Note: This article was originally published in the Spring 2004 edition of Cutting Edge, the online newsletter of The Meadows.
Child Abuse, Neglect, and Character Defects
by John Bradshaw
One of the most insidious effects of child abuse and neglect is their impact on "character" foundation.
Addiction (any form of obsessive/compulsive behavior) and the codependency that fuels it can be understood as being rooted in a complex of "character defects." We now have good evidence of a chemical imbalance that predisposes certain persons to addiction. (AA has, since its inception, pointed to a chemical imbalance in alcoholics.) Current research points to missing strands of DNA in the neurotransmitter dopamine. But missing DNA strands of dopamine do not mean that a person will necessarily become codependent or develop an addiction.
I do not hold the opinion that addiction and codependency are diseases in the medical sense of the word. They are certainly diseases in the psychological sense. They wreak havoc in a person's life and lead to moral and spiritual bankruptcy. Moral bankruptcy is my focus in this article.
Not all character defects come from child abuse and neglect. In the world of human freedom, anyone can choose to act in an immoral way. My concern in this article is to understand the role of child abuse and neglect in the formation of character defects.
Codependency is a disease of the developing self that is fully manifested in adult relationships. The primary symptoms of codependency, in relation to moral character, are:
- A lack of a solid sense of self-identity, which is rooted in toxic shame ("carried shame," as described by Pia Mellody).
- A shame-based identity that manifests itself in polarized extremes, either as a character-disordered "more-than-human" (inhuman) personality exhibiting grandiosity, perfectionism and blame; or a neurotic "less-than-human" (dehumanized) personality exhibiting a sense of worthlessness. A person can be stuck in either polarized extreme or may switch back and forth, as in the more-than-human anorexic eating disorder that is transferred to the less-than-human bulimic eating disorder. Pia Mellody has suggested that these polarizations are the product of two types of abuse: a falsely empowering abuse and a disempowering abuse. Both types are rooted in toxic (i.e. carried) shame.
- Distorted ego boundaries, both external and internal. This character disorder tends to set up walled boundaries, and the neurotic personality tends to have weak and broken boundaries.
- Emotional illiteracy, which is characterized by extremes of rigid emotional numbness or the inability to regulate the intensity of one's feelings.
- Difficulty in recognizing what one wants and needs.
These behavioral symptoms make up the essential "character defects" of codependency, which I refer to as "disabled will" in my book, Bradshaw: On the Family. Codependents do not choose well and seldom make virtuous choices. Virtue has to do with choosing the appropriate mean between two extremes. Codependents and addicts choose in ways that are all or nothing, black or white.
Moral action is concerned with choosing well in the ever-changing singular circumstances that make up our lives. Necessary to a strong ethical character is a specific virtue called prudence - the refined ability to "know how" to choose well in the changing circumstances of one’s life.
The disabled will is the reason codependency has been described as the disease of addiction. Addicts of any kind have serious defects when it comes to choosing well. I chose to drink as a solution to the problems caused by my drinking. I chose to act out sexually and commit adultery to assuage the guilt I felt for repeatedly betraying my wife by committing adultery. Words like "adultery" have a sting that is worse than simply saying "acting out sexually."
The will depends on reason, conscience, and that which the ancient philosophers Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas called a habituated or "right appetite." The will, they believed, has to be educated in such a way that a person experiences and tastes goodness. Aristotle believed we become brave by being brave, just by being just. The more we experience virtuous behavior, the more we learn how to choose to be virtuous. Aristotle and Aquinas referred to this knowledge to choose expertly as the virtue of prudence. Their formal definition of prudence involved right practical reasoning, which is based on right desire and a passion for goodness.
When we examine the symptoms of codependency, we find that they are the results of developmental dependency deficits, which are the consequences of abuse and neglect.
