Directly and indirectly, LDS kids are taught a faulty system of interpreting feelings. Here are five…

It feels like this!

A Mormon faith crisis begins when our shelf comes down.

Anyone who’s been through it knows exactly what a “shelf crash” means. As Mormons, we were taught to put those things we don’t understand about the church “on a shelf” to look at later. The implication is that—given the church is true—eventually, we’ll get an answer to anything that troubles us.

But the truth is: you can only fit so much on a shelf.

When your shelf has reached maximum capacity, the whole thing can come down.

And what a mess it leaves!

Food storage and the bean collapse

I want to share with you the most poignant description of a shelf collapse that I’ve come across, written by J.T.L. and shared with permission:

Early in our marriage my husband and I were long-term house sitters for a couple serving a mission. It was a great arrangement – we had a place to live and they had peace of mind knowing someone was caring for their home. As part of the arrangement, they encouraged us to use their copious food storage which for poor newlyweds was a huge blessing. Being good Mormons, there was a lot of food stored all over the house – it was sort of like living in an apocalyptic grocery store.

One night we woke up to a horrible crash followed by a soft cascading sound. When our heart rates slowed enough to assess the situation we realized that the shelf in our bedroom had collapsed, spilling its load of assorted dried legumes all over the bedroom floor. It was a phenomenal mess. We could hear beans finding their angle of repose for a long time after the initial cascade. In retrospect, it was quite spectacular.

15 years later, on a night in November, another shelf crashed to the floor. This one I had dutifully packed on my own – carefully filled with all my questions and concerns about LDS doctrine, practices and culture. I faithfully put them on the shelf, as instructed to do. That night, as I readied for bed and placed the new policy of denial of baptism for children of same-sex couples, the shelf tore from the wall and spilled the entire load all over my bedroom floor.
What does one do when years of accumulated turmoil gets dumped into your living space – in the room of your marriage bed?

I mean really. What do you do?

Here I am, a year later, still standing in my pile of beans, still wondering what to do. Still slightly shell-shocked that I am surrounded by the mess that came as such a heart-stopping surprise. I’ve asked a few people to help me assess the situation but most people take one look, offer their condolences, and move on – glad that their own shelves are intact and speculating what I did wrong that caused mine to collapse.

And so I am still standing with my pile of beans in the bedroom. My husband and I both live with the mess that has to be stepped over or waded through many times over the course of a day. There is no avoiding or ignoring it. I wake in the night to sounds of it shifting. It is there, quietly demanding to be dealt with. Most of the time I just observe it, alone. Sometimes I get ambitious and sit down and start sorting – convinced that I can put everything back where it belongs – then I realize with exhaustion how all-consuming the task will be and do I really want to save them? They were distasteful in the first place – that’s why they were on the shelf. Other times I am ashamed for how long I’ve sat on a hill of beans and start sweeping it up to throw it away but then I stop – it’s still good food – it would be such a waste to toss it all.

What I long for in these lonely hours in my room is someone to sit down with me and help me sort out the kidneys from the pintos…or help me sweep it up and throw it away…or put up a new shelf and start over. I just need some help – but where do you find someone who is willing to sit for hours, days, weeks, months, years in someone else’s mess?

Oh, how we relate to the Mess. Mess. Mess. Mess!

The word I use to describe my shelf break

After my own shelf broke, I started describing the feeling like a “reali-quake” (reality + earthquake). First came the giant realiquake, followed by many significant aftershocks.

My whole world was shifting. I was in emotional pain like never before. And the Relief Society wasn’t bringing me dinners!  The community that I always thought would be there for me couldn’t see my pain.

And why would they?

The church doesn’t prepare anyone for this. They teach people to judge anyone who can’t keep that shelf intact. They teach people to believe that a person whose shelf collapsed must have done something wrong. Or, at least, they weren’t doing enough of what’s right:

  • They must have stopped reading their scriptures and praying.
  • They stopped focusing on “what they do know.”
  • Maybe they never had a testimony.
  • Maybe they don’t take their covenants seriously.
  • They might have read anti-Mormon literature.
  • They might have listened to apostates.
  • They were probably offended by someone.
  • They are too quick to forget their blessings.
  • They are too proud and think they are smarter than prophets.
  • Maybe they broke commandments.
  • They may want to sin.
  • They don’t have enough faith.
  • They must have been deceived by Satan. (In the last days, even the elect will be deceived.)

In other words, those who leave have nobody to blame but themselves because there isn’t any valid reason to leave.

In the Mormon paradigm, anyone who leaves is either a threat to be avoided or a lost sheep that needs to be rescued.

Regardless, the person who steps away is a problem to be dealt with—not a person to be understood.

So, what does a Mormon faith crisis feel like?

It feels like an identity crisis.

It’s shockingly lonely.

It’s a time you want to be understood by the people you’ve always relied on more than you want air.

But they’ve been taught to not want to understand. They’ve been taught to ignore any evidence that doesn’t substantiate their beliefs. They’ve been taught to shut out everything that might lead them to question the church—including you.

Your friends in the church may try to “help” you, but they can’t validate the pain of your faith crisis or happiness you find outside the church. That would be anti-Mormon.

