This piece by Mercy Survivor Sarah explores the oppressive and disempowering nature of resident/staff conflict at Mercy Ministries. This piece is the second in a three part series, and was originally published on her personal blog which can be viewed at Sarah’s Collage.
Throughout my recovery, I have benefited immensely 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. 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”).
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” 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: –
- 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.
- 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 occasions 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 assaulting 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”
“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.