Developmental deficits refer to unmet developmental dependency needs. These needs must be met in order for a person to develop a solid sense of self and emotional literacy; these needs depend on source figures for their fulfillment. A child's needs cannot be met without reliance on a functional adult. Solid selfhood and emotional literacy are two essential foundations for the development of moral intelligence and ethical character. Psychologist Erich Fromm defines ethical character as "the relatively permanent form in which our moral energy is channeled in the developmental stages of our life.... Our ethical character is who we are as expressed in our actions, how consistently we live, what we believe in and how we actualize those beliefs." People often say that a certain behavior is "true to character" or "out of character." Codependent and addictive behaviors are "out of character" for any healthy adult human being. Toxic shame creates inhuman and dehumanized behavior.
Solid selfhood and emotional literacy are the fruits of an educated will. With a solid sense of self, a person has good boundaries and will power. Emotional literacy is characterized by the ability to think about and contain feelings, using them for self-soothing and expressing them with appropriate intensity.
The primary pillars of solid self-hood and emotional literacy are:
a) The development of one's own innate healthy or natural shame.
b) The achievement of "empathic mutuality" through the actualizing of the innate need for secure attachment.
Let me briefly discuss both of these pillars, and how child abuse and neglect damages them.
Healthy or natural shame is an innate human effect. It marks our natural human boundary and is a root of the natural moral law. Someone once described healthy shame as "the permission to be human." Natural shame is an auxiliary feeling that signals limits and monitors our pleasure, excitement and interest. Natural shame lets us know we are limited and imperfect beings. As such, it gives us permission to make mistakes and ask for help when we need it. Natural shame grounds us in our finitude and lets us know that there is a higher power. This is why the philosopher Nietzsche called shame "the source of spirituality." Natural shame is absolutely essential to the development of a moral life. When natural shame is nurtured in a healthy way, it develops into guilt (i.e., moral shame). Guilt is the guardian of conscience.
Natural shame becomes toxic when children interact with source figures who are immature (developmentally arrested) and morally shameless. The caretaker's shamelessness may take the form of the more-than-human, character-disordered control freak or perfectionist who chronically judges, blames, criticizes, beats, punishes or sexually uses his or her children. Or it may come from the neurotic character type who feels worthless and less-than-human, who treats his or her child as superior or worthless. In either polarized character form, the caretaker acts shamelessly and immorally.
Shameless caretakers were themselves the recipients of falsely empowering or disempowering abuse. Their grandiosity or worthlessness is a defense against their own toxic shame. Shameless caretakers also use a primitive unconscious defense mechanism called "projective identification." In projective identification, the projector, by means of interaction with the recipient (i.e. through acts of neglect or abuse), unconsciously induces feeling states in the recipient that are congruent with the projector's own rejected feelings (in this case, his or her own carried shame). A shameless caregiver's defensive projective identification causes those in his or her care to feel the shame being rejected.
Pia Mellody has described the dynamics of the transfer of shame as "carried or induced" shame. Carried or induced shame is toxic shame. Toxic shame results in the breaking of the interpersonal bridge between the child and his or her caretaking source figure. This has disastrous moral consequences, as the empathic mutuality between mothering source figure and child result from their secure bonding or attachment. Erik Erikson has repeatedly shown this secure attachment (along with natural shame) to be the earliest and primal root of moral life. The golden rule is embodied in empathic mutuality.
Years ago, pioneering psychologist John Bowlby stated that attachment behavior is "vital to the survival of the species." The earliest years of life are the most significant for attaining secure attachment. Secure attachment can be defined as the biological synchronicity between organisms. Secure attachment is the dyadic (interactive) regulation of emotion and has its foundations in the right hemisphere of the brain (or the nondominant, if you are left-handed). The known functions of the right brain, or right hemisphere, (RH) are:
- It is crucial to our sense of bodily and emotional self.
- It recalls autobiographical information.
- It relates the self to the environment and to social groups.
- It maintains a coherent, continuous and unified sense of self.
- It is the source of resiliency and manages stress.
Secure attachment is a form of resonance, which can be defined as a shared feeling or sense. Emotional information is intensified in resonant contexts. Secure attachments allow a child to develop resilience in the face of stress. Resilience is an ultimate indicator of attachment capacity and an infant's mental health.
