Bad, Evil Psychology Helped Me

by Latebloomer

Growing up, I heard a lot of scoffing at psychology in my family, homeschooling community, and fundamentalist church.  In those circles, the study and application of psychology represented a worthless human attempt to feel happier apart from God and become better without the guidance of the Bible.   The anti-psychology sentiment was so strong that even building kids’ self-confidence and self-esteem was derided as a “worldly” goal.  There was too much “self” in the name.  Real True Christian children were to be obedient and humble instead.

Looking back, I definitely had the obedience thing handled; in fact, I cannot remember ever purposefully disobeying my parents, even in my teens.  Yet I was constantly reprimanded for unsatisfactory performance because I was unable to be constantly cheerful about the instant unquestioning obedience that was required of me.  The impossibility of my situation left me feeling extremely frustrated and guilty; however, I reasoned that my faults were just a “thorn in my flesh” to keep me humble and seeking God’s help (2 Cor 12:7).
But apparently even my humility was a fault; I wasn’t doing that right either.  In my late teens, I heard Reb Bradley‘s teachings about pride at his homeschooling church Hope Chapel.  According to Reb Bradley, true humility was the absence of thought or awareness of yourself.  So those feelings of shame, awkwardness, self-consciousness, and frustration that I dealt with daily?  Sinful pride, not humility.  Talk about kicking a person when they’re down!  My tortured teenage mind twisted itself in knots trying to get out of my body, trying to have no positive or negative thoughts about myself, no “selfish” dreams or desires or goals for the life that stretched endlessly before me.  Really, I was tearfully and prayerfully trying to cease to exist..  It’s no wonder that my depression often spiraled out of control, and I spent almost all of my free time in my teens lying on my bed like a zombie, alone, dead inside.
One day in my early twenties, as I was driving my car home from work, I heard an unexpectedly beautiful and compassionate new voice coming from the Christian radio station.  In his gentle Southern accent, he talked about dealing with the pain of rejection and struggling with poor self-esteem as a result; I stopped the car and cried.  It was the first time I felt that my broken-heartedness was not yet another fault of mine; it was the first time that I heard the idea of self-esteem referenced positively.
Who was this pastor who seemed so liberal and gracious to me at the time?  Charles Stanley, the president of the extremely conservative and fundamentalist Southern Baptist Convention.

Starting with that one small first step of hearing a sympathetic voice on the radio, I’ve slowly been reconstructing a healthier and more balanced view of myself and others over the last ten years.  Shedding my misunderstanding of the Bible and my deep distrust of extra-biblical resources, including psychology, has been immensely helpful to me in my own journey.  It has opened up a whole new world of fascinating ideas, including ones that have helped me make sense of my own childhood experiences and their effects on me.

Recently, I’ve encountered one particularly relevant idea that has increased my self-understanding.  I am what personality psychologists call a “highly sensitive” or “high-reactive” person.  This refers to an inborn aversion to novelty and a tendency to more easily become overstimulated; it is not very common, but it is strongly correlated with being introverted.  It explains why I always order the same food in restaurants, choose comfort over style, love predictability, and avoid spending too much time around loud noises and large crowds.  Understanding the biological basis of my personality quirks is helping me manage my stress and not demand too much of myself.

But it has been even more helpful to look back at my childhood with the understanding that I was a highly sensitive child.   In her book “Quiet“, Susan Cain discusses how childhood experiences can affect the highly sensitive or high reactive child:

“The destinies of the most high-reactive kids are also influenced by the world around them–perhaps even more so than for the average child, according to a groundbreaking new theory dubbed ‘the orchid hypothesis’ by David Dobbs…This theory holds that many children are like dandelions, able to thrive in just about any environment.  But others, including the high-reactive types that Kagan studied, are more like orchids: they wilt easily, but under the right conditions can grow strong and magnificent.

….[T]he reactivity of these kids’ nervous systems makes them quickly overwhelmed by childhood adversity, but also able to benefit from a nurturing environment more than other children do.  In other words, orchid children are more strongly affected by all experience, both positive and negative.

Scientists have known for a while that high-reactive temperments come with risk factors.  These kids are especially vulnerable to challenges like marital tension, a parent’s death, or abuse.  They’re more likely than their peers to react to these events with depression, anxiety, and shyness.  Indeed, about a quarter of Kagan’s high-reactive kids suffer some degree of the condition known as ‘social anxiety disorder’….

High-reactive kids who enjoy good parenting, child care, and a stable home environment tend to have fewer emotional problems and more social skills than their lower-reactive peers, studies show.”  (p. 110-111)

I had wondered many times why some of my more extroverted peers who also experienced social isolation and authoritarian parenting seemed less traumatized and could enter mainstream society more quickly, while I struggled with severe depression and crippling anxiety for years and years.  In “Quiet”, I found a reason that in retrospect makes perfect sense.  As a highly sensitive child, the negative experiences simply affected me more strongly.I started adulthood almost destroyed, with almost no ability to function.  Yet here I am today, a far happier and healthier person.  It turned out that my high sensitivity was an asset in my recovery in the end.  Once the conditions were right for me to “grow”, my development took off.  Positive attention, kindness, and acceptance coaxed me back to life and helped me grow into my true identity.

