Some of us who have left religion can rightly be considered abuse survivors. Sometimes the abuse is obvious and extreme. Sometimes it’s more subtle, but still leaves a lasting impact. The abuse largely consists of having been denied intellectual and emotional autonomy; denied the right to form our own opinions, to choose our own identities, to pursue pleasure and avoid pain. We were taught to be complicit in our own abuse, to agree and submit and accept that yes, denying ourselves was right and good. We were taught to thank the people who held the rod over our heads.
I don’t think all religion does this, or that all people who were religious in their formative years suffer the psychological damage I’m talking about. I think it’s more likely to occur for those who had a parent or spiritual leader with a personality disorder (narcissism is common, in my experience) and who had a compliant, anxious-to-please temperament.
Being one of these, let me tell you what it’s like in my head. I have no confidence in my own ability or freedom to decide what’s right or best, what “a good life” or being a good person means. From infancy, these things were handed to me, with unquestionable authority. Although I began the process of rejecting and questioning that years ago, there’s a part of my brain that is still waiting to accept beliefs and moral dictates from outside. We all have that vulnerability, I think, that sense that it would be such a relief to let someone else tell us what is good and bad, true and false. But mine was strengthened by having been allowed to dominate for the first two decades of my life. My brain was nearly fully formed by the time I shook it off, and it’s still there. Still a threat.
It’s the thing I fear most. I was thinking through my fears today, and when I voiced this one to myself — “I’m afraid of living the next two decades under someone’s thumb, the way I was for the first two” — I began shaking and crying. I’m really, really afraid of that. And I know how my brain works, so I know how real a danger it is.
One thing this means is that when someone expresses their opinion in a flat, factual way, I become hella defensive. Those who are close to me know this well. It’s true that a person can state their beliefs without implying that those beliefs are absolutely correct and you’d better believe them or else — but the part of my brain that’s looking to receive truth from outside is seduced by their confidence, their apparent certainty. I feel it leaning in, wanting to just let go, acquiesce, say “Ah yes, you’re right of course” without giving it further thought. And that feeling terrifies me, and I pull back as hard as I can, in a way that is not at all rational or measured.
We’re all threatened by having our beliefs challenged, but some of us are also threatened by the possibility that we’ll change our beliefs not because we thought them through, not because they fit with our experience of the world, but because it feels so good to surrender and let someone else do the deciding.
I don’t know how to deal with this. I don’t know how to let my defenses down while the surrender-hungry part of my brain is still so strong. I’m not at all convinced that that would be a wise thing to do. So for me, right now, anyone who tries to convince me of something using emotional tactics, or blunt statements that don’t explicitly acknowledge their uncertainty or my right to think differently, is likely to trigger a shitstorm of defensiveness. If anyone who’s been through this has any advice, let me know.
3 thoughts on “Surrender to me, and all will be well…”
I’ve been pondering and formulating my reply to this post for about 2 days now. While I don’t have advice, I can certainly empathize and relate. I just find it uncanny in your timing for writing this particular post. I pretty much spent my entire day yesterday having a breakdown over the state of my life.
You’re spot on in saying that psychological damage can result from parental influence. While I do have some issues with my upbringing at my Catholic elementary school, the bulk of my personality problems come from home. I have lived in bedwetting terror of my mother since I was 7. I just remember waking up one day and thinking “If I don’t do everything exactly how she wants, all hell is going to break loose.” Sadly, even at my current age, that hasn’t much changed. It has now gotten to a point in life where, if she is mad at me for not following her will, she will take it out on my dad. My dad and I have talked about this at length, and while he is certainly unhappy with the state of things, he reminds me that he married for better or worse. While I do respect that to a degree, I don’t agree with the disrespect being shown to him. That, and he will say that he’s used to her taking things out on him, but when I point out that it doesn’t make it right, he doesn’t have an answer.
At the end of the day, my mom does not feel that I am capable of handling things on my own. She will tell me that I need to grow up and do things for myself, but if my plans go against her wishes, she will say that I’m immature and incapable of doing things for myself. Then there are instances where she will actively undermine any ‘adult’ accomplishments I might make. When I had my second interview with my job, they flew me to Houston and back. They’d set up the travel arrangements, and all I had to do was show up. Right before I left LA, I had lunch w/ my aunt, and she said that moving away was going to be the best thing for me due to my parents (more on that later). She said that my mom told her “I didn’t think she was capable of doing things like that,” in regard to my interviewing, going on said interview, etc. While I’m glad that my aunt told me, it was a gut punch. My mom also loves to tell me about how anything and everything could go wrong any time I either elect to do something remotely against her norms or something that she’s too afraid to do for herself. I’m convinced that Smile Empty Soul wrote “Silhouettes” about my family.
