I’ve been thinking this week about how it is that people get drawn into the most harmful sorts of Christianity. Certainly growing up in it would explain a lot of folks, but others convert into it at a later age. For example, I was in my teens when I converted from Catholicism to the Southern Baptist Convention, and from there into Pentecostalism by seventeen. There were a lot of reasons why such a strange transition might have happened, and one of those reasons may well be that I was trained to be a people-pleaser.
One thing that Catholicism does well is inculcate children with the idea that self-sacrifice is both noble and required to be a good Catholic. Its virtues–poverty, chastity, obedience–stress denying oneself anything that isn’t totally necessary for survival. The official reason is that denying oneself any comforts or excessive adornments will keep one’s mind on “God.” Unofficially, though, even if someone’s not held to those vows they’re part of the framework of church life. I don’t know many fervent Catholics who don’t feel at least a twinge of guilt whenever they buy something just for fun or do something only for themselves. The old jokes about Catholic guilt exist for a reason: self-denial is part of the bloodline of Catholicism. (And woe betide the impudent little girl who pertly informs her grandparents that she’s giving up some hated food for Lent.)
I grew up with the examples of my Catholic clergy relatives held before my eyes, and saw how selfless my mother and grandmother were. Both of them devoted their entire lives to their families. My husband Biff knew he was in like Flynn during a visit to my grandparents’ house because of that attitude; one morning he discovered that a serious tear he’d recently gotten in his coat had been mysteriously sewn and repaired as if by house elves. Of course, we knew that my grandmother must have done it (she was the only person in the house at the time who could have), but she seemed downright embarrassed at being thanked by him. And from then on, he was part of the family.
I’ll never know if my mother grated at the indoctrination she received growing up in that environment, but I do know that she derived a great deal of her own sense of worth and value by serving others. She bit her lip and spent the time and energy needed to make sure everything that needed to be done got done; she went without so that others could have what they needed or wanted. And as time went on, I saw in myself the same desire to negate my own needs to meet those of others. I felt safe pleasing others. If I could figure out what someone else wanted and give it to them, I felt like I was in a little more control. Everybody liked someone who was nice and helpful, right? So I was as nice and helpful as I could be. It was a survival mechanism more than anything else, one that I carried into adolescence.
Things didn’t get a lot better when I became a fundamentalist. They don’t have nuns or priests the same way, and of course there aren’t formal vows like Catholics have to encourage that kind of self-denial, but the concept is written all through the culture. Carving out a little time for oneself was seen as vaguely heretical and had to be justified with extensive excuses and pleading for slack.
Men can develop this habit as well–I know a bunch of male people-pleasers struggling to figure out how to respectfully assert themselves in their post-Christian lives. Women, though, get a special variant of the disease, especially in denominations that adhere strictly to sexist gender roles. Everybody is a slave to someone in that hierarchy, including men (to their leadership), but women are seen as servants to absolutely everybody: parents, husbands, pastors, even children.
If I “died to myself,” I was taught in the favored Christianese, then I’d be richly rewarded with an appreciative husband and family and many spiritual rewards: peace, happiness, joy, love, and a close connection to Jesus. But I had to bite my lip and go without whatever I needed. The idea was that everyone around me would also do the same thing and in this manner we’d progress further, faster than we could alone. We looked at “the world” and derided its attitude of each partner in a relationship giving 50%. We all give 100%, we crowed to ourselves, so our relationships are much better. I wish I’d known at the time how false that saying is in practice.
Eventually I noticed that “selfish” is the worst accusation anybody can ever make to a Christian woman. There’s a reason for it. Any time I wasn’t conforming and complying, any time I said “no,” any time I tried to make time for my own needs or put myself ahead of anybody else, I was accused of sinning (and thereby implicitly threatened with Hell for not sacrificing myself). One day I had the audacity to ask my then-husband Biff if we could maybe go get something to eat after a particularly long Sunday morning service, since my stomach was growling and I was miserable with hunger while he was goofing around with his buddies. One of my (male) friends snapped cheerily, “Mortify your flesh, sister!” and Biff applauded his comeback. At first I laughed at them and tried to ignore my growing hunger, but then the more I considered it, the more I wondered why their goofing-around was more important than Biff leaving with me for some food. He was definitely not giving his wife 100%! He was letting me go hungry so he could screw around, and around a dozen of his friends watched this incident and said nothing. We hadn’t eaten all day, and I was involved in strenuous athletics at the time. I was dizzy by the time we left–and seething. But Biff didn’t see what the problem was and got angry that I was angry. He’d gotten what he wanted, after all; why hadn’t I been happy that he was getting such great fellowship? Why hadn’t I been able to choke back my hunger long enough for him to spend three hours horsing around with his buddies after the service? Why didn’t I care what he wanted?
