Emotional Control: Mandatory Happiness Makes Me Sad

Emotional Control: Mandatory Happiness Makes Me Sad December 13, 2012

by Sierra

I recently joined Pinterest. I resisted for a little while, like I always do, but eventually decided that it would be a convenient way to store ideas for home decorating (I just moved house) and wedding planning (for next fall). The result was my sudden immersion into Pinterest “culture.” You see, there are a lot of evangelical-fundamentalist Christians on Pinterest. It’s yet another venue where they share child-rearing advice and inspirational messages made into art projects for the home. Fundamentalist mothers are often very crafty; it’s part of a whole constellation of lifestyle choices that marry frugality and efficiency to beauty and creativity.

So, inevitably, I recognize a lot of it.

Wall plaque reading “Always tell the truth. Use kind words. Keep your promises. Giggle and laugh. Stay happy and be positive. Love one another. Always be grateful. Forgiveness is mandatory. Give thanks for everything. Try new things. Say please and thank you. Smile.”

Plaques or photo frames that say “Smile,” “love,” “joy,” and especially the ones that play on the idea of house rules (“in this house we love one another”) mean something totally different to me than the words they contain.

Is there anything wrong with being positive? With remembering to use kind words and keep your promises? Is there anything wrong with staying happy and being grateful? No, of course not.

It’s the imperative that’s the problem.

My fellow bloggers have commented on emotional control extensively. As fundamentalist Christians, we were raised to be constantly on the hunt for the fruits of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, etc.). Not manifesting those traits visibly did not just mean you were having a bad day or weren’t feeling well or were having a spell of depression. It meant there was something deeply wrong with you in a spiritual sense. If you really had the Holy Spirit, you would never be anxious; you’d have peace that passes understanding. You would never be lonely or sad or fearful; you would have joy unspeakable and full of glory. You would always have a “sound mind.”

I was an extremely depressed teenager. This was not okay.

I often found myself walking blindly into chastisement because of the look on my face. What was the look? I have no idea. I was usually too surprised by the sudden reprimand to remember what I had been thinking about.

People assumed I was angry, or sulking, or thinking rebellious thoughts when I was totally minding my own business. If I wasn’t happy, they took it personally: was I resenting the authorities in my life? Feeling sorry for myself? (My pastor loved to pick on “pity parties.”) Was I letting the devil put thoughts of discontent in my head? Was I forgetting the great privilege I had to know the Truth at such a young age? Probably all of the above, right?

“You have a bad attitude” was the expression I most dreaded. How did they know what my attitude was? I hadn’t even spoken to them! But the mere absence of a smile and a slight sluggishness of movement was enough to condemn me to the heap of prayer requests for poor, struggling teens who obviously weren’t yet “sealed” with the Holy Ghost.

It’s really difficult to sort out your own actual spiritual condition when everyone around you decides what it is based on your face. I remember a lot of interventions and reproachful remarks over my “problem” and how I ought to pray harder to chase away the demons and leave my soul light and wide open for the Holy Spirit.

All I really wanted was an hour by myself to think.

So when I see plaques like the one above on Pinterest, what comes to mind is the chastisement. The imperative. “Change your attitude.” “Smile.” “Be grateful.” Don’t you dare be upset, hurt, angry, impatient, anxious or – god forbid – depressed.

What I see isn’t a gentle encouragement to count my blessings, to remember the things that make me happy. What I see is emotional control. Be happy or else. Be grateful or else. And that “else” was never ambiguous. I must live in a perpetual state of joy and peace or I’m probably missing the Rapture. Smile. Or get burned up with all the drug-dealing Muslim Democrat lawyers who kill white Christian babies while watching Satanic porn. Right?

I’m decorating my house without any “inspirational” words. Instead, I choose pictures that remind me of things I love. Forests. Maps. Animals. Words are too easily turned from expressions of kindness to demands for gratitude. They too easily become coercive. When I have children, I want our home to be the place where we can be real people. Life demands we put on enough faces as it is: work, school, sports, performance, meeting new people. Home is the place where you can go to your room and be sad for a little while. It’s the place where you can tell someone how frustrated or nervous you are and have them understand. Home ought to be the place where you scrub off your latest public persona and restore your energy, your passion, your positive feelings.

