Victims’ vulnerabilities that abusers exploit
We talk a lot on this blog about the many strengths of victims of abuse, and how victims creatively resist abuse. One of the ways we can increase our strengths and be even better at resisting abuse is to be aware of our vulnerabilities. As we work to overcome our vulnerabilities, we make it more difficult for abusers to exploit us. George Simon Jr. in his book In Sheep’s Clothing [*Affiliate link] (pages 140-41) lists the vulnerabilities that abusers commonly exploit in their victims: naivete, over-conscientiousness, low self-confidence, over-intellectualization and emotional dependency.
It strikes me that these are the very vulnerabilities that conservative Christianity can inadvertently (?) impart to many of its followers and perhaps most particularly to females.
Naivete. Cotton-woolled in conservative church-going culture, many Christians are naive. They aren’t street wise, they’re unable to recognize and deal with evil people because they’ve been taught to think the best of everybody and to treat everyone as if they are honorable and can be reasoned with. And they’re unlikely to look for wolves in sheep’s clothing in their own little stream of Christianity because the wolves are ‘out there’ in other denominations and other churches, they’re not in our church!
Over-conscientiousness. Christians are taught to be conscientious – to watch their thoughts, feelings and actions so as to avoid sin; to confess and repent when they have sinned; and to put others before themselves. All well and good, but this teaching is often insufficiently balanced by instruction about how to guard against predators and evil-doers, and how not to throw one’s pearls before swine. We are trained to believe that if we continually run on the mouse wheel of do-gooder-ism, everything will come out alright in the end.
Low self-confidence. The legalistic and Pharisaic forms of church culture can make low self-esteem worse by teaching distorted wooden doctrines to regenerate believers: “You are nothing but a depraved sinner; you have no rights; all you deserve is hell,” or, “All sins are equally sinful; therefore your sins are just as bad as the sins of a really malicious, depraved person.”
Over-intellectualization. Simon explains that victims may try too hard to understand the reasons for the abuser’s behaviour in the delusion that uncovering and understanding the manipulator’s behaviour will be sufficient to make things different. The pop-psychology version of this is to try to explain the abuse as the result of things like a rotten childhood, unemployment, mental illness or other health problems. But Christians can add to a bunch of super-spiritual intellectualisations like ‘an attack of the devil’ or ‘lack of bible reading and prayer’ or ‘poor church attendance’ or ‘not being accountable to other men in the church’ (as if the other men would be likely to know how to see through an abuser’s deceits).
Emotional dependency. The false and sub-biblical doctrine in many church cultures breeds emotional dependency. When we are scared into obedience by Pharisaic doctrine, when non-conformity to church culture is equated with disobeying God, it can be a form of traumatic bonding. Two powers wall us in: the abuser and the church. We often find it hard to emotionally depend on God (a healthy form of emotional dependence) when our concept of God is conflated with our experience of Pharisees.
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However this isn’t just a church-bashing post. The vulnerabilities that Simon lists are by no means exclusive to conservative Christian culture. I had a good middle class secular upbringing and got into the drug scene in my late teens, but believe it or not I was still very naive even while living the drug addict lifestyle. I could lie and take advantage of others when I wanted to, but I nevertheless had a naivete about the way the world worked that took years to shed. My naivete led to many embarrassments; I think some people must have thought I was weird or crazy or both, because I had so little understanding.
I can also put my hand up for the other types of vulnerability. I showed over-conscientiousness in both my marriages and had low self-confidence from my teens right up to my mid-forties. In thinking of multiple excuses for my abuser’s behaviour, I certainly over-intellectualised. And in my first marriage I was emotionally dependent because I worried that ending the marriage would mean my reversion to bulimia, the addiction that had dogged me ever since I was eleven.