I don’t know if that snappy friend ever realized that something awakened in me when he and Biff so callously dismissed my distress, but that’s when I began to seriously examine this whole people-pleasing, self-sacrifice, serving mentality I’d somehow been persuaded was a god’s perfect plan for women. I finally noticed what’d been before my nose all along: that this whole serving thing seemed like it only ran one direction. I gave, and they received. Men, especially husbands and fathers, sat atop a vast heap of the denied and suppressed needs of “their” women, enjoying the benefits of being a man in fundamentalist society. When I had a legitimate need, it was laughed at, mocked, scorned, belittled, gaslighted into nonexistence, and denigrated–when it wasn’t ignored. And if I insisted or got angry, out came the attempts to cow me back into line, with the biggest guns my denomination had for controlling women: accusations of selfishness. Because don’t imagine for a heartbeat that my peers and leaders took my struggle toward consciousness laying down.
I don’t think Christian culture deals well with people asserting themselves or their needs or standing apart from the herd. I had to be dealt with swiftly and decisively; I was a threat to the entire hierarchy.
I learned that “You’re selfish” really means “Your lack of self-negation is annoying me,” and it is almost always deployed by someone who thinks he or she is superior against someone thought to be an inferior. It’s often a reminder of the proper social order and an attempt to compel someone to remain in that inferior position.
Nothing about the Christian concept of self-sacrifice is really healthy, taken to extremes (but then, what is?). Over time I saw that people-pleasing looked a lot like codependence and that I was slowly losing myself, drowning in a sea of others’ needs and wants–many conflicting and contradictory, many impossible without hurting myself emotionally or physically. I was expected to lean on “Jesus” to help me meet everybody else’s needs and still somehow scrape through without losing my mind.
But Jesus was nowhere to be found.
Slowly I began to assert myself. Those around me were startled and didn’t like it–Biff especially–but it got easier and easier every time to refuse their demands. I began to laugh at those who denounced me as “selfish,” since I’d already worked out the secret code behind that accusation. It was painfully obvious to me at that point that I was being manipulated and controlled! I already knew that if I gave and gave and gave, those around me would happily take and take and take–because they could. Not only was “Jesus” not magically making it possible for me to give past my capacity, he wasn’t stopping anybody from taking advantage of me. Even worse, though I’d been promised many times that if I became a people-pleaser that I’d be treated well and protected by my leaders and husband, I discovered that the opposite was true. People don’t value what’s given to them for free; they learn to treat with contempt those who don’t treat themselves with respect.
Who’d’a thunk that the only person watching out for me was me?–And that if I wasn’t doing the job, then nobody else was going to do it for me? Color me shocked!
I wasn’t buying my way into emotional safety or impressing anybody with how incredibly nice and sweet I was. I was just turning into a doormat and wasting my finite lifetime giving myself a serious psychological disorder to benefit people who only cared about what I could do for them. I barely had any idea who I was when I deconverted or what I enjoyed about or wanted from my life.
Christianity had taught me my entire life that my value lay in how others valued me. Finding my own value and learning to set limits on what I could and couldn’t do for others was difficult, but I got there in the end through trial and error and despite everything Christianity put in my way to stop me.
Now I know: if I’m asked to do something and if I refuse I get accused of selfishness, chances are I did the right thing in refusing.
Now I know: nobody has a right or expectation to my time, attention, or energy, nor the right to get angry if I refuse to do them a favor.
Now I know: it’s okay to take time for myself, to assert my needs, to ask for help, to say I’m overextended, or to object to unfair or poor treatment.
I still like serving others and do so often (ironically, probably more than I did as a Christian and with a more joyous heart), but I do it on my own terms and with my own abilities and time in mind. Could I have figured out how to do that even as a Christian? Sure. I’m sure lots of Christians manage the trick. It’s not the religion that’s the real problem; it’s a culture that generally idolizes that mindset of self-sacrifice to the point where people get threatened with Hell if they don’t comply no matter what. It’s so pervasive and so harmful that when people escape religion, they often discover that their journey has only just begun–there’s so much to learn, and our growth, as that of children, often begins with that little tiny word that parents often dread, that word that establishes boundaries and declares the presence of self against the sea of not-self: