The Good Child Handicap

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A few years ago, I attended a business seminar where they made us play a game called “Lifeboat.” In the game, I was in a group of 5 on a sinking ship with no hope of being rescued and the lifeboat only held two people. The group had to decide who would go in the lifeboat and who would stay on the sinking ship. It was a very intense game, because you were supposed to play it as if you actually were in a real life or death situation. And everybody did.

What the game boiled down to was each player had three minutes to convince the others in the group why he or she deserved to be in the lifeboat instead of left on the sinking ship. After everyone had finished his or her three minutes of “persuasion” (justification of why they should continue to exist) the group voted on who would be saved. (You couldn’t vote for yourself.) The two people with the most votes lived. Every one else drowned.

When the game was over, we each had to spend three minutes explaining to the group why we had voted the way we did. What was interesting to me (and also somewhat terrifying) was that each person seemed to have his or her own “rules” for what constituted a life worthy of being saved. And some of the people’s rules worked against anyone surviving.

For example, most people voted for the man who told us he was a millionaire and would take care of our families if he were allowed to survive. This was crazy to me because the man was just a random stranger assigned to our group–how could we possibly know whether he was lying to save his skin or not? But he had enough smarts to play on our desire for our families to be OK if something happened to us. Another person tried to convince us he should be saved because he was a good swimmer. Personally, I felt like that qualified him to stay on the sinking ship since he’d have a good chance of swimming long enough for rescuers to find him. Another headed a charity organization and said if she died a lot of people were not going to get the help they needed. And one woman refused to play unless we figured out a way to cram everyone on the lifeboat.

I’m not sure what the game was supposed to teach us (persuasion skills, maybe? situational ethics?) but it made me think about the unspoken rules we live our lives by and judge others by–the rules by which we place value on people and things, the rules that allow us to justify our existence.

The millionaire justified his existence by his financial status The swimmer justified his by his abilities, and the charity leader justified hers by her contribution to society. The fourth member of the group refused to play by anybody’s rules but her own.

Sitting there, all the arguments that might compel the others to think I deserved to live ran through my mind. I realized I could play on everyone’s sympathies by sharing how my handicapped children needed me, my business needed me, my ministry needed me, and so forth. But really, there was no way to measure my worth in such a situation without putting it in the context of how well I conformed to what a materialistic society valued (or by being exceptionally good at marketing myself). And I knew, outside of me committing some heinous crime, my worth had nothing to do with any of those things.

Shortly after playing this disturbing game, I listened to a review of The Survivor Personality, a book about people who’ve survived incredibly horrendous situations. The author interviewed hundreds of people looking for an explanation as to why some were completely devastated by the trauma they endured while others were able to not only survive, but had the resiliency to get on with their lives once the traumatic events were over.Tool Online Fast furious legacy Coins

He interviewed Vietnam vets, people who had been brutally attacked, people who had been tortured, people who had been kidnapped and subjected to atrocities, war crimes victims, former prisoners of war, and more. His conclusion was that resilient people are guided by internal compasses that don’t necessarily line up with external “rules.” They are able to “reframe” the horrific situation in ways that better serve them and others and see the rules merely as behavioral guidelines.

For example, people with very strong convictions about telling the truth were able to lie in order to save the lives of others and not feel bad about violating their convictions. (Think Corrie Ten Boom hiding Jews during the Nazi occupation of Holland.)

And the resilient people refused to assign negative meanings to their circumstances (meanings like the fact that it happened to them meant there was something wrong with them, or that God was punishing them, or they were cursed, or they were being attacked by the devil, or that the world was a terrible place, etc.). (Think Corrie Ten Boom again.)

They also were able to suspend their rules about how other people ought to have treated them and forgive and move on with their lives.

In the book, there is a chapter entitled “The Good Child Handicap.” The essence of this chapter is that people who have been raised with programming to be “good” wind up with rules that become limitations and handicaps in later life, rules that may actually threaten their survival and the survival of those around them.

So I began thinking about “rule-based living” and the fact that at the core of “rule-based living” there is a defining of who you are and your worth as a person and the level of “safety” you feel about life by how well you’ve followed the system of rules you’ve adopted from your upbringing and culture.

In this way of life, the rules become measuring sticks for your personhood and in many ways your identity is defined by rules—not only the rules you keep, but also the rules about the way you keep the rules.

So the rules become a double handicap—you’re limited and handicapped when you keep them and you’re emotionally tormented whether you keep them or not, since the very presence of the rules means you aren’t good enough or loveable enough just as you are.

The rules also are used as measuring sticks for other people and create either a continual judgment of those who have violated our rules (“You’re bad because you don’t live up to my expectations for you!”) or a continual “comparison mentality” that fosters competition with others (“I’m better than you because I follow the rules better than you do!”). Or, as in the case of the Lifeboat game, a determination of who deserves to live based on what society currently values.

Back to shame

You’re probably wondering what all this has to do with the theme of shame. Well, a lot. The essence of what shame does to a person is twofold. It makes you believe: (1) you have to be different than how you are to be loved and accepted (or even tolerated); and (2) your goodness/value/worthiness/OKness will be defined by how well you conform to a set of external expectations (“the rules”).

In other words, you are neither valuable nor loveable just as you are. Because of this, shame creates a sense of self-rejection that makes it difficult for you to believe you are acceptable to God–to believe how much God loves you and how valuable you are to Him. It also tempts you to create a false self, that is, to pretend you’re good when we’re not, which only makes us feel more ashamed of ourselves.

Shame undermines our feeling of being worthy of love, care, and safety. So using shame based discipline to motivate children to conform to “rules” is guaranteed to make them insecure as to whether they are loveable, acceptable, and safe.

Next…10 Things Your Child Needs to Hear–Often!

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