Tuesday, March 29, 2011

"You are unwilling to change"

This piece is the second in a series called "The language of Mercy".  Please click on this link to read my disclaimer.

Throughout my recovery, I have benefited immensly from various cognitive therapies as well as improving my communication skills through boundary awareness.

CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) helped me to become aware of faulty thinking patterns.[1]  Among them are mind reading (assuming another's motives or thoughts), "black-and-white" thinking (polarised good/evil, all/nothing mindsets) and emotional reasoning ("i feel ______ so strongly that it must be true").[2]

Healthy and functional communication involves being able to share the impact of another's behaviour, or hear the impact of your behaviour, in a mutual, boundary-respecting way that is free of emotional manipulation or control.  Using "I" statements ensures that we take ownership of our own thoughts, feelings, beliefs and wishes when expressing them to another.  Healthy communication is clean in that it distinguishing between objective observation and subjective experience of that observation so as not to enmesh the two.

When communicating, a person with healthy boundaries might say "when I did not see you look in my direction when I said "hello", i felt sad" rather than "you made me feel sad when you deliberately ignored me".

A highly respected book called "Boundaries"[3] written by two Christian psychologists taught me that I was entitled to my own thoughts, feelings and opinions, and for those to be interfered with or overridden by another's subjective experience (for example, an accusation of having a particular thought/feeling/motive) would constitute a violation of my boundaries.  This book also discussed manipulation and what this might look like in various settings.  Ironically, we worked through this book and its study companion as part of group therapy at Mercy Ministries.

"You are unwilling to change"

In this piece, I discuss the dysfunctional and oppressive nature of the communication style used by Mercy Ministries staff which can be captured in the phrase "you are unwilling to change".

There were several other phrases in common use which were similar in effect.  They were all examples of projected faulty thinking - mind reading, polarising and emotional reasoning.  I will list these in a moment.

So what set "you are unwilling to change" apart from other examples of projected faulty thinking?
 
In order for a young lady to be successful in her application to enter the program, a compulsory requirement was that she needed to be willing to change.  Therefore, one could not be referred by another program or a concerned parent.  It had to be the applicant that initiated and followed through with the application.  (This is one thing I believe they got right).

It follows suit that in order to stay in the program and graduate, one had to remain willing to change.  In turn, if it was decided by staff that a resident was not willing to change, this could mean one of two things: -

1.  She was being dismissed from the program.

"Unwillingness to change" could be used as a blanket word for a specific behaviour or incident you were being dismissed for.  Or, it could be used as the reason in the absence of a specific reason.  This was arguably the most common reason given for a girl's dismissal.

2.  The other context in which this statement applied was when a resident was being warned to "pull her socks up" by refraining from a particular behaviour.  This behaviour could range from merely disagreeing with a staff member about almost anything to disobeying a staff member's decision for your life to struggling with a life-controlling issue.

There were occassions where a confrontation was in order.  For example, if a girl had behaved in a way that caused others to feel unsafe.  But even in this situation, communication would need to be boundary respecting, free of abuse and more listening-based if it was to encourage any authentic change.  Verbally assualting an already shattered spirit with judgments about who they are or what they are feeling, thinking or wanting with no possibility for human error considered on the part of staff is disempowering and boundary-blurring.  It causes one to question their reality, and eventually, their sanity.  It does not acknowledge or listen to who a person is, it dictates to them who they are.  If staff demand that resident X is a liar, then they are a liar and need to repent.  This is verbally, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually abusive.

Between the lines of the statement "you are unwilling to change" was the question "are you willing to continue this behaviour and risk your last and only chance of healing and freedom?"  The belief that Mercy was truly one's only hope and last chance of a better life together with the subsequent overwhelming terror it triggered for many was very much fostered at Mercy.  (This is documented in several first-hand accounts and is also something I observed several times during my stay).  So in a sense, this was the "big stick".  It was a threat and an ultimatum guaranteed to control any girl who, strangely enough, desperately desired change.  Except in the case that she really was powerless over her life-controlling issue, even in a program that boasted an alleged 95% success rate.

