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Guest Post by Provender: "Dealing with a Sense of Futility After Leaving a Spiritually Abusive Situation"

I am honored to welcome Provender to Quivering Daughters.

Dealing with a Sense of Futility 
After Leaving a Spiritually Abusive Situation
by 

I recently visited a forum of former members of certain restrictive-type churches. I didn’t have to search long to find fallout from a spiritually abusive experience. The third comment on the most recent post said this:
I don't know what is sadder, that we've left and basically no one has cared or contacted us or that we still feel kind of sad that no one cared. We left the church I grew up in about a year ago and then started going to a new bigger church. … When we left the first church, family members shunned us and treated us bad because basically, how dare we leave the little family church to go to a bigger church, one of their enemy churches. As far as they are concerned we are basically out of the Lords will and living under a curse for leaving them. Then in May we stopped going to the big church and no one cared. What's crazy is that we still haven't completely given up on the idea of going back to …[this kind of] church, we just don't know which one to go to. We are entertaining the idea of going to a different type of church but it's like we are stuck in depression and confusion and don't know what to do anymore. What is wrong with me that I tend to cling toward a religion and think about going back to these churches that were nothing but crazy drama anyways and then to top it off when we left the people didn't care anyway! We have no friends anymore and most of our family doesn't speak to us. They don't even like us enough to try to win us back!
Then, sadly, the author of the comment adds a pathetic “Lol.” at the very end.

There really isn’t a lot to laugh about here.

The comment was just the first example I could find. It is not an isolated case. Far from it. All over the nation – really, all over the world, according to the Feedjit site reader on the Provender page – individuals are leaving churches with their faith demolished and their spiritual ideals shattered, victims of abusive churches.

When churches or church leaders take the most vulnerable parts of us, our trust and faith, and rip them to shreds, the results are truly devastating.

On Provender, I link to an article called Psychological Issues of Former Members of Restrictive Religious Groups by Jim Moyers. This piece examines the great damage done to those whose faith was shattered after leaving “fundamentalist” groups.

Moyers details the effects of something he calls “Shattered Faith Syndrome.” Here is how he describes it: Having lost faith in what was once a primary source of meaning and guidance, the former believer feels lost and overwhelmed. While not all groups go so far as to prohibit contact with those who leave, a former member is unlikely to be well regarded by the faithful. Estrangement from the community of believers - the focus of social life within many such groups - will compound the sense of isolation and despair that often comes with the loss of one's faith.

Isolation and despair: the hallmarks of severely abused Christians abandoned by their former friends.

Moyers says that the psychological effects experienced by such outcasts are long-lasting. He says they often undergo a chronic “sense of dissatisfaction coupled with difficulties in finding new sources of meaning and direction.”

That certainly would describe the forum commenter above. Because controlling groups treat human reason with suspicion, Moyers says, these members too often fall prey to authoritarian teachings.

Their teachings stress “human imperfection.” The followers often internalize the belief that pride in oneself is sinful, and that results in a perpetual negative self image.

Carrying around a persistently negative self image is a horrible way to live. The toll, even before leaving the group, must be a burden difficult to shoulder.

Moyers says that many inhibitions and compulsions as well as frustration and guilt stick around long after those who leave have intellectually rejected the teachings. “Having been taught to regard every impulse as potentially evil,” Moyers writes, “the former believer may have little capacity for spontaneity and lack viable means for genuine self-expression.”

Some of the spiritual abuse checklists mentioned on Provender include “lack of a sense of humor” as a sign. Living with constant negativity is a sure way to beat out of a person any spontaneity or humor. It is no wonder people from controlling groups begin to dress, act and look the same, and often seem to have little joy.

Even after they escape or are kicked out of controlling fellowships, they still experience some of that same flatness, and sometimes things might even seem worse for a while.

After you are out, where do you find new friends? In churches your former elitist church looked down on and castigated? Unlikely. Out in the world, full of sinners and backsliders? Hardly. In another elitist group? All too often that’s what outcasts are led back to.

It isn’t unusual to find people who’ve fallen from one abusive group right into the lap of another. Wanda Mason’s story comes to mind. Also, Margaret Jones’s.

