Friday, October 17, 2008

Identity Crisis

I was talking to a friend by email yesterday who was also a member of a controlling, abusive church. I made the statement, "I have days now when I rarely think about things, but then I still have days when it consumes me." She responded, "I have NO days when I hardly think about it, as I have no solution or direction for my family in seeking to obey "forsake not the assembling of yourselves together" and obeying the Great Commission. It really consumes my thoughts. It is as though I am trying to once again define and understand life. I thought that upheaval ended with my adolescence."

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.


Erin said...

Hi, I recently found your blog through Discernment 4 Truth. I just have to say I compltely relate to this post.

About 4 years ago we left an difficult church situation, and the process of learning to be myself again was really tough. I've pretty much recovered at this point, but for quite awhile I felt entirely brain didn't seem to be mine as it reset itself back to who I really was rather than who I had pretended to be. I went off the deep end for awhile, I think shedding that control requires the pendulum to swing the other way until a comfortable middle is found.

Anyhow, just wanted to say I appreciated the post and the article you quoted.

Set Free said...

Thanks Erin!
I have heard so many people say that they thought they were crazy because of all the thoughts they were having, but I think it's all a part of the process. For a while, I kept all of my thoughts and questions to myself and wrote them in notebooks. I knew if I said anything to anyone they would think I was "rebelling" or "loosing my mind." But one day I couldn't hold it in anymore and I got my notebooks out and began to share my thoughts and questions with my husband. He had been having the same questions I was having, but he had not voiced his either. I'm so glad that we were on the same page. And then came the hard part. Making the change was one of the hardest things we had ever done. When you have been involved in one place for over 20 years, it's a huge part of your life. We knew our whole life was about to change in drastic ways. BUT it was the best thing we ever did. We left all of the control and manipulation and we truly found freedom. We began to take back our identity, make our own decisions, throw away the fear and intimidation that had tried to hold us there in that place, and we stood up for what we believed in. It is a great feeling to be free. Don't get me wrong, even after 5 months we still have hard days. All that stuff was so ingrained in us, I'm sure it will take years to level out. But as we focus on God's unconditional love for us more and more, all the other stuff seems to slowly fade away.

I'm glad you are finding a comfortable middle and I am glad you stopped by my blog. God bless you!

Erin said...

Only 5 months? Wow, you seem to be doing very well for being out such a short time, and I'm glad. I hate it when people (like me) lose years of their lives to this deprogramming.

I hope the process continues to go well for you and your husband. It's tough, but it's worth it.

I'm glad I stopped by, too. I'll be back.

Barb said...

Set Free, This has been one of the things that I have struggled and written about the most. In our 'church' we were to turn in yearly dreams and goals. I always beat myself up because I could never think of anything. OF COURSE I couldn't! I was being asked to put everything into someone else's vision and I did it the best. To go to Nothing after that was the scariest thing I faced.

Set Free said...

We too were told one year to turn in the goals we had written down for the church. I thought that was a little personal for them to ask for a copy of my goals. I know it's sad, but I wrote down things I thought they would be pleased with.

D said...

This is a great post. I experienced the loss of personal identity as well. Leaving has been a wonderful rediscovery of the real me. Good riddance to the fake, suited up, perfect confession, perfect appearance who couldn't have a thought or opinion of her own.
And it does feel rebellious a little, but in a good way. It's okay to rebel against ungodly control/manipulation.
Turns out, God likes the real me.
He likes the real you too!
Thanks for sharing this! You're really helping people. :)

Holly said...

Thank you so much for posting this! This is something that I've been dealing with personally and it helps to know that it's completely normal. It was hard to realize that pretty much everything I'd ever been taught was wrong, but I am now enjoying discovering the truth and being free from the stress and pressure of being apart of a church like that.

Set Free said...

Thanks! Ditto to what you said.

You're welcome. This article really helped me too. I'm glad you are free and discovering the truth. You have a beautiful family and I love your blog.

Maureen said...

Hello Set Free. I really appreciated this post. I have been out of church for 6 months. I struggled for a year before that, not knowing exactly what the problem was. I thought it was me. Anyway, it's only in hindsight that I recognize what the issues really were there. I don't think my church was so much abusive, as controlling. Not that they mean to be. They think that is how it is supposed to be. I think they operate on fear. I couldn't be there anymore. I felt I was being squashed, and so was the Holy Spirit in me. So wonderful to be away from that and having my relationship with God restored to what it should be: between me and Him, with no one else between. Oh Happy Day!!

Stop by my blog sometime.

Grace to you.

Set Free said...

Hey Maureen,
I know what you mean when you say you were wondering what the problem was and thinking it was you. I did that for years. After you leave you look back and realize all those little nudges and red flags you had on the inside were there for a reason. I'm glad your relationship with God is restored. I feel the same way in my relationship with God. I've been learning so much about His love. Thanks for stopping by. I will visit your blog. God bless you!

getting there said...

This is an excellent post. When I first left, I had nightmares, sleepless nights and so much fear within me it was as if I was going crazy. I felt consumed with it, and broken by it. I was like a zombie trying to find myself again. I even lost myself in terms of not having my favourite music.. I don't have any music in my house except for christian music.. that is how badly I had lost my own identity. Now thank God.. I am coming out! My family can see it, it is like I am more fun to be around now :)

Maureen said...

