Ex-Mormons are often accused of “playing the victim” and wallowing in “victimology,” and it’s always struck me as weird that many church members simply cannot imagine that anyone might have been hurt or damaged by their association with Mormonism. People do get hurt, and often the hurt goes quite deep. Acknowledging that pain is not an indictment of Mormonism but simply acceptance of other people’s experience.

I’ve written before about how Mormonism compounded my innate issues of self-worth, guilt, and shame (I don’t think I need to explain in detail how Mormonism contributed to my feeling that I didn’t measure up and never would). In the LDS church there is a major focus on “worthiness,” meaning that one must meet a certain level of obedience before being eligible for certain ordinances, blessings, and church assignments. We could not have the influence and companionship of the Holy Spirit, we were told, unless we were worthy. Although I regularly and honestly passed my worthiness interviews, I always had nagging guilt and wondered if I really was worthy. I would beat myself up for little things, sure that I was deficient in some way. In talking with current and former members, I realize that I engaged in far less sinful behavior than most, but I was sure that God was disappointed in me for not measuring up.

Although I don’t think I’ve expressed this before, I have often felt like the damage done to my soul was permanent, that Mormonism had helped break me in ways that could never be repaired. So, yes, those feelings contributed to deep resentment toward the church; it’s natural to have bad feelings toward people and institutions that have hurt you. Many church members, particularly those I met on message boards, told me those feelings were irrational and obvious signs of a bitter apostate. One person told me that I should treat leaving the church like divorcing an abusive spouse: rather than dwelling on the ways the ex-spouse (the church, by analogy) had hurt me, I should just move on and forget about it.

Of course, that’s easier said than done, particularly when the ex-spouse makes constant efforts to get you back and your friends and family constantly tell you how wonderful the abusive spouse is and how you really should give him or her another chance. And of course, we get the constant refrain that the breakup of the relationship is our fault, not the abuser’s: we were too proud, wanted to sin, were spiritually lazy, and so on.

In one sense they are right: there’s a difference between acknowledging pain and wallowing in it. And I am sure I did my share of wallowing. But a strange thing has happened since I finally got past most of the raw emotion. Without really trying, I have reached a point at which I don’t feel like I’m permanently broken anymore. I used to feel like the guilt, the inadequacy, the shame were all just part of me that I would forever have to fight.

I really don’t know what’s changed, but I feel like I can finally put that baggage down and walk on without such a heavy load. I’m not naive enough to believe that these old and well-ingrained attitudes will just vanish, but somehow I feel hopeful, as if I am somebody worthy of self-approval. It’s one thing to have a bishop or stake president pronounce you worthy, but it’s an entirely different thing to really feel worthy. I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced that before in my life.

7 Responses to Unbroken

  1. kuri says:

    Without really trying, I have reached a point at which I don’t feel like I’m permanently broken anymore. I used to feel like the guilt, the inadequacy, the shame were all just part of me that I would forever have to fight.

    I can really relate to that. In my case, the LDS Church wasn’t much of a part of my problems — I didn’t join until I was 20, and mostly it provided me with structure at a time when I really needed it — but I know what it’s like to feel permanently broken.

    And I know what it’s like to finally realize that I’m not. FWIW, I wrote about it once ,ahref=”http://www.totryanewsword.com/2008/09/song-of-my-father.html”>here. It’s good to see the same healing happening to someone else.

  2. kuri says:

    Sorry about the messed up html. Here’s the proper link.

  3. Jeff says:

    Part of it is just detoxing. You have to stay away from it long enough for your brain to re-wire itself. It almost seems like substance abuse, it may take three or four years of abstinence and recovery work. In AA you’re said to be a newcomer for five years.

  4. Rick says:

    Yes, I think the simple way to think about it is “time.” It seems that as long as you stay away from your “drug” (the church, in this case) for a while, nature allows you to move on and gradually minimize the pain from the past.

    Congrats on your new-found sobriety!


  5. Andrew says:

    This reminded me of how things were for me in the first few months after leaving. I immediately had felt better for leaving…just dropping things off…but I wasn’t able to drop *everything* off. I still implicitly paid respect to church leadership, church hierarchy, and church doctrine. So, I implicitly viewed my situation as, “Well, for whatever reason, I’m broken and cannot make the church work for me. It’s better to be out, but this is because of me.”

    Over time, I have come to see it differently. Now, I realize that it wasn’t that “I’m broken,” but instead that the church never did (and never should) have the right to define what is right and what is not. So, if the church didn’t work out for me, then I don’t need to view it as my fault, in the same way I don’t view it as “my fault” if I don’t like a particular band (even though people around me love them) or if I don’t like a particular product (even though people around me love this product)

  6. GBSmith says:

    I think part of the problem with guilt related to religion is trying to distinguish between perfection and performance and whether or not you have the sense of a loving, forgiving God behind it all. My impression is that believers put way too much pressure on themselves as regards perfection when church leaders are mostly concerned if we’re going to do visiting teaching or show up to teach our Sunday school class. Not being a much of a believer or not having had the spiritual experiences you’ve had make it easier on the perfection side. As far as being broken goes I think sometimes it’s more accurate or at least helpful to think of just being changed and then try to go from there. I’ve never had the sense of being lied to, with the exception of the elders in my district, since most LDS people I’ve known have all seemed to me to be pretty honest and decent. As far as Joseph Smith goes I’ll find out about that soon enough.

  7. jill says:

    I read the book I (heart) Mormons, and the most interestng part of the book to me was the LDS member who in prayer visulized herself carrying a huge sack that was crushing her, and then Jesus came to her and said just give it over. She saw the sack rolling away from her as she let go, and felt Jesus at last loving her instead of blocking herself off from him with the sack.

    The sack was all the “shoulds” that she never could fully address that Jesus said he would cover, that he loved her for herself and not for her attempts at worthiness.

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