[Note: I completely understand why some active Mormons disagree with the last two paragraphs. It wasn’t until I stepped away from the church that I could see how the church teaches (a ton of things) indirectly. Of course, the church doesn’t teach anyone to act in negative ways towards those who leave. Through repeated messages – using phrases like lost sheep, gone astray, and deceived by Satan– the church teaches its members how to think about those who leave. Staying in the church is always portrayed as good. Leaving the church is always portrayed as bad. No stories are ever told about someone who had valid reasons to leave. Many people leaving the church today are suffering betrayal trauma because of significant breaches of trust. Active members of the church are taught they should seek to bring inactive members back–not be open to the possibility that those leaving are experiencing trauma for legitimate reason.]

What are the common negative emotions brought on by faith crisis?

While there is amazing relief from not having to keep making sense of things that don’t make sense, there’s also a ton of negative emotions during a faith transition. Especially at first.

I’ve heard people explain the painful aspects of having their shelf break. During the months (and sometimes years) after losing their testimony, people often feel:

shocked, betrayed, alone, scared, anxious, worried, misunderstood, stuck, silenced, hurt, judged, confused, shunned, deceived, angry, sad, depressed, devastated, abandoned, hopeless, duped, terrified, lost, traumatized, embarrassed, shut down, blindsided, helpless, uncertain, rejected, unfriended, trapped, alienated, disconnected, frustrated, ostracized, disrespected, conflicted, isolated, ignored

Besides all this, many grieve. They have lost their community, their certainty, their structured life, and their important relationships.

Many regret or resent. They realize they made decisions they wouldn’t have made if they’d known the church wasn’t true.

Many feel guilt and shame for having accepted and brought others into a belief system they now see as harmful.

Many go through an existential crisis wondering what’s the purpose of life, if God exists, and what matters anymore.

If your shelf has broken recently, here’s my message to you: All of these feelings are normal.

Though most of these emotions don’t feel good, none of them are dangerous. They don’t come from Satan, they don’t mean you’re on the wrong track, and they don’t mean you’ve done anything bad.

In time, they won’t feel so intense.

I’m so grateful for those who comforted me during the initial stages of my faith crisis, letting me know it gets better! They were right. It. Gets. Better.


Update – September 27

It has come to my attention that active members of the church are reading this article. This is awesome!

For those active in the church

You might be wondering what to say to someone who tells you they’re not attending church anymore.

The most helpful thing you can do for them right now is to let go of any desire you may have to change their mind about anything connected to the church. Though rescuing them might feel loving to you, you don’t understand—church is PAINFUL for them.  Now is not the time to preach or to shut them out. If you want to show love, consider saying something like this:

  1. I can only imagine the pain which has led to this decision. I am so sorry that you have been hurting this deeply.
  2. You have integrity that I’ve always admired. When you tell me this decision feels right for you, I believe you.
  3. If you want to talk about the reasons you are leaving, I want to hear them. I am willing to listen with an open mind. If you don’t want to talk that’s okay, too.
  4. My love for you is not based on your activity in the church. I love you!  That won’t ever change.
  5. I want you to heal from the pain you’re in more than I want anything else for you. It’s ok with me if you don’t ever come back to the church.

For those currently experiencing a faith crisis

When you are in the realiquake stage, it may feel impossible to know how to connect with anyone who can’t see that reality has shifted. You might be wondering what to say to someone when you tell them you aren’t attending church anymore.

Trying to have a conversation with someone who believes (what you believed not long ago) is like talking to an alternate version of yourself. So disorienting!

I know it feels like the sanity of all humanity is on the line. (Hang on to me if you need to.) This is what I want to tell you: your brain is seeing far more danger than what actually exists. Now is not the time to try to convince believers there are things about the church they can’t see.

The most helpful thing you can do for them right now is to let go of any desire you may have to change their mind about anything connected to the church. Though rescuing them might feel loving to you, you don’t understand—church is BEAUTIFUL for them.  Now is not the time to preach or to shut them out.  If you want to show love, consider saying something like this:

  1. I can only imagine how painful it is for you to hear I’m leaving the church. I know this isn’t what you expected and I’m sorry you’re hurting.
  2. You have integrity that I’ve always admired.  I know you love the church and that you believe it helps you to be a better person. When you tell me the church feels right for you, I believe you.
  3. I’m willing to answer any questions you may have about why I’m leaving, but I won’t share unless you ask. It’s not my intent to get you to change your beliefs.
  4. Although I’m distancing myself from the church, I’m not rejecting you. I love you as much as ever!
  5. Now that you know I feel differently about the church, you might worry you need to edit yourself as you talk to me.  You don’t. If a topic comes up that I’m not comfortable discussing, I promise I’ll let you know. In our relationship, you always get to be you. I don’t ever need you to see the church the way I do in order for me to love you.

For everyone

Being the one losing belief and being the one watching a loved one lose belief is hard! So often, I wish non-believers and believers could just put their arms around one another and grieve together. There was something that we used to have in common that we don’t anymore. That’s loss. Maybe it’s a loss that wouldn’t be quite so painful if we could feel it together.

“I considered it a good day when I worried only 90% of the time that I’d been deceived by Satan.” Have you ever had a day like that?

I’ve been to two Mormon Stories events: a workshop in Los Angeles and a retreat in St. George. (Workshops take place over a Friday night and Saturday; retreats include Saturday night and Sunday as well.) Both events I attended were life-changing. For this post, I’m going to focus on three messages I heard at the workshop that had a lasting impact on me.

