A couple years ago I found myself on a Saturday morning conference call. It wasn’t a particularly special call. It was a regularly scheduled call with several hundred employees designed-I assume-to help everyone set intention for the upcoming retail day.
A certain amount of over the top rah rah is expected on these calls. Everything was going along as usual with the typical overuse of the word “excited” from various upper management (i.e. “excited to be on the call this morning” & “excited to connect as a team this morning”-even though listening to someone I’ve never met over a conference call where I am mandatorily muted is not actually connecting-& “super excited to serve clients today”-even though you’re not even in a client facing role, etc…).
About 10 minutes in one team leader “tossed it over” to another middle manager. This middle manager proceeded to describe his participation on the call as “my extreme pleasure.”
Now, there are only a couple of types of pleasure I can think of that can legitimately be described as extreme. All I could think was dear Lord I hope he’s wearing all his clothes right now.
I’m afraid that corporate culture especially customer service related corporate culture has fallen prey to the idea that in order to be successful we must function in an atmosphere akin to the stepford wives.
The client is not always right. Your work colleagues are not like family (except in extremely rare circumstances) You don’t always have to be excited to be at work. You don’t have to be manically happy in order to provide friendly service.
Everybody just calm down. Be professional. Highlight the positive but be honest about the negative. If you hate what you do go do something else. Work on being genuinely interested in your teammates and your clients. Curb your cynicism (yes I know what I just did there). Have a good attitude and add value.
If you’re one of those few truly over-the-top, irrepressibly eager people, great! That can be a real strength. But the rest of you-don’t fake it. You don’t have to experience “extreme pleasure” from a conference call on a Saturday morning in order to be good at your job and rally your team.
How many leaders (think bosses, managers, politicians, spiritual leaders, etc…) have you had in your life over the last 20 years? Of those, how many of them proactively created an empowering environment? How many helped you grow? How many helped you become a better version of yourself? How many helped you further your career? How many helped you be happier, more productive, or more passionate? How many helped you become a better leader yourself?
I’ve had 2 out of 7 that I would describe as empowering. And, to be honest, I’m pretty sure I’ve been an empowering leader at some points in my career and not so much at other points.
Positional leaders have a responsibility to use their power well. That’s easier said than done. There’s no one strategy. It’s not enough to just be encouraging. It’s not something you can do one day and take a break the next. In fact, it’s not just about having a positive relationship with one employee or follower.
Using positional power well is about creating an environment where people flourish. The 5 sections of the ®Empowerment Target are specifically designed to help leaders know where to put their power to work. The center of the target represent the mission of the organization or team. When the culture is right that mission takes center stage and every member of the organization can focus without distraction on bringing their best selves to the accomplishment of that mission.
My mission is to inspire and equip leaders to use power well. There are many types of power but any type of power used well results in more and greater possibilities for more people.
Here are three core affirmations that help leaders use power well and become power givers.
You don’t have to be in a position of leadership to make these affirmations part of your life. But if you do put these into practice you will likely find yourself placed into a leadership position eventually whether you want it or not
An Obvious Choice. Right?
If you had the choice of either sending a manager to a day long training on the Situational Leadership model or increasing their level of self awareness and ability to identify their own strengths and weaknesses by 20% which would you choose?
You can give a positional leader training in all the behavioral methods and leadership models available but if they don’t know themselves they will struggle to know, connect with, and lead their teams.
A Quick Story (to skip the story go to the next bold heading)
Jason was a pretty solid guy. 6’2” maybe 220 lbs. the police department interview room felt smaller than normal with him in it. Not just because of his physical size. He took up a lot of room in every way. When I met him he had already been convicted of multiple domestic violence related charges against multiple women.
As we talked about whether or not he would be a good fit for the intervention program I was working with at the time he expressed genuine frustration and confusion about why he continued initiate aggressive and sometimes violent confrontations with his girlfriends.
I walked him through some of the common risk factors for DV and briefly discussed the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences (I’ve written about ACEs here). As I was going through that material I noticed his eyes begin to well up. After a moment of silence, he told me his story.
Jason’s father maintained iron control over everything the family did. He had to know at all times where they were, what they were doing, and who they were with. It got to the point that his father would lock him, his mother, and his younger sister in the house when he left for work in the morning.
