The other day I wrote an article on invalidation and how churches invalidate their congregations, other churches and critics. It is abuse because it is usually carried out by those in authority in the church. In this case, it is a perceived authority, it is certainly not a godly authority. God does not give leaders in order that they ‘lord it over’ their congregation. (Matthew 20:25-28, 1 Peter 5:3, 2 Corinthians 5:24). Jesus told us that church leaders in order to be great had to be servants. They are there simply to serve, not to direct the lives of others. If people question them, the response should be the same as those ready to defend their faith at all times (1 Peter 3:15). But often those who have taken illegitimate authority are highly combative and will attack any who question them or in some cases simply ignore them.
Invalidation is an attack on the personhood, the identity, the integrity of an individual. It is appalling to think that a pastor who is purporting to minister to God’s own people would treat them with any level of contempt. We lived in a Christian cult for about 15 years and were exposed to invalidation from pastors and from other members of the cult. The core of this kind of behaviour is hatred of the brethren (1 John 2:9-11). John tells us that if we have no love for the brethren, our fellow believers, then we lack the very basis of our salvation, the love of God. If God’s love does not reside in us, His Spirit does not reside in us and there is no proof that we are born again. Yes, we are saved by faith, but faith without works is dead. So the move to destroy both individuals who support you and individuals who criticise you is that of an unsaved religious person with no understanding of the offence their very behaviour is to God himself.
We realised very quickly after our exit from the cult that our families of origin were the blueprint for our lives. Because we were raised in narcissistic environments, we did not recognise narcissism in others, we saw it as perfectly normal. While we saw the abusive behaviour and registered it at some level, we didn’t entirely understand that this behavior was not just unchristian, it was inhumane. We had been trained from birth to accept hatred as love, to embrace abuse as acceptable and to believe invalidation.
Malignant narcissists (meaning they don’t just have a narcissistic personality disorder but their narcissism is predatory, sadistic and pre-meditated) are everywhere and can be both pastors and parents. A parent with MN visits literal hell upon their families and spouses. They invalidate as a means of keeping tight control on people in their close vicinity. I believe that malignant narcissists hate their families more than they do others. Their lives are an inversion of what human beings normally associate with intimate relationships. Those closest to them suffer their contempt and degradation, while comparative strangers are treated well, at least at first. Their hatred of their families comes from the knowledge that these people know them intimately, have lived with them from birth and have witnessed their lives and have the power therefore to expose them to others.
I will never forget my own MN mother’s response when I went to get some counseling from a pastor’s wife after suffering from intense crippling panic attacks. I had initially asked my mother for help, but her response was to invalidate the experience and laugh at me as though this was all just a minor inconvenience. I became desperate, and believing my problem was a spiritual one (which it was in the end) I went for help from another more mature Christian. My mother’s response when she found out was explosive. I was literally hauled off to her bedroom by my ear (I was 19) where she hissed at me that she could not believe that I was ‘airing our dirty laundry’ to a complete stranger.
Now I think about it, this was my mother exposing her own abuse. She knew deep down that she had been treating me with contempt, she did not know what I had told the counselor (I had actually mentioned nothing about my mother at all) and she immediately assumed that I was ratting on her. Why would she assume this? Dare I say that it was her guilty conscience? This makes her actions even more contemptuous and sadistic. Not only was I abused to the point of having panic attacks, I was then attacked for looking for help. I did not know what was wrong with me, I didn’t find out until I was in my 40s. Yet my mother assumed I had full understanding of what she had done, because my mother had full understanding of what she was doing, and lived in fear of exposure. Her attempts to silence me were met with confusion from me, and in the end she calmed down when I told her that I had a ‘spiritual problem’ and was looking for an answer from a spiritual advisor. She realised I was not gunning for her, but looking for answers since I didn’t really know what the problem was.
I have termed the effect of malignant narcissism on children a ‘soul abortion’ in the sense that MN parents attempt to destroy their children’s soul before it is fully formed. Probably most of the population would think that this would be impossible, an oxymoron. Parents love their children. If your parents’ loved you, then rejoice. But anyone reading this would probably have been searching for information regarding malignant narcissism and has either married or been parented by a MN. People with this kind of experience don’t have to be told, once the light goes on, that their experience was real. They have lived it. My favourite verse in the Old Testament is verse 10 from Psalm 27.
“When my mother and father forsake me the Lord will take me up”
David’s family were not exactly loving and nurturing. When he took supplies to his elder brothers in the Israelite army their response was to attack and demean him. I love his response “what have I done now?”. It is very revealing. It means that he was being victimised by his brothers on a regular basis. Likewise, Joseph, who was sold into slavery by his brothers who then told his parents he was dead!! These families were hardly the ideal Christian example. Yet the men who were ‘taken up’ by God became mighty kings and wise leaders, men after God’s own heart. I wonder if these young guys weren’t attacked simply because they were favoured. David was anointed king as a teenager, Joseph was given the coat of many colours by his mother, I mean there must have been some serious jealousy that the youngest in the family gets the honour that should by rights be due to the elder. It seems that in the Bible, this concept of the elder serving the younger, or the elder being marked out as wicked and the younger chosen by God is exemplified quite often. Even fairy tales will often tell the story of the youngest son or daughter rather than the eldest.
So, abusive families are nothing new. The thing to remember with both David and Joseph is that while they were abused, it did not stop them from becoming all that God wanted for them. They had to leave their families first it seems, in some cases cutting them off for over 20 years, but it was the families in the end who had to deal with their own wickedness in the face of God’s evident favour towards the victim of the abuse.
I would like to say that this happens all the time for Christians from abused families. But the damage is very real, and it takes a lot for Christians from these backgrounds to be able to first of all recognise the abuse, and secondly to come to terms with it.
God has dealt with us as a family and is still dealing. 12 years after leaving the cult, we are finally on the path God wanted us to be on all along, and which we left. He did not abandon us, but He allowed us to suffer the consequence of our own disobedience. Yes, he understood the reasons why we left the path, which were due to a kind of a Stockholm syndrome effect if you like. Becoming a Christian doesn’t automatically mean that the lifetime of behavioural oddities you accrue after leaving your abusive family don’t still affect you. But at least we have the wisdom now to recognise aberrant behaviour and cut it off at the root before it can flower and cause more damage.