On our way to meet John Dehlin

I knew John Dehlin would be the sole teacher at the Los Angeles event. I readily admit I was freaking out at the thought of meeting the John Dehlin of Mormon Stories podcast. It’s not that John seemed scary; it’s just that I was scared. Maybe of everything related to my new life.

It had been less than three months since my husband and I had stopped attending church. At this point, neither of us were sure who we were. It was like being in-between two worlds. We could still remember believing, but we didn’t believe anymore. Everything about that time was surreal.

Part of my brain was telling me it was wrong (disloyal) to attend a workshop for transitioning Mormons. The question, “Am I really doing this?” kept reeling through my head. But something in my core knew there was no going back. I knew too much.

We arrived a good 10 minutes early and John showed up at roughly the same time. He immediately got to work putting chairs in a circle and willingly initiated introductions. Before we knew it, we were sharing our most personal stories with people we had barely met. By the end of the evening, we felt strangely comfortable.

The next day, John gave us a ton of useful information. Here are three messages that had a great impact on me:

Message #1: Who knows what is good and what is bad?

During the workshop, John Dehlin shared a Chinese (Taoist) story that went something like this:

When an old farmer’s best stallion runs away, the farmer’s neighbor comes to commiserate with him over this terrible loss. But the farmer merely replies, “Who knows what is good and what is bad?”

A few days later the horse returns with three wild mares. The farmer’s neighbor comes to rejoice with the farmer’s good fortune. But the farmer merely replies, “Who knows what is good and what is bad?”

The next day, while the farmer’s son is trying to break in one of the mares, the horse throws him off. The boy breaks his leg and can’t work on the farm. The neighbor comes to express sorrow for this misfortune.  But the farmer merely replies, “Who knows what is good and what is bad?”

The next week the army passes through town, drafting able-bodied young men to war. Since the farmer’s son can’t walk, the army doesn’t take him. At this point, the neighbor begins to think, “Maybe the old farmer is wise. Who knows what is good and what is bad?”

While it’s human nature to see events as either good or bad, these black-and-white judgments don’t serve us well. Good things can emerge from what we once considered bad and vice-versa. Life is continually unfolding.

It’s always our interpretation of a circumstance that creates our experience of it being “good” or “bad.” As our beliefs shift and our relationships change, we have the option to see events as good or bad or neither.

How I’ve applied message #1:

There was a time I thought it was bad timing to leave the church when one of our children still had 22 months left on his mission. I worried my decision might have a bad impact on our relationship.

When I realized that situations we interpret as bad have the potential to be good, I began asking myself, “How could this be good?  Is there any way this could be perfect for our relationship? How could this be an opportunity for both of us to learn and to love?”

As I considered these questions, my brain gave me answers. The shift that took place in my thoughts dissolved my fear; I was more open to trust myself and my son.

My son and I discovered we could have a lot of interesting email discussions without talking about the church. I asked him questions about his personal growth and he asked me about my life coach training.

He was particularly interested in better recognizing understanding emotions. We talked about love, forgiveness, commitment to personal values, and how to “have your own back”. We have gotten to know each other on a far deeper level than we ever did by discussing “the gospel” and missionary work.

At the end of March, I received a letter from him that included these words:

I am grateful for all the advice you send me. It means a lot! I am so glad you have found increased peace in life…I look forward to a lifetime of good advice from you.

I also look forward to continuing to learn from my son. I trust him to make the decisions that are best for him. Whether he stays in the church or leaves, I support him.

Who knows what is good and what is bad? Not me. Letting go of needing to know has been a beautiful thing.

Message #2: Some people need the church

During the initial stages of my faith transition, I wanted to be understood by the community I had long relied on, but usually I just felt pain and confusion.

In some cases, people seemed more worried about protecting their own testimony than acknowledging I was hurting. I saw their reaction as a lack of compassion for me. Not only did I feel betrayed by the church, I felt people I loved were seeing me as a threat at a time I still deeply wanted human connection.

At the workshop, John mentioned that some people (psychologically) needed the church. The church provided them with community, identity, purpose and a way to understand death. The church structured their time, moral values, priorities, decision-making, and relationships.

Some people subconsciously see leaving the church as a sure path to loneliness, emptiness, and despair. For these people, leaving is not an option so there is no purpose in considering that the church might not be true. In their mind, it must be true because they wouldn’t know how to survive without the church.

Until I was 19 years old, I had no religion in my life whatsoever and when the faith transition began, I already knew I would survive. It didn’t cross my mind that some people’s sense of identity might be so linked to the church they are utterly terrified to question it.

[You may also be interested in How to Tell Your LDS Friends and Family You No Longer Believe.]

How I’ve applied message #2:

I realized I had been so focused on what I perceived as their lack of compassion for me that I had lost my compassion for them. It wasn’t that they didn’t want to understand; they simply couldn’t. Their brain’s protective instincts were kicking in.

I decided it wasn’t my job to determine who might have a psychological dependency on the church. It was my job to focus on who I want to be.

I want to be the type of person who loves others exactly as they are. While some people are easy to love, it’s those who are most difficult who grow my capacity to love. I have no control over how others think and feel about me, but I do have control over how I think and feel about them. This is where I began putting my energy.