How You Experience Power Impacts How You Use Power
Most of us don’t experience the kind of abusive power and control that Jason experienced. However, it’s a mistake to think that our past experience with power doesn’t impact how we understand and use power in the present. Our mindset around relational dynamics, social hierarchies, and the function of power and leadership is ingrained in our neural pathways during early childhood and throughout adolescence. The brain develops in what neuroscientists call a “use dependent” way. I’ve written more about the neurological impacts of our past here.
You don’t have to know anything about neuroscience to know intuitively and by experience that your past exerts enormous influence on your life in good ways, bad ways, and neutral ways. How you use power is guided by your mindset and beliefs about power. Your mindset about power-and most other things-is formed during your childhood and early adolescence. To sustainably change or build upon the way you use power in positional leadership, you must go back in time to at least some extent and explore the environment of your formative years.
Powerful leaders have a deep sense of where they came from. They have developed the skills to objectively self reflect. They don’t just know what they want they’ve spent time learning why they want it.
After more than a decade in senior leadership in the faith world, the nonprofit world, and the corporate world I’ve given up on trying to change people’s behavior. That almost always ends in some kind of coercion. I’m much more interested in inspiring people to explore their internal world and become the person and leader they want to be. And that starts with understanding the environment that created their current mindset.
If companies really want to develop powerful leaders they have to focus more on incentivizing and guiding self exploration. When you take an insecure leader and help them zoom out to see themselves as part of a bigger story, you actually empower them to find their place, either in building on a positive legacy or finding peace with and being catalyzed by a challenging background.
Leaders who use power well know themselves. And the first layer of identity is found in the past. Next time I’ll cover two other important areas of exploration: pain and potential.
how do companies incentivize self exploration and intentional self development? That’s another thread I’d like to pull on soon. Share your ideas in the comments. I’d love to hear them.
Companies struggle with employee engagement, retention, culture, and ultimately consistent customer experience because the majority of positional leaders don’t know how or are unable to use their power well.
A Quick Story of Power Abused (to skip the story go to the next bold heading)
I sat in the interview room of a police department several years ago talking to Bob. Bob had been arrested on the charge of domestic violence.
“So Bob,” I asked. “Why were you arrested?”
“I don’t know,” he replied without even looking up.
“You must have some idea,” I said.
“Cause my crazy ex called the police,” he grumbled.
“Okay, and why did she call the police, Bob,” I asked.
“I don’t know.” He repeated.
I decided to try a little differently.
“Did y’all have an argument?”
“Not really. I mean we had been arguing on Facebook some but she just came to drop off my kids and called the police on me.”
“So let me get the picture,” I said shaking my head and looking down at the police report in my hand. “She pulled up in the driveway with the kids, got out of the car…”
“No,” he cut me off. “She didn’t get out of the car. She just called the police.”
“Just like that?” I raised an eyebrow.
“Were you outside,” I asked. “Maybe walking towards the vehicle?”
“Yeah, I think I jogged toward the driveway when she pulled in.”
“Were you saying anything, maybe yelling angrily?” I asked.
“Um...yeah,” he shrugged. “Probably.”
“Calling her names?”
“Did you get to the vehicle and maybe tap on the window?” I tapped on the table in between us with my pen.
“Did you tap or bang?”
“Well...I mean it cracked a little but it wasn’t that hard.”
“Okay,” I nodded. “Bob I feel like we’re getting somewhere but still feel like we’re missing something.” I looked up and gave him a chance to come clean. He just shrugged. “Did you, by any chance, have something in your hand,” I asked. He thought for a second.
“Matter of fact I did,” he nodded sheepishly. “A knife.”
In fact, the police report stated that he had run toward the vehicle cursing, and screaming waving a three foot medieval sword.
Empower > Overpower
Bob has something in common with an unsettlingly large number of positional leaders. Not only do they try to overpower and control others, when the poop hits the fan they use selective memory and self-deceiving reframing to completely miss the actual problem and shift the blame. After all “it’s so hard to find people willing to work these days.”