Moyers claims that when people leave restrictive groups, they lose the tenets that formerly composed their source of meaning and self-definition, “the central organizing principle of her or his life.” When you lose the core, you are suddenly open to a sense of meaninglessness or futility.

Because of this, there is going to have to be a period of grieving, and people in these situations don’t always recognize that need. Many of these groups are already suspicious of “worldly” psychology. Psychology is seen to be a system of explaining the human heart in direct competition to the biblical worldview.

If you didn’t trust psychology when you were in a controlling group, you probably aren’t suddenly going to find it acceptable when you are out. It still holds a threatening place to many. But even so, just as medicine has value, mind medicine also has value, and survivors who do take advantage of therapeutic methods may end up with an advantage.

Moyers suggests that naming your losses and also those things you gained by leaving “can go a long way towards helping someone move through a necessary grief process. The depression that an ex-member may feel is a normal and understandable response to a very real loss.”

He also points out the “double loss” that ex-members from these groups have to deal with. They aren’t understood by family and friends still in the group, and they aren’t understood by those outside. To the world, any member of an unorthodox group is probably going to seem weird. Moyers says they are therefore “misunderstood and isolated.”

Another article on the deep repercussions of spiritual abuse comes from the churchabuse.com site. Titled Spiritual Identity Crisis? this article describes the loss that comes after spiritual abuse as a void, as the stealing of our identity. The anonymous author says that when we let our identity be taken by these groups, we are “forced to manage our own identity again” after the leader is no longer a part of our lives.

The author likens the process to brain surgery. Afterwards, you have to learn all kinds of basic skills all over again. It’s not impossible, but it can take a long time.

Here is a very powerful description from the article on what happens: “When we turned our back on the pastor/group, it was equal to abandoning God in our minds. In our desire to please the group/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 feeling empty and fractured. This is not because God is gone, but rather, because we abandoned our self identity.”

No wonder we who have escaped controlling groups often wander around aimlessly, almost in a state of shock sometimes. The central core of who we are has been manipulated and distorted. When we no longer have purpose, when we have lost our own identity, everything we do can seem futile, worthless.

The author describes what can happen when you feel this way. Some will stop reading the Bible or going to church for a while. Some are exhausted and stop working to please others, focusing on self. Others find it hard even to make decisions or perform simple, daily functions. Some cannot form their own opinions. Some will struggle for years.

But the article does end on a positive note. It says that though it is hard to do these basic things, you CAN take back your life again. Like atrophied muscles, your decision-making powers just have to start being exercised again, and eventually they can get into shape.

So if you are dealing with a sense of futility after leaving a spiritually abusive situation, what do you do?

Recognize, first, that you aren’t alone. What you are experiencing is a common reaction to the manipulations of a spiritually abusive group.

Second, be careful that in your haste to avoid all the negative fallout you don’t immediately seek refuge in another abusive group. Keep eyes and ears open!

Third, recognize that you might have to take a break from church and church-related activities for a while. It might feel strange and seem wrong, but until your discernment skills are given a chance to be strengthened, and until you have “decompressed” or “detoxed” it might be necessary.

Fourth, list the negatives of being in the group as well as the gains from being out of it.

Fifth, talk about your experience and read about the experiences of others on sites such as this one. When you’ve lived under repressive systems for a long time, chances are there was an unspoken “don’t talk” rule. You feel like you’re gossiping every time you mention your negative experiences. You weren’t. You were being controlled. Now it’s time to get it all out in the open.

Sixth, pray. Even if you’re not sure who God is anymore. It’s okay. It really can’t hurt to pray.

If these authors are right, and I think they are, eventually you will be able to find purpose and light and hope again, though it may take time.


Provender
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For more, please visit Provender"A clearinghouse of sources on spiritual abuse and cult-like practices in churches and groups." It provides a wealth of information, hope, and encouragement. Many, many thanks for your contribution to Quivering Daughters.

8 comments:

  1. "No wonder we who escape controlling groups often wander around aimlessly, almost in a state of shock sometimes. The central core of who we are has been manipulated, distorted. When we no longer have purpose, when we have lost our own identity, everything we can do seems futile, worthless."