In addition, I’ve decided it’s my responsibility to seek out people who can relate to my journey. While some of my friends don’t want to hear details about my post-Mormon journey, there are many others who will listen and who can understand.

Most importantly, though, I’ve learned how to rely on and trust myself. I’ve learned how to process painful emotions and heal. Even if others aren’t able to meet me with compassion, I can do that for myself. This allows me to be brave enough to be vulnerable for the whole world to see.

Message #3: Meditation is a power tool

John taught us that meditation has a ton of benefits. It reduces pain, boosts the immune system, lowers stress, and increases energy.  It also teaches us how to observe our thoughts, noticing them as sentences in our mind rather than reality.

I used to think that the goal of meditation was to stop thinking. Now, I realize it’s about training my brain to return to present awareness. When we meditate, we learn to notice thoughts without judgment and we separate ourselves from the drama of the stories that tend to occupy our mental energy.

When John walked us through a simple meditation, I was pleasantly surprised. I decided meditation was worth practicing.

How I applied message #3:

A couple of months after the workshop, I joined a (somewhat monthly) local meditation group that I found on meetup.com.  In this setting, I not only learned more about meditation, I also met fascinating people who were willing to be open and vulnerable. 

After the retreat, I downloaded the app Headspace and tried the free beginner course, which provided 10 minutes of guided meditation for 10 days. It was so doable and so worth it! There are a ton of meditation apps available to explore, but you don’t even need an app. Check out Margi Dehlin’s blog for a meditation exercise you can use during times of suffering.

I don’t meditate every day and I still have a ton to learn, but already my life has been enriched by trying meditation.

Mormon Stories events are worth attending

I’ve just shared the tiniest bit of the enormous value of attending a Mormon Stories event. The workshop in Los Angeles with John was fabulous; the retreat in St. George (with Natasha Helfer Parker, Lindsay Hansen Park, Roy Jeffs, and Sam Young) was mind-blowing!  

It’s so worth going to a workshop or a retreat. Or both!

Have the courage to go and you will meet courageous people.

Who knows? I just might go to another retreat and I hope to see you there!

You may not have heard the term religious trauma syndrome, but you may have experienced it. Or, perhaps you know someone who has.

My first exposure to religious trauma came through interactions with my oldest son.

In his youth, he had looked forward to going on a mission. When he reached mission age and stopped wanting to go to church,  I knew something was wrong. When I learned he was sleeping 20 hours a day, I knew something was really wrong.

At the time, he was a young man living away from home, but he didn’t have enough energy to take care of himself. We asked him to move back with us so we could get him medical attention.

He didn’t want to talk about church

It took months until he was physically and emotionally stable; throughout this time, he would go silent any time I mentioned church.

He was in pain and I knew it wasn’t because he needed to repent. I had lived long enough to recognize emotional trauma. I could see it in his face.  I just couldn’t imagine what had happened.

I eventually came to know that my son had read the CES letter as well as other information which convinced him the church wasn’t true. Hurt and angry, he didn’t know how to express how deeply betrayed he felt by his religion and how lost he felt without it.

How does a young man reject the religion of his heritage without hurting his family?

How does he resolve the pain he feels about his life in the church without also confronting the reality that his parents (who he loves) were responsible for raising him in it?

Now that he doesn’t believe in the plan of salvation, how does he find a new purpose in life?

My heart still aches as I think of the tremendous pain he suffered alone.

No wonder he couldn’t get out of bed!

Our relationship became my first priority

With the help of medication, vitamins, and sunshine, his physical strength began to return. But he was still scared to talk to me about his church trauma. The turning point in our relationship came one day while we were out on a walk.

He began to make a negative comment about the church but immediately shut himself down. I begged him to talk to me. I told him that I cared about him and our relationship and that I rather he say negative things about the church than suffer alone in silence.

He wanted to believe me, but he wasn’t sure.

What I had to surrender

Not long after our walk, I had a powerful spiritual experience. As with all spiritual experiences, it’s difficult to put into words. But something inside me knew that in order for my son to heal, I had to let go of my desire that he would ever return to church.

My belief that I knew what was right for him was a barrier between us. He wouldn’t feel safe until he knew I cared more about his healing than anything else.

I can’t remember what I said the next time we were together, but the words I spoke would forever bond us.

He felt my love.  100% pure love.

Of course, I felt it as well.

For the first time, we felt completely safe with one another.

I didn’t know it then, but that was the beginning of a healing journey for both of us. (Unfortunately, I would have to go through some of my own trauma first. When I began doing some research of my own, what I found was not what I expected.)

What is religious trauma?

Dr. Marlene Winell defines religious trauma syndrome this way:

Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS) is a function of both the chronic abuses of harmful religion and the impact of severing one’s connection with one’s faith and faith community. It can be compared to a combination of PTSD and Complex PTSD (C-PTSD)…Losing one’s faith, or leaving one’s religion…means the death of one’s previous life – the end of reality as it was understood. It is a huge shock to the system, and one that needs to be recognized as trauma.

In other words, you can suffer religious trauma (also called church trauma)  because of abuse that occurs while practicing your religion and/or from the psychological consequences of leaving it.

Religious Trauma within Mormonism

Both Danna Hartline (founder of The Mormon Trauma Mama) and Lesley Ann Butterfield (founder of Unrighteous Dominion) are working to educate people about the variety of ways religious abuse occurs within the LDS church. Unfortunately, victims of church abuse are often not believed; some are even blamed. This adds trauma to trauma.

