Three blog posts from a series on dysfunctional relationships at UnderMuchGrace.com.
(Click on titles to link to the original posts.)
The material here was specifically developed to address the functional problems and emotional developmental needs of the young women who endured abject abuse and torture at Hephzibah House, a private boarding home for troubled girls run by an Independent Fundamentalist Church, so it appears here as a particular focus. (Learn more about Hephzibah House HERE.)
1. Shame-based parenting
3. How both types of parenting make an a adult who becomes a "Victim of Circumstance"
1. Shame-based Parenting Fills a Child's Heart with Shame Instead of Love: Disrespect for Children that Tilled the Soil for Abuse at Hephzibah House
If you recall, this latest discussion here concerning developmental problems and deficits in children came about after a supporter of Ron Williams, the proprietor of Hephzibah House (HH), published a blog post that challenges those HH Survivors who have come forward to tell of the abject abuse and terrible conditions they suffered while incarcerated there. There are many other Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) homes of this type where children suffer these same conditions right now, every day. Kathryn Joyce wrote an excellent, must-read article describing several of these homes where young men and women live in and under unthinkable conditions as punishment under the guise of rehabilitation through religion.
Though the lasting psychological consequences of the extreme conditions in these homes results in a loss of healthy perspective for the survivors, based on the histories of the children who are sent to IFB reform homes, many of the homes wherein they were raised laid the foundations for unhealthy thinking before those children ever made it to these facilities. I believe that to fully heal from the abuse experience, the survivor must look deeper into their history to find the roots of the patterns that were intensified and exploited at HH. I believe that an essential part of healing for many of the survivors involves examining the developmental factors that originated with the their families of origin.
accept a child's qualities of self-centeredness, their boundless energy, and their resilience so that they can form realistic expectations about the child's capabilities. These qualities, the gifts of childhood, create characteristics that a parent must respect and anticipate because their children are valuable, vulnerable, imperfect, dependent, and immature while they are growing up.
As we read in the review of the five basic characteristics of children, when a parent lacks understanding of their child or has a lack of their own internal resources, that sense of abundance, worth and peace within themselves, they obviously do not have enough of that goodness to share. No human being is perfect, and parents often do lack their own sense of worth and peace. They might also have their own personality-based natural strengths and weaknesses that interfere with communicating well with the child. In dysfunctional families however, parents and children draw nurture from each other and/or they can unload their frustrations off on one another in unhealthy ways which create and foster more dysfunction.
When a parent carries a great deal of shame because of their experiences and because of the nurture and skills that they may have missed, they lack the resources to effectively parent their children, at least in the ideal sense. Especially concerning imperfection and immaturity, we see prime examples of a parent who feels a great deal of shame themselves. Human beings are both imperfect and are sometimes immature, and even adults enjoy a sense of their inner childlike qualities. If a person believes false ideas including ideas that life should be fair, that they should be perfect, or that children should have capabilities beyond their developmental ability, these ideas bring the parent's own internal sense of shame to the surface.
What do we do with shame? It's an uncomfortable emotion, and when undeserved or inappropriate to bear, it's quite natural to seek to get rid of shame. Unfortunately, in a parent who carries a great deal of toxic shame through either false ideas about the reality of how life works or because they are full of shame over the parenting they received, they usually unconsciously unload their own shame into their children. If shame comprises the core experience of the parent, and this shame replaces the parent's sense of abundance (worth, peace, and safety), they only have shame to share with their child. The child becomes their secondary receptacle for it.
Most people do not like to dwell on or think about the experiences that they found shaming, and for those who grew up in homes where they were shamed when they were very little, they will not consciously remember specific events. The experience of shame can be terrifying, and adults who carry this kind of shame through intolerance and controlling behaviors will usually do anything to avoid feeling these overwhelming emotions. When a child triggers shame in an aggressive or angry parent who compensates for their shame through control and intolerance, the parent usually either shames or punishes the child.
Alice Miller writes in The Body Never Lies: The Lingering Effects of Hurtful Parenting
(pp 27 -8):
In every adult who has suffered absue as a child lies dormant that small child's fear of punishment at the hand of the parents if he or she should dare rebel against their behavior. . . .
These patterns of childhood will inevitably then be adopted by their victims whenever the fear and anxiety used on their partners and their own children, at work, in politics, wherever the fear and anxiety of the profoundly insecuare child can be fended off with the aid of external power. It is in this way that dictators are born; these are people with a deep-seated contempt for everyone else, people who were never respected as children and thus do their utmost to earn that respect at a later state with the assistance of the gigantic power they have built up around them.
Parents who tend to resort to punishment and/or demonstrate high needs for control often display characteristics of narcissism. Note these excerpts from a post at Overcoming Botkin Syndrome about the Narcissistic Parent in the homeschooling's partriarchy movement:
In a most basic sense, narcissists with NPD display exaggerated self-interest because they are compensating for fear and high sensitivity to criticism. This exaggeration is a means of coping with and resisting the disturbing emotions that they feel deep inside, emotions that they deny feeling, even to themselves. Some of the hallmark features of NPD include personal grandiosity, an excessive need for admiration/attention, a sense of entitlement, and a diminished capacity for empathy. When a person with NPD feels threatened or becomes uncomfortably aware of their internal sense of shame and inferiority, they behave in a number of predictable ways which creates problems for those with whom they interact. . . .
