Friday, December 7, 2012

Loved Ones Who Repeatedly Hurt Us: Landorf Heatherly's “Irregular People”

Joyce Landorf Heatherley wrote a wonderful book about those loved ones that seem to have a way with wounding us, over and over again. The previous post describes how she came up with the title of the book: “Irregular People.”  

They don't necessarily have to be family, but they usually are – those people we can't easily avoid and are in our lives whether we want them to be or not. (They probably wouldn't be if we had that choice.) They can't be reasoned with, they disappoint over and over again, and when you really need them, they are usually not supportive. They break our hearts through rejection and poor consideration. 

Things get even more complicated for us if these irregular people happen to be our parents who offer us some support. This reminds me of the relationship that a battered wife has with her husband who supports her and is often quite demonstrative with gifts and loving gestures, making the physical violence harder to put into perspective. The good is supposed to compensate for the very bad. (Susan Forward calls this the “FOG” in Emotional Blackmail, an acronym that stands for “Fear, Obligation, and Guilt.”) Much anguish and confusion results within these relationships with "irregulars."

I love how Heatherley's Irregular People nails many behaviors very well through observation and defines a profile-of-sorts for the irregular person. She even points out Old Testament examples of irregulars from among the Patriarch, making them easy to understand in a simple way. (I tend to go the clinical route, so this is book is great for you if that's not your style!) We all have such people in our lives, some of whom are family and some of whom are not.

Defining the Irregular Person

As the author describes them, irregular people are those who basically try to devalue your personal worth at every opportunity. In the narrative, she lists these predominant characteristics of “irregulars” which I've identified and adapted here:
  • Emotional blindness and deafness
  • Badly damaged vocal cords.”
    • They say all the wrong things at the wrong times.
    • They offer abundant criticism.
    • They never voice approval or praise because of their own low self-confidence – at least they don't voice it to us.
  • Insecure
  • Easily offended
  • Perfectionistic
  • Low empathy (“never feel at fault for anything”)
  • Fear of responsibility in relationships
    • Blaming (They blame others as their primary way of coping with disappointment.)
    • Cannot admit wrongdoing or error, so they never apologize
      • “The truly irregular person rarely is able to ever see himself, or herself, as irregular to anybody.” (pg 40)
    •  Threatened by questions
    •  Cannot handle assertiveness and will not negotiate because they cannot relinquish the illusion of control (They cannot share personal power and cannot allow others to be autonomous.)

I tend to think of this list of characteristics as what I call the shame-based person, and some of these qualities can also be noted in people with certain types of personality disorders as well, particularly those concerning empathy. Not everyone who lacks in empathy has a personality disorder, nor do they end up becoming a cult leader, but it's important to recognize that certain people lack empathy, even if it's just empathy for certain people in their lives. The A Cry for Justice blog recently posted a good article about the lack of empathy which dovetails nicely with the discussion of those who offer insincere repentance. (A Cry for Justice is a great place, along with Steve Cornell's blog, if you're working through issues of abuse, particularly involving domestic violence and forgiveness.)


Heatherley addresses well the issue of expectations in our relationships with irregular people. We naturally expect our elders, religious authorities, and our authority figures in general to behave well, possessing a certain level of maturity. She calls this “normal” behavior. But what do we do with the cruel, insensitive people in our lives? The author states that we must do something that Sandra Wilson also recommends through her concept of radical realism in forgiveness within shame-based relationships. Heatherley says that we must “perceive our irregular person as perhaps 'permanently handicapped'”(pg 65). We run into trouble when we believe the fantasy that our irregular person will treat us with respect and expect “normal” behavior from them. It is irrational to expect irrational, wounded people to behave rationally, a lesson we can learn from Portia Nelson. A significant part of the author's healing came through recognizing that her own expectations for others were unreasonably high.

From Irregular People, pages 65 -66:
It is the only avenue to take towards acceptance and healing. . . We have a choice here. We can say this bad relationship is our irregular person's fault – and become as irregular as he or she. Or we can “make allowances,” as Paul tells us, for their faults and handicaps. It's up to us.

