The Wolf in Shepherd’s Clothing: The “Benevolent” Abuser

Jul 26th, 2010 | By | Category: All Posts, Christina's Blog

Christina Enevoldsen

by Christina Enevoldsen

In the dark children’s tale “Hansel and Gretal”, a young brother and sister are abandoned in the woods by their father at the insistence of their step-mother. She convinces her husband that the whole family will perish unless they reduce the number of bellies to feed. Lost and starving, the children find their way through the forest to an isolated cottage made of candy and gingerbread. While the pair greedily feast on the house, an old woman opens the door and promises them warm meals and soft beds if they’ll come inside.

The children are happy to be welcomed, but are unaware that the old woman is really a witch who lures children inside to eat them. Hansel is locked in a cage, while Gretal is made a slave. In the end, the children become aware of the hag’s scheme and push her in the flaming oven intended for them.

Many survivors of neglect and abuse live a version of this story. We’re starving for love, acceptance, a sense of belonging, and relief from our pain. We encounter a seemingly kind-hearted soul who claims to want to help and support us. Desperate to lean on and trust someone, yet without the discernment to see the truth, we often end up in another dangerous situation. Out of the frying pan and into the fire. Or oven.

My version of this started in church. As a victim of childhood sexual abuse by my father and neglect by my mother, I never felt like a part of my family of origin. I escaped my parents by jumping into marriage when I was seventeen. My husband was an abuser, too. Going to church was a way for me to fit in somewhere. I landed in the large women’s ministry and started volunteering right away. Almost immediately, an older woman, the group’s leader, took me under her wing to mentor me. I was flattered by her attention and belief in my potential. I loved to spend time with her, soaking up everything she taught me. It wasn’t long before she made me her assistant and brought me into her ‘inner circle’. It was a privilege that I was ecstatic about. I thought, “Finally, I’m worthy of love.”

The position required long hours and I spent more and more time away from my young children. This woman monitored my personal life. She had a subtle but unmistakable way of telling me when she didn’t approve. She pointed out other people’s flaws as a way to ‘teach’ me what to avoid. I knew from the way she spoke of them that I did not want to earn her disapproval. She called those people, “wolves” or “not faith”.  If ever I raised an objection, she had a simple way to rebuff me. She’d “pray about it” and return with God’s approval on her own plan. That left me feeling unheard, but I couldn’t argue with what God supposedly said.

I never saw how much of myself I gave away and how much that woman used me to make herself look good. She manipulated me to get what she wanted and justified whatever she did by citing ‘the greater good’.

She exploited my hunger for a mother’s love and dangled her approval like a carrot. I gave up so much for nothing. In the end, when she didn’t need me anymore and I stood up for what I believed in instead of parroting her beliefs, she dropped me like a hot potato. That woman was my mother.

Abusers like that seem to be on the prowl for lost survivors. They come in various forms such as parents, therapists, support group leaders, teachers, mentors, or pastors. The seemingly benevolent helper plays on our insecurities and fears and enslaves us to the very thing we are struggling to be free of. “Benevolent” abusers have common methods for gaining power over vulnerable survivors:

Eat my Gingerbread House

  •  Showers victims with attention, validation, affection, and acceptance
  • Is charming and overly sweet
  • Pretends to be all-giving and self sacrificial

Come into my Cottage

  • Offers protection from real or perceived danger ‘out there.’
  • Has an “Us vs. Them” mentality; ‘We’ are good and ‘They’ are bad
  • Loves to create a crisis to be able to come in as the savoir or authority.
  • Has an “I know what’s best for you” attitude, “I’m the expert”
  • Undermines the victim’s confidence and ability to protect or care for themselves
  • Creates an atmosphere of status–to belong is to be part of the elite
  • Nurtures dependence by finding fault with anyone who would raise questions

Locked into my Cage

  • Knows what’s best and because he/she cares, victims are obligated to listen
  • Coaxes victims into relinquishing their power for the “greater good”
  • Is all-consuming and victims lose their individuality
  • Expects excessive service to keep victims too busy, exhausted and invested to question anything
  • Discounts the victim’s needs and desires; it’s no longer what the abuser can do for you, it’s what you can do for your abuser
  • Withholds approval and sets the bar just out of reach
  • Creates a hierarchy so victims keep working for a higher level
  • Expects cheerful obedience
  • Condemns desire for praise, appreciation or reciprocation since “it’s an honor to serve”
  • Expects blind submission; victims are not permitted to think, feel, or choose for themselves
  • Increases his/her expectations and constantly changes them to keep the victim off-balance
  • Doesn’t provide a structure for airing of conflict, disagreement or questioning
  • Uses top down communication and doesn’t hear the perceptions and needs of others
  • Focuses on ‘don’ts’
  • Uses labels to discount anyone who opposes him/her so they are dehumanized and easier to dismiss
  • Doesn’t permit personal growth; victims must play assigned role

