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

As Mormons, we were taught to put those things we didn’t understand about the church “on a shelf”. Nobody prepared us for how it would really feel when it broke…

“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 can the fuel the compulsive 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. 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 they don’t ever have to prove their worth.

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

There’s nothing more sacred than children.

Let’s stop focusing on which youth are worthy. Instead, let’s tell all youth they’re WORTH IT!

Thank you, Sam Young, and Protect LDS Children for courageously working to Protect Every Child.

Did you laugh out loud when BYU claimed low demand as the reason it didn’t sell caffeinated beverages until 2017? We did until we noticed a pattern…