The question below was sent to me recently through my Religion’s Cell Facebook page. It expresses so well what families are dealing with as a result of religious abuses in a cult-like church and Christian school:
I’m looking for some healing for kids who were treated as if they were worthless and a waste of space at their church’s school, at church, and then punished by their father when they got home if they didn’t obey the church’s and the church’s school’s rules every day of their growing up years. Rules set up by the cult leader — the pastor Jack Hyles. How do you tell the inside of you that you ARE worthy, that you ARE a good person, that you HAVE talents, that people DO like you, after a childhood of the above? — Joanne
In the quote above, we can see that this individual is hurting. Her children have suffered greatly due to the abusive teachings and control tactics of the church leader they served. She also wrote me a lengthy email in search of help for her daughter. In Joanne’s case, I connected her with Together We Heal, an organization that has professional counselors available at no cost to the victim. I also told Joanne that in response to her plea, I would write a series on how our family recovered. In this series, I want to talk about the steps me and my husband took in order to heal our family, to deprogram, reprogram, rebuild foundations, and gain new perspectives.
Please understand that what I am about to share with you is MY thought processes and steps based on MY experiences. The steps in this series are what WE did. Everything I am about to say to you is to let you into our personal “bubble” and see what we did for ourselves and our children. Are these thought processes and steps the “right” way? They were for me and my family; but they may not be for you and yours.
Like, Joanne above, there are countless religious abuse survivors struggling to know what to do and how to overcome religious abuse. Religious abuses have destroyed innumerable people. That is why my blog and other blogs exist amongst religious abuse survivors – we want to help others to deprogram, heal, and know HOW to recover themselves.
It is my opinion that Abusive religions devalue people. They are masters at making men, women, and children feel worthless in order to control them. They are masters at instilling fear in order to control them. It is important we realize that sexual, physical, spiritual, and emotional abuses are being perpetrated in those religions where there is devaluation. Again, any religion that devalues other human beings will be abusive toward those they devalue! It is important for everyone to realize this.
Also rampant is spiritual dependency and blindness. These things can cripple us and prevent us from thinking independently and rationally. They also lead to our control and manipulation. Spiritual blindness and dependency will cause good people to do and say bad things to other good people. It will also cause us to turn a blind eye to abuse.
In order to heal, we must change. We must learn how to deprogram from the abusive behaviors and thought processes that some religions instill in us. We must also learn how to reprogram ourselves in order to recover. Healing and recovery will bring you joy and freedom in a way that truly is remarkable. More importantly, every change we make, every step we take, every action and reaction we exercise, must be rooted in humility and genuine, unconditional love for everyone involved – including self. So let’s look at some of the things my husband and I did that helped us and our family to heal, grow, and recover. I would also like to say that the steps in this series can be done in any order that is best for your situation.
The first step I want to talk about in this series is a very important step. Sadly, we have countless adult survivors that skip this step. They refuse to believe or acknowledge that raising children in a system of control and manipulation does any harm to them. They are deceiving themselves; and, when their children try to voice those feelings of hurt, they are being chastised, called liars, or ignored. All systems of control and manipulation DO harm in some way emotionally and psychologically; and you won’t know how much harm until you extract yourself from it. Many parents refuse to believe their children have been harmed by the way they have been treated by them and others within the system. So, here’s the first step I want to cover:
STEP #1: You MUST Admit The Truth and Accept Responsibility
Too often, we find that some people are too proud to admit to themselves they were wrong. This can also be true when it comes to admitting to our children we were wrong. I know of parents who refuse to admit to themselves or their children they did anything wrong in raising them in a system that devalues them, controls them, and does not allow for them to be autonomous! They refuse to take responsibility for the abuses they dished out to their children as a result of the religious teachings! Some even refuse to believe the abuses their children suffered at the hands of religious leaders, along with their abusive attitudes and treatment of them, is abuse. Furthermore, many refuse to believe the abuses they dish out to their spouses are abusive! Wow. Just because your religion sanctions the abuse, does not make it right at all. Just because your religion says it’s the right thing to do does not make it NOT abuse.
In order to recover, heal, and change, there is no place for ego or pride. When pride somehow manages to get in the way, all it does is stifle growth and create animosity. Sadly, many people will literally die for their religious and doctrinal beliefs rather than admit they are wrong in any area of them. Not only this, they will divide their family and destroy friendships because of them. Understand that religious beliefs and teachings are the ‘root’ of the problem and that you may have been lied to by the religious leaders and system you served. Understand that the teachings you accepted may have been abusive to you and your family and, you will never know just HOW abusive until you are WILLING to re-evaluate those teachings through an unbiased lens or, the lens of “questionable doubt.”