Religious Trauma in leaving Mormonism

Losing your testimony of your religious beliefs can also be traumatic, especially if you feel betrayed by those you knew you can trust. You might wonder whether you should trust your own judgments again.

When you no longer see the world with a Mormon perspective, you may feel like you’re losing your sense of identity. The LDS church had given you a ready-made value structure, a social community, and a sense of purpose. You were also kept busy with callings, activities, and meetings. You may not have any idea what life would be like out of the church and that can feel scary.

Besides this, if you grew up Mormon, you were taught from a young age that safety and happiness depend on obedience and loyalty to the church. Following the prophet is presented as equivalent to following God. Primary children (and even adults) are warned that Satan wants to deceive you.

Phobia indoctrination like this is a type of spiritual abuse because it causes you to distrust your instincts, leading you to believe feelings come from outside sources.

If you have left the church but continue to be worried Satan may be influencing you, you are experiencing the consequence of childhood indoctrination, not reality.

What are the symptoms of religious trauma?

My research on the topic indicates that all of the following are common symptoms of the emotional trauma associated with losing testimony and/or leaving religion:

  • Anxiety or panic attacks
  • Emotional numbness
  • Guilt/Shame
  • Anger
  • Insomnia
  • Exhaustion
  • Change in appetite
  • Social withdrawal
  • Avoidance of people/places
  • Nightmares
  • Confusion
  • Difficulty Concentrating
  • Mood swings
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Feelings of grief/loss
  • Feelings of not fitting in anywhere
  • Trouble making decisions

[If any of the above symptoms are long-lasting or are interfering with your life, seek professional counseling.]

None of these feelings are indicators that leaving the church was a wrong decision. They are signs of being human and working through a faith transition.

Mixed feelings are normal

Of course, leaving one’s religion is not just filled with trauma. Most people feel tremendous relief no longer having to try makes sense of all the parts of their belief system that never made sense! They may also feel alive like never before.

For many people, leaving religion is full of mixed emotion.

If you leave the church, you may feel like you’re healing from a long-term illness, divorcing an adulterous spouse, and facing the death of a loved one ALL AT ONCE.

Finding your way through religious trauma isn’t easy, but it is possible. Many other people have survived and are thriving without the church. If you are transitioning away from Mormonism, be patient with yourself.

Here are 5 tips to help you get through:

  1. Get information. In the past, you put limits on what you were willing to read. Let those barriers go. Read about LDS church history and the history of Christianity. Learn about evolution. Find out more about cognitive dissonance, tribal psychology, and logical fallacies. Reading will give you a bigger picture, helping you understand your past thinking and open up options for new perspectives.
  2. Get support. Find a therapist and/or a life coach. Join online support groups. Go to a Mormon Stories event and meet real people going through the same transition.
  3. Get out of your bubble. Find and talk to people who were never Mormon. (Try meetup.com). Enroll in a class. Take up a new hobby.
  4. Spend time in nature. This sounds like a little thing, but nature restores us. I have found so much healing in watching birds around my neighborhood.
  5. Take your time! When you come out of a religion that had all the answers, it can be uncomfortable not to know what’s next. When you’ve lived a life filled with structure created by an outside source, you may not know what to do with yourself. It’s fine not to know. Try thinking the thought, “I’m figuring this out and that’s ok.”

[You may also be interested in How to Tell Your LDS Friends and Family You No Longer Believe.]

Wherever you are in your journey, meet yourself with compassion.

There is no “right” way to work through a faith transformation.

There is no moment of arrival.

Life will continually present us with opportunities to love ourselves and to love others. And as my oldest son taught me, love is far more important than having all the answers.

 

Choose the Right.

You know the song.

If you went to primary, you heard it over and over and over again.

Lyrics combined with powerful music, repeating this clear message:

There’s the right and the wrong to ev’ry question.

If you went to primary, you learned decisions in life are right OR wrong.

Period.

You were also taught these ideas:

  • Choosing the right is good and approved by God.
  • Not choosing the right is bad and leads to God’s spirit withdrawing.
  • And because God cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance, any sin you forget to repent of may impact your eternal salvation, including your ability to be forever with your family.

Those stakes are as high as they come.

And even in the Mormon paradigm, choosing the right isn’t as easy as it sounds.

God doesn’t give commandments for everything. (D&C 58)

Even in his basic commandments, he changes his mind–like when he told Nephi to cut off Laban’s head.

So it’s your job to figure out what God wants you to do in any particular circumstance. Somehow, you need to figure out God’s will.

But beware, Satan is always trying to tempt and deceive you. So you’ve got to figure out Satan, too.

At least there is the Holy Ghost to guide you, right?

Unfortunately, this approach brings you to the unanswerable question: “Was that thought a prompting from the Spirit or was it just my own brain?”

If you still can’t decide what to do, you can simply follow the prophet.

He speaks for God.

Well, except, of course, when he’s speaking as a man.

I dare you to find a better recipe for anxiety!

How do you escape choose-the-right thinking?

I have found that many post-Mormons have a continual desire to do the right thing in situations where there isn’t a clear-cut right choice. This “choose-the-right” thinking often leads to withdrawal, indecision, and inaction — none of which are conducive to personal growth.

