Trigger warning: This article contains descriptions of abuse. Reader discretion is advised.
The day my father pinned me down and beat me behind closed doors taught me that “men of God” could do whatever they wanted. I’d heard of other men who went to jail for abusing their children. But since my father was never incarcerated, my young mind assumed his actions were normal.
And so I convinced myself I couldn’t ask for help.
You see, my father was once a pastor. I still remember the day after a service when he led me to Christ. This is my only memory of ever receiving nurture or respect from this man, and thus that moment would define the rest of my childhood and most of my young adult life. I held tightly to the knowledge that I had done something very good by choosing to believe what he believed.
Pastors, Sunday school teachers, and countless Christian resources on parenting drove home the message that children must honour their fathers, and that parents must discipline their children. And since my father had such a vast knowledge of the Bible, I assumed his actions reflected what the Bible taught. I believed I had fully earned the bruises I kept hidden beneath my clothes.
Given these shame-filled beliefs, what possible motive would I have for telling anyone (including my mother) about this? The self-ridicule was already more than I could handle. No matter how hard I tried to be good, I was never good enough. Which made me think I was a terrible child whose sins made me unworthy of love and forgiveness.
Every June, the calendar reminds us that we have, or once had, a father.
It’s often very hard for sisters and brothers like me to smile and keep it all together while friends and church members celebrate the fathers in their lives.
Instead of feeling gratitude, we can often deal with sick feelings of failure, anger, insecurity, and mistrust. Sometimes these feelings last all year. And I, for one, waited far too long to start talking about them.
Even though I did everything in my power to follow the Bible’s instructions for living in a way worthy of a father’s affection, I felt I couldn’t get it right. This flawed logic of seeking favour to earn my way in life followed me into student-teacher relationships at university and interactions with my employers. It has followed me into most of my friendships as well.
Clinical psychologist Dr. Robert Duff, author of 10 Common Thinking Traps, refers to this as polarized thinking, meaning that everything is black and white—a failure or a success. People are either friends or enemies, you are either intelligent or stupid. He challenges his readers to explore whether there really are only two categories for each situation. He suggests making a pros and cons list for whatever situation you’re currently struggling with.
For example, let’s say you experienced a flashback to your childhood and your whole body went tense. In the cons column, you could write that you feel like a failure (I often do) because you’d told yourself you were done with letting your father affect your life. In the pros column, you could write that instead of getting back into bed you went for a walk, called someone you trust to talk about it, or even made yourself a snack. Every small victory counts.
Miscommunication and misunderstandings often leave me frantic, thinking no one will want to stay with this screw-up. I tell myself that the ones who do stay are probably just doing it to boost their own ego and can’t wait to talk about me behind my back.
Duff refers to this as “mind reading.” This happens when someone assumes they know and understand the private thoughts and motives of someone else. But in reality, there are countless possibilities that could be driving someone else’s behaviour. Assuming anything, especially negative assumptions, isn’t fair to you (because assuming the worst can really influence how we feel about ourselves) and it also isn’t fair to the other person.
I also struggle with feeling that I can’t be real with anyone. I hear how people backtalk others with trauma like mine. I feel that if I’m not extremely careful, I’ll make a mistake and be the next one to be devoured at the gossip buffet.
Duff calls this “fortune telling.” This is where you feel you can predict the future behaviour of another person or the results of an event. For example, you may not want to go to church on Father’s Day Sunday out of fear that someone will ask about your father.
I recently heard about a church service that didn’t go as planned. A friend of mine arrived at her church to discover the power had gone out. The foyer was filled with people, questions, and concern. Connecting this to the fear mentioned above, we can see that going into any situation with set expectations of what will happen is not an accurate way to interpret our world. We rarely (if ever) have everything in our control.
Another feeling I’ve had to work through is anger. I often feel like those close to me don’t understand how hard it is to accomplish simple tasks while reliving trauma, sometimes daily. This can look like wishing people would show me grace for not living up to their standards.
This kind of thinking can fall under what Duff calls “shoulds and musts.” People should understand how hard things are for me. I shouldn’t have to keep reminding them of my limits. I should have gotten over this trauma years ago.
Thinking in this way only puts pressure on us to live up to unreasonable expectations, especially when other people’s behaviour is out of our control. Duff suggests that we reframe our thinking by setting manageable goals to work on long-term. For example: I will start working through this trauma with a counsellor.
Speaking up is an important part of breaking cycles of abuse. When I started talking to a counsellor 17 years ago, I didn’t know how to safely form words to describe my brokenness. I felt that talking about how my father wounded me would dishonour him and disappoint God.
I’m slowly realizing that much of the pain I struggle with actually stemmed from a form of false religion that was modelled to me by my father and the church leadership.
My father’s actions were not honouring God and I did not need to stay silent to protect him.
I know now that it was not my fault. Children are never responsible for abusive behaviour they receive from fathers (or anyone). And you don’t owe your abuser anything. The thing you owe yourself, because you are valuable and you’re worth it, is compassion.
Shame tells us: If you had done better, maybe your father wouldn’t have been so physically or emotionally violent. Jesus, the voice of compassion, tells us: It’s not your fault. Your father is responsible for his own actions. Children are not created to be manipulated by their parent’s emotions.
Shame tells us: Don’t tell anyone how horrible it really was. Jesus tells us: Talking about what happened is a step closer to healing. And you deserve to heal.
Shame tells us: You’ll never heal. Jesus tells us: You will heal, in time. Anything important takes hours of dedication and hard work. You’ll start seeing transformation over time.
10-Common-Thinking-Traps by Dr. Robert Duff can be downloaded for free when you subscribe to his email list. Note that Duff isn’t a Christian author; although his is work helpful, his language may be offensive to some.
J.M. Bergman’s poem, “Where the monsters hide” reflects on her father’s abuse and her path of healing. J.M. is an internationally-read author and creative content writer who has also worked in editing. She has published two novels and has written for a number of Christian magazines on topics such as trauma, grief, recovery, and wellness. Her upcoming release, a poetry collection dialoguing her journey from chronic pain to identity, will be available soon. J.M. lives in Manitoba with her husband and their exceptionally cute black lab.