Throw Away the Key

  • Expects a lifetime commitment and those who leave the control of the abuser are criticized and ostracized

All my life, I jumped from one abusive relationship to the next, each time believing that I’d finally found someone good, someone I could trust. I was running too fast from previous trauma to look carefully where I was leaping. Every abusive situation left me less confident of my own ability to care for myself. My need to take responsibility for my own life increased, but my desire to do so decreased. It seemed easier to turn my life over to an ‘expert’ rather than face almost certain failure by working out my own way.

I never liked the story of Hansel and Gretal, yet its moral has value that I didn’t understand for a long time. When the children realized they couldn’t depend on anyone else, they had to learn to depend on themselves. And they succeeded. They became their own unlikely hero. So have I.

Related Posts:
The Fear of Being Re-victimized
Power Play: How to Recognize an Abuser
Power Trip: How to Journey From Overpowered to Empowered

Christina Enevoldsen is cofounder of Overcoming Sexual Abuse, an online resource for male and female abuse survivors looking for practical answers and tools for healing. Christina’s passions are writing and speaking about her own journey of healing from abuse and inspiring people toward wholeness. She and her husband live in Los Angeles and share three children and four grandchildren.

[read Christina’s story here]

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24 comments
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  1. wow…

  2. If I hadn’t escaped when I did seven years ago, the cycle of abuse would still be going on. And would continue if I ever went back, I’m not going too and I’m a 33 year old man. Thank you for posting that.

  3. Awesome! :)

  4. this hits home..i am amazed at how easy one can be sucked into abuse without even realizing it till its too late…Its good when one can find their way out of the abusive relationship but sad that the damage of abuse has already been done

  5. Great series. I am enjoying reading everyone’s remarks. My original abuse situation was by an older brother who was put in charge while parents were away from work; he blackmailed me emotionally and psychologically into a sexual relationship with him. He was still a minor himself when he initiated the unwanted sexual advances, but the consequences of that relationship had life altering consequences.

    The abusive relationship set me on course for many years of both acting ‘in’ and acting ‘out’ behaviors, and contributed greatly to my inability to make healthy choices; subsequently I too attracted all the wrong people, and was abused in many other relationships, in many ways was forced to usurp my power. There are wolves in sheep’s clothing and they come in all shapes and sizes, wearing all kinds of masks too.

    I’m grateful my eyes were opened and I was set on a path to healing and recovery from the effects of the circumstances of my early life.

  6. Wow. There is always someone out there to take up the slack of what others are missing. It amazes me how the Wolf can find the sheep. As a “used to be” lamb, looking for acceptance and love I can relate to this so much. It seemed easy for the wolf to show me what I needed. I was hurt and in pain, and grabbed ahold of the wolf. I wanted someone to nurture me and I needed someone to take up my offense. I wasn’t strong enough to fight the battles of life on my own, so it was such a relief to have someone do it for me and tell me what I needed and how to behave.

    The wolf seemed so strong and had it all together. What more could a desperate lost sheep want? I joined the wolf whole heartedly, willing to tell all, and showed them my weaknesses. It didn’t take long for them to figure out what I needed and desired. I needed acceptance, love, a pat on the back. I needed someone to lead me. Tell me what is the right thing to do, but not allow me to do it, because I was too weak to do it. Only the Wolf had the power and knowledge and the understanding of the best way to do it. I was a dumb sheep, so I could never do it right anyway. But that was ok, because the Wolf used honey when they spoke. “I love you, you are like a sister, you are family.” “Join me and I will take care of you. Stand in the shadows and let me take care of you. Let me show you how powerful I am. Kiss, kiss, hug, hug. I love you, I’m doing this for you. And the only thing you need to do…………

    Is give “me” more power. Support “me” no matter what. Do as “I” say, even if you disagree with it. Submit, submit, submit. Go against those “I” say are no good. Be “my” ears and my eyes so “I” know what others are doing. Be “my” spy. Forget about your family, because “I” am your family now. Tell “me” more about your life so “I” can find out more of your weaknesses. Spread the word of how wonderful “I” am, so others will join “me”.

    And then, just when you think, you are so loved and cared about, the wolf devours you. Eats your heart. They know your weakness, they know you will give up everything for them. They know you betrayed your friends and family. They now have more sheep, because you brought them. They found someone weaker. Someone more submissive. The Wolf is done with you. The Wolf has no need for you any more. The Wolf took all you had and there is nothing else you can do for them. They have a larger group of sheep now. …….. Yep, been there, done it, and had to put my heart back together again.