If you are a child or partner of someone with NPD, you will find them unable to handle any kind of criticism, resorting to demeaning tactics and intense anger when they feel threatened (though they will never let you see that they feel threatened because of their grandiosity). They NEVER admit to wrongdoing, and when consequences force them to realize that they have failed to be perfect, they will become even more dramatic, emotional, and aggressive. Life is all about blaming other people for their shortcomings, because they are really just terrified inside. Like playground bullies, they don’t take well to open confrontation. Direct confrontation usually becomes explosive, as the narcissist prefers to be passive-aggressive because they actually fear confrontation. That makes them hard to understand, because on the exterior, they seem to seek out conflict and aggression. Considering their inner experience of helplessness and fear seems oxymoronic (if not impossible) when you are on the receiving end of their wrath and if you believe their exaggerated perceptions of themselves.
2. How Dysfunctional Parents Siphon Resources Back from a Child, Depriving them of Healthy Self-Development (Enmeshed Parenting)
In the previous post, we discussed how children lack internal resources which the parent provides to them so that they can develop their own sense of self, internal peace and what many authors describe as a sense of abundance.
Healthy parents understand that their children cannot tolerate or process many aspects of living because of the natural characteristics of children. They understand that they are immature and dependent. When the child reaches maturity, ideally, they've developed a sense and personal worth as well as a sense of peace about being alive and okay in the world.
In the diagram, an empty beaker represents the child's lack of resources, and a heart represents the healthy adult sense of self. Parents that tend to be full of shame unload their shame onto their children, but this is not the only way that a parent uses a child when they fail to respect their developmental needs.
The enmeshed parent uses their child in a slightly different way. As we will see in the next post to come, both of these patterns set up the child to become an adult who does not look to who they are in Christ to find worth but obtains all of their sense of worth and peace from performance, circumstances, and the esteem of others.
Quick Review of Enmeshment (a recap of the Vulnerability/Boundaries post)
A parent can use a child in many ways, though we have only described the ways a parent my use a child for their own emotional benefit at the expense of the child. This type of abuse becomes sexually tagged when the parent focuses excessively on gender, and an iconic example of this is the “Daddy's Little Girl” or “Mommy's Little Man” type of relationship.
This type of prolonged relationship creates marital problems within the nuclear family because the enmeshed parent and child will become more tightly bound and emotionally intimate with one another and almost inevitably exceeds the intimacy shared between the parents. This tends to alienate the other parent and it is thought to set up problematic lifelong relationship patterns for the child. (For more information on these types of relationship problems, please visit Overcoming Botkin Syndrome and explore specific relationship topics via the link list.)
Consequences for the Child
This creates multiple problems for the child.
First, because the parent utilizes the child as a source of support, in effect, they siphon back to themselves the love and energy that the child needs to help develop their own sense of self and wholeness. The child becomes dependent upon the parent for their internal sense of peace and wholeness which is appropriate when they are very young but increasingly inappropriate as the child matures. As the child matures and ventures into situations wherein they cannot rely on the parent, it creates a great deal of anxiety for them when they cannot have access to them.
Secondly, though the child enjoys some gratification and sense of specialness because they are so valuable to the parent, this benefit comes at a terribly high price. The child learns rather quickly that they have also become responsible for meeting their parents' needs for support. Because of their own needs and lack, this responsibility becomes overwhelming for them.
They learn self-worth through care taking behaviors and performance, and they feel shame over their inability to comfortably meet demands because they are given responsibility without authority. When the moments arise when it is blatantly obvious that they are not really their parent's peer or the parent behaves differently with them in the presence of others, they also feel a great deal of shame. These children learn that love is about duty and the overwhelming anxiety and pressure they feel on a regular bases leaves them feeling dead inside.
And as previously mentioned, these children become consumed with the overwhelming needs and concerns of their parent. Their own life is displaced by the concerns, the reality, and quite often with the shame of the parent. Instead of awareness of self, the child's inner world must be negated (their heart denied) in favor of the adult's experience, wants, and needs.
3. Shame Based and Immature Parenting Creates Victims of Circumstance and Dependency on Self (External Locus of Control)
We've now considered the two primary ways that a damaged or immature parent takes from their child (unloading shame and by siphoning back nurture) which we understand results from a parent's disrespect for the child's characteristics (and needs). With that background, we can now better understand how adults, both parents and grown children, cope with the sense of emptiness that they face. As we've noted in the most recent posts, the parent has two drives and needs of their own. They need to both purge shame and gain their own worth, and they pass this “multigenerational faithfulness” down to their children because the have nothing else to give to them. The immature adult must then look to other sources to find worth, peace, safety and soothing elements so that they can cope with the pressures and problems of life.
