be found here