My mom is of the mindset that if a person is not a certain way, their life is not going to turn out to its fullest potential. When I was little, I preferred My Little Ponies to dolls. This was (mostly) acceptable, but the minute that I wanted some Ninja Turtle dolls so they and the MLPs could team up and fight bad guys together, she flipped. To this day, she blames my two older cousins for “turning [me] into a boy.” Yes, I do like some ‘chick flicks’, but it frustrates her to no end because I prefer watching “Walking Dead” to “American Idol.” I went to an all-girls Catholic high school. It was a never-ending source of contention that I wasn’t as thin as the other girls or had boyfriends like the other girls. I had nothing against boys at the time. They just weren’t a priority. I suffered from crippling depression in HS…I can only attribute my survival to my patience-of-a-saint favorite coach and the fact that I knew I was sick, but I wanted to dig out of it because I was already a freak and different. That being said, spending every waking moment wishing I was dead didn’t leave much room for a boyfriend.
That, and there were way too many mixed messages about dating. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it before, but I’m adopted. I feel that I paid for the ‘sins’ of my biological mother and my biological sister throughout the entirety of my upbringing. My biological mother had numerous substance issues and had 4 children between the ages of 12-19. My sister, 3 yrs my senior, had my oldest niece at 15. My parents were dead-convinced that I’d follow in their footsteps, so I was ridiculously sheltered, not to mention that I could never ask serious questions and/or talk about sex/relationships. The kicker is that it bothers my mom that I’m not in a relationship, but any time I express serious interest in a man, she says that I’m being silly and don’t know what I’m talking about.
I can also relate about being defensive. I’ve always had to explain myself to my mom and/or defend whatever it was that I was being questioned on, and it’s spilled over into my other relationships. I recall a time where my ex and I were bickering about something, and he (rightfully) pointed out that I was being overly defensive. I apologized, and he said “No, it’s OK. It’s how you were raised, you can’t help it.” If anything, I feel that I’ve been programmed to NOT be able to decide for myself. I can honestly say that the majority of my life decisions have been made on the basis of what will make my mom happy, or at least keep her from having a freak-out. As I’ve gotten older it’s gotten to the point where she can’t stand it that I get along so easily with people who don’t fit into the norms from which I was raised. I’m starting to think that it’s because I value acceptance. Different doesn’t always mean bad. What works for one person many not work for everyone else. That, and it leaves you always wanting to prove yourself, either to prove that you can do something, or to prove that you were right. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten the “You weren’t taught that way!” or “You weren’t raised that way!” shpiel. If what I say or do goes against her code, all hell breaks loose.
This, 100%. The build-up to Thursday’s meltdown was from Sunday, when I was driving home from Austin. I’m expected to call my parents every day, which makes my weekdays miserable because I’m on the phone for almost an hour, so it doesn’t leave time for much on those nights. On the drive home, my mom was saying how I didn’t need to be visiting my friends that much and that she was of the mindset that all I needed was to be at home and watch TV. When I pointed out that I don’t even get to watch TV anymore because I’m always on the phone, she changed the subject to how she knows what type of car I should buy for my next one and how I can’t possibly decide for myself. That being said, the breaking point on Thursday was when my Houston supervisor was giving me a run-down of stuff that I’ll need to cover while she’s on vacation. She then asked me, “When are you going to take vacation?” and I said “Not until Christmas.” This shocked the hell out of her, but how could I explain to her that my vacation time can’t be used for actual vacation because my mom doesn’t want me spending money on recreation? That was when it hit me. I am a virtual prisoner here. I am 500 miles away from LA, I am only allowed back in LA for Christmas, I can’t go where I want to go, I can’t do what I want to do, because I almost 29 yrs old, and I’m in even worse shape now than I was at 14. And from 10AM to about 8PM Thursday night, I did not stop crying. It just devastated me to realize that no matter how old I get, I will never be viewed as an adult capable of deciding things for myself. Lately, my dad has taken to saying “You have an order of 3 when it comes to pleasing people. One, make yourself happy. Two, make the people you work for happy. Three, make us happy.” Cruel as this may sound, I laughed when he said it the first time. He wasn’t too offended, mostly because he knows that it’s not that easy. I’m afraid to break free just because I don’t know what the outcome will be.
As far as I’m concerned, people have the right to think differently, BUT (very big but) I will only object if that person’s actions are going to negatively impact others. In that regard, I’m poking at the disaster that is Legislature these days, but as for you, I see no problems in your thought patterns, so carry on!
So, in my attempt to say that you are not alone in your frustrations, I have written you a book, and this is the heavily-edited version of said book. I wish I had some solid advice, but I’m a bit of a disaster myself, so there goes that. ❤ ya.
Thanks for sharing all this… sounds like you have a lot to wrangle with in dealing with your parents. I hope you find a way to change the relationship so you feel less controlled.
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