  7. Sam, I’m glad you got out of there. It took me far too long to leave since I was terrified of being alone. Then again, I thought I was the problem and would just take the problem with me. I figured I could eventually correct the problem by behaving better.

    Nicole, that’s true– it’s soooooo easy to get sucked in. Even if we have doubts about the person’s sincerity, we tend to ignore the doubts because we so want everything they say to be true.

    Ron, I think the emotional ties to our abusers make things extremely complicated both when we want to walk away AND when we want to recover. It wasn’t ALL bad, there was good mixed in and we cling to that because the same conditions that made us vulnerable to the abuse in the first place don’t just go away. What the abuser gave us wasn’t real love, but it was the closest thing to love we could get and our emotions responded in a very real way.

  8. Christina, This is excellent! This article should be published in “the book” about abusers and abuse! WOW, I love this whole thing!

  9. Thanks, Darlene! This particular type of set-up is what inspired this series. Now it’s time to talk about solutions so we don’t repeat the same pattern ever, ever, ever again.

  10. Very good read Christina thanks for sharing. Looking back I can see the series of abusers in my life, from my father and mother to husband, therapists and more. I like you, thought giving what I had, which was my time, would get me the love and adoration I so desperately desired. Much to my dismay it did not over and over again. Today I am at a place in my life where I can see clearly and I am ever so grateful that I saw God’s hand reaching out to me. After all those years of begging for love I have finally found a love everlasting. Today I have people in my life who love me for who I am not what I can do for them.

  11. This is the best description of my life. thank you for sharing.

  12. Pamela, “lookin for love in all the wrong places” was the theme of my life. Like you, it wasn’t until I stopped chasing after it that I found the real thing. Any love that you have to pursue isn’t really love. Unconditional love is granted, not earned. Long, hard lesson!

    Donna, I’m sorry that you could identify with it so well. The good news is that it’s possible to end the cycle and stop jumping from one painful experience to the next. I hope you join us tomorrow for the next part that moves us toward a happy ending! :)

  13. Christina thank you for sharing this…I will share. (:

  14. Wow this is my life too, this is very helpful.

  15. wow – this is such an eye-opener. I am in the middle of ending a relationship and starting up a business.
    I have never read such a clear description of this manipulation and how I helped sustaining it myself, just to have someone of whom I think loves me, and not having to be alone.
    I didn’t now any better.
    This is so helpful at this moment.
    Thank you!!!
    Helga

  16. Helga,
    I’m so glad you found the description so clear and that it was so helpful! Thanks for your comment.
    Christina

  17. Thank you, Christina, for spelling this out so clearly. My 17 year old daughter has been pursued by a man who so well fits this description….I’ve always had a sixth sense about him, but this just helps to give clarity to what I was thinking. She is starting to see through him and watch him change and is distancing herself from him, but just very difficult situation.

  18. Deborah,
    It’s hard enough when we find ourselves in these types of relationships, but seeing our kids in this kind of danger is agonizing! I’m glad your daughter is starting to see the truth! May we all continue to see more and more truth.
    Christina

  19. Wow! I really relate to this. My dark journey of abuse landed me into a situation where the abuse of spiritual authority was being exercised over me. I was extremely oppressed. This sexual predator was preying on every vulnerable place within me. I was very broken and he was preying on my brokenness. I thank God that He has brought me out of this.
    Thanks for sharing this!

  20. Wow! I can relate to this so much. It describes the atmosphere of the church I grew up in, the family relationships I had, and the school that I went to (BJU). I spent 24 years under this kind of abuse before finding my way out. I can’t believe how scarily accurate all of those progressions are. It’s like they were following a script. Thank you for this article!

  21. Cara,
    I can sure relate to feeling so oppressed under the spiritual abuse. I didn’t realize HOW oppressive it was until I escaped. That’s one of the things that tips me off to abuse or lies now: Where there is truth, there is liberty. I’m glad you’re out of that too!
    Christina

  22. I like that….”Where there is truth, there is liberty.” Thanks :-)

  23. Selene,
    YES! I’m amazed too by how similar the patterns of abuse really are. It’s like they all went to the same Abuser School. Thanks for commenting.
    Christina

  24. Christina,

    I’m really enjoying all of your posts…you’re helping me to understand EVERYTHING that’s happened to me. Thank you for detailing and structuring all of the nuances of abuse. It’s actually kind of a relief to know that abusers are merely an archetype, and that there’s a “textbook description” that can be applied to them.

    I’m SOOOOO so glad that I found OSA….what a comfort to know that we no longer have to suffer alone, in silence. :)

    Best of everything to you…

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