An equally large number of positional leaders are trapped in corporate incentive systems that practically force unhealthy power dynamics and manipulative strategies to meet arbitrary metrics. Not to mention, many large companies and corporations have dual identities-a PR identity based on a noble mission statement (and sometimes even genuinely on their origin story and ideals) and a second identity based on the bottom line. Leaders are asked to pay lip service to the mission statement with its empowering, altruistic language while still meeting performance benchmarks that may arguably be unachievable without using less than altruistic methods. This leaves those leaders frustrated and angry and unable to empower their teams.
At the risk of sounding sensational, there really is a dearth of truly powerful leadership. The kind of leadership that results in loyal cohesive teams, real time employee development, and an internal integrity that inspires collaboration. This empowering leadership doesn’t just impact the internal culture. Customers, strategic partners, and stakeholders experience long term benefits in the form of stability, more consistent quality, and the priceless feeling of trust.
Leaders Who Use Power Well
If the majority, or even half, of the leaders in your organization don’t know how to use their positional power to invest in their teams and build positive internal culture what does that cost?
Most companies recognize the cost to some degree and invest in leadership training of some kind. However, few start where truly excellent leadership springs from: the identity of the leader.
It is from the powerful leader’s identity that they form a healthy sustainable mindset, and develop empowering relational patterns.
I’ll tackle that process in a future article. For now let me end by getting some feedback.
I have recently begun compiling some data around how people feel about their experience with their managers.
I’ve collected a considerable number of responses already. Throw your answers in the comments. Or take a stab at what you think the average percentage of managers respondents so far have said were empowering and personally cared.
Every time I asked a question Carol doubled down. Every time I proposed an alternate angle she aggressively dismissed it. When I tried to move the group discussion forward she loudly reasserted her core beliefs. When other women in the group asked questions or shared thoughts Carol shook her head disapprovingly.
I have facilitated hundreds of hours of groups with men, women, and teens experiencing family violence. Facilitating is unlike any other educational setting. It isn’t teaching, or lecturing, or therapy. At its best it is a profound time of connection around shared experience where the participants learn from each other, feel heard and seen, and leave with some new information that encourages them to think differently or consider a new perspective.
That last part is the hardest. Most of us have a hard time shifting our mindset or incorporating new information. Individuals in crisis however have the potential to be more open than most. I always have a deep appreciation for the people I’ve served who have come through deep pain and have the resilience and courage to consider the world in a new way.
Often times in a group-especially an adult group-there is at least one participant who is not only closed off to any discussion that may challenge their existing frame of reference but vocally antagonistic. The truth is that many participants will be feeling the tension of the new information to some degree. And that is okay-even desirable. That is where a skilled facilitator draws out the “why’s” behind the tension and guides dialogue that engages participants on a heart as well as head level.
But for those who are antagonistic such as Carol, their subconscious goal is to shut down dialogue. To protect the ideological framework that they have built. To quiet any voice that might weaken their internal rhetoric. That particular day I struggled for the entire 90 minute group to keep things productive.
In my experience, the degree to which a participant is resistant to new or challenging information is directly related to how much they have to lose or at least their perception of how much they have to lose. People don’t fear change. They fear loss. This is why perpetrator groups are especially challenging. Abusers have a lot to lose if they begin to consider information or narratives that contradict what has rationalized their behavior up to that point.
Carol had a lot to lose. The reason she had a lot to lose was evident from early in the group. Her religious identity, spiritual value, and eternal destiny were at stake. Her religious framework was too rigid to allow any shifts without threatening the entire structure. If she considered that God might not want her to be abused, her theology would crumble. If she considered that it might be okay to call the police on her husband, she might lose the blessing of God on her family for her submissive spirit. If she considered the nature of marriage as a covenant dependent on the fulfillment of mutual responsibilities, it would undermine everything from Adam and Eve on.
Carol could not risk losing the power that she believed she had with God.
Unfortunately, it’s not likely that Carol will be able to make any significant shifts until things become so bad that she begins to question herself or God or at least feel a lack of power with God.
Carol is not an outlier.
I spent nearly a decade at the helm of a nonprofit trying desperately alongside a wonderful group of people to negotiate change. I am currently in the middle of one of the largest corporate mergers in recent history. What have I learned? Almost everyone is afraid of change. Everyone is afraid of changing the status quo unless the status quo is so bad that there are no other options or they are deeply disillusioned. Even then, the fear doesn’t go away it is merely overwhelmed by the fear or pain or cost of not changing.