When a person is set in their pride, they refuse to believe the truth even if it is staring them right in the face. Realize that you are human and make mistakes. “To err is human.” It’s okay to make mistakes! We all make them! Don’t let pride be the cause of the destruction of familial relationships because you are too proud to admit you were wrong or that your religion might be teaching abusive and twisted doctrines. Admit that you made a mistake in following the abusive dogmas and rules and don’t beat yourself up over it. Admit to yourself that your children may have been negatively impacted as a result of the religious teachings, rules, and standards. Accept responsibility for the schisms with your famiy members. Then, forgive yourself and ask your children for their forgiveness. You will know by their reaction to your apology if they were impacted negatively. You will know by their reaction if they are harboring hurt, anger, and bitterness toward you because of it.
WHAT MY HUSBAND AND I DID
The first thing my husband and I did was to admit we were wrong.
- We were wrong in how we were treating each other and responding to each other. We apologized to each other and made a commitment to change.
- We were wrong in raising our children in a fundamentalist religion.
- We were wrong in how we treated our children as a result of the teachings, rules, mindsets, and attitudes we were taught by the church leaders.
- We admitted to ourselves the “root cause” of our relationship problem – religious teaching was entirely responsible for the schism in the relationship between us, as husband and wife. It affected how we treated each other and responded to each other in given situations. So, we acknowledged to each other and ourselves that we were harmed and our thinking contaminated. We just didn’t know to what extent yet.
- We admitted to ourselves that we were fully responsible for any schism in relationship between us and our children. They had no choice in being raised in a fundamentalist religion! Just as the teachings affected our response, attitudes, and behaviors, it probably affected theirs too.
Not only did we admit it to ourselves, we admitted it to our children. We went out and bought each of them flowers and a gift, sat them down, and with genuine tears of remorse, apologized for raising them the way we did. We apologized for OUR behavior over the years toward them. We PROMISED them we would change; promised them WE would get better; promised them WE would never go back to the way we were. We took full RESONSIBILITY for any hurt, anger or bitterness they might be holding against us. It was OUR fault, not theirs. We did NOT give excuses. We did NOT place blame on the religious teachings even though they were the root cause of the problem. That day, we did an about face and completely changed. For the ones still at home, it was like culture shock, but in a good way.
I cannot tell you the tears that flowed between them and us when we did this. It was like releasing a pressure cooker lid for some of them. We realized for the first time in our lives that some of our children WERE carrying a huge load of hurt and bitterness toward us. We had no idea! It was so heartbreaking and eye-opening at the same time. Did all our children believe us when we said all these things? No. We had one that didn’t believe us right away.
Our oldest lived 1500 miles away when we did this. So, we did this with him when he came back to visit. He needed time to watch, listen, and evaluate whether or not we really did change; that we really meant what we said. He took our apology with a grain of salt. It took almost three years for him to finally believe that we were not the same parents anymore. While this was painful for my husband and me emotionally, we knew that it was something we had to accept. He didn’t live at home with us, so of course it would take longer for him to decide if we were for real or not. He wasn’t here to see our day to day living. We did not let this stop our growth. We continued to change and grow while he watched and tested.
Did he test us? Absolutely! He tried to push every button he knew of to get us to react like we used to. While we were changing and growing, he was trying to prove we hadn’t changed at all. He baited us and accused us often to see how we would respond. Did we fall for it? Every now and again, Yes. He had so much hurt and anger pent up against us that he needed time; and, he also needed to express that hurt. He vented his hurt and anger a number of times when he would visit us, or we, him. These are some of the most painful and heartbreaking memories of the recovery process because they pierced us and hurt us. Was it his fault? No. It was our fault. We accepted it. We continued to apologize. We worked through it. We never stopped loving him and continued to support him. Sometimes, we have to endure the pain for a while before we see the growth and change. We must remember that. Today, we are so very proud of the man our son has become and the relationship we now have. We are also proud of our other children as well. All of them have continued to grow and now understand that humility and exercising unconditional love is the key to happiness and success, not religion and rules. They also understand fully that you can walk with God without religion around and that, sometimes, religion gets in the way of a genuine relationship with Him and each other.
It takes TIME and EFFORT to UNDO the brainwashing, instilled habits, and old beliefs. Did we eventually overcome and conquer the old ways? YES! Was it easy? No. Was it worth it? Absolutely.
