As I was writing my email and reading my friend's comments, it hit me. In controlling churches, one of the things that happens is you lose your identity. You continually push down who you are as a person and over time you become like a puppet on a string, adhering to the whims of your leaders. You are basically told to sit down, be quiet, do what you are told, and of course, give your money. I have been in the same place she is in - trying to define and understand life. As I was thinking about this, I remembered an article that I read months ago. I went back and read it again this morning and there were some very helpful things said. The name of the article is "Spiritual Identity Crisis," and here it is.....
"Many spiritual abuse victims are left with a devastating feeling of void in their souls when they leave a spiritually abusive group/leader. This void (or identity crisis) is most likely the result of allowing our identity to be stolen away when were involved in the group, and then being forced to manage our own identity again when the group/leader is no longer in our lives. This can feel like an impossible task after allowing the group/leader to influence our identity at such a deep level for so long. However, it is possible to rebuild your identity and feel whole again. I liken it to recovering from a debilitating brain surgery that left the victim having to relearn the skills of everyday living. It can be done, but it takes time and effort and does not happen overnight.
Our spiritually abusive leaders brainwashed us into seeing them as our gods. When we let the pastor down, it was equal to letting God down. When we turned our back on the pastor/group, it was equal to abandoning God in our minds. In our desire to please the leader, we learned to become people pleasers, which caused us to abandon our own identity. We replaced who we were on a very deep spiritual level with the identity of the group/leader. We emptied ourselves out and took on the group mentality. After we escape this process, we find ourselves empty and fractured. This is not because God is gone, but rather, because we abandoned our self identity.
I went through a long phase of wondering who I was going to be after I left my abusive group/leader. Was I now the guy from before the cult, during the cult, or a blend of the two? What I found was that I was neither. I was on a voyage to discover who I really was, and away from what my former leader wanted me to be.
Many people feel traumatized after leaving a spiritually abusive group/leader. You may not want to read the Bible for a while. You may not want to go to church for a while - if ever. After having had to perform your way into the group's favor for so long, we can feel exhausted and lose all motivation to please anyone but ourselves. Many spiritual abuse victims find themselves struggling to make decisions, and may even have a hard time disciplining themselves to do basic everyday functions. For so long, we allowed the group/leader to think for us, formulate our opinions for us, and make decisions for us. No wonder so many of us struggle for many years learning how to find ourselves again after leaving a spiritually abusive situation.
It's perfectly okay to want to be accepted just for who you are now. As you transition from the group/leader identity back to your own identity, you may find yourself "acting out" and doing things that would have displeased your former spiritual authority. This is all healthy, and is a completely normal part of the exit process. It can almost feel like going through childhood again as we learn to think for ourselves and make our own decisions again. We may find ourselves rebelling against the politically correct aspects of religion, and even questioning everything we ever learned while in the spiritually abusive group. Even thought this may feel like a very confusing, difficult process - rest assured it is a very healthy and normal part of recovery.
Are you a people pleaser? Have you abandoned your own identity to please others? Well, you are not alone! The good news is that you can take back what was stolen from you. You can begin to think for yourself, make your own decisions, and form your own opinions again. At times you may feel helpless to do these things, but that's only because you haven't been doing them for a long time. The brain parts that drive these functions have become atrophied, and simply need to be stretched and toned again through repetitious usage.
You can begin today taking your identity back away from those who took if from you. They cannot be you, nor do they have any right to tell you who you should be. There is only one you and you are on a voyage to find who that is. At times this journey will be frustrating and painful, but at other times it will be liberating, exciting, and joyful. It's a work in progress."
I can relate to every part of this article. I think people have experienced different degrees of control in their lives, but if you have been in a group like this, I'm sure you can relate in some way. Day by day I began to realize I had succumb to things that weren't even part of my beliefs or moral makeup. I had, in a sense, given my mind over to someone else and let them tell me what I was supposed to think and do. In the process of leaving and ridding myself of the wrong thinking, the "real me" began to surface. I had been trapped and I had not been able to be myself for years. I had pushed down my own wants, thoughts, and feelings to be what my leaders wanted me to be.
In a church like this you take on the thoughts and attitudes of your leaders in every aspect of life, even down to the small things. In my former church, the control even encompassed the way we dressed. This may seem like a small issue to some, but to many, it brought great pressure. We were expected to wear our best at all times and the same went for our children. We were told that our children didn't need to come to church dressed like they were going to a picnic. I know of several mothers that said they felt as if they could not enter the doors of the church unless their children were wearing fine clothes. I always tried to follow the rules, so on Sundays I frantically ran around checking to see if my children's clothes were ironed, shirts tucked in, hair in place. Before we entered the building I made sure no one had gum, because there was "NO GUM ALLOWED." Isn't that sad! Without realizing it, I was teaching my children that their appearance was more important than the fact that we were going to church to worship God. I was teaching them to empty themselves of their identity to become what someone else wanted them to be. Oh, If I could only do things differently!
When we first starting attending our new church, my son wore his nice Sunday pants and dress shoes for the first couple of weeks. Old habits die hard. About the 3rd week he came downstairs in jeans and said, "I can worship God in jeans just as good as anyone. You just watch me!" You know, he did! The people at our new church don't care about what he wears, they care about him. And they like him! He's funny, he's smart, and he loves God. Isn't that what really matters? I just hope that one day some will wake up and realize that it's not what a person wears that matters, but it's the value of the person and what's in their heart.
I have watched my children have the freedom to be themselves and myself as well. It's been like taking off a shell and exposing what's really on the inside. I guess you could say we were "in thick" and we had a lot of layers to peel off. But we are all getting there and doing good! We are living in God's love and learning more about His love everyday.
I wanted to share this article and some of my own thoughts in hopes that some who are struggling will find comfort in knowing that the feelings you are having are normal and you are not alone. Just know that God is right there with you and He is not requiring you to "get over" what you are going through in a certain amount of time. Take your time and talk to Him about it. He understands.