Throughout my experiences working with others, I have encountered an alarming number of individuals that have the same stories regarding their religious upbringing. I must start out by saying that what I am about to write is not a criticism of religion and that my personal beliefs are irrelevant to the discussion. I am simply pointing out that I am witnessing the effects of what may be well intended lessons but is often too much for a developing mind to comprehend objectively. Christianity is the foundation from which most of these individuals were taught; therefore I will be using it to provide specific examples. In no way am I speculating that all Christians share their beliefs in a harmful or destructive manner.
Okay, so let’s start with the science. The logical/intellectual level of the brain is not fully developed until the mid-late twenties. This means that children do not have the same ability to think abstractly, to comprehend the difference of context or to grasp complex ideas as a mature adult. This is a crucial part of their development because most of their ideas about themselves and the world are formed by the age of twelve. They can be altered, but not without some difficulty. When young children are taught about God, their thinking is very absolute. “If you do not accept Jesus into your heart, you will go to Hell.” Simple. Done. “If you have sex before marriage, you are going to Hell.” Okay. Got it. “Sin is bad. God hates sin.” Yep, easy enough. “God sees everything you do. He knows what’s in your heart”. Oh, okay. “To doubt or question God’s existence is a sin and you will go to hell.” Yikes, okay. “All of your friends that don’t believe in Jesus are going to hell.” Oh man. “You must do everything to remain pure in the eyes of God. This means not only in action but in thought.” Wow, that’s a tall order. Can you see how I started with only negative teachings? I’m sure you have heard the phrase “Fire and Brimstone”. Some people use fear as a way to stress the importance of believing in God and it will definitely get the 10 year olds on their knees, asking Jesus into their hearts! But let’s take a look at what can happen next for the youngsters that now have these beliefs etched into their psyche.
*As you read these, fight the urge to insert logic where you see that it is lacking. Remember, we are looking at the experience from an underdeveloped mind.*
Six year old Nathan is in Sunday school when he hears his teacher say that the only way to go to heaven is to believe in Jesus Christ and to doubt his existence is wrong. He tries to process this in his head because, he does NOT want to go to hell. He silently asks Jesus into his heart over and over, but doesn’t feel any different afterward. “How do I know if it worked?” he thinks. “What if he’s not in there? I can’t ask anyone because then I will be doubting God and everyone will know.” Nathan continues to struggle with knowing whether he has been “saved” or not. He is silently terrified that he is going to Hell and has no idea how to make sure that God is in his heart. He continues to pray but does not feel a connection. He follows the teachings of the church and does his best to not let anyone know that he has no idea what he believes in and as a result, feels different from his peers. He has accepted the idea that he is not good enough and that something is wrong with him and it permeates all areas of his life.
When seven year old Sarah goes to a slumber party at her best friend’s house, she wakes up to find her friend’s 16 year old brother coaxing her to come into his bedroom. She does so, because she has no reason not to trust him. He proceeds to sexually abuse her and swears her to secrecy. Sarah is now left to figure out how to handle this experience on her own. She fears telling her parents because she believes that what happened was her fault because she went into his room. She feels dirty and impure. She knows that she is now going to hell because of what she did and is ashamed that God must know what happened. She decides to take this secret to her grave and to never let anyone know of how sinful and dirty she is. She becomes ashamed of herself and stops praying because she knows God hates her.
Fifteen year old Jason is active in his church’s youth program and has a strong belief in God. Despite seeing the blessings in his life, Jason often feels down and lethargic. He isolates in his room when he is home and cannot shake his feelings of loneliness and hopelessness. He contemplates suicide and immediately feels guilt for doing so. Jason reaches out to his father and asks to see a doctor. Jason’s father told him that he did not need a doctor and that all he needed to do was pray. His father stated that if Jason’s spiritual program was healthy then he would not feel this way. Jason continued to suffer in silence, begging God for relief and feeling ashamed of himself for failing God by not being able to overcome his depression.
