Morning friends,

I’ve been reading through the book of Proverbs this month. I read the chapter that corresponds to each day of the month. I’ve been doing this for years and I’d encourage you to do so as well. God tells us in Proverbs that there is nothing more important for you to get than wisdom. Wisdom will save you from foolish and wicked people as well as teach you how to recognize them.  

Question: My husband was abusive in all ways (physical, emotional, financial, etc.). I learned in counseling & support groups that abusers use the same tactics (e.g. injuring themselves before the police arrive, grooming, physical abuse without leaving marks, character assassination, isolation, gaslighting). Other than generational, how do abusers learn these tactics?

Answer: I don’t think I’ve ever answered this question before. Let me begin by telling a true story. When my granddaughter was about 2 ½ years old, I was taking care of her and her baby sister. She was very drawn to her daddy’s computer which sat open on his desk. I knew he did not want her playing on it and she knew she was not to climb on his desk chair to pound on the keyboard. Yet when my back was turned, she climbed up on his chair, stood over the keyboard, pounding away. 

When I “caught” her in the act, and said, “Maya, what are you doing?” She looked at me, big tears rolling down her eyes, threw her hands up in the air, and cried, “I didn’t know. I didn’t know.”  

That wasn’t true. She did know she was not supposed to be up on that chair or playing with the keyboard. But how did she know to lie and manipulate her Nana with her tears? Who taught her that? No one. Sin comes naturally to all of us. It’s our parents, teachers, friends, religion, culture, and consequences that teach us what is acceptable and what is not. What is good and what is bad. What is right and what is wrong.

Ideally, when that happens, as a child matures those external standards become internalized into that person’s own personal conscience. Later, when that child or adult is tempted to lie or steal or hurt someone else, those internal controls are operational and help restrict certain kinds of sinful behavior. Why?  

  1. People don’t want to feel bad about themselves if they violate their own conscience. 
  2. People don’t want others to think badly of them if they behave in those ways. 
  3. People don’t want to get in trouble or face the consequences if they give into temptation. 

Now that doesn’t mean we don’t sin anymore, but we have some internal breaks on what we would allow ourselves to do and what we would not allow ourselves to do under most circumstances.  

Proverbs teaches us to value wisdom so that we can be our best selves. It also warns us to stay away from temptations that will harm us, ruin our lives, and hurt others. However, Proverbs is realistic about some people. And it clearly says that wise people listen to instruction, but fools and wicked people refuse. (Proverbs 12:15)

Fools refuse to learn from their mistakes. They blame others instead of taking responsibility or disciplining themselves (Proverbs 12:1). The wicked are described as actually enjoying plotting evil and harming others. Yet they are good at pretense and image management (Proverbs 2:12-15).  

But your question is how do the wicked become wicked? Or foolish become foolish? Or abusers become abusers? Is it generational? Genetic? Learned?  

Science is now showing us that the brains, for example, of narcissists and psychopaths are different than the brains of those who don’t have this problem. But we still don’t know why. Are these differences because of biology, or by someone repeatedly making poor choices? 

There is evidence from neuroscience that shows us that the brain does change. For example, when you make repeated good choices, your brain forms new positive pathways, but when you make repeated negative choices, like with addiction, or repeated deception, or angry outbursts, those choices change the brain in negative ways.  

Therefore, when we look at the brain structure of a narcissist or sociopath, which is different than someone who does not have these problems, we have to ask ourselves a question. Are these differences because they were born that way, or has their brain changed in response to their chronic life choices and “thinking habits?”  

In Romans 1, the apostle Paul describes this process although he didn’t know anything about neurobiology. He writes, “they exchanged the truth of God for a lie” and as we read through the rest of that chapter, we see the consequences of God giving them over to a depraved mind. 

Their very character becomes deformed, growing further and further away from the image and character God intended them to have.  

We don't have a clear answer from science yet. But what we do know from science is that in addition to our own personal choices for good or bad, when someone experiences trauma, neglect, and/or abuse in childhood, there are consequences in the brain. In other words, we know that trauma impacts the brain not only for the one traumatized but for that person’s children even if they didn’t experience that trauma or are yet unborn.

However, it’s important to also note that not everyone who experiences abuse, neglect, or trauma develops a personality disorder or becomes a sociopath or an abuser as a result of that trauma. What else is at work?    