The other frequently used accusations encountered at Mercy Ministries and their often associated contexts were: -

Disagreeing with or resisting staff for any reason:

"You are unwilling to receive correction"

"You are unteachable" or "you have an unteachable spirit"

"You are unsubmissive"

"You are in rebellion against God" or "You have a rebellious spirit"

Having any criticism of the program:

"You are ungrateful"

"You have a bad/negative attitude"

"You are bitter"

Struggling with a life-controlling issue or being in need of medical attention:

"You are making bad choices" or "you are making choices to let demons in"

"You are attention seeking"

Other:

"You are playing games with staff"

"You are lying" (sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit)

If you were being confronted with such an accusation, disagreeing with it would only land you in deeper trouble, and in some cases it was considered proof that you were actually "in rebellion" for example.  The only acceptable response was to acknowledge and apologise for this apparent hidden motive, and if applicable, to modify your behaviour to conform with the staff member's wishes.

It seemed strange that as part of the program, we were required to read scriptures aloud about who God says we are.  Loved, cherished, priceless, forgiven.  He will never leave nor forsake us.  He takes us as we are and loves us unconditionally.  Yet at the same time, the affirmations we received from staff (verbal and sometimes inferred by behaviour) were often in contradiction.  This was indeed confusing as there was a blurring of boundaries, not only between where a resident ended and staff began, but where staff ended and God began.  (I intend to discuss this enmeshment in a future piece).

The bible tells us not to judge people because only God truly knows the heart of a man.  Yet the statements listed above are examples of such judgments.  However, the bible does tell us to judge fruit.  Mercy Ministries boasts heart transformation over behaviour modification, but this kind of communication caused girls' behaviours to be controlled out of fear rather than providing a safe forum that fosters emotional honesty.

11 comments:

  1. Thank you for this piece. I'm glad to know I'm not the only one to feel the same way about things that were said

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  2. This is one of the most accurate and articulate posts about Mercy Ministries I have ever read. What you've written was very much my experience there too, even the phrases you quoted were used on us word for word. I feel so stupid for allowing the staff to mess with my understanding and relationship with God. I left Mercy believing that God was judging me in the same ways the staff judged me, and that God thought of me the same as what the staff said I was. Their words were nothing but hurtful, untrue, unkind words used to manipulate and belittle us. Thank you Jesus for showing me this.

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  3. Thanks guys for the encouragement :-) i'm glad this piece was of help to you. My goal is to help girls who are still processing their experience to separate their experience of God at Mercy from who God really is.

    @ Anonymous, if you haven't already i encourage you to check out my second ever blog piece called "No rust". It is about overcoming the denial and deception of my Mercy experience.

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  4. I just realised i left out one of the big ones. "You are bitter". Just added it now...