When you find yourself paralyzed by a choice, you might want to try this:

  1. Notice your feelings. If you are feeling uncomfortable, allow the discomfort. If you grew up Mormon, you were repeatedly taught you should “always have the spirit” with you.You probably learned to view uncomfortable feelings as a sign something is wrong and learned to resist them. As humans, we are designed to feel a wide range of emotions. All emotions are vibrations in our body that come from our thoughts (or interpretations). Emotions themselves are never a problem; they exist to teach us, aid in our survival and provide energy for action.
  2. Notice your thoughts. Write them down. Think of each thought as an object to be looked at. If you are thinking similar thoughts over and over, you are witnessing your brain acting efficiently. So if you are repeatedly thinking something like, “I just want to do the right thing” you have discovered a powerful thought loop. Just be aware of it. Thoughts we think over and over feel so real; however, they are just thoughts.
  3. Notice that you can notice both feelings and thoughts. If there is a part of you that can observe what you are feeling and thinking, it’s clear you are more than what goes on in your body or your mind. When you feel anxiety, you can switch into observation mode by getting curious. Ask yourself “what’s going on in my body right now?” and “what thoughts are moving around in my head?”

As you begin to allow your feelings (rather than repress them) and begin to see your thoughts as thoughts (rather than absolute reality), you are building the foundation to a relationship with yourself as a whole human being.

Then, whatever you choose, you can do so from a place of love rather than fear.

And that, my friends, is a beautiful thing!

When I was an active member of the church, my testimony led me to believe that one-on-one interviews between bishops and youth were necessary and important.

I was wrong.  These interviews are neither safe nor helpful.

Worthiness interviews are not safe

A key aspect of child abuse prevention is teaching kids they are in charge of their body. They get to decide whether they want to hug someone, kiss someone, or even to talk to someone about their body. As they get older and pass through puberty, they have the right to make every decision that pertains to themselves as sexual beings. This includes disclosure.

Children growing up in the LDS church aren’t taught this important truth. Instead, they are led to believe that God’s approval of them hinges on their willingness to disclose information about their sexuality whether or not they are comfortable with their bishop.

This pressure to disclose teaches youth to ignore their own discomfort; it’s a system of forced trust which grooms teens to surrender their right to choose if, when, and with whom they will discuss their sexuality.

Let’s look at the extreme power differential between a youth and a bishop:

  • A youth has no voice as to who is called as their bishop.
  • A youth cannot choose a different bishop.
  • A bishop is always a man. Girls do not have the option of interviewing with a female leader.
  • The bishop is the deciding authority whether the child is “worthy” to participate in the sacred ordinances expected of members.
  • The bishop is the deciding authority in youth church assignments.
  • The bishop, according to church doctrine, literally stands in place of God. Youth are taught to trust and obey the bishop. Youth are never taught to question the bishop.

Bishop interviews are conducted in private behind closed doors, creating an environment where there is an opportunity for sexual abuse.

While most bishops are men of great integrity, this system doesn’t teach youth they have the right to say no to anyone, including a bishop or priesthood leader. This system also doesn’t provide a safe means for youth to disclose abuse should it occur.

The behind closed door system also fails bishops of integrity who simply should not be required to meet alone with minors.

For everyone’s safety, bishops must be trained in safety procedures and policies before they act in the role of bishop. Bishops should not meet with youth alone unless the youth asks to meet in private and bishop’s offices need a door window so the bishop can always be seen. (There are ways to set up a room so the bishop is visible, but the person he is meeting with is not.)

Child abuse is a serious problem for our whole society. Every precaution must be taken to prevent the possibility it might occur. Anything less is #NotOkWithMe.

Worthiness interviews are not helpful

Besides being unsafe for youth, worthiness interviews are harmful to their mental and emotional development.

At the start of puberty, many youths are told that masturbation–a developmentally normal behavior–is not only a sin but one that must be confessed to a bishop.

Some youth lie because of the social pressure to be worthy; others repeatedly confess the same “sin.” Worthiness interviews put many youths in a position where they repeatedly feel shame for even having sexual feelings. This shame is the very fuel for the compulsive sexual behavior they are trying to avoid!

If the goal is to help young people grow into mentally healthy and sexually responsible adults, these interviews don’t help. If you don’t believe me, ask the youth of the church. I have spoken to enough of them to know too many feel painfully unworthy of God’s love. Is that what these standards are meant to teach?

The most important thing young people need to learn is they are 100% lovable even in their imperfection. This doesn’t mean we teach them to condone all behavior.  It means we teach them they are so much more than their behavior.

It means we teach them that self-punishment never motivates us to evolve into the best version of ourselves; only self-compassion can do that.

It means we teach them to recognize that every person remains fully worthy of divine love.

Any kid who shows up with a heart willing to serve should be allowed to serve–even in sacred ordinances.

There is nothing more sacred than children.

For a church to put anything other than the safety and emotional health of its kids as its #1 priority is #NotOkWithMe.

Let’s not teach our children to connect their behavior to their worth.  Forget worthy; youth need to hear they are WORTH IT!

Thank you, Sam Young, and Protect LDS Children for courageously bringing attention to this issue.

Did you laugh out loud when BYU claimed low demand as the reason it didn’t sell caffeinated beverages until 2017? We did.  Students have been asking for caffeine for years.

