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There is an element of power in every human relationship. What defines whether a relationship is healthy, dysfunctional, or abusive is how that power is being distributed and used. An important point to bear in mind is that among humans, it is never correct for all of the power to be on one side. In peer relationships, the goal is to keep the power equally divided. In parent-child relationships, the parent is supposed to start off with the majority of the power. As the child grows, the parent is supposed to gradually allocate more and more power to the child until the relationship finally settles into a peer dynamic when the child is an adult.
Now keeping power properly distributed among humans is a challenge, because in real life, the balance of power keeps shifting about. To understand how this works, let’s construct a power scale. Imagine a long, smooth, wooden board: about 1 foot wide and about 8 feet long. Now add a tall edge all around the board to prevent anything you set on top of the board from falling off. Now let’s have you and your friend John stand at opposite ends of the board and pick it up. You’re now holding the long board up in the air together about waist level. Now imagine that there are ten lines painted across the board which divide it into ten even sections rather like squares on a chocolate bar. From where you’re standing, the line closest to you reads 10%, the next line farther away reads 20%, and so on. The line that marks the halfway point between you and John reads 50%. As you move your eyes past the halfway point and into John’s half of the board, the numbers keep increasing: 60, 70, 80, 90, and then finally the 100% line is at the very edge of the board which John is holding. Now since John is your peer friend—not your boss or your parent—for this relationship to be healthy, the power should be divided evenly between the two of you. Let’s now get a thick smooth ball about the size of your fist and place it on the halfway mark—the 50% line. From where you’re standing, that ball tells you how much power you currently have in the relationship. If you want more power, you simply raise your end of the scale, and the ball will roll towards John. As it does, you’ll see it passing the 60% line, the 70% line, and so on. But if John retaliates by raising his end of the scale higher than yours, then the ball will start rolling back towards you. As it does, you’ll see yourself losing power—you’ll fall from 60% back to 50% and then maybe even 40 or 30%, depending on how aggressive John is being. For this relationship to remain healthy, the two of you need to work together to try and keep that ball as close to the 50% line as possible. But since it’s a ball, it wants to roll, so it’s always shifting about. This is how power works in real life relationships: it’s always shifting and trying to keep it where it ought to be requires constant adjusting. In our scale metaphor, you and John will have to keep moving the board up and down to get the ball to stay close to the 50% line. If you and John have a healthy relationship, then the kinds of adjustments you’ll need to make will be frequent but very slight. With both of you working at it, it will be easy to keep the ball in the 40-60% range.
Now in an abusive relationship, what happens is that the abuser hogs the power. Imagine John suddenly hoisting his end of the scale way over his head. The ball swiftly rolls all the way to your side and now it’s resting against your edge of the scale, which is the 0% line for you. This isn’t good. John has just totally dominated you. It’s always bad news when this happens in human relationships, because humans simply aren’t capable of handling absolute power without turning into absolute jerks.
Even in relationships where one partner is extremely dependent on the other due to physical or emotional inabilities, some power must remain on the dependent person’s side. Let’s take the parent-infant relationship. Baby Joe can’t feed, clean, clothe, or defend himself. Baby Joe is totally dependent on his father Peter for these things. In this relationship, Peter is supposed to have the majority of the power. Peter needs to have most of the power if he’s going to carry out all of the responsibilities that are being put on him, but Peter should never try to seize all of the power. As the father, it is Peter’s job to allocate power to Baby Joe, even though Joe is incapable of seizing any power. In this situation, Baby Joe can’t hold up his end of the scale, so let’s rest his end on a bench. But Peter can hold up his end, and it’s now entirely his job to keep adjusting the scale so that the balance of power remains in the right zone. Maybe Peter will take 90% of the power in the relationship, but he’ll leave Baby Joe 10%. How does this play out in real life? Well, it means that Peter views Baby Joe as having certain rights. When Baby Joe cries for help because he needs a diaper change or because he’s hungry or because he’s lying on something uncomfortable, Peter respects Baby Joe’s demands for help. All Baby Joe can do is demand through crying—if Peter doesn’t fulfill those demands, Baby Joe has no way of retaliating. So in this situation, it’s on Peter to not only allocate Baby Joe a reasonable portion of power, but it’s also Peter’s job to protect Baby Joe’s power for him and not let anyone else take it away. This means that Peter doesn’t let anyone hurt Baby Joe or molest him or treat him like some kind of toy. Peter guards Baby Joe and he defends Baby Joe’s right to power: this is part of what it means to be a good parent.
