Many of us grew up with toxic faith. I just hope you know you can heal and grow!

Did you all see the Humans of New York posts yesterday? Everyone was sending them to me! It was a 15-post story about a woman who “wasn’t the first preacher’s wife to run away.” It’s all about how she left a fundamentalist church in Arkansas to make a life for herself in New York City.

I thought it went along so well with the podcast yesterday when we told the first part of Alyssa’s story, of growing up in such extreme fundamentalism that you lose your agency and your autonomy.

Please listen to that podcast. So many have said how it touched them! And for many it’s given them a chance to process what happened to them too.

I want to share a few comments that came in yesterday about the podcast. There were so many who shared their story privately, but here are a few who did so publicly:

Her story (so far) is so similar to mine (except worse!!!) But what I experienced, the forced hugs after spankings and so on totally happened. The spankings never lasted an hour (probably only three swats) but maybe that is why I learned to cry very quickly. If I seemed “repentant” I was more likely to get less punishment.. that is, until I was a bit older and shamed for crying (at which point I vowed to never cry in front of people again.)… also, her courtship story. My dad told me when I was late teens how his “dream” was for him “and the young man with the young man’s father all work together to win my heart.” I straight up said that I did NOT want that! And he gave me this look like I just didn’t really know any better and would change my mind or something. I was actually “courted” without my knowledge (for 3 days) by a friend and this guy had told my dad not to tell me, but my dad spent weeks calling his friends and contacts and talking to his dad.. because, this guy never bothered to tell my dad he decided against me (after those 3 days)– It was very confusing and hurtful. From my perspective I had a friend who was suddenly weirdly attentive and then avoided me like the plague. Anyway, the submissive posture she spoke of.. the loneliness.. I experienced that. My world closed more as I grew older rather than expanding as I grew up. I did have friends who were guys unlike her, but I can identify with parts of her story. It is an extreme version of my own. I am learning to be brave and empowered and I am 40! It isn’t easy.. so much to unlearn. I wish more women can be free from patriarchy and fully be the strong brave women God created us to be— We are not just the nurturing nursing mothers, we are the mother bears.. we are not just the passive voices– we are warriors.

I was raised with Gothard too. Even though, we were not quite as extreme with the high priest stuff, I can relate to Alyssa’s story. My mom always told me that feelings were not real and to not trust myself. As a result I needed ended up married to an addict with narcissistic tendencies. So thankful that God got me out of that marriage and I’m healing and learning to trust myself.

I literally broke down crying several times listening to this podcast, because I suddenly didn’t feel so alone in my experience…so much of my confusing childhood began to make more sense. My family joined IBLP when I was a toddler, and we used their resources in homeschooling, and even though we were never on the extreme side, I’m beginning to see how subtly and yet perniciously these toxic teachings wove themselves in my very psyche. I’m 30 now, and the whole “you can’t trust your emotions”, “the heart is wicked”, etc., has led to me experiencing excruciating self-doubt– it’s like I can’t even trust my own reality, because I’ve been gaslit since I was a child. And there’s the whole depriving of one’s agency that Alyssa talked about, which has crippled me because I’m terrified to make my own choices– when she mentioned the forced hugs after an apology, it reminded me of whenever someone in my family hurt me in someway, and my mom told them to apologize, I would be forced to say “I forgive you” right away. I remember when I was about 6 or 7, being an introvert, it took me a while to process my own emotions, and I didn’t want to say “I forgive you” without processing what happened and making sure that I really meant what I said, so I resisted, I just wanted some more time to think about it, but my mom said that I had to choose to forgive right away, because she wouldn’t tolerate bitterness in the house, and if I didn’t say “I forgive you” nicely, then I would be punished. Yes, I would be punished for not forgiving the person who hurt me and who only apologized because they were also coerced. It’s no wonder that I struggle with the concept of forgiveness now as an adult, because it always feels like a violation of my free will, a betrayal of my emotions, a dismissal of my emotions. I long to heal from all these childhood wounds, but I don’t even know where to begin. How do you begin to dismantle things that you were taught when you were so young? I wish the people who came out on the other side of this would talk about more of the practical, day-to-day things they did that began to heal these broken places, instead of just in really vague, general terms.