BYU’s statement completely sidestepped around the reality that caffeine consumption within the church has been a contentious issue. By not acknowledging the longtime controversy over whether caffeine is against the Word of Wisdom, BYU implied the decision to sell caffeinated soda was as unremarkable as the decision to add a Taco Bell on campus.

That’s not reality. Caffeinated drinks at BYU marks a striking change. To pretend it isn’t — well, that’s gaslighting.

What is gaslighting?

The word comes from the 1938 play Gas Light about a man who attempts to hide his criminal activities by manipulating his wife into believing she is going insane. When his actions cause the gas lights of their apartment to dim, he insists nothing changed and tells her she must be imagining things.

Today, psychologists use the term gaslighting to refer to behavior that undermines another person’s perception of reality. A gaslighter uses tactics like denial, misdirection, deception, contradiction, and blame to confuse their victim and maintain control in the relationship. Gaslighting DefinitionRegardless of whether the gaslighting is intentional or unintentional, victims begin to doubt what they are seeing, remembering, or feeling. Consequently, they no longer know who to trust or what is real. Victims of repeated gaslighting often feel like they are going crazy.

We laughed off the bureaucratic gaslighting that recently came from BYU. After all, whether students could buy caffeine on campus isn’t really that important. We were completely caught off guard, however, when we recognized the LDS church was gaslighting its members through a series of Gospel Topic Essays.

The Essays

When we read the essays, we felt as if we had been transported into the dystopian society described in George Orwell’s 1984, a place where history was literally rewritten to match new state-approved facts. The LDS Church, which for decades has presented a neatly packaged Our Heritage version of its history, has published a drastically different version without a unified explanation to its people as a whole.

LDS Church Historian and Recorder Elder Steven E. Snow called the way the essays were released a “soft launch,” meaning this messier history was placed on lds.org where internet search engines would find them, but a casual browser of the church website would not. This strategy was intended to expose church members gradually to this new information and also be available for seminary teachers to inoculate their students.

Though these essays started being released in 2013, there has never been direct links to them from the lds.org homepage. The essays were included in the 2017 adult Sunday School curriculum as optional supplements, but many teachers stuck with the traditional unmodified Gospel Doctrine Teacher’s Manual. Most active Latter-day Saints we’ve spoken with know little about the controversial content of these essays.

You can find this content if you google search for Gospel Topic Essays, a title which implies they are about routine subjects like prayer and faith. But the content covered here is anything but routine!

The essays present information never before seen in official church curriculum and facts only previously available in the anti-Mormon literature we were warned not to read. For many active Latter-day Saints, these essays present an alternate version of reality.
anti-mormon literature

If you feel this way, we want you to know you are not going crazy and you are not alone!  Let’s compare content from four of these essays with traditional LDS curriculum.

Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham

The Book of Abraham is introduced as “A Translation of some ancient Records that have fallen into our hands from the catacombs of Egypt. The writings of Abraham while he was in Egypt, called the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand, upon papyrus.” The current curriculum teaches that “Joseph Smith studied the letters and grammar of the Egyptian language, and then, with the help of the Holy Ghost, he translated the writings on the papyrus rolls.”

In this context, the word translation unambiguously means reading Egyptian and writing the same thing in English. However, this essay makes it clear that LDS and non-LDS scholars agree: the “characters on the fragments [of papyri] do not match [Joseph’s] translation.”

In fact, the papyrus fragments have nothing whatsoever to do with Abraham, but are “parts of standard funerary texts that were deposited with mummified bodies.” In other words, Joseph wasn’t actually translating.

The church has long taught that the Book of Abraham is the product of Joseph’s translation of ancient Egyptian papyri. The new narrative concedes that the Book of Abraham is not the product of Joseph’s translation of Egyptian characters. Even more confusing is the implication that this doesn’t matter, that we should believe in the Book of Abraham as if it were literally translated.

The church has changed its narrative about the origin of canonized scripture without official announcement to its members, without admitting error, and without correcting its curriculum.

If you are confused why such monumental information is being buried among optional Sunday School material as if it’s nothing out of the ordinary, you are feeling the impact of gaslighting. We want you to know you are not going crazy.

Book of Mormon Translation

Where did the book of Mormon come from? Here’s the story we were told: “[gold] plates were delivered to Joseph Smith, who translated them by the gift and power of God.” Throughout church curriculum — in music, art, videos, and magazines — we saw Joseph sitting at a table, studying the gold plates by candlelight, reading the translation to a scribe.

However, the historical evidence presented in this essay effectively erases fundamental elements from this long-held narrative. According to the essay, Joseph did not need to look at the plates in order to translate, nor did he need the tool that had been “kept and preserved by the hand of the Lord” and “handed down from generation to generation, for the purpose of interpreting languages.”

Instead, Joseph put his face in a hat and read words as they appeared on a brown seer stone — a stone he found while digging a well and which he had previously used for divining the locations of buried treasure and guardian spirits.

In the narrative you had consistently been taught, gold plates and the Urim and Thummim were essential to Joseph’s ability to bring forth the Book of Mormon. In the new narrative, Joseph not only doesn’t need to look at the plates, he can disregard the sacred tools the Lord gave him and turn an ordinary object into a “translation” tool. Apparently, it doesn’t matter if the sacred is swapped with the commonplace.

