Few things upset me like being misunderstood, and here lately that’s been happening a lot. Leaving the Christian fold was an eye-opening experience in more ways than one, not least of which was in showing me how unable to think outside of their box this faith makes people. As a Christian I was taught to believe that everyone is a God-believer at their core, but that some merely lie to themselves and/or to others about it. Poor deluded atheists! The Devil has blinded them to their own folly. Only a fool says in his heart that there is no God, amirite? No wonder it always feels like my friends and family are misreading me all the time. They’re looking at me through a lens which claims things about me that are patently false. Seeing me the way they do requires ignoring several important things I tell them about myself, and that is no way to love someone. If you aim to love someone, it is incumbent upon you to attempt to understand him on his own terms, and not misrepresent him.
But some cannot do this. They just can’t. It’s not in them. And some who could…won’t. They choose not to because their loyalties have already been claimed. They’ve invested too much of their lives into a tribal identity and asking them to see you in a different light would feel to them like turning against their own team. I know the family members of LGBT folks struggle intensely with this. Their loved ones plead with them to understand and accept that they did not choose to be different, but many cannot accept this. They are too committed to seeing the way they were taught to see. They would sooner cut their own children out of their lives than betray their own tribe, which insists that sexual attraction is a choice, or at least a product of improper socialization. Like atheism, an atypical sexual orientation will be seen as a flaw or a disorder which at best can be cured or at worst tolerated, but never completely accepted. The guardians of orthodoxy will not allow it. And before anyone leaps to insist that No True Christian™ would cut off family members out of loyalty to their tribe, I’ll remind you that it was Jesus who insisted that you cannot be a follower of his unless you are willing to put devotion to him above all else, including your own family. If you want to call this non-Christian behavior, you need to be honest about the fact that you’re cherry-picking which teachings of Jesus you feel you should follow. As I’ve said before, it is for things like this that I am not a fan of Jesus.
So like the meme above says, some people are committed to misunderstanding you. We could go thirty rounds about how much say they have in choosing what they believe, but in the end we’re still stuck with a decision to make:
How much power over you will you allow people who do not understand you? Are you willing to forfeit your happiness and well-being to them, knowing they will never give you their blessing?
At some point you have to come to see it this way. People-pleasers like me have a hard time accepting this. But until you come to realize that it’s no use begging for something you’ll never get, you’ll always be unhappy, wasting days or weeks of your life chasing a chimera. But how does one do this? It comes easily enough for those who are naturally oblivious to other people’s opinions, and when we’re not talking about close friends or relatives then it’s no big deal. But what if you’re not so naturally impervious, and what if the “godly rejection” you’re facing comes from the very people who are supposed to love you most? What can you do?
Steeling Yourself against Godly Rejection
Personally, this is a great weakness of mine because I struggle with a compulsion to take ownership of other people’s feelings. I give others far too much power over me, and I find that certain people cannot resist using that leverage to try to manipulate people like me, coercing us to conform to the expectations of their in-group. Some are overt and straightforward in their use of coercion. But most people I know are more sophisticated than that, and they are too self-aware to be so blunt and obvious, although not self-aware enough to recognize that they are still trying to coerce. Sophisticated people use passive-aggressive means of coercion. That way they can get what they want without having to deal with the guilt that comes from knowing they bullied someone else into doing what they wanted. Extra points if you can be so subtle and skillful at justifying your actions that you even fool yourself.
Because I’m still learning how to play these games at the adult level, I had to turn to my friends to ask them how they deal with these things. They wrote in some pretty great advice and I’d like to share it with you. Their words of wisdom and experience seem to fall into three broad categories: building a new support system, establishing and maintaining firm boundaries, and adopting new perspectives on the troubled relationships.
BUILDING A NEW SUPPORT NETWORK
1) When your old community pushes you out (whether overtly or more subtly so as to remain above the guilt of it) you should begin to search for like-minded people who can identify with who you are today. You’ve probably already begun that at least in some small way. Learn to lean on them for support and encouragement if your old family/community cannot offer you that anymore. Build a new family, so to speak, when your old one fails you.
And incidentally, stop making excuses for your old one. If they cannot accept you for who you are today and insist that you revert back to who they want you to be, they have become unable to function as a support network for you. A community that only supports you as long as you do what they want is not a support network, it is just a system of control.
2) Learn to recognize the mature/well-balanced among your new community and learn from their example. Find the role models and take advantage of their wisdom and experience. In time the approval of those you’ve come to admire will make you no longer miss the approval that your old community/family can no longer supply.
ESTABLISHING AND MAINTAINING FIRM BOUNDARIES
3) It shouldn’t take long to figure out which topics lead to conflict, anger, and tears. Once those are identified and it’s clear that you cannot discuss those topics without people losing their tempers, stop talking about those things. No ifs, ands, or buts. Like Newhart said, “Just stop it!” Once you’ve identified trigger topics, if you desire to maintain a good relationship with these people you will have to agree to leave those topics alone. They don’t go anywhere positive. They only produce strife. So leave them alone.