Seventeen year old Mary is in love with her boyfriend. She knows that they will be together forever and that he is the greatest gentleman to ever walk the earth. One night, Mary and her boyfriend are at a friend’s house when they find themselves alone in the room. One thing led to another and before her brain could catch up with her biological response, they were having sex. Mary was riddled with shame and humiliation afterward. She knew she would be going to hell and felt terrified and alone. As time progressed, she became angry at God and began to rebel against the beliefs that she used to hold true; she began binge drinking and stepped away from her relationship with God entirely.
Now you may be thinking, “Okay, but the church teaches about God’s salvation and mercy and how you are not going to hell IF you seek Jesus….” And you’re right! But here’s the thing: The churches and/or individuals I am discussing are the ones that lead with the fear-based message. They intend to motivate people with the fear that if they do not do something, there will be consequences. Parents will even use the idea of hell as a way to get children to behave and learn what is right and wrong. This can lead to young minds fearing God and seeing Him as punitive and damning. We established that the last thing to fully develop in the brain is the intellectual thinking, so it is understandable that some children are unable to conceptualize the balance of sin and redemption when they are warned of Hell as a result of their actions and are less often reminded of the safety, compassion, grace and love that comes with a relationship with God.
By the time the individuals get to me, they tend to be one of three things: adamant that God does not exist, convinced that they are worthless and bad in the eyes of God, or so angry with God that they cannot address it. These types of experiences can produce a subconscious belief in the realm of “I am not good enough”, “I am a failure”, “I am inherently bad”, “I am unlovable” or “I am alone”. Inherent worthiness wasn’t stressed for these individuals when they were learning about Hell. They did not learn that sinning makes them human, as opposed to “bad”. The pressure that they felt to be sinless, pure and Godly was so overwhelming that, at some point, they decided they had failed God. That is HEAVY. We are talking about the value of your soul, your purpose on this planet, your afterlife destination, etc. It does not matter that they have the facts about Christianity a bit skewed or have taken them out of context, their perspective is all that matters. The fundamentals that they learned as a child that define their place in life are what matter. It’s pretty terrifying and sometimes even impossible to function in society when you have a rock solid belief that you are not good enough and that you are alone.
The idea of inherent worth: the notion that you deserve abundance and peace just because you were born, is one that many people did not learn. It is never too late to learn this truth and accept it as your own, but if you are anything like these individuals, you are going to have to tear down a lot of old beliefs in order to do so. I decided to write about this for two reasons: to perhaps share some perspective on the effects of fear-based teachings and to hopefully share insight and hope with those that have experienced organized religion in a similar way. I don’t care what you believe in regards to a higher power; what is important to me is that your beliefs foster self-love, hope, compassion, courage and security. I am intensely passionate about helping individuals untangle their beliefs and religious-based emotional trauma to find their peace.
I am extremely passionate I about what I do; however, I confess that I sometimes experience some fear of being vulnerable as I share my personal thoughts and beliefs with others. To share something that I hold so dearly, to put it on the chopping block for others to critique or challenge; to open my heart in a public forum is to expose myself with no guarantee of approval or acceptance. I hope you will read my work with the understanding that these thoughts are based on my research, experience and passion for helping others grow. Check out the image to the left. It is a perfect depiction of what I am about to discuss.
Now, do you see what I did there? I admitted my insecurity and fear in an effort to gain connection with you. In order for you to consider what I am saying we must have some level of connection; whether that be a previously established level of trust, a willingness to consider something new or simply a level of respect for one another. Connection requires vulnerability. Yes, I said that awful, icky word from which we all want to run. Vulnerability means that we are exposed in some way and that there is no guarantee that we will be accepted. Shame, the belief that we are “less than” or not good enough, keeps us running from that cursed vulnerability.
“If they never see the true me, then I can’t be rejected.”
“If I don’t let him into my heart, then he can’t break it.”
“They don’t actually want to know what I have to say.”
“I know I’m a good artist but what if someone doesn’t like my work? I just won’t share it.”
“I know dad hates weak people. I just won’t ask him for help and pretend everything is fine.”
“If I always keep the lights off during sex then he won’t be able to see all of my flaws.”