Our heart. Even after something traumatic happens to us, we have choices to make about what we will do with what happens to us. Will we hate or forgive? Will we curl up in fear? Retaliate or trust God? These particular decisions repeatedly made over our lifespan, create not only the particular neuropathways in our brain but our character traits of good and evil.  

The Bible speaks of pride, selfishness, envy, rebelliousness, haters of good, dishonesty, and laziness as part of a person’s character and not their biology. And, we also know that God is all about restoring someone’s character as they submit to him in the repentant and renewing process. (1 Corinthians 6:10,11; Ephesians 4:17-31). The bad news is that God never changes someone against his or her own will.  

The Bible is realistic. It tells us that darkness hates the light (John 3:20) and the foolish and evil heart rejects feedback and correction which are essential to change (Proverbs 9:7,8). Daniel tells us “the wicked will continue to be wicked” (Daniel 12:10).

Your question is how did he learn these ways? In summary, the ways we learn and choose to manipulate, control, express our anger, avoid conflict, or engage in conflict, are part personality, part family of origin, and part personal choice.

For example, a quiet timid personality might engage in much more covert tactics to get his way than a more aggressive personality.  Someone who grew up in a home with little teaching about morality or honesty might learn to lie or sneak or cheat much more than someone who grew up differently.

However, each of us has an internal God-given moral compass, that knows right from wrong, love from hate, evil from good, even those who repeatedly choose to ignore it. Click To Tweet

Friend, how do you learn that it was not okay to engage in some of these hurtful, abusive, and sinful behaviors?

19 Comments

  1. Connie on January 13, 2021 at 11:54 am

    The Comforter. Children who experience trauma yet do not grow up to be abusive, had someone to comfort them.
    Why do I choose to do right? I cry out to the Comforter, again and again, because I want to comfort (love) others, and in the natural, I don’t know how, and don’t even always feel like it.

    • Susan Peterson on January 14, 2021 at 12:11 pm

      I heard a sermon recently that touched on this. I may butcher the etymology, but the pastor broke down the term ‘comfort’ as used in the bible and pointed out that it does not only mean LOVE (as we usually interpret it) but also includes the concept of ‘strengthening’ (sort of like building a FORT around the comFORTed one). I really like this description of The Comforter.

      • Connie on January 15, 2021 at 12:33 pm

        Yes, thank you. I like that.

      • Robin on January 20, 2021 at 2:18 pm

        Beautiful description.

  2. Lizzie on January 13, 2021 at 1:31 pm

    Wow, Leslie. I just finished reading The Body Keeps the Score. I was wondering if you were going to mention trauma and you did. I think you nailed it. — I was the caregiver for my undiagnosed narcissist ex-husband for almost 30 years, feeling sorry for his rough childhood, trying to smooth out life, building him up when he felt other people were to blame for his pain and problems. As you describe so well, his behaviors escalated and his rage started to turn on me. I left and divorced him to save myself when he played the victim, refused to acknowledge any responsibility, and overall became more out of control. My church did not back me. — I’ve struggled to explain / defend my decision because many people (including me) believed his fake façade. Your last 2 posts are game changers for me. — This morning I received my 100th nasty email since I moved out 15 months ago (8 just in 2021 alone!) Right before reading your post, I went back through notes from our counseling sessions 3 years ago. — I’m in awe right now because our secular counselor basically said exactly what you did: we are called to feel compassion for someone who was traumatized. The trauma is real. But when it’s offered, it’s up to the traumatized person to accept help. Even so, it is through repetition that a person trains his brain to take offense and feel justified in rage as a response and it will be with the help of a higher power and love that he can take control of his thoughts and train his brain to take responsibility for his own actions / emotions, to self soothe, to hold back the sarcasm which so easily leads to verbal violence, to apologize, and to seek reconciliation instead of revenge. — I am that person you described who prayed for years “God, save my husband and save our marriage, but your will be done.” Once I stepped out of the way, God opened my eyes to the anger and rage inside my ex and to the danger my children and I were in as long as I stayed. I saw that as long as I stayed my ex would continue to use me as his excuse for not changing. — I still believe that through God it is “possible” my ex could change. But the rages continue, even though he was told these things 3 years ago and has been in his own counseling for years, I have been gone for 15 months, and I have not spoken or interacted with him in 12 months. I believe the fact he still expresses so much unprovoked rage toward me shows exactly what you described: his choice “to manipulate, control, express anger … and engage in conflict, are part personality, part family of origin, and part personal choice.” And while God may someday work inside him, 30 years showed that I could not. — Thank you, Leslie, for being a voice of wisdom and healing to those of us who have suffered at the hand (or words) of, and are trying to recover from, destructive marriages.

