Whose Pain is it? The Fallacy of Owning Others’ Pain

Whose Pain is it? The Fallacy of Owning Others’ Pain May 13, 2019

by Darrel Ray, Ed.D, President, RfR Board

As I read religious recovery comments from time to time, I see a pattern of thinking that might contribute to the problems people are facing. Many people say that they caused pain in others when they left religion; pain for their families, friends, and former church community.

It may not seem to be a problem when saying this, but believing the idea that you caused pain in others actually feeds into the overall religious narrative. I am not saying that your father, daughter, friend, etc. do not feel pain. What I am questioning is the source of that pain. I am not saying you cannot have empathy for what they are going through; I am suggesting that they have the greater responsibility for the pain they feel.

What, or who, really causes this pain?

Let’s do a thought experiment. Let’s say my lawyer father wanted me to be a lawyer. My whole life he prepared and cajoled me, then one day I announce that I am going into the wholesale grocery sales business. I proceed to make a good career out of that profession, though my father showed great pain at that announcement and for years after. He often makes reference to how I would have made a great lawyer. He never seems to get beyond this idea.

My question to you is, who is causing him this pain? Am I the direct cause? Do I owe him my sympathy? Should I feel obligated enough to go back to school and at least become a food safety legal expert? How much emotional energy, time, and even life plans and behavior should I give to my father?

When I decided for myself to not be a lawyer, I was not being hurtful to my father. I was being true to myself. I was taking ownership of my own life. He did not own my life. If he felt that I somehow betrayed him, where did that sense of betrayal come from? Was I the source, or were his beliefs and expectations the source?

Here is a simple but powerful idea: beliefs cause pain when they do not reflect reality. To the extent that a belief is in conflict with the way the world works, it will cause problems and often pain. My father deeply believed that I should become a lawyer. When that belief did not conform to the reality of the real world, he felt pain, and he attributed his pain to my behavior — instead of recognizing that it was a result of his poorly formed beliefs about the world of parenthood.

Religion tries to make you feel responsible for the pain that religious beliefs cause. It is a powerful method for keeping people infected with religious ideas. For example, if I believe that god will provide and that prosperity is a function of my god belief, I will probably end up poor but I will not blame god. I will blame myself for my lack of faith. That’s a real-world consequence of a poorly formed belief.

Don’t let others blame you for the pain of their poorly formed beliefs.

Strive to create well-formed beliefs and be ready to modify them when they come in conflict with the real world. Religions and believers have a very hard time with this idea. Sure, have compassion for your family. Sure, listen to friends with empathy, but learn how to set your own boundaries and take responsibility for your reality, not the realities of others. I am pretty sure you will be a lot happier, with more energy for your life, and less wasted energy trying to salve the pain caused by the poorly formed beliefs of others.

Let me add one hopeful comment. If you really want to help others ease other’s pain, you can help by learning Street Epistemology and using it kindly and gently with those who are experiencing “belief induced pain.” NEVER tell someone their pain is self-induced. That is about the worst thing you can say and will only make them defensive and help them feel even more pain. Simply learn to ask good, kind, gentle questions and learn to stop asking long before you hit resistance. Always leave the door open, don’t close it for them. There is no guarantee they will lose their pain, but your questions may help them find the source of their pain. It is their decision, it is their life.

Finally, if they close the door, that is their choice. Don’t take responsibility for their decisions. Try to mitigate any consequences on bystanders (like children) but keep perspective and stay in adult mode, setting boundaries and making decisions for yourself and your family. I say “adult mode” because religions will do all they can to keep you in child mode. You are the wayward child, the prodigal son. It is an insidious way to force dependence, submission and above all guilt and shame to reduce your power, agency and emotional well-being. It is designed to bring you back to the fold or, failing that, to undermine your threat to the god virus.

You can explore more ideas like these this fall by joining us for our Fall Excursion in the beautiful mountains of North Carolina. Recovering from Religion is sponsoring a full weekend focused on reconnecting with your nature both inside and out. From the nature of the physical world to the nature of your sexuality and, of course, learning recovery strategies and sharing with others on their journey.

Please visit our website to learn more about the Recovering from Religion Fall Excursion. It is our goal to help as many people as possible, and we welcome donations made to help subsidize attendance for others who need assistance. We hope to see you under the sky and trees of NC this Fall.
About Dr. Darrel Ray
Dr. Darrel Ray is the founder and President of the Board of Recovering from Religion and The Secular Therapy Project. He is a psychologist and author of several books including The God Virus: How Religion Infects Our Lives and Culture, and Sex and God: How Religion Distorts Sexuality. You can read more about the author here.
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