Behind the scenes, the old translation story is being replaced with the new. If you are looking for images online and you realize the image of Joseph translating with the plates beside him has disappeared, we want you to know, you are not going crazy. History is being re-written without being corrected. Without a doubt, this is gaslighting.

First Vision Accounts

Church curriculum has consistently told the story of the First Vision recorded in 1838: 14-year-old Joseph Smith wanted to know which church to join and offered a prayer in a sacred grove. In response, both Heavenly Father and Jesus appeared, telling him that none of the churches were true. Why Joseph prayed and what happened after he prayed are presented as meaningful details of this story.

This essay ushers in a new reality, revealing there are multiple versions of the First Vision while claiming “the accounts tell a consistent story.” When we read the actual accounts, however, we realized there were significant differences between them.

In the earliest account, written by Joseph in 1832, the purpose of Joseph’s prayer was not “to know which of all the sects was right” but rather to seek personal forgiveness. In fact, Joseph reveals he had determined “by reading the scriptures” that none of the churches were true — before he prayed! The question of which church to join wasn’t even on his mind.

Furthermore, only one personage, the Lord, appears; Joseph does not describe seeing Heavenly Father’s body or hearing him speak.

Unless the purpose of Joseph’s prayer and who appeared after he prayed are no longer important details of the story, the 1832 and 1838 accounts are not consistent.
First Vision Accounts Not Consistent

If you read the 1832 account and don’t even recognize it as the First Vision, we want you to know you are not going crazy. For the church to present these accounts as consistent when they differ in the very details the church has long taught matter the most is flagrant gaslighting.

Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo

Church curriculum has portrayed Joseph as having one wife: his beloved Emma.

However, in this essay, you read Joseph Smith had more than 30 wives. He also engaged in polyandry — the practice of marrying women who were already married to other men. This essay also concedes that some of Joseph’s marriages included sexual relations.

One of the footnotes of the essay led us to Todd Compton’s In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith. Here, we discovered additional details that have been omitted from the “Our Heritage” version of Church History. Here are just a few:

  • Joseph’s first known relationship outside of his marriage with Emma was transacted with the 16-year-old housemaid, Fanny Alger, and took place before the Priesthood sealing keys were restored. Both Oliver Cowdery and Emma referred to the relationship as an affair.
  • Joseph Smith generally hid his plural marriages from Emma. For a short time in 1843, Emma consented to let Joseph marry other women on the condition she could pick the women; when she chose the Partridge sisters (who already had been sealed to Joseph without Emma’s knowledge), Joseph arranged to be sealed again in front of Emma rather than tell her the truth.
  • When Joseph requested 14-year-old Helen Mar Kimball’s hand in marriage, he promised the marriage would “ensure [her] eternal salvation & exaltation and that of [her] father’s household & all of [her] kindred.” Joseph gave Helen 24 hours to decide if she would offer herself in exchange for her family’s salvation. Helen was the youngest but not the only teenage girl Joseph pressured to quickly answer his proposal.
  • Based on the date that Joseph and Emma were sealed, Joseph had been sealed to over 20 other women before he was sealed to Emma.

In short, the Church curriculum has not only omitted Joseph’s polygamy and polyandry, but also the ways Joseph was both deceptive and coercive. Any other member of the church who behaved this way would be excommunicated. And rather than condemning Joseph’s methods, the church excuses them, suggesting that the Lord “did not give exact instructions” on how to practice polygamy.
Joseph Smith polygamy polyandry deceptive coercive

If you haven’t heard of polyandry and you recognize there is no doctrinal foundation for it, we want you to know you are not going crazy. For the church to reveal Joseph’s behavior as if it’s in alignment with a man of “honesty and high moral character” is gaslighting.

Equally troubling, the church continues to imply that if you didn’t know this new narrative, it’s your own fault because “long-term and well-read members, historians, and Church leaders” have known about it for years. For an institution to blame members for not knowing the things that institution has deliberately omitted from its correlated materials is further gaslighting.

Conclusion

The examples above are only a small representation of the gaslighting felt by many members who read the essays as well as the footnotes and original documents referenced within.

Over and over again, it feels like the Church is saying: “Information we previously told you was anti-Mormon, we are now telling you is true. Even though you may have misled others because you trusted us, we take no responsibility.”  If members are confused, the implication is that something is wrong with the members, not the information nor the way it was presented.

As members of the Church, we have been continuously taught to wholeheartedly trust the “servants of God” to never to lead [us] astray. However, leaders are not directly and explicitly teaching the members about the essays; each ward has been left to fend for itself.

Some members believe the whitewashed Our Heritage version of Church History, others believe the new Gospel Topic Essays version of Church History, and many members have no idea what to believe or who to trust anymore. This divides members and hurts relationships.

By failing to make an official announcement, current church leaders have placed an incredible burden on members of the church who know the new narrative.  Without apology, the LDS Church has made its members responsible to reconcile conflicting historical narratives without giving them the authority to do so.

If you are a member of the church feeling this burden, we want you to know there is nothing wrong with you! The narrative the church is telling about its history has changed and this new messier version of history calls into question not only the essential truth claims of the church but whether the church is truthful.

Most concerning of all, though, is the church’s willingness to confuse and divide its own people rather than admit and repent of false teachings. This is gaslighting. If you feel this is unethical and unacceptable, we don’t blame you. You are not going crazy. And you are not alone.

Learn more about Religious Trauma Syndrome here.