Now as Baby Joe grows into Boy Joe, Peter needs to allocate more power to him. Boy Joe is still too young to hold up his end of the scale, so Peter needs to making the adjustments. Let’s say Peter rolls back his power to 80%. Baby Joe had 10% of the power, but now Peter gives Boy Joe 20%. How does this play out in real life? Well, Baby Joe couldn’t talk or express complex opinions. Boy Joe can. So when Boy Joe wants to wear a green shirt, Peter lets him have that power of choice. When Boy Joe wants to choose a bedtime story, Peter respects his wishes. In human relationships, power is primarily expressed through the granting of requests and the respecting of preferences. But since Peter is the parent, he still needs to hold a firm 80%. This means that he doesn’t give Boy Joe his way all of the time. When Boy Joe asks for a candy bar, Peter says no, because the candy isn’t good for Joe. Maybe Boy Joe throws a tantrum about this. Tantrums are just a demand for more power. Boy Joe doesn’t want just 20% in the relationship. He wants more, because he’s greedy and selfish like all humans. And yet for this parent-child relationship to remain healthy, Peter needs to not allocate too much power to Joe too soon, so when Boy Joe starts the bratty tantrum, Peter needs to respond with discipline that will rein Joe back in and motivate him to accept the current power allocation of 80/20.
So what if Peter was an abusive father—then what would happen? Well, it depends how abusive Peter is. Let’s say he’s extremely abusive. In this case, Peter will hog 100% of the power when Baby Joe is just a defenseless little thing. In this kind of scenario, Peter will not respect reasonable demands on Baby Joe’s part. Peter will feed and clean Baby Joe only when Peter is in the mood to do so, and that won’t be as often as Baby Joe needs. So Baby Joe is going to suffer a lot under Peter’s care, because Peter is totally dominating him and Peter is vetoing most of Baby Joe’s demands for basic necessities because Peter doesn’t want to have to be bothered.
As Baby Joe grows into Boy Joe, Peter should be starting to allocate more power to him, but he’s not going to. In cases of abuse, the abusers fight to retain far more power than they ought to have. It’s easy to dominate children when they are young because adults control access to all of the basic necessities. The longer the abuse continues, the more used to being dominated the child becomes, and the more suffering he does. Abusers not only take too much power in relationships, they misuse the power that they have. Peter naturally has more physical power than young Joe, but simply having power doesn’t mean you should use it however you want. Peter shouldn’t use his physical power to beat Joe or molest Joe or make Joe grovel in the dirt. But if Peter is abusive, he will do all of these things, and Joe will feel like he has no choice but to eat it.
Now as Joe grows older, he starts gaining more abilities. This really threatens Peter, because Peter is an abuser, and abusers need to stay in a very dominant position. To protect his position of power and to discourage Joe from trying to revolt against his tyranny, Peter will employ a whole range of manipulation tactics, many of which will be psychological in nature. Here is where we come to the topic that we want to really examine in this post: labels of inferiority.
THE POWER OF LABELS
Loser. Stupid. Slow. Retard. Underdeveloped. Dense. Spacey. Dumb. Weak. Worthless. Pathetic. Trash. Filth. Did you get slapped with any of these labels when you were a kid? Labels feel powerful. Labels encourage us to adopt certain beliefs about ourselves. The purpose of all of the labels we just listed is to encourage you to view yourself as inferior. By teaching you to believe that something is intrinsically “off” or “wrong” about you, your abuser has a much easier time dominating you.
So why do abusers do this? Why are they so desperate to keep their victims ground under their heels? Well, while abusers often come across as fearful towers of confidence and strength, in real life they feel ragingly insecure, fearfully wounded, and extremely vulnerable. It’s important to realize that abusing others is a coping mechanism for managing one’s own pain. Abusers abuse because they’ve been abused. It’s that classic principle of “hurting people hurt other people.”
Now God loves variety and He created humans with a wide variety of personalities and temperaments. Because of this, we don’t all react to pain in the same way. Some of us respond passively, others of us respond with aggression. Among those who respond with aggression, a very common psychological response to abuse is that of role reversal. What happens here is that we start with a victim of abuse. The victim realizes that he is being dominated in the relationship, and he quickly learns that his lack of power is intimately associated with his suffering. As soon as the victim can, he escapes the tyranny of his abuser. But he hasn’t processed the trauma of being abused—he’s still living in trauma mode, and that means he’s totally paranoid about ever getting abused again. The victim then decides that the best way to defend himself is to make sure he’s never dominated again. Sharing power in human relationships makes him feel very nervous and on edge. He can’t handle the power being split 50/50. He needs to stay as close to 100% as he can. So in his personal relationships, our victim steps into the role of abuser by hogging excessive power for himself and then misusing the power.
