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…
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!
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
- Change in appetite
- Social withdrawal
- Avoidance of people/places
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.