As discussed, the parent uses their child to meet their inner needs. In the diagram, note that the parent holds a part of the child hostage through the dependency the have on the child, and the child draws worth from the relationship. But what happens when the parent disappears or the child becomes separated from the parent?
The child is left with their own sense of emptiness, and they must try to find ways to function. They must do what their parents have done, and they will opportunistically find ways to fill their inner emptiness. The child learns to draw worth form their performance (caring for others as they cared for the parent, through good opinions that others have of them, and through outward things like their appearance, or good circumstances. All people tend to do this to build up their optimism, they have a full hearts and an intact sense of self. The do not depend on these outward things as their sole source of good experience.
The immature, empty, and shamed parent operates only external sources of good feelings. They work very hard to avoid the shame they feel as well as the emptiness, and they become rigid and tired in this process. They tend to become intolerant and demanding because they avoid facing their unpleasant emotions by controlling whatever they can in their world. As mentioned before, the parent avoids shame by punishing the imperfection of their child because they cannot tolerate their own emotions. When successful, they believe that they've conquered the emotion, but they've only managed to avoid it. It becomes a reward for their attempt to control, creating the illusion that they are powerful and free. They learn how to manipulate others so that their behavior works to help them feel better and helps them avoid their internal pain.
The other ways that an immature adult avoids their inner pain comes through performance, basing their worth and peace on their successes. This is often why certain people become very driven to accomplish and why they work so hard in their vocations, as they have learned to find their worth and peace outside of themselves through their own effort. They trick themselves into believing that they are controlling things that are well outside of their influence. Though people can be responsible with money, it is possible to end up in circumstances beyond their control where they can owe more or need more money than they can obtain or earn. People can take impeccable care of their home, but in the event of an earthquake or a flood, that person's efforts to prevent harm to their home cannot protect them. We can do all we can to have good health, but quite often, we can end up developing diseases that are far beyond our ability to control. Or a person can be the very best at their profession, but kind of work that they do can become obsolete. So this system of looking outside of one's self to find worth and peace works well only when a person can perform well and only when circumstances are very good. But what happens on rainy days?
As we all well know when depending on peace and worth from things outside of ourselves, we are destined for heartache. Life is full of a great many things that are well-beyond our sphere of control. When the people from whom a person derives worth dies or becomes parted from them, and when they experience the the painful processes of life, they go right back to the beginning of the process. When they fail or when the illusion of control falls apart (as it does in life at some point), the person is left to again face their sense of shame and their lack of worth which feels like worthlessness. Some people appear to do well in the process, but they mask the pain of the rainy day.
Of course, for the Christian, the solution to the problem should be rather simple through realizing that human beings are imperfect and limited but finding one's identity in Christ will fill our hearts and our emptiness. He heals us of our toxic shame which Jesus bore on the Cross for us that we might have no condemnation. We can put our faith and trust in Him to heal us and fill us up, and then on the rainy days in life, we can have worth in Him and enduring peace in the storm. At its root, the reliance on external things to find peace and worth is no different than original sin. Man tricks himself into the idea of believing that he can control his life, powerful enough and strong enough to build up his own sense of peace and worth. But we can only get so far when we do this.
In my own life and in my own journey out of shame, performance, and low worth because I derived my worth from the esteem of others, I think that a good bit of my life has been the “fear and trembling” of repenting of all of the ways I've tried to deal with shame and low worth on my own instead. Many religious people do the same thing with their attempts to accomplish things in Jesus' Name to accomplish great things for Him. They determine what they think they need to do, then go about doing those things in their own strength through their own effort. We all get tricked into thinking that we are more powerful than we are, forgetting that without Him, we can do nothing. There is no switch that flips that releases us from the trappings of being parented by an immature person, and in fact, that plight is very much the same plight that all mankind suffers – the illusion and desire to be powerful enough that we do not need God. We must spend our lives learning that.
It is sad to realize that many Christian systems teach others to be limited and dependent and that their only sense of self worth and self esteem can come from following the rules that they develop. It is our human tendency to believe, also, that we must merit the goodness that God shows to us in abundance because of His loving kindness and disposition of grace toward us. In unhealthy parenting, the parent primes the child to accept only outside sources of love and worth. This creates a great foothold for manipulators to be able to hurt and use the adult who is empty and full of shame. Religious systems can exploit that toxic level of undeserved shame that we feel, making it quite easy to grab and use as a handle to twist us through condemnation and legalism.
I believe that for the girls who found their way to Hephzibah House, the abuse they suffered there only added to the shame and emptiness that many had before they ever arrived there. It primed them to become the victims of Ron and Patti Williams (the proprietors), as they used the Hephzibah Girls to bolster their own illusion of control so that they could ward off the darkness of shame and emptiness in their own hearts. In that sense, Ron Williams is far more pathetic than anyone who has ever been in his care, as he used people as objects to ward off his own pain. How much pain and emptiness must be in his heart to drive him to go to such extreme lengths to avoid his own negative feelings? But sadly, he chose to make victims of the girls there, teaching them to become even more powerless and greater victims of circumstance.