Humans tend to create rules for how other people should or shouldn’t behave. We all know Mormons are particularly good at this!
The Mormon manual
A Mormon’s thoughts about someone who has left the church might look like this:
- You shouldn’t have let your doubts lead you astray.
- You should pray and read your scriptures more.
- You shouldn’t drink alcohol or coffee.
- You should remember your covenants to God.
- You shouldn’t wear tank tops or shorts.
- You should put your doubts on a shelf.
- You shouldn’t get tattoos or multiple ear piercings.
- You should keep going to church even if you’ve lost your testimony.
- You shouldn’t forget your spiritual experiences.
- You should focus on the good things the church does.
Mormons don’t think these ideas are wacky; they believe having a “manual” for how you should behave is perfectly reasonable.
The Ex-Mormon/Post-Mormon Manual
We who used-to-be Mormon don’t agree. Although we see the Mormon manual as absurd, we often come up with our own manual for what believing Mormons should and shouldn’t do:
- You shouldn’t judge me or anyone else for what we wear, eat, or drink.
- You should care enough about me to want to know why I left the church.
- You shouldn’t think I’ve sinned, been offended, or that I’m deceived by Satan
- You should want to understand the ways the church harms people.
- You shouldn’t see Joseph Smith as worthy of praise.
- You should believe me that I’m happier outside the church.
- You shouldn’t be ok with “worthiness” interviews.
- You should want to know what the church does with the money you give.
- You shouldn’t bear your testimony to me.
- You should understand how the church is gaslighting its members.
Just like believers, we think our shoulds and shouldn’ts are reasonable and good.
Manuals: how they backfire
Here’s the problem with having manuals for others: if people don’t behave how we think they should, we get frustrated, angry, or hurt. We believe that if only they would follow our rules, no one (including us) would be emotionally hurt. But we don’t see that it’s our rules (not the other person) causing us pain. This is a lot easier to see when we look at the Mormon manual for us.
Hypothetical: The coffee-drinking mom
If my son gets home from his mission and is disappointed that I drink coffee, it isn’t my coffee drinking behavior that would be leading him to feel sad. It would be his belief that I shouldn’t drink coffee that would lead to his negative emotions. This is because it is our thoughts that create our emotions. No one’s behavior has any meaning (either positive or negative) until we have a thought about it. This is good news for my son! Here’s why: If my coffee drinking is the problem, he has no way to feel better unless I change and he has no control over me. But my son does have control over his thoughts. In this hypothetical example, what if he were to decide to drop the defining, My mom shouldn’t drink coffee. What if he deliberately decided to practice thinking, My mom drinks coffee and that’s her choice. This isn’t a problem for me because there isn’t anything my mom can do that will stop me from loving her. This new thought would give my son all of his emotional power back. Rather than blaming my behavior for his sadness, he would be taking responsibility for his emotions. He would be focusing on who he wants to be and how he wants to act around his coffee-drinking mom. This is 100% in his control. If he chooses to love me while I drink coffee, there’s even more good news for him: he’ll get to feel that love. If he chooses to think sad thoughts while I drink coffee, he will feel sad. Feeling sad is totally fine. As humans, we have the capacity to feel sad and we don’t need to resist sadness. But if he is sad, it is because of his interpretation of what coffee drinking means, not because his mom drinks coffee.
Hypothetical: The son getting married in the temple
Now, let’s say this son decides to get married in the temple and I cannot attend. I could think my son shouldn’t get married in the temple or that the church should change its policy so I could attend his wedding. Or, I could blame my son for making this decision, thinking he should get married in a place I can watch him get married. Or, I could blame the church and decide we are both victims of some unethical policies. All of these thoughts would lead me to feel hurt. If I have pain about his decision, it would not be because he’s choosing to get married in the temple. It would be because of what I am thinking about this circumstance. This is good news for me! It means that if my son chooses to get married in the temple, I don’t have to feel bad. I have options. Of course, I don’t get to decide where my son gets married and I don’t get to decide church policies. If I link my happiness with things outside my control, I become helpless. There is another way. I could change my thinking. I could practice thinking My son should get married where he chooses to get married. The church should create policies for the church. And I have the power to decide who I want to be and how I want to feel in this situation. It’s in my best interest to decide there isn’t anything the church can do that will get in the way of me loving my son when he gets married. I get my control back if I decide there isn’t anything anyone can do that will interfere with me being happy for my son as he lives the life he thinks is best for him. If I want to feel positive emotions, I could choose to use the time of his wedding to think about all the ways I love my son. I could think of the beautiful grandchildren that may come into my life. I could think of how I might show love for my daughter-in-law and her family. And I could be ready with open arms and a big smile on my face when the bride and groom come outside.