Even in awful situations most of us find some degree of equilibrium. Even if I have next to no power, I have the security of knowing exactly where I stand, and what my power is. We may have spent many years rationalizing a powerless situation by fabricating a false sense of power. If we are truly powerful in the existing state of affairs we are even more likely to fear change.
There are several questions that arise from this. How do you develop a mentality that embraces normal or natural change. How do you quiet fear enough to rationally assess change? How do you effectively lead others through change? How do you help someone who needs to make a change but is completely closed off? How do you build resilience into your life so that difficult changes don’t bury you?
The answers to all of these questions come down to identity. Knowing one’s self is the key to empowerment. There is great power in the ability to step outside of yourself and examine your past, your emotions, your decisions, your worldview, your beliefs, your personality, your desires, and your expectations. This is not a simple 1-2-3 formula but a lifelong journey of building existential power that no person or change can take away. It is about building the kind of self awareness that allows you to take responsibility for what you have power over, be confident enough to take action but humble enough to recognize that you may be wrong, safe enough to listen well and empathize even when you have nothing in common with the story you are hearing, and courageous enough to believe that your life is valuable enough to invest in a better future.
In an article soon, I’ll start unpacking what that looks like in concrete practical terms.
Trauma shapes us. It alters brain development which shapes not only the way we think but how we interact with others, what we believe about God, what kind of intimacy we like or dislike, how we raise our children, and even our physical health.
Exactly how trauma shapes these aspects of our lives varies widely based on a multiplicity of variables. In fact, the term trauma itself is very broad, encompassing such things as complex trauma, developmental trauma, PTSD, and more.
In the next few articles I am going to provide a very narrow window into how negative childhood experiences can impact adults. Today we will introduce one of the most significant studies ever done on the subject: the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study. In future articles I will describe some of the common impacts I have observed over the course of my career as a minister and DV interventionist/advocate, and I will touch on some of the factors that influence resiliency and healing.
In 1985 a physician with the Kaiser Permanente Department of Preventive Medicine named Dr. Vincent Felitti was frustrated with the dropout rates of patients in his San Diego Obesity Clinic. In a talk he gave in 2015 Dr. Felitti said there was one case in particular that started everything.
“A young woman came in,” he recalled. “She was 408 lbs. and she asked us if we could help her with her problem. Our first mistake was in accepting her diagnosis of what the problem was.”
In 51 weeks the staff at the obesity clinic helped this woman go from 408 lbs. to just 132 lbs. Before he could proclaim astounding success however, something happened that he thought was “physiologically impossible.” She regained 37 lbs. in three weeks. When he asked her what was happening she said that she had been sleep eating. She would go to bed with a clean kitchen and wake up the next morning to find food out and dirty dishes in the sink.
Dr. Felitti was willing to accept what had happened. What he was confused about was why and why now. She told him that the sleep eating had started the day that she had been propositioned by a co-worker. Dr. Felitti continued to ask questions and discovered that the young woman had been molested as a child by her grandfather. It would be well worth your time to watch Dr. Felitti tell the story yourself.
His personal research and work eventually led to a partnership with the CDC in the mid 90s to launch the largest study of its kind into the impacts of childhood trauma on adult health outcomes. The study involved more than 17,000 people and was built around a simple 10 question survey. The 10 questions were about three types of adverse childhood experiences: abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction.
Dr. Robert Anda who cofounded and helped design the study would later say “This was the first time that researchers had looked at the effects of several types of trauma rather than the consequences of just one. What the data revealed was mind-boggling. I wept. I saw how much people had suffered and I wept.”
The questions included:
Two thirds of the study participants answered yes to at least one of these questions. Researchers were able to discern noticeable increases in various types of health risk among participants with two and three yesses. But where things really started to jump out was when participants had four or more of these experiences in childhood.
Participant’s with four or more of these “ACEs” saw health and well-being risks skyrocket. They had a 240% greater risk of hepatitis, were 390% more likely to have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (emphysema or chronic bronchitis), and a 240% higher risk of a sexually- transmitted disease. They were twice as likely to be smokers, 12 times more likely to have attempted suicide, 7 times more likely to be alcoholic, and 10 times more likely to have injected street drugs.
