This post is from my friend Alyssa who grew up Independent Fundamental Baptist and was homeschooled throughout her K-12 education. She currently is in a graduate program to earn her Masters in Clinical Mental Health Counseling and enjoys learning more about what can be done both personally and professionally to help others coming from conservative backgrounds.
“Growing up conservative” can mean many different things to many different people. Each person comes to this table filled with stories. Stories of growing up different, stories of questioning tradition, stories of leaving, and stories of healing – all carry unique weight, hurt and strength to each person. Looking back, it feels like they all blended together for me, and I stagger to remember a day when I wasn’t the person I am now. But when I slow down, I remember all too clearly the craziness it took to get me here.
When I left the conservative church almost three years ago, I was a mess emotionally of a woman. On the outside, I was able to keep somewhat together (and that’s a very strong somewhat) but psychologically, I was in a very bad place. I had been working on gradually leaving since I was eighteen, but it was a cycle of continuing to come back because I didn’t know how else to fill the emotional wounds left in my body made from the church. A night on the town consisted of drinking enough to forget that I was the “bad girl” that I had been warned would end up pregnant, alone and addicted to something, eventually the one that would come crawling back. I used the sweetness and charm we had been taught to flirt and cajole my way into men’s arms, remembering that sex was “all men wanted anyway” especially with girls like me. The next morning would be filled with guilt, hurt and beating myself up over more stupid decisions, but coming back to the church only made it worse the next time around.
It didn’t matter how long my skirts were or how plain my face, the gaping wounds left from years of being told “No good Christian man will want you now” (after being caught dancing and flirting) and “You have so much potential God could use if only you would _____.” There were so many “if onlys!” “If only you wouldn’t talk to boys this much,” “If only you would listen more,” “If only you would read your Bible more.” We all know the story line right? What kept me from going back though three years ago was actually doing something about those wounds left in my psyche. Not just “leaving and never looking back.” But leaving, and then with time and a strong, wise hand, being led back into dark times and helped to process, analyze and figure out what to do with all the pieces.
We hear a lot that everything happens for a reason, honestly, I’m not entirely sold on that idea. But everything can be processed to come together into something OF reason though. I can’t stress how important this is. Going to see a wise counselor who was understanding when I refused any counseling coming from the Bible and was gentle with me when I shut down, truly saved my life. Here are a few of the things she taught me over the next two years:
As it has been said often before, coming out from the church, our senses of boundaries are all out of whack and screwed up. We think “What’s mine is actually not REALLY mine, it’s actually his, which is actually God’s, so if he says God said this, then it must be ok and I guess I don’t really need/want ______.” If we mess up, we tarnish the names of our men and end up beating ourselves up worse over it. Any words coming from any type of authority figure are law so if Dad/Mom says that I don’t deserve that or that I’m a disappointment, then I really don’t deserve it or I really am a disappointment. Reading this now, signs of co-dependency are ever so clear, but unfortunately, they are often disguised under the umbrella of “submission” in the church. So when I started working on establishing healthy boundaries with my counselor, the concept was mind blowing. “I can say no?” This is how I picture my boundaries now because of how she explained it to me:
Picture yourself in the middle of a target, because often that’s how life feels. Now, picture the lines of the target as fences, so you have a gate around just you, and then ever getting bigger at each boundary line. Got it? Alright, now picture people in your life all around you, and make a conscience decision at where they stand within your fences and have a reason why. People who are close and are positive influences can be close to you, even the circle right outside your immediate area. Those who are close, but maybe not so positive all the time can stand a little farther. The people that you really don’t care about or what they think, they don’t even get in the circle. Ok now place everyone where you think they belong, draw it out if it helps and add as many fences as you need. Now that you have the visual, this is how it applies.
When someone tells you something, it’s like they’re throwing rocks/arrows at you. But these get stopped at the boundary line they’re behind, determining how far their words are going to get. After it’s thrown, it’s up to you if you want to pick up what they say, maybe analyze it objectively to decide if there’s anything good to keep and bring back to your circle of importance. But everything else? You let go of and let die. What people say, even those of prior “authority” if they are not positive and if they come from a place of judgment, just drop it. Why? You have not granted them permission to have that level of importance in your life. You can still love them, but you don’t have to take every word as law. This applies to requests people make of you as well as physical actions demanded of you.
Analyze an action beforehand to determine if you will be willing to accept any and all repercussions.
While setting boundaries and being independent has several perks and positive qualities, it is not healthy if we do not look at possible downsides. Healing from the church meant I had to be strong enough to actively analyze my actions and take responsibility for them, not pass them off as something someone told me to do or “I just couldn’t help it.” It’s just me at that point, not Dad, not my Pastor, just me. While it was overwhelming and humbling at first to realize no one could answer for me but me, it quickly became empowering and life changing when I learned that I could take charge of my life. Yes, I may have tendencies which are caused by prior, external forces, but I’m the one making the choice to get help or not, to start the recovery process, or not.
So yes, I had to make some hard choices. Choices that not everyone liked, that may not have been the best, but they were MINE! They were made after careful, well thought out plans and future projections were made as much as possible. After analyzing everything, action happened. And yes. sometimes things didn’t work out like I wanted them to, but I stand by those decisions. It’s empowering to be cleaning up the mess you made when you’re the one that made it, knowing the mess was possible. Not standing in a mess saying, “But I did everything right! Why is this happening???”
Did you make some mistakes during your rough journey of leaving? Accept them and own them. Add meaning to them, apologize if necessary and then keep going. Keep going because you have so many more opportunities in front of you that are all yours.
Come to know and appreciate your wonderful mind and body.
This was one of the biggest things honestly. Seeing my body as something beautiful, instead of as something that should be covered up and something that would earn me punishment if I was inappropriate with it (even unknowingly.) Take ownership of my body and being able to stand up and say “NO!” if I didn’t like what someone was doing, instead of telling myself I was “getting what I deserve.” A friend used to always say, “No one should know your body better than you do.” Explore, study and touch your body, appreciating every little thing.
Also, understanding the mind-body connection and truly marveling at it is powerful. When you come from a background of religious abuse, the seriousness of the issue is often overlooked, but the wounds are very, very real. Words of disappointment could send me reeling into a panic attack that could last for several minutes, to the longest one being over three hours. But that’s not me being crazy, that’s my mind and body reacting in the most practical way they know how.
Intense therapy is often needed to help break those practical connections that your body puts into play to protect you. After an abusive relationship and rape, my PTSD grabbed hold hard. There were many nights I was curled up in bed, rocking, crying, screaming, and I wouldn’t let anyone touch me. Take some time to learn what causes anxiety and the physical ramifications of it, then take control of your healing. Have a bag of coping skills you can use when you start to recognize the signs of a panic attack. Make a list of your triggers and stay away from them. Give your mind and body the time and rest they deserve, they have been through a lot!
It’s tempting sometimes to look back and wallow in the awfulness of the past. But that’s not where we’re headed. We have a bright and positive future! You’re looking to a future that is not eating the pig slop like we were told would happen before we went crawling back for forgiveness.
We have a future is that full of strong, positive possibilities, surrounded by people who love you for who you are now and a world that is such a wonderful place to be alive in. Allow yourself time to look at what has happened to you, accept your weaknesses, stand up for what you need, assemble your tools for successful living, and then keep looking forward! To be present and alive in this moment is a remarkable, and truly beautiful thing.