Gender Trauma,  Religious Abuse

A Vicious Circle: When Trauma Responses are used to Justify More Trauma

The Evangelical world has perfected the ultimate mind-fuck: a vicious circle of using their victims’ trauma responses to justify abusive dogma and perpetuate more trauma.

Evangelical culture and teachings point to symptoms of trauma and PTSD to gaslight their victims into thinking those symptoms are actually inherent character traits. Instead of seeing symptoms of a problem, these traits are explained as innately designed – evidence of the abusive treatment being necessary.

As a woman raised in fundamentalism, speaking from that identity is where I have the most expertise. But every marginalized identity will have their own unique experience with this.

As a little girl I was accosted with both obvious and subtle messages about traits that were supposedly inherent to womanhood, which were then used to explain restrictive gender roles and negative attitudes toward women.

For example, I was constantly told that women are anxious, timid and poor decision makers. Because of this they need men to be strong for them and lead them. I looked around me, and unfortunately I did see that most, if not all the women in the community were indeed anxious and unsure of themselves. The messages seemed true because they matched my observations.

I was taught that women weren’t gifted as public speakers or proficient communicators, and that was part of the proof that God created them for a servant role instead of a leadership one. It was made clear to me that women’s perspectives weren’t meant to help influence the community. Rather we were supposed to be in a constant state of listening, learning, submitting, receiving and obeying. I studied the women I grew up around and sure enough, most of them lacked the confidence and charisma that we expected from the person in the pulpit.

Throughout my church years, it was frequently implied that women’s intelligence was lower than men’s. It didn’t seem right, but I noticed a lot of women in our church did seem easily confused or slower to learn new things than their male counterparts.

I learned that women were naturally better with nurturing children and running a home, because it was God’s design for our life’s purpose and highest calling. As women, we shouldn’t want anything different than that. Most of the women I knew seemed either content with their role, or at least defeated and resigned to it. The men seemed fairly incompetent at family and household tasks but better prepared for pretty much anything else. It seemed to add up, much to my dismay.

Over the years, my psyche slowly and bitterly began accepting what the church wanted me to believe about myself. I hated women for not standing up for themselves, and I hated them for not protecting me. It infuriated me when it was women who seemed to prove right the very messages that hurt us. They even passed the damaging teachings along! My bitterness and self-loathing sometimes turned to thoughts of despair, dysphoria and even suicidal ideation.

As a girl, I felt doomed to the passing of time. It seemed like my female body and mind were betraying me as I grew up and became more womanly. I worried I was flawed to my deepest core – a faulty design down to my very biology.

Unfortunately, I would live in this confusion and terror for three decades. It is only now, as an educated, trauma-informed adult who has done years of focused healing work that I can look back and see that these supposed “womanly traits” weren’t actually inherent to womanhood or proof of the church’s teachings after all. Rather, all along the church was actually using women’s trauma responses as justification for the abuse of women.

“Look!” They said. “Women are timid and weak. They need a man to take care of them.”

Well, I know now that if someone tells you who you are for long enough, you’ll believe them. Gender is irrelevant. If you are constantly attacked and criticized, you grow terrified to make a move. If you can never win, you become frozen by fear.

“Women aren’t good communicators. They aren’t designed to be teachers in the community.”

Actually, if the women in your community had access to the same training opportunities as men, they would also learn to be good public speakers. If women didn’t have their voices choked out of them, they would use them just as freely and powerfully as men. This is about access, not ability.

“Ladies are natural worriers. Trusting in God is their eternal struggle.”

Hmm, if you were kept out of control of almost every aspect of your life, I’ll bet you’d worry too!

“Females aren’t designed for higher education, their place is in the home. They don’t possess the same intellectual potential. Their calling is for child-rearing. Leave the conquering, inventing and creating to the men.”

Well Bob, let’s see how easily you can learn this – trauma actually blocks one’s access to the parts of their brain responsible for higher thinking. When you suffer post-traumatic stress, you remain stuck in the primitive brain for however long your hyper-vigilance is activated. It’s a survival mechanism. It’s useful if, for example, you’re being chased by a bear in the woods. It’s a lot more advantageous to use primal instincts to run, fight or hide, than it is to try to use academics to calculate the bear’s velocity. Folks who did that while in danger died. In moments of danger, higher thinking can actually get in the way. If you felt unsafe all the time, you wouldn’t be able to learn new things easily either. It has nothing to do with intelligence and everything to do with whether or not trauma is blocking one’s access to their intelligence.