The consequences of our thoughts
I know this feels like a stretch for many people who have left the church. I get it. It wasn’t long ago that I couldn’t imagine even wanting to change how I thought about the church. What I want you to know is that none of this is about agreeing with church policies and none of this is about condoning behavior we consider harmful. It’s about taking back power over our feelings. Although negative emotions aren’t dangerous and it’s advantageous to be willing to feel them, we also have the power to deliberately choose thoughts that lead to neutral or positive feelings. This is a skill that takes time and practice. But just like repeatedly lifting weights can build muscles, thought work can create new neural pathways in our brains. We can empower ourselves by taking our focus off what anyone else “should” do and train our brain to focus on what’s in our control We gain our power back when we ask ourselves, “Who do I want to be in this situation?” We gain our power back when we choose to recognize that other people’s behavior doesn’t mean anything about us: it means something about them. Every. Single. Time. We gain our power back when we see every event in life as an opportunity to love ourselves, love someone else, or both. Believing the church or its members should be any different than they are is about as useful as banging our head against concrete. As Byron Katie suggests, when [we] argue with reality we lose, but only 100% of the time. What the church and its members say and do in any given moment is the reality of that given moment. Thinking what’s happening shouldn’t be happening doesn’t change it; it just drains our energy. It’s much more useful to think other people should be exactly as they are. Why? Because that’s how they are. Then, we can move on to empowering questions like these:
What do I value? How do I want to think about myself? How do I want to show up around people who might judge me? What do I want to create in my life? What am I avoiding because I’m blaming rather than taking responsibility for my emotions? Who do I want to love?
No one can answer these questions for us. This is our work. And doing this work will always align us with this simple truth: we are the only ones who can be us. Worrying about what other people should or shouldn’t do only serves to distract us from ourselves. To fully claim our lives, we must look inward. When we live in alignment with who we want to be, it’s so much easier to love everybody else.
My husband and I stopped attending church about 2 months after having a son leave on a mission. Our missionary son’s older brother was coming out of a painful depression and we learned he was suffering from religious trauma. At that time, everything we were learning about the church was so painful. And knowing we couldn’t talk face-to-face with our missionary son for another 22 months seemed nearly unbearable. The wait is over. On July 31, 2018 (the day this post was published) our missionary comes home! At this point in time, I am so glad I had 22 months to process feelings. And I have learned a ton of skills that have improved my mental health and brought me peace. When he comes home now, I will be relaxed and grounded. I’m not worried about him and whether or not he will stay in the church. I will support him either way.
Here are some of the thoughts that have deliberately chosen to practice thinking in preparation for my son’s return:
- I trust my son to make the best decisions for him. I will support him and have his back in the decisions he makes.
- Nothing can go wrong because I have love covered. I will love me, I will love him, and I will love those he loves.
- I chose to leave the church and it was the best decision for me. I own that decision. Even if other people aren’t ok with it, I’m ok with it and that’s enough.
- I can attend his homecoming at church and love everyone there. Loving people who see the world differently than I do increases my capacity to love.
I am ready for my son to come home so that I can love him. I accept him wherever he’s at. He gets to decide how he feels about me and any decisions I make. I’m not worried about it because there isn’t anything he can do, say, feel, or think that will change my love for him one bit. I get to feel all that love! I am so ready for him to come back and I’m ready to give him a hug!