    • leaningonhope on January 14, 2021 at 10:48 pm

      Lizzie, wow as I read your comment I thought you were writing about me…I was married to and divorced from a man just like you described, for 10 years. And the same situation for me, before and after I left him. Fervent, desperate prayers, pastoral counsel, then no church support, and technically homeless with 3 children. Then he became so sick (terminally) he could no longer work, and he had literally no one to help him; he was destitute and lived in poverty. I took care of him as best as I could, even though I was also turned against, until he passed away, 6 years after our divorce. I used to cry and beg and plead with God to give me relief from the hell that was my life, as I would be tied to this man for the long term through our children.
      I have that book sitting here, too, it’s about time I read it, I think.
      Leslie, your counsel, articles, and webinars are all so helpful. Opening the eyes of these women to see the truth of their situations. I know it’s helped me tremendously.
      Thank you.

      • Free on January 16, 2021 at 12:06 am

        Learning, what a relief that your abuser is dead. I am singing the “ding dong the witch is dead” song from the Wizard of Oz in my head. Leave the past in the past. It is over. Hooray!

    • Free on January 16, 2021 at 12:00 am

      I want to respond to “30 years could not.”. Your 30 years had value. Had you not cajoled, over functioned, and been hypervigilant, you would probably be dead. These men don’t play nice when they don’t get what they want. Apparently, you had a lot of what he wanted or he wouldn’t have kept you around.

      Therefore, you are, and were a great catch all along. He just couldn’t let you realize how much he liked you being his object. Not his wife and friend mine you, his object. Now, you are finally learning what it is to be considered a useful possession rather than a person. Healthy people like us, can’t think like an abuser.

    • Katherine on February 17, 2021 at 10:45 pm

      Lizzie, I can so relate… 30 years of marriage, too. I am so sorry your church did not support you. It is almost impossible to explain the kind of thing you have seen over the span of decades. It is difficult to point to “one thing” that can crystalize that kind of experience. It’s more like a subtle series of small things. And it can be very much like the proverbial frog in the pot of water..

      Like you, I agreed, consoled, and tried to smooth out my ex husbands conflicts with coworkers, family and friends; always taking his side and believing his interpretation of events. What I could not see was that his perspective was that any problems he was having was always the other person’s fault. It never occurred to me that his foundational belief system did not allow him to see his part in his problems.

      After 23 years of this, the circumstances changed and I was present when multiple conflicts happened and his interpretation of events was so skewed it was astounding. When I stood for the facts and would not go along with the narcissistic viewpoint, his rage turned on me. I was accused of not being supportive, not being submissive. I was told i should be “more like so-and-so” (various women who we barely knew but he viewed as more submissive). His rage escalated to verbal threats, displays of violence, cruelty to animals, destroying my property, hiding money, and homicidal ideation. I was gaslighted, smeared and threatened. Still, I thought I could get through to him. A wise counselor told me I had to trust that God, and only God, could do what needs to be done, and I needed to get out of His way.

      I had to leave for my safety, and when I did the violence escalated. With the help of dear friends, and eventually this blog and other resources, I saw that my “going along” with lies and pride only emboldened the bad behavior. I have had to face my own skewed thinking that equates enabling with what it means to be a Christian wife.

      What I witnessed in my ex was a surreal transformation, and I have often wondered about the chain of decisions that fueled the transformation. I believe the MH profession would say he has a mental illness, but I also know he could control it when it suited him, so there is a thought process and he has the ability to make choices. It is a sobering truth of God’s word that we are what we think, what we give ourselves to. It is also true that if a person continues to choose sin, that person’s conscience can become seared. My thought is that the evolution into a lifestyle of wickedness involves all three parts of a human: spirit, soul, and body.