I thought that was a great question–what next? How do we actually change?

Here’s a comment from a woman who is on the parenting side of it, and realizing that she was doing it wrong:

Goodness, we did that to our children. Not an hour of spanking, but spank, hug and tell them we love them. I still find myself using it as an occasional threat, which is so wrong. I stopped actually doing it a couple of years ago when I started to realize I was in an emotionally abusive marriage. I started becoming a better mom (although not perfect, obviously). This is heartbreaking and eye-opening.

She still is on a learning curve, but she’s breaking the cycle. 

She’s choosing to do things differently.

We can break the cycle of toxicity too.

To the question–how can we learn a better way? I’d encourage you if you’re still struggling with autonomy and agency to listen to our podcast with Krispin Mayfield on attachment styles with God. Then follow the rabbit trail at the bottom of that post to more posts on attachment styles. As we start to understand who Jesus really is, that can help us understand why our upbringing actually hurt us in many ways, and then we can start to see how to heal it.

When it comes to kids, we can also learn a better way of parenting.

On June 21, I’m hosting a FREE webinar with Wendy Snyder from Fresh Start Families to help think through other ways of disciplining that don’t involve spanking, controlling, or punishing your children, but instead are geared towards compassionate discipline and training them in a way that empowers them rather than breaks them.

It’s totally free, and you can sign up here!

What if you don't need to control your kids and punish your kids to raise great kids?

Let's look at evidence-based parenting methods that WORK that bring life, rather than break our kids' spirits. Plus they're easier on you!

Join us for a FREE webinar June 21 with Wendy Snyder from Fresh Start Families. Start your new parenting journey!

I just want to say–change is HARD.

When you’ve been molded since you were a child to see God in a certain way; to doubt yourself; to think that speaking up is wrong.

It’s hard! Just read that Humans of New York story and see all that she had to go through. It was hard.

And Alyssa’s life has not been easy (as you’ll hear about next week in part 2).

But she’s doing well. She’s healing. And that’s because she’s doing the work. 

She’s been doing so much intense therapy with qualified counselors. She’s exploring her relationship with Jesus to find out who He really is–and how He isn’t who she was taught He was. It’s not easy.

So many people who have lived through the kind of childhood Alyssa did find that they are about 20-30 years behind everyone else.

Often you can keep pushing through for your twenties and your thirties in toxicity and abuse because you’ve got little kids, and you’re almost in shock. You’re just putting one foot in front of the other.

But finally something has to give. And so women (and men) often find themselves in their late thirties and early forties starting life all over again. Not necessarily divorcing, but re-evaluating everything. Changing their faith communities. Putting limits on extended family. Finally making adult decisions that they didn’t do in their early twenties.

It’s hard. It’s not fair.

My girls were able to get settled early and thrive early, while so many other people weren’t because they weren’t given the right tools as kids. They were hurt, even in the name of God (which is a whole other level of heartbreaking).

It isn’t fair.

But the only way to get healing is through work. Read the books. Change the habits. Get out of toxic communities. Find a healthier expression of church if you need to. See a licensed counselor if you have to.

I wish it were easier. Everyday I hear stories of so much pain, and I just hope I’m helping people see that it doesn’t have to be this way. I hope enough women like Alyssa land on my blog looking for advice for sex on their honeymoon, and in the process may realize that their relationship isn’t healthy. I hope that women who land on this blog this month for help with their libido may realize that libido isn’t the problem–they’re actually not safe.

But I also hope that the women for whom libido IS the problem realize that that takes work too.

Change takes work. When life isn’t what we want it to be, that means that we’re going to have to do some work to achieve change.

Sometimes it’s just learning to think differently. Sometimes it’s some daily habits that we’re changing. And sometimes it’s much more fundamental.

But ultimately no one can change you but you.

And that is the way to real freedom, and real healing–even if the road is rocky in the meantime!

Healing from Toxic Faith

Have you ever had to have a drastic change in your life? How did you do it? Let’s talk in the comments!

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum

Sheila is determined to help Christians find BIBLICAL, HEALTHY, EVIDENCE-BASED help for their marriage. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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