4) Sometimes the only way to keep people from trying to manipulate, guilt, or coerce you is to put real distance between you. Get some space. Even geographical distance may be necessary. You may have to disconnect from the sources of manipulation on social media. Get a new phone number. Whatever it takes. You must take charge of creating that distance and you will be in control of when communication is restored. You get to set the parameters. If they cannot live with that, tough luck! You’re in charge now. It must be that way. They have proven that they cannot have that power without using it to try to control you. So take it out of their hands. Move across the country if you must. Whatever it takes to be free to be who you are without their interference.
This requires learning to recognize when people are being manipulative and controlling, and that’s a challenge because the truly skilled can do it without anyone realizing what they’re doing. But you must learn to recognize when it is happening. You probably already have to some degree because you can feel it in your gut; you’ve just never given yourself permission to act on it. Well now you need to decide to change that. No one else will do it; it will have to be you. And maybe at this point, the aforementioned feedback and support from your new friends will help you see what needs to be done. There’s a good chance many of them have been through those motions themselves and they know how to recognize the signs. Lean on them for help in making and keeping these boundaries.
ADOPTING A NEW PERSPECTIVE
5) First and foremost, you must learn that you cannot control other people’s reactions to you. You cannot assume ownership for both your actions and theirs, or for your feelings as well as theirs. Their job is to learn to love you as you are; if they cannot, you will have to find that love somewhere else. A friend of mine put this struggle beautifully:
I seem to just turn a switch inside. I have to. If I don’t switch it off, the part of me that cares won’t allow me to let it go. It’s not that I don’t still love them, but I have to shut off a part of my mind to them. It’s as if they are old toys I have outgrown, and have decided to box them up and put the box in the attic. I know they are there, and I still love them, but they are put away for now. I can always get the box back out if I need to.
Part of the process is coming to terms with and realizing that everything they have a problem with is *their* problem. It is entirely theirs to deal with. Not only have I done nothing wrong, but I am not responsible for their unhappiness even though they think I am. Not only is their unhappiness their own, but its origin is an IMAGINARY source, which is inside their heads. That is even more removed from me, and nothing I can do will fix that for them. The only thing I can do is remove myself from the equation, even though that is very sad for me.
They are the only ones creating all this sadness for both of us, but I can lessen the confrontation and the open wounds by distancing myself from them. I have done it before due to my father being the controlling type, but this is different. They clearly blame me. But I can only shake my head and pity them, and put them in a box in the attic of my mind until they are no longer useless broken toys with sharp rusty edges.
6) Try to realize that they’re likely afraid and seeking security themselves, and that’s why they do the things they do. People who manipulate and control others do it because they’re needy. Learn to recognize that neediness so that maybe you can find a way to be gracious to them even as you maintain your boundaries. Sympathize with them, but don’t validate the control tactics they use.
7) Keep pursuing a clearer understanding of what you think about the world, about the subjectivity of the narratives we push on each other, and about how one arrives at a more reliable grasp of reality. The veterans of this process report that in time this gets easier because as you become more well-rounded in your new understanding of the world, some of the emotional sting of your old group’s rejection fades because you see too plainly how wrong they really are. Of course it’s always good to maintain your own sense of how easily you can be wrong about things as well, but in time the outright silliness of superstitions and unfounded religious dogma becomes too apparent to be greatly bothered by their fanatical defenders.
Another way the passage of time can help is that often the mere act of passing through these trials toughens us up. In other words, sometimes the only thing that makes us stronger is passing through the fires of these conflicts so that the next time we come upon them, we are tougher and we can take it.
8) Lastly, there are times when the dysfunctionality of a family or a support structure is so beyond repair that you must learn to view them not as your family but as merely people you know. I know that sounds terrible at first because if we’re talking about family, that’s not how it should be. But in the situation I’m talking about here, those family members aren’t really functioning in their proper roles anyway so you’re not likely losing what you think you’re losing. And if you can remove yourself and your history with them from the equation, viewing these people as simply people you know—evaluating them as objectively as you would any other people—you just might come to view them and their behavior in a more accurate light. Once you remove the emotional charge of their supposed role in your life, you can better see them for who they are and relate to them accordingly. This can make it easier to put up and maintain those boundaries that are so necessary to your own psychological well-being.
Learn to internalize the gist of this little speech. Let it become a template for how you relate to those who feel compelled to manipulate and coerce you into being who they want you to be:
Look, this is who I am. I know you think it’s wrong (You’ve told me. All of you have told me. You don’t have to keep saying it), but it’s probably not going to change. Now, I want a relationship with you. So can you accept me as I am and relate to me as I am? If not, I will find others to fill what’s lacking. You don’t have to be okay with that. You can choose to reject who I am. But if you cannot accept me as I am then it is not me you love, it is some idea of what I should be. I have no use for that. If that is how this is going to be then I will have to go find the love that I need from somewhere else.