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.
I’m doing a free webinar December 7th on How to Move from Victim Mindset to Owner Mindset. (CLICK HERE to register). In it, you will learn to write a new chapter to your own life story, even if the situation never changes.
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: 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 where did she learn to lie and manipulate her Nana with her tears? Who taught her those tactics? No one. Sin comes naturally to all of us. It’s our parents, teachers, friends, religion, culture, and consequences who 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. The person doesn’t want to feel bad about themselves if they violate their own conscience.
2. The person doesn’t want others to think badly of him or her if they behave in those ways.
3. The person doesn’t want to get in trouble or face the consequences if he or she gives in to temptation.
This doesn’t mean we don’t sin anymore, but we have some internal brakes 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 become 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 also realistic about some people. It doesn’t whitewash evil or cover up for fools. Proverbs says that wise people listen to instruction, but fools and wicked people refuse. (Proverbs 12:15)
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? Here are a few of my thoughts.
Science now tells us that the brains of narcissists and psychopaths are different from the brains of those who don’t have this problem. But we still don’t know why. Are these differences because of biology, or due to 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 that is different from someone who does not have these problems, we have to ask ourselves, 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. As C.S. Lewis wrote in The Great Divorce that “the one who repeatedly grumbles becomes nothing but a grumble.” That’s who he is, not just what he does.
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, 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. We must ask ourselves what else is at work?
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 neural pathways in our brain but our character traits of good and evil.
Again C.S. Lewis writes….”Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature.”
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.
Friend, how do you learn that it was not okay to engage in some of these hurtful, abusive, and sinful behaviors?