When you haven’t been hurt

When you haven’t been hurt November 14, 2012

by Mattie Chatham

Sometimes I wonder how I sound to the rest of the evangelical world, to those who weren’t subjected to fringe patriarchal teachings from grace-forgetting complementarians, those who never fought the fear that comes with legalism from your pulpit, those who don’t have to shake the guilt hangover from their childhood churches or Christian communities. Those from idyllic, happy homes, where brothers and sisters didn’t have to be guilt-tripped into showing compassion, where you were always accepted and loved, no matter what.

I try not to sound angry when I write. I try not to sound bitter. Sometimes I am a firecracker when talking about these things in person, but those emotions shouldn’t really bleed through here, where I seek to analyze, to process, to examine the larger trends which ended up creating or influencing my experience in homeschooling communities, in churches, in my family and others. I don’t tell my story to point fingers or to throw a pity party on the internet. I write because I have found that I’m not alone in my experiences, and we’re all processing very similar things, and it’s easier if we can do that together. If we can talk about it and name the things that hurt us, it becomes smaller and we don’t walk around holding our pain close to our chests, burning us up in silence. I write because I believe wholeness is possible. Because I know that grace is real. Because those in authority over us weren’t malicious and didn’t understand the fallout from their teachings.

But it must look strange and be somewhat perplexing to those who haven’t grown old early as the oldest child in a big family, who didn’t have to question God’s goodness because of a church twisting the scriptures, who love freely because it’s easy and safe. And it must be confusing for you to know how to love us, when we say things like “I need to take a break from reading the Bible” (What! Are you abandoning God?), “I need to take some time off from church to detox” (Is your church bad? Don’t neglect the fellowship of the believers! Christianity can’t be lived out alone!), “I just want to have a good relationship with my parents, but it’s so hard when we disagree on these issues” (Wait, can’t you just agree to disagree? or They’ve hurt you a lot! Just step back from them–it’s a toxic relationship.), etc. And it must be very perplexing when you say any number of these or similar things . . . and we react by clamming up, or tell you long and upsetting stories, or get defensive and angry. It’s exhausting and frustrating for both of us.

So, how can you love someone who is recovering from spiritual abuse? How can you show us Jesus and love and understanding, without making us feel afraid or pressured into an emotional wholeness we don’t yet possess?

Be patient with us. Chances are, this is going to be a long process. It’s likely we could be “recovering” or “deconstructing” or “processing” (whatever word we happen to use for this healing process) for years. We may not ever be whole again. Church will be hard. Family events may also be hard. Don’t get impatient if it takes a long time.

Allow us the freedom to set boundaries. Don’t pressure us into things we aren’t able to do–you never know when you might accidentally “trigger” a flashback or that voice inside our heads that wants to keep us trapped in fear, guilt, or self-loathing. Most of us never knew to say no to things we weren’t comfortable with or weren’t sure we liked. Often we’re trying to build healthy relational boundaries from the ground up, and it’s a huge deal for us to be affirmed in choices that fly in the face of our past fears or guilt-trips. Examples: saying no to over-committing to serving at church or community volunteer stuff; saying no to things we were taught to be guilty about for no good reason (those burned by modesty and courtship teachings, especially); trying out new things that were socially frowned upon (short hair! piercings! tattoos! dancing! normal alcohol consumption! TV shows!); doing drastic relational overhauls to cut out negative or triggering relationships. It may be weird or hard to understand, but it’s a fundamental part of recovery. Read up on codependent relationships to understand some of what we’re reacting against and why boundary setting is so vital.

Listen. Therapy is great and we probably all need it, but we need our friends, too. We need what I like to call “a normal radar”–someone who will listen to us rehash where we’ve been and tell us “no, that’s not normal/healthy” or “yes, most people feel that way! You’re not alone. It’s not wrong.” Sometimes we’ll talk and talk and it won’t make a ton of sense, but just having someone willing to listen and be kind to us is a really healing thing. It tells us we’re not crazy and we’re worth caring about. We need that.

Don’t judge us/correct us/freak out if we’re angry. This goes along with boundary setting. Basically, most of us were in situations where unhealthy boundaries were practiced and we let a lot of people manipulate us. We didn’t know better then, but we’re starting to realize how wrong it was, and it’s normal for us to have a lot of retroactive anger, at ourselves, at the pain we have to work through now as a result, at those who taught us the things that damaged us.

Let us experience healthy familiesIf we’re estranged from our families because of disagreements over the past/our church experiences (a lot of parents feel personally rejected or attacked if their adult kids start making life decisions based on different interpretations of scripture or personal values) and you have a particularly healthy, happy family, include us! But don’t make us a “project,” because we can see through that and it makes us feel patronized. On the other hand, happy families may be too hard for us to interact with, because of the personal contrast. If we want to stay away and create some space, it’s probably because we’re not ready to go there yet.

Buy us books. Recommended books for those coming out of spiritual abuse are:

I’ll take reader recommendations for other books like these in the comments section!