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  5. Sarah,

    I recently came across "mercy ministries" recently at a dinner party. I did enjoy reading your thoughts and I would like to share my insights as a single dad of 2 young girls (7,8).
    The Bible always supercedes what you are taught or is forced onto you. I heard a Pastor say once that 'if I ever say anything not parallel to the Bible, don't listen to it and wait for me to get back on track'. Individual workers at Mercy Ministries cannot be held accountable for the whole institution anymore than "Christians" should be judged by a few that picket funerals.
    I was so glad to read the communication insights you make. I knew those keys and I was so impressed to see them in your article! So many of us are screwing up the way we are talking to eachother. I agree with you there. But what you are seeing is not aberration only to Mercy but a societal issue. The good news is this... WE ARE CHANGING...visiting my daughter at lunch I see change brewing in our society. I see kids not judging eachother and the harsh word "black" being substituted by the much calmer "brown."
    The younger grade students have "buddies" in the higher grades and school are using codes like; respect, courage, honor. Now if we can just get the parents to catch up to the breath of fresh air. You have a great opportunity in your blog and when you meet people in your everyday life.
    I'm not sure where you reside but in STL we have the Megan Meier Foundation that is into anti bullying and about cyber safey. Ironically and tragically, Megan hanged herself after being ridiculed on Myspace by a profile CREATED BY A MOM imitating a young boy.
    My point to you is you can kick your own ass and get healthy and on-track. Be coachable and "BE THE CHANGE YOU WANT TO SEE IN THE WORLD" You can rise up from the ashes of your abuse and submit your life to Christ, repeat "it is not I but Christ that lives in me" Many of us in recovery and at the end of our ropes do just this. Don't expect mints on your pillow when you enter boot camp. Get clean. Forgive your oppressors. Go through the tunnel of chaos(or two). Mental Health and personality disorders have come a long way. Be glad they don't do labotomy and isolation anymore.
    One of my idols and mentors is Les Brown. He is an amazing brown man who is in his 50's. When he was in highschool he was labeled as "uneducatable mentaly retarded" They gave up on him. Today, the guy speaks eloquently and intelligently to 100,000 people a year. You and I would be honored to sit at a dinner table w/him. But you have to get there by yourself, kicking your ass along the way!
    "Blessed are those that are persecuted, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven."

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  6. Hi Dream Weaver :-)

    Thanks for popping by my blog, and thanks for your comment, although, I am a little confused about the direction you were going in. The overall “vibe” I get from what you are saying is that we are all human, we are all flawed but we are improving, and that Mercy Ministries staff cannot be held responsible for the abuses that occurred there. Please correct me if I am missing you here.

    "The Bible always supercedes what you are taught or is forced onto you. I heard a Pastor say once that 'if I ever say anything not parallel to the Bible, don't listen to it and wait for me to get back on track".

    That is something that would be encouraged in a healthy faith environment. I have heard preachers say to not accept what they are saying point blank without thinking for ourselves, but to filter it through balanced study of the word. In an unhealthy faith environment, scripture is easily bent into human agendas and often the freedom is not granted for others to reject this seemingly Christian scripture-laced “truth”. With a combination of other factors present, this creates an environment of destructive mind control.

    "Individual workers at Mercy Ministries cannot be held accountable for the whole institution anymore than "Christians" should be judged by a few that picket funerals."

    Yes and no. No single employee at Mercy Ministries can be held responsible for the entire issue of abusive conduct, but each person had a role. Even though some staff members were not abusive themselves, they condoned the abuse of other staff members towards us either by verbal agreement or by not doing or saying anything about what was going on. My feeling is that some of them, like us, were also under intimidation, but it was still a contribution to the bigger issue. Those responsible for holding those staff accountable also played a role. Others who were not staff but volunteered in some capacity or had some contact with us also had a role if they were suspicious or aware of abusive conduct and did not do or say anything about it.

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  7. In your second scenario, you are right, Christians (approx 2/3 of the world’s population) can not be held responsible for the actions of the handful that do those things. But Christians who approve of their actions, or who have some “behind the scenes” role even though they are not physically picketing funerals, or if they have any influence at all that could effect change but do not exercise it, they each have a degree of responsibility.

    "But what you are seeing is not aberration only to Mercy but a societal issue."

    True. But in healthy relationships, there is two way communication where people can work to resolve those things. But when the person you are trying to reason with is by default right or within their right, there is no room for negotiation. The only acceptable response in their eyes is for you to take responsibility for any wrong done, whether real or imagined.

    "I'm not sure where you reside but in STL we have the Megan Meier Foundation that is into anti bullying and about cyber safety. Ironically and tragically, Megan hanged herself after being ridiculed on Myspace by a profile CREATED BY A MOM imitating a young boy. "

    I am in Australia. And yes, I did hear of that very sad story. Abuse of vulnerable people is an awful thing and I have seen and experienced devastating consequences of it. My hope is that when I share about Mercy Ministries in my blog, girls who have come out of that place feeling really confused about themselves and God will find words for their own experience and separate their understanding of who God is from false representations made of him by people.