. . .I think that, even to this day, my irregular person is completely and totally unaware of his annihilating words and his destructive behavior towards me and others in the family. The more I realized that my irregular person probably did love me, but was unable (and even unconsciously was unwilling) to show his love in words or actions, the easier it became to understand him.
One of the most precious pearls of wisdom that I gleaned from many of the Christian self-help genre that was at the height of popularity when I started my own recovery was the idea that bitterness often begins with unmet expectations. The Stoop book mentioned in the previous post and many others in the Minirth Meier Clinic Series posited that if we could have more reasonable expectations for our lives, we would avoid a lot of heartache and depression. When we expect wounded people to behave differently or expect them to show us love and acceptance when they are incapable of doing so, we create a bitter root. We address the root through giving up on the fantasy of what we want to be true by embracing things the way they are. With our irregular people, we can learn to more appropriately assign proper responsibility to the irregular person (when it is warranted) when they refuse or are unable to do so. It doesn't give us justice, but it does help us cope with the ongoing sense of injustice and the disappointment we feel over our unmet expectations.

This concept of healthy expectation is the cornerstone of cognitive behavioral therapy. If we have reasonable and true beliefs about ourselves, our world, and the way that it works, we experience much less depression and other emotional problems because we have reasonable expectations. For the Christian, we call this “bringing every thought captive.” So Heatherley doesn't realize that she was actually talking about cognitive behavioral therapy and didn't even know it. :) My favorite book on this topic is The Lies We Believe by Dr. Chris Thurman, and I often use the principles in this book for my own discipline of journaling. And journaling is vital when on the Path of Healing.

Validation of Grieving when Ideal Forgiveness is Not Possible

Another thing that I love about Heatherley's book: She addresses the hurts and wounds very honestly. We do have to move on and keep living, sometimes with the people who continue to hurt us, even if we don't get the consideration that we desire and deserve. Rather than telling Christians that they must endure suffering and injustice as though it is what God desires and that it is something that all Christians should accept, she talks about grieving the losses and enduring the difficulties.

 I heard the other day from a friend of this blog that some fundamentalists teach that “grieving without hope” is sinful, even when intense grief is appropriate. That's code language for just forgiving any injustice as though one can press a button to turn off grief. They tell people how to grieve – and what they instruct people to do is unhealthy denial of grief that leads actually leads to bitterness. It is the Path of Denial. For many, it leads to nervous breakdowns from utter hopelessness. Spiritually abusive systems require this same type of acceptance of injustice as well, because the system and the leadership can never be questioned. People are required to submerge their feelings, and they become dissociative when they do because it is so traumatic.

Well, Heatherley does nothing of the sort. She discusses the issue of disappointment with grace and a brutal transparency that I find amazing. She even talks about some problems with somatic illness (stress induced headaches) because even with the wisdom of having reasonable expectations, it is not easy to purpose to forgive and live peaceably with those who do not repent or change or at least make an effort to “meet us in the middle” to negotiate in the relationship. She notes that though we are usually called to confront our irregular people when they hurt us, most of the time, we will see no change in them. “[I]t is highly doubtful that verbal corrections can cure or even ease our interesting predicament” (pg 108).

Pursing Forgiveness Without Resignation to Victimhood

As the we noted about the obedience of forgiveness, the process of following the Path of Healing is anything but easy. Here, the author of Irregular People sounds much to me like Corrie Ten Boom. We need forgiveness that is divine, for there is no way for those who have offended us to make amends. They either refuse or do not have the ability to make good on the emotional debts that they owe us, just as we cannot undo the wrongs that we have done.

To live without bitterness and to accept things as they are without being resigned to victimhood, we cannot do it on our own. We seek to forgive because we hit the limit of what we're able to accept and negotiate. Forgiveness becomes a divine act that only God can work through us. As Corrie Ten Boom found her heart empty for her concentration camp guard who asked her to forgive him, she cried out to God to fill her with His love for her abuser. There she found the power of God to forgive – for it was not in herself. Likewise, Heatherley acknowledges that laying the pain of the past to rest comes only as we allow God to do it in us. And we risk becoming just like our irregular person if we resist this releasing them to God through forgiveness.