      We always, always have the opportunity to turn to God and He can restore us, but we have to put in the work- renewing our minds with the truth of God’s word. I do not say these things lightly or with a haughty spirit. The word of God also warns against saying “Ah ha!” I say this with a trembling in my soul and a keen awareness of my own vulnerability to sin. God keep me close to You.

  3. Tina on January 13, 2021 at 3:08 pm

    When a child experiences trauma or even correction, that child must respond to the trauma or correction in some way. If they are blessed with someone to walk through it with them and help them process it and respond biblically, perhaps they may come through as a well adjusted adult. Perhaps they are helped to examine themselves, confess whatever sin is theirs, and recognize what is not their fault and not their responsibility to deal with, and how to forgive that part.

    But the enemy is right there waiting, especially in childhood, seeking to temp and sway us to respond in unbiblical ways that potentially chart a course in our lives if we let it. If the child chooses to respond one of the ways below, their adulthood is riddled with painful results.

    If the child’s inner decision/response is, “I don’t know why they are treating me this way. Something is wrong with THEM” (Pride), they gravitate toward narcissistic tendencies. They begin to be attracted to others who think this way and observe and learn life habits of blame shifting, self justification, superiority mentality, an inability to admit fault, and all the other narcissistic tactics to gain control, manipulate, and triumph over others.

    If the child’s inner decision is, “I don’t know why they are treating me this way, something must be wrong with ME,” (self pity/self blame, and a form of inverted pride), they gravitate toward codependent tendencies. They begin to be attracted to others who think this way and observe and learn life habits of blaming self, negative self talk, people pleasing, feeling helpless, victim mindset, thinking if they could just get it right they could have a relationship with their abuser, and being stuck in a place of false hope in abusive situations.

    Unfortunately, often a child has one of each kind of parent, because narcissistic people and codependent people are attracted to each other because they fuel each other’s “needs.” The narcissist “needs” to be in control and feel superior and always right, and will do anything to attain this. The codependent feels helpless, “needs” a strong leader to care for them, and tends to be a compliant, people pleaser. So, often a child has an example of both kinds of “lies” to believe and both types of sinful behavior to “learn from.”

    So, in a way it is both. It starts with the sin of believing satan’s lies, just like Eve in the garden. Once the lie is believed, the person begins to “learn” (through observation of others with the same mindset and through their distorted “filter”), sinful ways of responding with their pattern of thinking (the something’s wrong with “them”… or “me” idea). Once satan gets us to believe whatever lie he uses with an individual, he is right there ready with “lessons” for us to “learn” in the way we have sinfully chosen.

    I have seen this in my family. Our counselor said my husband had narcissistic tendencies and I had codependent tendencies. He always thought nothing was his fault and confidently blame shifted onto others and acted as if others were pitiful and “less than” him. I (was codependent) spent 31 years in false hope, reading every book, doing Bible studies, going to counselors, conferences, etc., thinking, if I could just get it right we could have a relationship. He blamed me, and I let him pile it all on me to carry the marriage on my shoulders, always trying harder, living under the twisted definition of submission that is an abuse of power. I enabled the abuse through my codependent thought process and habits. I have 7 children and each of them has chosen one of these 2 mindsets and have believed the lies associated with the mindset, and they each behave in similar ways that they observed that parent live out those lies. So, first they believed the lies, then they “learned” much of the behavior with the enemy of their souls “tutoring” them moment by moment as they observed the behavior of the parent (and others) they identified with. So there is an intertwining of believing lies and “learning” tactics and sinful character that reinforces satan’s lies.

    For me, I had to recognize the lies of satan I had agreed to believe, and repent. Because of those lies, the clear line between what was my junk and his junk was erased. He and satan had me convinced it was all on me, and if I could “just get it right” we could have a relationship. I couldn’t even comprehend the obvious logic that a relationship would be impossible if he could not admit and work wholeheartedly on his part too. God had to go deep in my heart, dismantle the lies, and show me I could only effect a change in areas that were my junk and truly my responsibility… AND that if I did change, in some way he would *have to* change too, b/c he would have to respond to my new ways of thinking and behaving. BUT I had to accept that I had no control over HOW he would change in response to my new self. It was a constant battle to not return to the false way of thinking that was at the root. I have largely grown up out of codependency thanks to my counselor and people like Leslie keeping God’s truth always before me.