    This resonates with me. Growing up with a mentality that 1)the economy will collapse soon 2)Jesus is coming back very soon--possibly within the next few years (not belittling this--just demonstrating the mindset) 3)other things are more important in life 4)we are living in Babylon 5)we are to die to self . . . .
    . . . renders virtually everything we do, except that which necessary for survival, pointless.

    This translated into very simple, basic things for me. Why bother trying to lose weight, if Jesus comes back in the next year or two? That time and energy could be better spent saving souls. Why bother starting huge creative projects? They aren't important in the light of eternity. Not to say I didn't do anything creative--but my ratio of a)started projects versus b) finished projects is extremely imbalanced.

    Move on to lack of motivation--after years and years of a mindset which told me everything was unnecessary and unimportant in these end times, or of the flesh and worldly, I grew tired and listless. Why bother? What is the point?

    It is easy for those "outside" to rush forward and call it "lazy" or selfish, but for those caught within this psychological spinning wheel it is debilitating. When other elements are mixed in--depression, perfectionism, exhaustion, shame, fear, hunger for parental love and approval--it becomes a lethal postion of absolute frozen-ness.

    I struggled with this sense of being frozen for years and years. I called it the curse of futility. "Why bother? Everything is pointless." And yet confusion compounded it, for weren't my interests and talents gifts from God? Sadly, many of these were wasted as a result of this crippling feeling. (Good example where feelings are not healthy, and why we must have balance!!) Provender is the first source I have found to address this conundrum in light of spiritually abusive situations.

    The internal core mentioned in the quote above is what Jesus wants to heal, transform. When those who are not God manipulate, coerce, and distort that core for "seemingly godly purposes" (Jeff VanVonderen) spiritual abuse has taken place. Because that place belongs to God.

    What about you? Does this strike a chord within your soul? DO you struggle with lack of motivation, lack of drive, and sense that anything beyond the normal daily routine is pointless? Do you feel eternally exhausted, and don't know why?

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  2. I do struggle with the same feelings though not because I grew up in such an environment but rather because I am married to one who believes in the subordination of women (wives) to men, to their husbands, and to massive limits on what women can do within the church. Did God really make me so I could just say 'Yes, massuh', and bake the requisite casseroles for church dinners and provide a body and a gift for baby and wedding showers? Oh, yes, and I can cook and clean, too.

    I don't believe any of the above limits are biblical, now, but I nonetheless live within this paradigm, so how do I function without offending him and his yet without offending myself and my God-who alone should be my Lord and Authority. The conditions are not physically life-threatening, yet how does one maintain one's spirit in the midst of an atmosphere that has to judge you as wrong, given its belief system?

    It's one thing to have the unsaved world on one's back-if they indeed are. It is another to have it within one's own camp. Very discouraging at times.

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  3. Anon 2:59--

    My heart breaks with the turmoil that echoes from your words. I received an email today from a very dear friend who I know will not mind that I share her words. :-) Perhaps you might find a bit of comfort here?

    She writes,
    I am working hard right now to put ON the things of which I both write and read... To practice walking and growing in Grace... to really let God wrap me up in it... and I find it a time of greatest prayer to see how entangled my loved ones had become in the time we were caught in the trap of Standard bearing... I am trying to hold my husband accountable, to lift him up, to LOVE him in grace and humility, while NOT continuing in the trappings the false church perpetuates... I want to be the HELP MEET that God wants me to be... one who HELPS him in his sanctification, in his walk with Christ, one who helps in discipling and training the children in LOVE Grace and truth of the Gospel.... not one who enables him to sin, and live in standards, it is hard... this Putting off and putting on the Bible tells us about... But it is good because the efforts are full of the Lord... and His grace is sooo sufficient...

    Sometimes the purest, sweetest love is from those who help to keep feet from stumbling.

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  4. That is a hard one. I'm out of my depth here, but I will venture on anyway.

    I sometimes think the longing we have for things we want to do, things that people keep us from doing, or places we'd like to be that we can't be, are really longings for a better place, a better time that only heaven can be to us. These longings show themselves in whatever limitations we have here on earth, in your case, a husband who will not let you aspire to the spiritual and good things you'd like to do.