The evidence showed that “people with high ACE scores are more likely to be violent, to have more marriages, more broken bones, more drug prescriptions, more depression, more auto- immune diseases, and more work absences. Persons with multiple categories of childhood exposure were likely to have multiple health risk factors later in life, including those for several of the leading causes of death in adults.”
The results of the original study have been duplicated many times. Since the study was done in the mid 90s, the field of neuroscience has exploded and is helping explain why ACEs have such a significant impact on later life and why it’s so important to address these problems as early in a child’s life as possible.
There are too many of us who are affected directly or indirectly by trauma to neglect exploring its social, relational, and mindset impacts. In my experience some of those impacts include.
And these are just a few. In a follow up article, I will be discussing some of these in more depth.
We cannot afford to live, work, and worship in environments that demand a facade of conformation and do not give us the space or empowerment to heal, transform, and grow.
A few years ago I was sitting in a small circle with a couple of young teenagers and a co-facilitator. I was helping spearhead a brand new program for teens who had been exposed to domestic violence. A boy named Caleb with floppy red hair sat straight across from me. He stared sullenly at the floor. In the couple of hours I had spent around him, I had never seen him act interested in anything or anyone. He barely spoke. He shuffled around begrudgingly and only participated in social interaction when forced to.
I had spoken to his mom earlier that week. She was in the midst of a courageous fight for freedom from a violent abuser. She sat in my office and told me some of their story. She had been abused by Caleb’s father when Caleb was just an infant. She had a second child-a girl- and left their father shortly thereafter. She had some short term relationships during the next few years but nothing solid. When Caleb was 9 she married a man with a teenage daughter of his own.
At first things were okay. But within the first year the man began to batter her. She tried to stay and work it out. She thought things might get better. She wanted a stable home for Caleb and her daughter. But one evening things got worse than they had ever been. Her husband chased her around the kitchen with knife. She fled to the only room in the house that still had a lock on the door-the bathroom.
She told me that Caleb stood in the hallway holding his little sister and watching his stepfather beat on the bathroom door screaming obscenities and threats. Caleb was twelve. He felt like he should do something. But he was torn between protecting his mother and sheltering his sister. In the end he felt helpless to do either.
How does this kind of trauma impact a child? In this article I’m going to provide a simple and at times slightly oversimplified description of the neurological impacts that occur and often follow children into their adult lives when not addressed.
Long before the incident that Caleb witnessed at twelve years old, his brain had already been impacted by trauma. Caleb could not even remember his father but the violence he was exposed to was damaging nonetheless. In order to understand why you need to know a little about brain development.
The brain can be visualized in three basic sections: the brain stem, the cerebellum, and the cerebrum. Caleb, like all babies, developed the raw materials of all of these sections in utero. However, the brain stem is what defined his first experience of life. The brain stem is the control center of the body’s vital functions. Body temperature, breathing, blood pressure, sleep, and digestive functioning all get their cues from the brain stem.
The cerebellum contains what is sometimes referred to as the Limbic system. Among other things, this part of the brain receives input from the senses and begins the process of directing the body to respond appropriately. Stimuli enters a part of the Limbic System called the Thalamus and is passed on to the Amygdala. The Amygdala automatically assesses the emotional significance of the stimuli. If it is potentially threatening it sends the information to the hypothalamus which controls stress hormones including adrenaline that are released to prepare the body for fight or flight. Obviously, a baby cannot fight or flee and must depend on a caregiver.
During the first few years of life the cerebellum does its most significant growth. In fact, many neuroscientists believe that the first two years are the most critical in the development of the cerebellum. It develops in what neuroscientists call a “use-dependent” way. Meaning that the environment and stimuli it experiences program it over time.
During those first couple of years, the cerebrum which is responsible for abstract thinking, rational interpretation, and other higher cognitive functions is only minimally functional. A baby does not have the capacity to rationally think through what it is experiencing. The baby receives input and relies on attunement to a primary caregiver (whose cerebrum is informing and coordinating with their cerebellum) to regulate its emotional state.
While Caleb’s brain was in an important stage of development his primary caregiver-his mother-was in serious danger. Caleb experienced sensory input that was highly threatening and he was completely helpless to contextualize, or respond to it. When the fight or flight response is triggered severely or too often it can do significant damage to the brain’s ability to effectively manage input even in adults who were previously healthy. They see danger in normal every day situations, may struggle to react appropriately to stimuli, may struggle to regulate important bodily functions such as sleep patterns, and may find it impossible to focus or function consistently.