    So for a person to break free from the lies at the root, first they must admit they have a problem (that they chose to believe satan’s lies). This seems nearly impossible for a narcissistic person, b/c at the very root, their lie is that they are NOT the problem and they don’t have any problems (other than what they consider to be “normal” problems that “everybody has”). If the person can admit they have a problem, next they need to *want* to change *enough* to work excruciatingly hard and long at breaking the habits associated with operating under those lies they have believed for so long. During that time, they need the accountability of people like Leslie, a personal counselor, an accountability group, etc., constantly keeping before their eyes the truth of God’s Word and his relational principles. After much humility and confession, hard and long work, one can be delivered from the lies they have believed and “unlearn” the habits formed from those lies, and become a more whole and biblically balanced person.

    God Bless!

    • Anonymous on January 15, 2021 at 7:29 pm

      This is going to sound strange, but here goes. I know I chose a lie. I did it because my heart wanted to. I am not sure honestly that there is any willingness to repent. I have brought a lot of pain to my family…I T least acknowledge the fault is mine. I am thinking that I know who I truly am and seem to will…and that my husband and boys are better off without me. I know what a healthy relationship should be and at least know they deserve better. I don’t want boys to choose someone like me or my husband who is a good man to endure more of this toxicity. I am the one to blame…and if there is no repentance maybe the best “worst” is to let them be as far distanced from it and allow God to bring healing and good to those who have set their heart on Him.

      • R on January 18, 2021 at 9:45 pm

        When you see it in yourself and don’t want to cause anyone any more pain, there is so much hope. You need a good therapist and some real work, but you can make real changes. The hopeless ones are the ones who think their abusive behavior is justified. You are not hopeless.

      • Leslie Vernick on January 26, 2021 at 12:12 am

        Why don’t you want to be different? Help us understand what motivates you to do the things inside and outside that you yourself say you’re not proud of. Did your heart want to, or did your feelings want to? There is a difference. Sometimes we follow feelings as if they are our true NORTH, which can lead us astray. What are your highest values or aspired virtues? to be ___________? To value ___________? I’ve longed to understand more of the mind of someone who sees and doesn’t care to change. Help me understand you.

    • LIBBY WILLIAMS on January 21, 2021 at 6:05 pm

      Very Well Put! I want to print this out so I can read it again and again. It is very profound yet simple enough for me to understand.
      Sadly, I feel to beaten down to work this hard any more. I’m so so tired! My journey began 36 years ago, I’m 63 now and am realizing my part in this dance.
      Thank you !! and may God richly bless you!!

      • Janice D on January 22, 2021 at 9:19 am

        Hi Libby,I completely understand the fatigue and feelings you are experiencing.I’m 66 and get it.I felt so overwhelmed to be starting over at 64,but what I found out is that when you begin to make healthy positive choices for yourself the energy is there.Every small step provides the needed strength for the next one.As the fog lifts your mind and body begin to “detox” from the oppression and you can focus on each new challenge.You are worth all the hard work it takes to find truth and clarity.It is the best investment you will ever make and God will honor it.

        • Free on January 24, 2021 at 11:36 pm

          And once you are free, you feel ten years younger. Besides 60 is the new 40!

  4. Barbara B on January 13, 2021 at 4:23 pm

    How do you learn to turn away from sin? I think it will always be a mystery as to why some people choose darkness over light. I don’t know the answer. But I think there are some things people can do to make sure we are choosing to learn from mistakes. Mainly, learn to know God better and better. Scripture says “Those who know Your name will trusts in You” (Psalm 9:10) .When we know who He truly is, we will trust Him. Trust produces obedience. Abusers do not trust God. Abusers trust in their own power, cleverness, and viewpoint. Therefore, why would they set aside their own fleshly temptation in order to do the harder thing, obey God? They don’t trust Him so of course they are not going to obey.

    “The man that hath no music in himself, Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds, is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils; The motions of his spirit are dull as night, And his affections dark as Erebus” (Shakespeare). I try to fill my soul with songs of praise to God every day. It’s the best protection against temptation, I think.

  5. Laura on January 15, 2021 at 7:22 pm

    You are right. God will not change a
    heart that will not choose it. I too wonder why some want darkness and some want light. But, I do believe we choose, again and again and again.

  6. McIntosh Lynn on January 20, 2021 at 8:40 am

    Good article

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