I am also most appreciative of how the author handles the problem of the pain of ongoing conflict when it is not resolvable, something I have found in no other book about forgiveness. She admits that broken relationships are painful, even offering a statement that one party stays in denial and the other must live with the frustration in this brutal realism of acceptance. As much as we are able to adapt and find a place of relative peace in them, with those people we love the most, we can't really find a great deal of joy in a broken relationship with them. As David Augsburger also points out in this interview, within some situations, it is not right or possible to move all of the way out of anger or resentment if a situation of offense does not get resolved. If those who harmed us never repent, we are not asked to resign ourselves to accept the injustice. We can only accept things as they are. There is peace in that acceptance, but not resignation to victimhood. Heatherley doesn't establish a “pie in the sky” ideal to which few can every attain. She delves into the hard situations well, and sometimes the only way to honor God and self means setting limits on what the reader can honestly tolerate. She doesn't gloss over or ignore the hardest of situations but I think works within the tension to find the best, most God honoring balance within such relationships.

Finding Healing

The author also concludes the book with two beautiful images: one from Psalms and one from C.S. Lewis. In the obedience of forgiveness, she talks about the yielding that we must do as we follow the spirit of forgiveness. As Christians, we are called to commit to the process and follow God, as the Psalmist notes in Psalm 4:3-5, the birthplace of much wisdom:

But know that the Lord has set apart for Himself him who is godly;
The Lord will hear when I call to Him.
Be angry, and do not sin.
Meditate within your heart on your bed, and be still. Selah
Offer the sacrifices of righteousness
And put your trust in the Lord. (Psalm 4:3-5 NKJV)

I love how the NABS says to “tremble” and not sin. We must give up control and trust God on this Path of Healing. We must look to Him, putting our trust in Him to work justice and to restore us when those who offend us cannot do it. That takes great faith.

I also love the beautiful imagery that she brilliantly draws from in the example of C.S. Lewis' character of Eustace Clarence Scrubb in Voyage of the Dawn Treader from the Chronicles of Narnia.  Note well that this only applies to the original story found in the original book.  (I understand that there is an adapted film version of the book.

The character's greed and avarice lead him into the cave of a dragon, and while there, he transforms into a dragon himself. To heal him from the deceit of his hearts, as Aslan, the Christ figure in the story rescues his character again, he leads him to a pool of healing water. Before he beckons Eustace to bathe there, he requires him to strip off his dragon skin first. As he begins to bathe, he realizes that he still has another layer of skin and repeats and repeats this painful process. Eventually, Aslan explains that He will have to be the one to remove the layers of dragon scale to restore Eustace to the form of a boy again.

Eustace lays himself down on the ground, and Aslan strips him with the terrible lion claws, painfully removing all of the leather and the scales from Eustace's body. When Eustace bathes again, the water causes even more pain at first, until he realizes that he has become pain free for the first time in his life. He realizes that he has not only be transformed back into his previous human form, the nature of his very soul has been transformed as well. He becomes a kind and compassionate person – something that was never true of him before. Heatherly states that as we work and work at our relationship with our irregular person, we are likewise stripped of the pain. It just happens to be a long process and one that involves a lot of trembling.

We must follow the process of forgiveness as God instructs us, doing all we can to yield to and obey it. In love, we thank God for our irregular person, as they have done much to send us running to the Lord for His help and work in us. We yield to God to use the relationship in whatever way He chooses to let love and patience have its perfect work in us, and we yield the outcome to Him in surrender of ourselves as a living sacrifice. We can have faith that God can make this coping process one of loving healing, just as Aslan has been tender and compassionate with Eustace, painful though it is. In fact, Aslan who laid down his life in the first Chronicle of Narnia can not only be compassionate. He exceeds compassion with empathy, having endured all pain and suffering on the behalf of all so that all might be healed and restored.

More posts to follow concerning
difficult examples of forgiveness.