Home shouldn’t be a place where you have to perform.

Comments open below

Read everything by Sierra!

Sierra is a PhD student living in the Midwest. She was raised in a “Message of the Hour” congregation that followed the ministry of William Branham. She left the Message in 2006 and is the author of the blog  the phoenix and the olive branch

The Spiritual Abuse Survivor Blogs Network

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  • madame

    “Home ought to be the place where you scrub off your latest public persona and restore your energy, your passion, your positive feelings.

    Home shouldn’t be a place where you have to perform.”


  • Sara A.

    That attitude has permeated our culture overall; one manifestation of it is discussed in Barbara Ehrenreich’s book “Brightsided.”

    As a Pagan, I often find myself saying to people (including other Pagans, who were mostly raised in other religions), “my religion does not view forgiveness as an automatic virtue.” Much less “mandatory.”

    There is virtue to forgiveness, but it’s secondary. The primary value of it is social, that people don’t muck up their ability to work and live with others because of festering resentment. But you know what else destroys the social fabric? Abuse, and putting up with it. Thank you for illuminating that emotional control is really a form of emotional abuse, and helping me put my finger on why it is I really don’t like those “inspirational” messages.

  • Meggie

    Sierra, your descriptions of your teenage years often make me cry but I am so grateful to you for sharing them. You have made me very aware of the environment I create for my own children. I want home to be a place where you always feel loved but also, a place where you always feel comfortable to be who you are, be that sad, angry or happy.

  • texcee

    The so-called negative emotions are entirely legitimate and necessary for a good balance of mental health. For the pendulum to swing too far either way and stick there is mental illness. There needs to be a yin/yang in our lives and, unfortunately, Christianity is a seriously out of balance religion.

  • Nancy B

    The Duggars’s JOY mantra (Jesus First, Others Seconds, You last) is exactly the same as the FLDS’s rule that females,”Keep Sweet.”

    If, after all, human expressions of anger, sadness, hopelessness or rebellion creep in, then the entire structure collapses. But usually fundie religions keep the females so busy from dusk to dawn that the only negative feeling that blips on their radar is exhaustion.

    The boys may even have it harder. Not forced into constant domestic chores and childcare, they have to wrestle with the natural aggression of adolescence, and of course lust, which is another hallmark of growing up. But seen not as natural and human but an enemy attack.

    So you have young people who never knew their feelings, never got to question an iota of the beliefs and rules heaped upon their heads, never had the luxury of free time (weeks, months, years in college) away from home to truly ask the questions Rilke said we should love.

    Just in time to get married, to quickly reproduce.

    No time to ask questions anymore. Just pass the pattern for that toaster cozy and that toilet paper holder made of pom poms and sequins.

  • madame

    ” they have to wrestle with the natural aggression of adolescence, and of course lust, which is another hallmark of growing up. But seen not as natural and human but an enemy attack.”
    So true, and not only for the boys! Even girls growing up in those circles struggle with “lust issues” and sexual desire. The pressure to be “chaste” and all ladylike, turning down advances that they would oh so happily accept, is depressing.

  • texcee

    I grew up with an emotionally abusive mother who herself grew up in an emotionally and physically abusive home. A good deal of the abuse heaped on me was religious in nature. For all of my 59 years (that is, from my earliest memories to my mother’s dying day), she never ceased to let me know that I was imperfect, sinful, a disappointment to her, lazy, shameful, guilty, unlovable, and inferior to my brother The Golden Religious Child. It destroyed our mother-daughter relationship and in the final decade or so of her life, I burned with repressed anger and resentment toward her, only doing my “duty” as her daughter because I would not be accused of abandoning or neglecting her. Forgiveness of her treatment of me? I haven’t reached that point yet, although I have reached some understanding of WHY she treated me as she did (her own abusive background, neuroses, anxiety disorder, and narcissicism). She used to inform me smugly, “You’ll miss me when I’m gone”, to which I would mentally answer, “Not as much as you think I will.”

  • Tori

    My mother was incredibly controlling, steering me towards certain ways of dressing and acting that just didn’t fit with who I am. I still love her, but I don’t love what she believes in.