“Women are so manipulative and emotional!”

What if you had zero autonomy over your own life? The best you could do was try to plant an idea in someone else’s head and hope they would think it was their idea and act in your favor. It’s a survival strategy for when one is powerless to take charge of their own well-being. If you were trapped in a role where you had a “head of household” over you in all things, you’d probably also in desperation learn how to become the neck that turns the head. People have to be able to make their own decisions and have a say in their destiny. It’s a basic human need. Manipulation isn’t a thing women do, it’s a thing traumatized people do to try to stay alive.

“Wives struggle with nagging, but a godly wife learns to respect her husband and trust him in all things.”

Alright, so imagine never being allowed to take initiative or directly ask for your needs to be met. Imagine that if you do speak up you aren’t taken seriously, or maybe you are accused of being disobedient and rebellious. You are told to accept the decisions that affect you, for better or worse, and regardless of whether or not you agree with them. The best you can do to take care of yourself is reminding the person who holds the power of what it is you need and hoping they’ll take you into consideration. Anyone in this situation would develop behaviors that others might see as “nagging”.

“We ladies are more easily deceived. That’s why God commands men to interpret and teach the scriptures and for women to follow them.”

Okay Barbara, have you ever noticed how “we ladies” are taught from infancy not to trust ourselves? How it is ingrained in us to believe we are uncontrollably emotional and that our emotions always lie to us? Have you noticed how we are taught to always obey and follow without question, even against our better judgment? How we are taught to shut down every instinct and alarm bell that would normally alert us to falsehoods? This is not a weakness in women. This is men trying to control women and take advantage of our learned obedience. This is men using our trauma responses to manipulate us into thinking we need them to continue controlling us. It’s a clever way to keep us in line. It can happen to any survivor of abuse, not just to women.

“Women are more easily distracted by details while men are able to see the big picture. This is how God created men and women to compliment each other.”

It sounds like you need to educate yourself on narcissism. It’s common for narcissists to try to trap their victims with the “fine print” in order to gaslight them and shake their trust in themselves. It’s how a narcissist stays on top and appears to always be right. Narcissists use details to confuse and trap their victims, like “You said this happened around 2:00, but you’re lying to me. It was 2:12pm!” Or they might say “You said she was wearing blue, but it was periwinkle. I sure have to keep an eye on you!” This leaves the survivor in a mess of confusion. “Am I lying? Am I wrong about what I saw? Am I actually a bad person like they say? Is my perception of reality untrustworthy? Is everything I know wrong?” Churches are well known for mirroring narcissistic abuse. For their victims, life is a giant whack-a-mole game where at any moment the hammer could come down. Living like this for very long would make anyone neurotic, hyper-vigilant and terrified of making the slightest mistake. This can often lead to nervous tangents, repeating oneself, avoiding direct statements and overshadowing their main point with details that would normally be irrelevant.

“A godly woman knows her place and delights in submitting to it. She teaches her daughters to do the same.”

If you beat a person down long enough, and break their spirit, they will eventually feel powerless and take it. They will consciously or unconscionably teach those in their influence to accept it as well, to protect them from the oppressor’s wrath or simply because they know no other way of being.

Women are necessary in maintaining the patriarchy. Men know that. Abusers need a victim. On their own, men aren’t powerful enough to convince an entire community of women to bow at their feet. They need our help. They need women to self-police out of fear. They need women to enforce male dominance on their daughters and on each other. So they sow the seeds of self-doubt deep into a woman’s mind until she so thoroughly believes she’s worthless she plays into their plan.

The church keeps this vicious cycle of abuse going by persistently pointing to trauma symptoms in broken and terrified people and using it to continue to terrorize us and keep us imprisoned. They use this strategy on anyone with a marginalized identity – people of color, people with disabilities, queer folks, people with mental health struggles – they use our scars as evidence that we are flawed and deserve pain. Well, not for much longer. Our anger is waking us up.

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