Even more so, young children whose brains are still in the early stages of development suffer serious consequences and in domestic violence situations often live in a constant state of high alert. When fight or flight is triggered it interrupts normal functioning and development.
The classic illustration of fight or flight in action is of stumbling across a bear during a walk in the woods. One second your brain and body are calmly processing input and experiencing a complex interconnected web of feelings, thoughts, and responses. The next second you see the bear charging your direction. In that nanosecond, with no conscious thought on your part, your brain shuts down everything and redirects all your energy to survival.
The Thalamus takes what you are seeing sends it to the Amygdala and the Amygdala sends it to the Hypothalamus which triggers the release of cortisol and adrenaline. Your veins open up and your heart rate rises pumping extra blood to the parts of your body you’ll need to survive. Your peripheral vision blurs allowing you to focus only on what is immediately important.
You take off running and your brain continues to enable you to focus on nothing other than surviving this bear attack. Your brain is super effective at this task. If you’re tearing through the woods and a tree branch rips your arm open. Your will likely not even register the pain because your brain has filtered that stimuli out as unimportant.
If you manage to outrun the bear your brain and body will slowly return to normal functioning and you have thoughts such as “where am I?” And “Ow, what happened to my arm?” You may experience some initial feelings that are your brain's way of beginning to process the experience. You may cry or laugh or shake. When you make it back to civilization you will probably tell everyone you know. You may have some nightmares, schedule some counseling sessions, or take a survival class. You will never forget the experience but you will gain the ability to reflect on it without having a physiological response.
Caleb grew up with a bear in his home. During some of the most important developmental years of his life, his brain was constantly being interrupted and his body was being placed in fight or flight mode. He may not have remembered his father but his brain had locked in the trauma and, without access to the normal ways that people in healthy environments have to process such experiences, in some ways his brain had become frozen in time.
As I looked across the circle at Caleb, I knew that his sullen demeanor was a protective wall for a brain that struggled to see anything but threats. Like many children with unprocessed trauma, Caleb struggled to attune to social cues, focus on cerebral tasks, or even participate in athletic or team activities that required brain and body to coordinate with others. The balance between his cerebrum and his Limbic system was skewed heavily toward the survival functions of the latter. The medial prefrontal cortex of the cerebrum is supposed to inform the emotional and survival responses of the Limbic system. When someone raises their voice, the cerebrum coordinates with the Amygdala to discern if they are just trying to be heard or if they are threatening harm. Are these arms wrapped around me hugging me or trapping me? Is that stranger staring at me or simply glancing around the room?
Those kinds of determinations are often made by our brains with little conscious thought on our part. But for Caleb the healthy coordination of his brain has been interrupted by trauma.
That day I wanted desperately to break through his defenses and help him connect body, mind, and community. I picked up a little squishy ball out of a bag of prizes beside me and tossed it gently in his direction without breaking my talk. I motioned for him to throw it back. For the next fifteen minutes We made a game of him trying to surprise me with a throw. I don’t know if he heard anything I said about anger or whatever I was talking about at the time. But his body loosened up. He smiled. His movements became rhythmically attuned to mine as we threw and caught the ball. For a few minutes he came down from high alert and connected. When I speak to churches and nonprofits, I talk about simple, practical ways such as this to connect with and provide healing space for children.
In his fascinating work The Body Keeps the Score, one of the world’s foremost experts on trauma, Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk writes “Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful satisfying lives.”
And he is not simply referring to immediate symptoms. He is talking about long term health.
What I have attempted to show in this article is the devastating neurological implications of experiencing family violence in childhood. In my next article I will tackle the practical and sometimes subtle ways that these experiences shape survivors, particularly those who struggle to find the space or resources to properly heal.
This article is going to give a partial answer to three common questions I get about about children and domestic violence.
How do children get exposed to domestic violence? What are the immediate effects? What can I do to help a child who has been through it?