Contrary to all the warnings I heard about psychology in my youth, I have found that the increased self-understanding has resulted in genuine self-improvement.  I much prefer this approach to the ineffective and tearful fumblings that were promoted by my church.

Comments open below

Read everything by Latebloomer!

Latebloomer is on a journey away from the ideals she was raised with in the conservative homeschooling culture.  Becoming a wife and mother has prompted her to re-evaluate her childhood experiences in an effort to avoid repeating those mistakes.  Her blog Past Tense Present Progressive is her place for sorting through her thoughts.

The Spiritual Abuse Survivor Blogs Network

NLQ Recommended Reading …

Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment‘ by Janet Heimlich

Quivering Daughters‘ by Hillary McFarland

Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement‘ by Kathryn Joyce

 

 

About Suzanne Calulu
  • Pingback: Bad, Evil Psychology Helped Me « About Psychology

  • Saraquill

    So you were supposed to be unthinking, unfeeling, yet somehow cheerful. You were supposed to be a robot from Stepford.

  • CultDoctor

    An ordained minister, and just completed my Masters in Counseling from a wonderful Christian university, fully a accredited, I went to the senior pastor of a church in Kirkland, WA, and said I wanted to volunteer a day a week to see anyone he wanted to send. I was told that ‘my’ counseling was a “rival religion”. This was 1999. Since then, my last day at that church, I discovered so many other I’ll perspectives this man held. I wonder how many in his congregation suffer from some clinical mental illness that he has told they were either not praying enough, or lacked faith.

  • Me

    Hi, thanks for sharing your story, they have given me insight to my own daughter who is 18 and has depression and severe social anxiety. I stopped being a controlling parent at least 5 years ago but she is still very crippled. She is the kindest, sweetest person and is very beautiful as well. Nothing I tell her can make her believe that. She doesn’t like talking to people she doesn’t know. She told me her heart was pounding out of her chest when a boy approached her and started talking to her. She told me today that she always feared people rejecting her when she was younger. When our family stopped wearing dresses, she feared running into certain people who would see her in pants. It’s so hard for me to know how to help her. She’s supposed to be starting life on her own now with getting a job and going to school but she is just so terrified. She hates meeting new people but yet longs for friends. She gets angry because she feels as if she has no life. Of course, I blame myself that this has happened but I really hope she can get beyond this. We isolated all of the kids but this one has been affected by it the most. So I’m thinking this must be her personality type too. I just feel really bad for her and it’s hard for me to understand as I’m the type of person who can talk to anybody, love parties, etc. Thanks again for sharing and it sounds like you’ve come a long way.

  • Jewel

    Latebloomer,

    I SO enjoyed and appreciated this post!! I am one of those “orchid children” as well, and am just starting to really understand this about myself (at the age of 40!) and learn how to structure my life to make things less stressful and more peaceful. I think it is impossible for someone who is a social butterfly and is not overwhelmed by sights and smells and sounds and crowds to understand how we feel and react to things!

    I have learned a lot about myself in having my son being diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome a couple of years ago. He and I are so much alike. I don’t think everyone who is sensitive or introverted has Asperger’s, but there are a lot of similarities.

    I can’t wait to try and find the book that you referenced!

  • Jewel

    Oh, and I forgot to mention that I too have been helped SO much by “bad, evil psychology”, through a secular, non-practicing Jewish psychologist who God sent to help me through one of the worst bouts of depression I ever experienced. When I tell my “church” friends that I have a wonderful counselor, the first thing they ask is, “Oh, is she a Christian?” and I just smile and say, “No she is a non-practicing Jew!”. I am always amused by the look of shock and horror on their faces, like I just said I was going to a witchdoctor or something.

    If God could speak to Balaam through a donkey, surely He can use “unbelievers” (gasp!) to help His children in need!

  • madame

    Thanks for this post, Latebloomer.
    I had never heard of the term “orchild children”, but it makes a lot of sense!

  • CC

    Thank you for writing this. I’ll have to pick up _Quiet_.

    I too was part of a cult-like fundamentalist church, though I joined as a young adult. I was also told that feelings of insecurity and self-consciousness were actually sinful pride, which felt like a kick in the groin when I was already down. I also suffered from chronic depression, which no one in the church made any attempt to understand. Their only help consisted of telling me to “get out of myself.”

    Bad, evil psychology gave me my life back. Medication put my depression in remission and good psychotherapy helped me get into a healthier mindset.

    I used to wonder why, after I left my fundamentalist church, I suffered from PTSD, while other former members did not. I discovered Elain Aron’s book _The Highly Sensitive Person_ which shed some light on my experiences both as a child with social anxiety and as an adult who suffered a great deal from all the hard heartedness of the church, which denied all mental health issues. In fact, it denied practically all differences between individuals! If you were different, you just weren’t trying hard enough. Those attitudes affected us all, but as an HSP, they affected me more deeply.

    I am now in a much, much better place. I have learned to listen to what my body is telling me and to respect my physical and emotional needs. Self understanding has helped me grow into a stronger, happier and more compassionate person.


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