The key to secure attachment is the source figure’s capacity to monitor and regulate his or her own emotions, especially negative ones. This kind of regulation is one of the fruits of emotional literacy.
In infancy, the relationship between the mothering source figure and the infant exhibits the most intense emotions. Communication is right brain to right brain. It will take some three and a half years for the left brain (the seat of verbal language and logical thinking) to emerge. In the beginning, the interaction takes place within a context of facial expressions, posture, tone of voice, tempo of movement and incipient action. The infant's emotions are initially regulated by the mothering source. When this interaction is sufficient, the infant toddler is able to increasingly self-regulate and cope with stress. Our earliest emotional experience directly influences the maturation of the right brain's early regulator system.
Emotional dysregulation and the disorders of the self are the effects of early relational trauma, abuse and neglect, and are imprinted on the amygdala of the right brain (the nonverbal unconscious). As leading neuroscientist Dr. Allan N. Schore writes, "Emotional dysregulation is a fundamental mechanism of all psychotic disorders."
Most abused and neglected children were poorly attached as infants for the simple reason that most abusing and neglecting source figures were shameless, immature and dysfunctional. It is illogical to assume that they were mature during their children's infancy and became immature later on.
Because the achievement of secure attachment establishes empathic mutuality, trust and hope, most codependents and addicts began their lives without a moral foundation. Abuse and neglect continue unless source figure caretakers get help and begin their own recovery processes. This is happening more and more as we grasp the dynamics of this whole sordid mess.
While I do not like the connotation of words such as "pride," "gluttony" and "adultery," I have to face the fact that my alcoholic addiction and sexual compulsiveness resulted in immoral behaviors.
I have had to confront my "better-than" belief in my own specialness and face up to making amends, owning my healthy shame and accepting responsibility for my moral life. Steps 4 through 10 of the 12-Step Program are crucial for rebuilding character, establishing a platform for virtue and deepening spirituality. I know these are suggested steps, but I see them as an essential bridge to repairing character defects. If you do not choose to do these steps, you will need to do the recommended work in some other therapeutic context.
Therapists have wisely shied away from moralistic rhetoric, but I see no way to mollify my character defects, other than to see them as immoral behaviors.
We are essentially moral beings. Our innate shame and innate need for attachment are the developmental roots of the natural law. Attachment and shame are the developmental motors of moral development and the virtuous life.
Aristotle believed that human happiness is synonymous with living a virtuous life. Happiness and virtue go hand-in-hand. Those who have walked a long way down the road to recovery know this. The tenets of AA promise it.
The cores of virtue are balance, polarity and moderation. Thomas Aquinas, the Medieval philosopher and theologian, believed that virtue is arduous, that it takes time and hard work to develop. He believed that virtue is a habitus of soul. A habitus is more than a habit. It is an integral quality of a person's inner life, something that has been so internalized that it is a part of the person's very being. When a person has such a quality, he or she does not have to think about things very deeply; he or she simply does good, because good is good to do. Not bribed by heaven or threatened by hell, this person does good because he or she has tasted it and wants it. It is good will.
Character defects are like holes in the conscience that distort our ability to make sound judgments. This is why recovering addicts and codependents are urged to get sponsors or to consult with therapists. It is why addicts and codependents in early recovery are urged to avoid making any major decisions for an extended period of time. The disabled will is as severe a moral problem as a person can have without being psychopathic.
I know of no better ideal or better gauge of a person's recovery than the degree to which he or she lives a balanced and moderate life and makes sound and virtuous choices.
About the Author
John Bradshaw, MA, has, for the past four decades, combined his exceptional skills as counselor, author, theologian and public speaker, to become a world renowned figure in the fields of addictions, recovery, family systems and the concept of toxic shame. Mr. Bradshaw has written three New York Times best-selling books: Homecoming: Reclaiming and Championing Your Inner Child, Creating Love, and Healing the Shame That Binds You.