    "My point to you is you can kick your own ass and get healthy and on-track. Be coachable and "BE THE CHANGE YOU WANT TO SEE IN THE WORLD" You can rise up from the ashes of your abuse and submit your life to Christ, repeat "it is not I but Christ that lives in me"

    Well, I have been doing my best to engage with that process :-)

    "Get clean. Forgive your oppressors. Go through the tunnel of chaos (or two)."

    I am clean. I try to keep my heart clean by continually bringing it to Him. I have forgiven those who hurt me.

    "Mental Health and personality disorders have come a long way. Be glad they don't do lobotomy and isolation anymore."

    Oh, I am definitely glad to be living in these times. My great grandmother who was mentally ill was locked away for life back in the day.

    "One of my idols and mentors is Les Brown. He is an amazing brown man who is in his 50's. When he was in high school he was labelled as "uneducatable mentally retarded". They gave up on him. Today, the guy speaks eloquently and intelligently to 100,000 people a year."

    Inspiring :-) Anything is possible with God.

    "Blessed are those that are persecuted, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven”.

    Amen my friend!

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  8. PS: The "Anonymous" above is me, Sarah of the Collage. Had some trouble with google logging in

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  9. Sarah,

    I like your style and this blog is the sort of discussion that really matters in the world. Forget American Idol and the latest episode of "Housewives." It is only over real conversation and planning where the future will improve, which we both agree needs to happen. I have not been in your shoes and should be slow to speak concerning your experience.
    Your thoughts do encourage me to find out more about mercy and so I have decided to investigate in my own little way.
    Possibly erroneously, but I consider it similar to a military atmosphere where people go through an awful time intitally but resurrect as solid and life-giving individuals. Mental illness is being dealt with and I would think that the worst we could do is do nothing. The USA does not put our best foot forward when dealing with social needs of the "needy."
    You are sweet and tender and I can tell this. We all have frustrations and anger. One could look at me and say I've lost everything and made every bad decision one can make (my ex would confirm). Yet I still have so much when I realize I am free from abuse, free from jealousy, free from hate, it's MY WORLD now...and welcome it!
    Your claims against mercy ministries may be real. But I have claims against many as well, the devil is real and comes in sheeps clothing. I choose to blog about my children and ways I can add to the world and not subtract from it. Not saying that you only make subtractions, certainly I am appreciating our banter. Life can and will break you down, but love can build you up.

    MLK (Dr. King) said, "Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that." Prophetic words from a man who couldn't drink from a particular water fountain or enter certain restaurants.
    I hope we can be friends. Just because your "down under" doesn't mean you have to be kept down. A poem from me to you:

    May love abound in your heart
    like your native kangaroo,
    may the tormenting pain and anger
    be just a placid memory to you

    We all hope and we all dream
    and we can fly the world in a day
    or escape it like in a movie scene
    and forever hide away,
    some dreams die at the lake
    others carry on
    your backpack like a boulder
    aimlessly trudging along
    who will shoulder the load
    and cover us like a mother
    when it blows colder?
    this i say when I am gone
    that you took everything from me
    but I'm ok with that now,
    all I ever needed was a song...~Dream Weaver





    With Love, Dream Weaver

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  10. Wow, everything that you have said is exactly what I experienced when I graduated from Mercy over 10 years ago. I was verbally and emotionally abused by Nancy Acorn herself! I have to be in therapy to this day in order to try and process all of the abuse and confussion that was caused from the year I spent in Mercy Ministries. Thank you for your honesty and having the courage to share your experience.

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  11. If anyone is currently on this blog please let me know. I have a daughter that my parents want to contribute to Mercy and have her go there. It is a long story she has many diagnoses. I am worried about this place. Thanks.

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