SURVIVOR STORY: Being spanked as a child taught me how to stay in abusive situations
I'm always open to sharing the sacred, tender stories of abuse survivors. Sharing our stories helps us know we are not alone. Today's post was written by a young woman named "Ellie" who grew up in conservative Christianity. Please honor her bravery by leaving an encouraging comment. If you'd like to submit a story to be published on my site, please email me through the contact form on my contact page. All my love to you, courageous ones. xo. EE.
These are the lessons I learned from being spanked as a child:
1. I am not strong enough or good enough to make wise choices on my own.
Spanking was framed as a way to train out the sin and rebellion in our hearts and remind us to do better next time. But by relying on punishment rather than respect and teaching me that I was sinful and rebellious at my core, spanking taught me I could never be trusted to do the right thing on my own. I learned to follow the rules out of fear of punishment, even though I called it love for God.
I did not learn that I was capable of examining a situation and making good choices until I was 25 years old. This led me to stay in several very painful situations, including a job with an abusive boss, rather than recognizing my gut instinct that the situation wasn’t healthy.
2. It taught me that I was a passive recipient, not a person with agency.
Parents have responsibility for their children, so they do have some authority. But authoritarian parenting goes further. It says that parents have total authority over their children—physical, emotional, and spiritual—and that they are stand-ins for God’s authority.
This taught me that I couldn’t leave a bad situation, set boundaries with people to keep myself safe, or defend myself when I was unjustly accused. I had to wait for God or another authority figure to do it for me. If they didn’t magically fix things, then God was using the situation to teach me something, and I needed to submit to it to learn my lesson as fast as possible.
This taught me a lack of agency, which is not something that is unlearned when they turn 18. I had no idea that I had the power or the right to take steps to improve my own life (other than pray more for God to intervene, or change my heart so that I could be happy in a toxic situation).
3. It taught me that pain is healthy and loving, not an indication that something is wrong.
I genuinely believed that everyone should endure pain patiently because it’s for our own good. I embraced this philosophy wholeheartedly and buried my emotions and feelings. I stopped listening to my body because I believed it would lead me astray. I stayed in painful situations that damaged my health because I thought I was supposed to—and because I thought the pain was making me holy.
This belief was so ingrained that I didn’t even realize I was being emotionally abused by my boss. I was so trained to obey authority that I had no idea he had crossed the line from unpleasant to unhealthy. I simply wasn’t aware of the toll it was taking on my mental and physical well-being.
4. Spanking taught me that perfection is more important than resilience, and that the consequences of mistakes are bigger than grace.
Resilience says that even if I make a mistake, I can recover and do better. Perfectionism, on the other hand, says that nothing but Plan A will ever be good enough. Mistakes are disastrous.
In perfectionistic systems, any deviation from Plan A means I have to pay penance, experience guilt and shame, and be punished so that I don’t deviate again. Then, an external agent (community, church, Jesus, society) has to restore me to Plan A—as a “sinner,” my only job is to suffer obediently.
True grace says that mistakes don’t ruin us. It says that life after mistakes can be great, even though it may be complicated or require a little extra work to repair things. And to tell the truth, none of us are living Plan A. It’s much healthier to teach kids how to make Plan B (or X, or ZQF, or WTF) awesome than to tell them they’re second best if things aren’t ideal.
Understandably, growing up under perfectionism led to hypervigilance and anxiety for me, because I was constantly making sure I didn’t forget a rule or make a mistake. I learned that there was no grace for mistakes—people who make mistakes deserve to suffer and be punished. This leads to both shame and judgmental vindictiveness can instill a permanent sense of shame in a child, as well as lead to a judgmental, vindictive attitude towards the people around them.
5. Spanking taught me that love—especially God’s love—looks a lot like punishment.
My parents made very clear links between their authority and God’s authority, and they taught me that punishment was an essential part of love. Even though I don’t believe that anymore, my image of a loving God is deeply tied to this system. In some ways, it would have been better if my parents had spanked us only when they were angry. At least then, I would have associated pain with anger (recent research has upheld this as well).
It might have been better if spanking was an erratic, occasional punishment rather than a systematic way to root the rebellion out of our hearts. At least then, I could chalk it up to a mistake they made rather than blaming myself for being broken and deserving of punishment.
I still love my parents, and we are working through these lessons. But they were quite literally beaten into me over more than a decade and are now deeply ingrained in my body and soul. If the research is to be believed, I may deal with them for the rest of my life.
It’s no wonder that I’m afraid of making mistakes or doing what I think is right if it means breaking the “rules.” My mind, soul, and body were trained for over a decade to believe that such a choice would be swiftly rewarded with pain and punishment. And that I deserved it.
Before you spank your child, ask yourself if these are the lessons you want to teach them, too.
Ellie grew up as a conservative Christian who was "sold-out for Jesus." She grew into a very different kind of faith when she studied abroad in Europe for five years. Now, she explores her past, present, and future on http://ellieava.tumblr.com/