Don’t lecture. Kind questions to make us think things through more deeply will be helpful, but please don’t try to talk us into conforming. Not yet. If we’re in this recovery process, it’s likely we’ve been worn out with well-meant lectures from parents and pastors, and we need some space to figure out what we believe, independent of authorities telling us how to think. As part of the boundary-setting process, we’ll probably end up rethinking what we believe about issues like homosexuality/gay marriage, abortion/pro-life movement, inerrancy of scripture, etc. We have to learn to believe things for ourselves. Give us the grace to ask hard questions, to doubt God and faith, to investigate the terms of our moral compass, to change our minds.

Go with us to visit other churches. We may want to visit different types of churches, but we’ll probably be too self-conscious to go alone. Offer to be a church-shopping buddy, and be the best friend who gives us a call to rescue us from a date gone bad–be confident and help us leave if the service is upsetting.

Watch your lingo. Christians often have some form of dialect, riddled with clichés and catch-phrases from our church culture. We say “blessed” and “hedge of protection” and “joy” and “thankful” and other similar things, and it’s pretty normal inside of Christian groups, but it sounds weird to the rest of the world. When we’re recovering from spiritual abuse, these phrases can carry emotional connections to bad experiences, guilt trips, or just a suffocating environment. Say that you’re happy, not joyful. Wish them good luck instead of blessings. Tell them you’re glad, not thankful. All those things may be true, but you’re not really compromising anything by making your language slightly more neutral. And you’re probably going to become aware (in a healthy way) of ways you’ve become lazy in your speech and relied on clichés rather than descriptive phrases.

Distract us. Sometimes we’ll get so wrapped up in sorting through memories and experiences that we’ll forget how to relax and have fun. Help us loosen up and find balance, not allowing the past to dominate our emotions today.

Encourage us to write. For some of us, journaling and writing can help us get things out and think things through. It can be very cathartic.

Readers! What else has helped you? What do you wish your “normal” friends understood about this process and how to relate to you?

Comments open below

Mattie Chapman blogs at The Nest Egg. She is a recovering daughter of Christian Patriarchy who grew up in the country but now resides near our nation’s capital with her husband Kevin.

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


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  • Mattie, thanks for writing this. I was nodding my head to all of it. I would also add in what you mentioned in passing: encourage professional counseling.

    I am a former longtime SGM member, a home schooling mom of 10. I wrote about recovery here: http://watchtheshepherd.blogspot.com/2012/05/recovering-still.html


  • P.S. I recently wrote about domestic violence as well: http://watchtheshepherd.blogspot.com/2012/10/we-cant-ignore-domestic-violence.html

    Many of the links I include give ideas for how friends and family can offer appropriate support.

    I was really touched yesterday when I was in Goodwill to see a lady gently helping a friend (who seemed to have trouble walking and speaking) pick out and pay for some clothes. The clerk told me a few minutes later that the friend had been beaten so badly by her boyfriend that she had a stroke, and was just now regaining her abilities. I want to be like her sweet friend, coming alongside.

  • texcee

    Good article. Although I was raised Southern Baptist (before they slipped so far right as to be evangelical) and not the fundamentalist sects that we called “holy rollers” when I was growing up, there was still a stiff degree of patriarchalism and legalism in my home church. My parents were extremely religious and I was expected to be Perfect, in other words “Christ-like”. If I acted like *gasp* a normal kid, I was punished, guilt-tripped, and harangued for my many failures. I was made to feel ashamed. Perhaps if I’d become a nun-like foreign missionary, I might have come close to pleasing my mother, but instead I fought her for my independence my entire life, while simultaneously seeking her non-existent approval. Any wonder I’ve dealt with severe depression to the verge of suicide (twice) and went through a couple of years of therapy? It never, ever occurred to me that *I* wasn’t the one in this scenario who was wacky. It took my therapist to make me see a glimmer of the truth. One day while I was sitting on his couch describing how my parents’ form of discipline frequently involved a belt, I shrugged and said, “well, I suppose everyone of that generation was raised that way” because everyone I knew had been “spanked”. I looked up to see my doctor shaking his head, his eyes open wide. “No, they weren’t! Most people WEREN’T raised that way!” Good God, I had treated my daughter the same way when she was little! I was passing the abuse along! I NEVER treated her that way again and I apologized to her for doing so. It was about that same time that I began to take real notice of what was being preached at church and my church going days were over, too.

  • madame

    Very good article, Mattie.
    I left church 4 years ago with no intention to go back until I feel the desire coming from within. I haven’t read the Bible for years, either.
    Sometimes I fear for my children and feel very guilty that we don’t go to church, but at the same time, I want them to find faith in a more real and logical way, rather than through doctrine, rules and regulations. I don’t want to teach them the confusing messages I learned growing up, and I don’t want them to be afraid of God. Thank goodness my husband also stepped out of church a year later to work on his own issues. We were heading down a very destructive path.

    I would add to your list: Encourage us to be real with our children, not feeling guilty for the lack of “church” in our lives, or for our need to stay away from church if our children and spouse are still attending.

    It’s hard to talk about the whole thing with some of my family members, and it’s pretty much impossible to do so with most of my extended family, but there are a few that know and understand that church, Bible, God and complementarianism don’t bring me the comfort and security it does to them.