These are just a few examples of the dreadful messages that shame drives within us; the basis of each being, “I am not enough”. Well, here’s the problem with that: if you allow your shame to control your thinking and your actions, vulnerability becomes nearly impossible. Vulnerability is vital to establishing genuine connection and trust with others. Brene Brown describes connection as the foundation for purpose and meaning in our lives; we are neurobiologically wired for it. Are you still with me? That means it’s time to deconstruct shame, walk courageously into the spotlight of vulnerability and connect with others. Let’s take a look at how this affects our intimate relationships.
Can you think back to an argument with a significant other where perhaps you did not express what was truly going on inside of you? Maybe you expressed anger instead of the pain and fear that you were actually experiencing. Maybe you appeared invincible despite the turmoil and confusion beneath your surface. Maybe you selectively chose facts to prove your innocence when you knew that you were in the wrong. A lot of these games can be extinguished if both parties in the relationship can refocus on the actual principle communication. It is apparent, throughout our society, that this principle has been long forgotten. As evidenced by our political discourse, religious arguments, etc. the usual intention of communication is to prove to the other party that you are right and they are wrong, right? WRONG. So wrong. Communication is used in effort connect and understand one another, to experience compassion and empathy. In the examples that I just used, do you see much connection happening as a result of their discussions? I think not. As long as this is the goal of their communication, there will be no resolution nor compromise. In your personal relationships, think about occasions when you have acted this way in an argument; were you trying to be heard or were you trying to be right? Were you coming from a place of fear and ego? Did you begin tactfully forming your rebuttal while they were still speaking, rather than listening and trying to understand their view? If we, as individuals, seek to adhere to the principles of connection and communication, we will see a significant shift in the depth of relationships and the compassion we show for ourselves and others. I know, it’s scary to be vulnerable. As I stated in the beginning, I feel it just by writing this! But does that discomfort mean that I shouldn’t do it? That fear that pops up when you are about to share you a piece of yourself with a new significant other- is it telling you not to do it? Nope! Unfortunately, that’s just a part of vulnerability. It’s uncomfortable in the beginning.
In order to begin this change in your life, you have to start practicing compassion with yourself. You have to raise your awareness around the thoughts that dictate your actions. Have you ever taken a look at how many of your decisions are fear-based? Think about it for a minute. How many times throughout the day do you make decisions in order to prevent something from happening to you or to protect yourself from being vulnerable? Most of those thoughts slip by without our awareness and are fairly reflexive. These thoughts are formed over time, based on beliefs we have about ourselves and the world. Raising your awareness around these thoughts is the first step to getting rid of them and living a life in healthy vulnerability.
There are well-researched methods to accelerate you in the process of “learning self-compassion and vulnerability”. Try journaling when you are experiencing fear and anxiety and evaluating the trends that you see in regards to negative self talk. Evaluate the negative beliefs that fuel your fear based thinking and see if you can begin deconstructing them. Practice mindful-based meditation, which is proven to decrease anxiety, depression and increase presence of mind. Consider seeing a well-qualified psychotherapist; it can help tremendously when you have trouble showing yourself love and compassion because they can help to see where your perspective is inaccurate.
Your brain has had many years to form these negative pathways in your brain that tell you to maintain safety by avoiding vulnerability but the great news is that, with time, you can form new brain paths and automatic thoughts! In order to change your personal relationships it is imperative that you start to make these changes. If you are with a partner that is not doing their own work it will become apparent that they are not capable of connection you are seeking and you will have some decisions to make. If one of our most inherent needs is connection, then you might want to get started. A life behind those walls that you have built can be quite lonely and exhausting to maintain.
Your brain has had many years to form these negative pathways and to build “walls” that (incorrectly) tell you to maintain your personal safety by avoiding vulnerability. The great news is that you can, over time, re-train your brain! Our brains can form new pathways and create new and improved automatic thoughts! Changing our interpersonal relationships requires time and effort, but is very much worth the hard work. Life behind the “walls” that we create in our minds can be quite lonely and exhausting to maintain. In order to change your personal relationships it is imperative that you begin to make changes in the way you communicate. Connecting with others is one of our most inherent needs as human beings, so let’s get started down the “pathway” to deeper and more fulfilling relationships!
The Shame Game by Janice Gaunt, is a wonderful resource for raising awareness around negative self-talk and deconstructing lifelong shame. In a future blog I will delve deeper into the technicalities of communication with others.