Rick is a good example here. Rick grew up getting beat on by his father. That scared Rick to death. Rick quickly figured out that it was his feeling of powerlessness which was resulting in overwhelming physical and emotional pain. In his late teens, Rick finally runs away from home. Soon he gets a girlfriend. But at this point Rick is deeply traumatized by all of the terror and pain he’s been through. He is terrified of suddenly finding himself back in a powerless position. So in his relationship with Marsha, Rick often smacks her around, just to prove to himself and her that he is clearly in the dominant role. Rick can’t handle Marsha having anywhere near 50%. He doesn’t trust her not to hurt him—he doesn’t trust anyone. Rick sees all humans as potential threats, and he never feels safe around them. His only way to get any peace is to focus on the continual evidence that he is in the totally dominant position. So he regularly beats on Marsha. And Marsha eats it because she is also traumatized by abuse, only she is a passive responder. Marsha doesn’t fight back. She’s never fought back—it’s not in her nature. So Rick dominates and Marsha grovels, and soon they’ve got a 90/10 dynamic going on which is extremely dysfunctional and injurious to both of them. Then Marsha gets pregnant and has a kid. It’s a boy. Rick immediately claims total dominion over the boy, and soon he’s abusing the boy as well. As the boy grows older and is able to communicate more, Rick becomes increasingly threatened by him, so Rick increases the severity of his abuse. Rick is absolutely paranoid about Marsha or the boy taking power away from him, so he uses every strategy he can think of to keep them both intimidated and groveling. He constantly rains insults down on Marsha’s head, calling her every derogatory name he can think of. As his son grows up, Rick starts heaping the insults onto him as well. The point of the labels is to keep everyone in the power positions which Rick needs them to be in for Rick to feel any margin of safety. Rick is the alpha in this system. He rules the roost. Meanwhile, Rick’s son is growing up with an inferiority complex.
Your abuser’s motivation for calling you nasty names and teaching you that you’re inferior is a simple matter of self-defense. Your abuser is terrified about you gaining power in the relationship. Your abuser actually sees you as a far greater threat than you realize, plus they are using their abuse of you to try and manage their own unprocessed pain. Beating up his family members is a way that Rick vents some of the intense emotional pressure that he feels inside from all of his unprocessed pain. In abusive relationships, the abusers actually need their victims—the victims are a kind of therapy for them. Is it sick and twisted? Absolutely, but this is how the mind works.
So now that we understand why you’re being told that you’re inferior in the home, what about at school? What about all of those teachers who also said you were dumb, slow, and mentally “off”. If strangers are saying it, it must be true, right? Wrong. Let’s take the case of Jenny. Because she’s getting regularly abused at home, Jenny’s ability to concentrate in school is pretty much nonexistent. It has nothing to do with Jenny being dumb or slow. Jenny has plenty of intelligence, but she’s not getting an opportunity to exercise it when she’s in constant fear for her life. Now when Jenny’s English teacher, Sarah, is teaching the class, she notices that Jenny is often staring off into space. Whenever Sarah calls on Jenny for an answer, Jenny has no idea what the lesson is. Sarah genuinely cares about her students, so she tries to start working with Jenny during recess to see if she can help catch the girl up. But Jenny is way behind in every area. Her penmanship is terrible. Her reading is bad. Her math skills are a joke. Soon Sarah is feeling frustrated. Because Jenny is so obviously behind in every area, and because Jenny is such a space cadet in conversations, Sarah ends up reporting Jenny as being cognitively impaired. But Jenny’s not impaired—she’s just immensely distracted by life-threatening fears. How is Jenny supposed to focus on arithmetic when she’s wondering if she’s going to get raped that night? It’s precisely because Jenny is intelligent that she isn’t fluffing off her situation at home as no big deal. Her smart mind knows it is a very big deal, and it’s spending all of its resources trying to come up with coping skills. So while Jenny falls behind in the school system and picks up more and more labels which imply she is inferior to other kids, there’s really nothing inferior about her. If someone would rescue her from her horrible home situation and help her process her trauma, she’d be able to come out of red alert and start using her plethora of cognitive resources.
Let’s take a mirror and smear it with a bunch of petroleum jelly. Now you stand in front of it and look at yourself. How clear is your reflection? Not clear at all. You can see a general outline, but you can’t see the details of your appearance, because there’s a smear of grease in the way. That layer of grease represents the immense stress which being abused heaps onto you. As long as you’re trapped under that enormous load, you’re not going to get an accurate view of who you are and what you are capable of. When a man is in pain, his normal personality gains a negative twist as he becomes extra irritable and impatient. If we came back and visited him when he was feeling better, we’d discover he’s a lot nicer to be around. In the same way, as long as you’re fighting for your life and your sanity, no one is going to see the real you. You don’t have a chance to explore your natural interests and God given talents when you’re in stress mode. This is why recovering from trauma often results in some very noticeable changes in personality: when the real you finally gets a chance to just be, you finally get to see a lot of the positives about yourself that have been obscured by stress.
As a victim of abuse who has been told you’re inferior, the point we want you to grasp is this: labels are meaningless. Labels don’t define you. Labels can’t control you. Your abuser labeled you as inferior in order to manipulate you. Other people labeled you as inferior either to help your abuser or because they didn’t understand what was really going on with you. But other people aren’t God, and they can’t see your full potential the way He does. No human is inferior. We all have far more potential than we can ever reach in this life. As you move forward in your own healing journey, ask God to help you reject all the negative labels that other humans have put on you through the years. Ask Him to help you embrace His view of you as a priceless, precious, beautifully complex soul who He chose to create out of love.
The Element of Power in Human Relationships
The Divine Perspective of Humans
Relating to God: Recognizing the Trap of Symbolic Pain
The Mindset of Trauma Reversal: Pursuing the Unattainable
Predestination & Objects of Wrath: Are some of us created for Hell?