Michael Bader: Dark side of golden rule
The golden rule urges us to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
While generally a good guide for our moral behavior, it is also the psychological dynamic underlying child abuse.
As most of us know, child abusers were usually, themselves, abused as children.
The problem is huge and the human cost inestimable.
Over 40 million children suffer abuse every year, affecting all educational and socioeconomic levels, ethnicities, cultures and religion.
More than 1,500 children die each year as a result of child abuse.
Why is abuse so often found in the backgrounds of those who hurt children or others who are weaker than them? What exactly is going on?
Abuse can come in many forms, including sexual and emotional (the latter often manifesting as severe neglect).
Most forms rest on the same psychological foundation as the overt physical violence typically associated with the term “child abuse.”
The key to understanding this tragic pattern is found in what psychologists call “identification with the aggressor.”
Simply put, when a child is frightened and hurt by an adult, that child tends to feel and act similar to that adult.
This is what we mean by identification.
The reason the child does so is in order to feel safer.
In the child’s mind, he or she feels safer being the “doer” than the “done-to,” the powerful rather than the powerless, and the one who inflicts pain rather than its victim.
The child would rather be a chip off a violent parent’s block than be hit in the head with that block.
None of us can tolerate helplessness for very long.
Helplessness is one of the most toxic of human emotions.
The human psyche will attempt to do anything to escape being in a helpless position, even if it means turning around and putting someone else in that position.
When the abused child grows up to abuse others, in the moment of violence, the shift from helpless object to frightening subject feels urgent and automatic.
Sometimes the harm done to the weaker person is rationalized or attempts made to justify it, but the true motive is unconscious and its origins are ancient.
Parents have an awesome power and authority over children, an authority that is physical and emotional.
Its exercise must be tempered by love, patience and empathy.
Too often, it serves to protect the adult from feelings of helplessness inherited from his or her own childhood.
Rather than repeat the past, the adult’s job is to understand and master it.
Michael Bader is a psychologist in private practice in Grass Valley. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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