First-how children are exposed to domestic violence. When domestic violence is happening in a household children experience it in a variety of ways. You can break it down into three categories:
While some types of exposure may be more traumatic than others it is important to understand that all of these are extremely damaging and have the potential to cause lifelong challenges. In another post I am going to discuss the neurological implications of experiencing DV. For now let’s move on to some observable symptoms that often accompany exposure. It’s important to note that a some of these symptoms in isolation and moderation can be present in normal healthy childhood.
I’ll try to break these into categories as well for ease of reference.
In future articles, we will explore how these symptoms follow children into their adult lives and the types of challenges that they develop in to.
For now, let me offer a few simple suggestions to those who may be trying to figure out how to help a child who has been exposed to DV.
Empathy, honesty, and respect go a long way with anyone who has experienced trauma and children are no different. You can make a difference and there are lots of reasons to be hopeful for healing. Some of the most resilient, courageous people I have ever met overcame abusive childhoods. When I speak to churches, nonprofits, and business teams about DV, power, and resilience, I carry with me a humbling appreciation for the many survivors who have taught me through their own grit and courage that it is possible to overcome.
My wife, Kristen, is a competitive powerlifter. On her dead lifts she is very close to being in the 300 club. Yes. 300lbs. I regularly get jokes about how she is stronger than I am. I want you to know though that I can lift a car. I’m not exaggerating. I am capable of lifting a car without a jack or a mechanical lift. All I need is a little bit of leverage. I could lift a vehicle of up to 5,000 lbs. with just a fulcrum (think the middle part of a seesaw) and a lever about 12 yards long. The Ancient Greek Archimedes famously said “give me a place to stand and I shall move the earth.”
Leverage plays a role in most relationships whether at home or at work. Leverage is not inherently bad or good. In a relationship context it simply refers to any process that allows one party to exponentially multiply their degree of influence on another party. Intimate partnerships such as a marriage inherently create an enormous amount of leverage between the two people. This leverage can either be used coercively or cooperatively.
In a domestic violence relationship, the batterer uses a variety of coercive tactics to increase their leverage. When people ask why a victim doesn’t leave, what they are really missing is an awareness of just how much leverage the abuser has. Leverage can turn a small amount of force into an incredible amount of stopping energy.
Sometimes a person with a family member or friend in an abusive relationship will tell me “we’ve told her she could come stay with us but she just won’t leave him!” They are often in disbelief that a victim would stay because in their minds the only barrier is having a place to stay. But there are always a large number of visible and invisible ways that the abuse has leverage. The victim may believe that the abuser would hurt another member of the family (in fact, one study found that in 20% of intimate partner homicides the homicide victims were not the domestic violence victims themselves, but family members, friends, neighbors, persons who intervened, law enforcement responders, or bystanders). The victim may believe that the abuser will win custody of the children. The victim may believe that divorce is a sin. These are all forms of leverage that the abuser may be using coercively. And these only scratch the surface.
Domestic violence prevention and intervention centers or shelters are fundamentally in the leverage mitigation business. They provide ways for victims to take leverage away from their abusers. Shelters provide so much more than just a roof. They provide professional counseling to help reduce psychological leverage, life coaching and support groups to help reduce emotional leverage, educational and job resources and transitional housing to help reduce economic leverage, attorneys to reduce legal leverage or leverage related to custody issues, and much more.
Even in intimate partnerships where there is no abuse, many struggles occur because of coercive uses of leverage.
In the corporate world things can be just as bad. Sexual harassment, discrimination, and toxic work environments, often have coercive leverage holding them together.
In many marriages and corporate settings, things are not that severe. No one party is trying to dominate or control the other parties. However, that doesn’t mean that coercive leverage is not being used at all. Before I go any further it’s important to note that I believe that marriage is a true partnership where at any given time or in any given setting either party might be providing leadership while in a corporate setting there is usually a defined hierarchy. Regardless, in both settings one or more parties are prone to manipulate others and may at times use coercive leverage to do so. In fact, those who see themselves as positional authorities (managers, bosses, and-in many cultural and faith traditions-husbands) have often been taught a style of leadership based on coercion that they use even when they have good intentions.
Leverage is not always unhealthy however. Most of us use leverage in some way or the other every day. Leverage is an important tool for progress. So how do we know when leverage is unhealthy? Here are a couple of giveaways that you may be experiencing or practicing unhealthy leverage: