Monday, January 16, 2012

Understanding How Dysfunctional Families Prime Children for the Experience of Shame (Leading to Victimization)

There are many excellent Christian books concerning dysfunctional family dynamics -- that is besides the Book of Genesis which contains the best archetypal examples of how you should NOT relate to other family members! One of the most interesting families to draw out on a relationship diagram is that of Jacob, Esau and their parents, and some of the Christian self-help books in this genre look at many of the Old Testament patriarchs to explain how triangulation in relationships works. 

My favorites include titles on the topic of family relationships include Love is a Choice (by Hemfelt, Minerth, and Meier) and Forgiving Our Parents, Forgiving Ourselves (Stoop and Masteller) and many others which are discussed at some length on the OvercomingBotkin Syndrome blog (posts which you can find by looking for the author near the top of the tag list). I also like Sandra Wilson's Hurt People Hurt People, too. And specifically related to boundaries, the Christian books by Townsend and Cloud shouldn't go without mention, either.

These posts offer learning tools to the survivors of Hephzibah House (HH), though they are quite applicable to most people in the types of religious groups addressed here most often. With the Hephzibah Girls in mind, I think that the approach taken by a fellow nurse speaks a bit more clearly to the specific needs that they have as they look back to put their experiences into perspective. Conditions at HH fostered problems with self-protection and issues related to boundaries suffered by girls after leaving, but the roots go deeper, back into childhood.

Understanding the Roots of Shame

Pia Mellody approaches this topic by looking at the five basic, natural characteristics of childhood, which when successfully developed and honored by the parent, form the basis for healthy and mature characteristics in adulthood.
Children are:
  • Valuable (Value becomes peace and what Jesus called the love of self in the mature adult who finds their stability and worth within themselves instead of finding their worth in performance and circumstances.)  

  • Vulnerable (Forms the basis of experience which allows adults to be intimate along with the appropriate level of vulnerability required to engage in emotional intimacy.)

  • Imperfect (Lays the foundation of the adult's ability to feel comfortable with themselves and accountable for the impact that their actions have on others.) 

  • Dependent (Provides for the ability of the adult to care responsibly for their own basic needs and to be interdependent with others, because we are unable to meet all of our needs independently.)

  • Immature (Proper care and parenting teaches two types of boundaries to the child: internal self control which governs the adult's behavior, as well as what one chooses to allow into their lives. Mastery of maturity also provides for a healthy sense of spontaneity.)

As previously mentioned, if the parent has not mastered these tasks or if their parents didn't honor and respect these characteristics in them when they were children, they very likely have gaps in their own development which the pass along to their children. Teaching a child to be vulnerable involves modeling accountability and honesty as well as the sharing of power.   (This is a major issue in patriarchy, both for men and for women.)

If the parent doesn't esteem their child as a valuable person who just happens to be little and in need of care their respect as well as their care, they will grow up with deficits in their development which are passed on to their children. Unfortunately, there are many Christian traditions that misinterpret Scripture and fail in some of these tasks in particular. Piety fosters perfectionism and hyper-authoritarianism fosters shame and lack of self care that honors the Image of God in us. Systems like those advocated by the Botkin Family and Vision Forum create life-long dependency problems based on gender hierarchy. Many of the teachings embraced within the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist churches place a similar emphasis on sexuality which, for the survivors of Hephzibah House, creates the justification for their abuse.

Pia Mellody in Facing Codependence (pp 78 - 80):
In addition to misdirecting these three characteristics, dysfunctional caregivers do not respond appropriately to children's five natural attributes of value, vulnerability, imperfection, dependency, and immaturity. Instead these caregivers either ignore or attack children for the very essence of who they are, creating an intense experience of shame in the children. Inordinate shaming happens to children when they lose contact with the sense that they are adequate and have value from within, even when making mistakes, having needs or being immature. . . .

Children are naturally innocent, inexperienced, naïve and believe that their caregiver can do no wrong. But in fact, caregivers often attack or abuse children for having the normal traits of imperfection, dependency and immaturity. As a result, the children lose their own sense of value (since they can't see that the fault might lie with the caregivers). Also the fact that abuse is occurring means the parents aren't demonstrating boundaries, so the children don't develop their own boundary systems properly.

When the caregivers ignore or attack children's natural characteristics, children develop dysfunctional survival traits to keep from feeling crazy and yet still maintain the belief that the caregivers are always right.

Excerpt from
Pia Mellody's
What It Is, Where It Comes From,
How It Sabotages Our Lives
Harper One/Harper Collins, NY (1989; 2003)