    One of the few sermons I can remember was on Ezekiel. The main statement the pastor repeated was this: It's not where you are, it's what you see.

    The children of Israel were weeping by the rivers of Babylon, far from home while their captors demanded they sing songs of Israel as entertainment. All they could think of was their loss. Meanwhile, Ezekiel had visions of God. The message was to look up and see the wonders before you.

    I'm not sure what it is you'd like to do but feel you can't. Maybe it's preaching the word. I don't know. Whatever it is, can you find a loophole? A small corner at first to do what you'd like to do and then gradually enlarge it, softly and incrementally showing your husband the good from it? For example, if what you really like is expounding on the Word, or helping others apply it, and if you can't preach to a congregation at present, can you write letters to a friend, then more letters, then essays, then books, then perhaps speaking engagements? Think big.

    In your situation, I would look around and see what is possible, and try to stretch that, always looking for the next opportunity. The last comment was right, too. Loving your husband might also mean helping him come out of this restrictive mindset in whatever gentle way you can, from some oblique angle rather than head on if you can.

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  5. i want so bad to talk about my after math situation
    which is so much like a church
    but claims not to be
    ..
    and i cannot
    but now i have seen the early stages: which i myself built the webpages for: based on newpaper articles: and then the stuff we all did: and then when i left: and now what is happening
    and still i am frozen the day i left
    as if i left God Himself
    and i am doomed to not ever
    even be able to be even the doo keeper. let alone enter into His house.
    ..
    i have been reduced to nothing and even myhusband.
    and i am speechless.
    and this was supposed to be like a place where people were free to be who you are free to be:
    artists etc.
    ..
    and it turned out to be all just the death of me
    ..
    and i can only cry now.
    and try so hard not to be angry
    but i cannot stop rehearsing and thinking how to beat him at his game or try to talk logically
    and i am in like
    sheol
    or something
    [as in pre-mature death]
    ..
    i cannot believe God allowed this.
    and he is still allowed to prosper/ and i am diminished
    and this guy would say it is becasue i left him/ used him
    ouch.

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  6. This is a beautiful post- as always, Provender cuts straight to the heart of the issue.

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  7. www.churchabusepoetrytherapy.com is my site with 17,958 hits so far. I have always been able to make something positive come out of the ashes of a lifetime of poverty and abuse. I got a divorce after 31 years of abusive "marriage"....because I allowed the x to live in my house afterwards, I was voted out of membership, with my name up on a big screen, followed by the words, "Conduct Unbecoming a Child of God." For the x they used: "church discipline"---I mean what can anyone deduce from those words!!?? I fought the system for 18 months to try and stop the pastor of disaster from "counseling" any more women, because 2 of them wanted to commit suicide. I was called to a meeting of deacons (16 "men"), not allowed to have a woman with me, and asked: "Are you still having sex with your ex?" No boundaires. Look forward to hearing from you; even after 5 years this is painful and my family still attends that Baptist church: I feel betrayed, but there is nothing I can do. www.soulpoetry.org is my site for my book, Sanctuary of the Soul (poems of anguish, healing, hope, comfort and celebration). My e-mail: wacalice@aol.com....not sure how this site or blog works; ;non-techie as I am! Hugs, Alice..over comer and wounded healer and freshman at age 63...I won a women's scholarship because of what I wrote about my life.

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  8. I don't know how I missed Thredd's comments. Thredd, that was a heartbroken cry. I hope you are edging toward a place of peace now. I believe there is justice in the end. From all I've read in the Bible about leaders misusing their authority, and God's view of them, I am certain that if they don't genuinely turn and repent, it will not go well for them in the end. Though it seems like your abuser has the upper hand, you will be more than compensated eventually. For me, it's been four years since our abusive church situation. I still find myself devising means to make our abusive pastor lose control over the other hapless droids (like I was) still in his power, and to feel a sting for his wrongs. I sometimes devise elaborate, detailed plans -- and then set them aside, knowing that they would backfire on me. I know there is perfect judgment coming. Though it never seems soon enough, I trust God's timing. I know when I pray for him, it is like coals of fire on his head, so I sometimes go that route and find my own heart strengthened or softened. I wish you an end to the agony and a beginning in a fresh, creative direction.

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