Getting There: I can so relate to what you say. I noticed a difference right away within myself; I was more relaxed, content, less anxious. Also, I have more patience with other folks now. I guess whatever measure we use on ourselves, we use on them too. What a relief!!

I posted something on my blog that talks about identity, and hiding behind masks. "Nest of Grace". Here is my blog addy:
(or find it on my profile)

Grace and Peace to you.

The Neurotic said...

Hi I'm GiGi, Really enjoyed your post as I'm dealing with identity issues now too. My family was part several very authoritarian churches, but in addition, my father was also a minister and would often separate our family from these churches in an "us and them" kind of deal. We were our own family cult, and that's still hard for me to say because I know they love me. You think it's hard trying to discern God's voice from your pastor's voice - try being a daddy's girl and a PK. :)

I have no idea who I am emotionally or what I believe spiritually because I think I was denied the freedom of adolescence to figure things out. I'm now 30 and this feels like an impossible task. Church and family gave me so much direction I didn't have time to think about what was important to me.

Set Free said...

Getting There,
I had sleepless nights too and I was consumed by it. I cried all the time - just driving down the road I would burst into tears. I don't really know how to explain why all of that was happening, but I have talked to many people who have all had the same reaction - so we weren't crazy. Maybe it was because everyday I saw more of the truth and I was hurt by the things I realized I had been lied to about, maybe it was because I was ashamed of myself for falling for it, maybe it was because I had allowed myself to take on the same wrong and critical attitudes as the leaders and I was sorry for that, maybe it was because I realized I had been missing out on the love of God for many years, maybe it was because I was concerned about my children- it was probably all that mixed together.

I am just so thankful to God that He led us away from there. Each day it gets a little easier. I hate the fact that people like you, me, Erin, Holly, D, Barb, and everyone else have all suffered and been hurt. As I read your comment from the last post and this one, my eyes filled with tears. I am so sorry that your husband has been hurt to that point. I know God is not behind any of the things we have been through. He is not anything like controlling leaders. He is love and compassion and He reaches out to each and every one of us and accepts us for who we are. And you know what, like D, said, He really likes us. I imagine we all were a little down on ourselves in our former churches, because we were made to feel that we couldn't do anything right. Maybe that's another reason we had a hard time. God wants us all to love ourselves not be down on ourselves. We have to love ourselves to be able to love others.

I was overwhelmed with thankfulness yesterday as I came away from my new church. He talked about what a church is supposed to be. (I thought that was neat right after I posted "the perfect church.") It was so good and he said everything I want for me and my family. Then we went to a get together at a neighbors house, who goes to my new church, and I met some of the nicest, down to earth, real, Christians. My family came home and said, "Look what God has done for us." God has brought some awesome people into the lives of my children and they are happy. I know God led us to where we are and I know He will lead you too. He is not a distant and uncaring God. He wants to be right in the middle of all we do. We just forgot that for a while when we were caught up in the control trying to be something we weren't.

It's funny that you talk about music because me and my children were just talking about that last night. There is some good music out there and we like it!

We were also talking last night about how you can do and be anything you want to be. We don't have to think anymore, "What will they think if we make this decision." We can make our own decisions. I do feel like I'm discovering life for the first time. For 22 years I made all of my decisions based upon what they would think of me. Isn't that sad. Now I can be me and listen to God for myself and do what I want to do.

Thanks for the comments. I prayed for you this morning, that God will lead you and show you what to do where church is concerned. God bless you!

Set Free said...

Hi GiGi,
I'm glad you stopped by. Wow, I guess it would be hard trying to separate God, pastor, and daddy.

Just last night my daughter made the same statement you did - she was denied her adolesence. There were so many rules and legalistic guidelines to follow she couldn't act like a kid. And she said that even when she was a teenager, she dressed like she was 50. We were required to wear panty hose and when we left she threw all of hers away and vowed never to wear a pair again.

Each day is a day of discovery when you ask yourself, what do I really want and what do I really like. The emotions will level out. Some days I'm hurt, some days I'm angry, and some days I'm just so happy to be out. As far as figuring out the spiritual side, just focus on God's love and nothing else for a while. That's what has helped me the most - realizing God loves me for who I am and there is nothing I can do to make Him love me any more or any less. God bless you!

getting there said...

thanks for your prayers setfree, Bless You!

re-Barr said...

I am amazed whenever I read about other pople's experiences after leaving an abusive church because it sounds so much like my life these past few months. Set Free thank you so much for your blog and the links to articles. This has been a huge help to me.

Set Free said...

Hey re-barr,
You're welcome! I'm glad it has helped you. It really helped me to read all of the articles and other people's blogs who had been through what I'm going through.

I feel the same way - amazed at how similar things are in controlling churches all across the world.

Aida said...

Set free, this is a great post.

For those just coming out of an abusive situation, it's very freeing to know that you're not alone. While in the abusive situation, we are told that the problem is with us and we take that mindset with us since we're ashamed to speak to anyone about what we're thinking.

Realizing that you're not alone and that you're not the problem is the first step in being healed.

Thanks for posting this. I posted this blog on my website, A Journey to Freedom, along with a link to your blog.

Rachel said...

Said very well!! I can relate to this article in many ways. I basically put aside who I was to fit in to the church. As I look back I cannot understand how I got so far away from who I really was. It is almost scarry that I would have allowed myself to give in to it. Now I am almost too stubborn to follow anyone else's rules because I never want to be brainwashed by anyone again. Thanks for sharing. This really helped me!