We had to keep in mind that our children would experience a wide array of emotions from the extraction we made from the abusive religion and its environment. It was vital, however, that we did not criticize, condemn, or place blame on them during their healing process. We, as parents, were responsible for raising them in a cult-like and abusive religion! We took responsibility for it. We decided to help them heal and recover by showing love, patient endurance and, by accepting responsibility. On the other hand, we didn’t beat ourselves up over it. Accepting responsibility does not mean we continue to beat ourselves over the head with negative self talk! We have to find a balance. We had to learn not only to forgive others, but ourselves. No negative self talk allowed! We are all human. We all mess up! What’s most important is that you LEARN from your mistakes.
The younger children were so much more resilient than our young adult children when it came to forgiving and moving forward. Younger children want to make things right with their parents immediately, therefore they are more likely to forgive and move forward than young adults.
It was our older children that needed time and expression. When they unloaded their feelings on us, we listened and sincerely apologized. We tried really hard to not fight back, argue, or place blame on them when they did this. We tried really hard to not give excuses for our behavior. We understood that this was not what they needed. They needed to release the hurt and anger. They needed to know we understood their feelings and that their feelings were being validated by us. We had to realize their perception of us was their “truth” whether we believed it to be right or not. We accepted their truth! We let them know we were sorry every time they expressed it. Our children needed to know we believed them, supported them, and loved them. Most of all, they need to know we were genuinely sorry. Going through this was very painful for all of us.
Now, let me say something important here: Sometimes our children can really press our buttons and make it easy to fall back into self-protect mode where we find ourselves in a full blown argument. If you do, don’t let it derail you. Just work harder on not going to that place the next time you are confronted by them for things in their past that you did that hurt them.
I warn you ahead of time that your children will place blame on you. Accept it and apologize. Placing any blame back on them or anyone else, any excuses at all for your behavior, will shut them down and stunt their growth and recovery. You are dealing with their “truth.” It will be different from yours. If we cannot as parents accept someone else’s truth without placing blame, giving excuses, or getting angry, then we will never have the fullness of relationship with our children. There will always be an underlying “seed of hurt and contention” that will continually rear its head.
Eventually, our children came to the realization that we were manipulated and controlled by the cult teachings; that those teachings affected them the way they did. At the point when this realization hit them, was the point we started seeing the most progress and change in our relationship with them. It’s one thing to come to this realization for yourself, but when your children finally grasp this truth, it is life and relationship changing!
On the flip side of this, let me say that you should not allow your adult children to continually heap abuse onto you. Use some wisdom here. If all they want to do is attack you repeatedly, and live in the past, back away from them. Set boundaries and do not allow them to cross them. Discussion is okay, attacking is NOT okay. Distance yourself and allow them to find healing on their own while you work on your healing. Don’t allow their anger and bitterness to sabotage your progress. Fix yourself FIRST; then, you will be better able to help them and be what they need you to be in their healing process. Remember, sometimes just seeing the change in you from a distance can affect a positive change in them.
Let me say something important here. Enlisting the aid of a professional can sometimes be the BEST avenue for recovery from religious abuse in all its forms (See my blog article, “Religious Abuse – What Exactly Is It?”). While I did not utilize this step, many others do and it has made all the difference in their recovery. Find a professional counselor, outside of the cult, that deals specifically with cult survivors and/or religious and sexual abuse survivors – especially if the child has been physically or sexually abused in any way! Do not take them to a church counselor, pastor, or other person who is connected with the religious sect you are escaping from! Do not take them to a pastor or church counselor of a different religious sect! These are usually not licensed professionals who are trained in dealing with RELIGIOUS abuse in all its forms. You must enlist the help of a licensed professional who knows what they are doing. When a child has been abused by “religion,” the worst thing you can do is force them to be “counseled” by a religious leader. The harm done can be irreparable!
Also, let me say that sexual and physical abuses have lasting effects. Don’t think that children can deal with them on their own, they can’t! That is why chemical dependency is very high among survivors. Suicide rates are also high. Don’t use the excuse you cannot afford it. There are many services out there that are free. Find them by searching on the internet! Your children are worth it. If we as parents can sacrifice for the things the church wanted us to do, we can sacrifice for our children to get them the help they need.
During all this, be very careful not to spew out all the religious poison you will be vomiting up, onto your children. Do, however, share new knowledge and truths with them along the way. I continue to share with my children what I learn and this makes for some very valuable discussions. I often turn to my children for their input and advice. I treat them as the adults they are and as the individuals they are.
I hope this step that we used in healing and recovery is helpful. If you can go through this step and accept responsibility and truth, the journey to recovery will be much better. Stay tuned for the next step in this series where I will give specific sources to aid in the reprogramming and recovery process.