Recovering from Religious Repression - The Journey to Freedom
Author: Nanice Ellis
Freedom is a very strong value for most people, but freedom can be misleading in many ways
Freedom is a very strong value for most people, but freedom can be misleading in many ways. You may appear to be free on the outside (especially if you “come and go” as you please), but if you are repressed by any type of controlling organization, no matter how well-meaning, you may be living in a virtual prison with invisible bars.
Although this article is written for anyone experiencing religious repression, it is not intended to point fingers or judge spiritual beliefs. Rather, the intention is to identify the serious repercussions of repression, while also enlightening a path to freedom. The first step is recognizing the dynamics of organizational repression and how it seamlessly operates through a system of disempowerment.
No doubt, many religious organizations use various forms of repression in order to control church members so that they obey religious doctrine, but the irony is that repression does not stop people from indulging in “sinful behavior” and, in fact, it often results in the exact opposite. Statistics and direct experience clearly demonstrate that the more rules and consequences a society has, the more “illicit behavior” develops. Although this applies to any religion where repression is pervasive, and we are not just talking about any one religion, the statistics found in Utah, USA exemplify the cost of religious repression.
Although Utah is one of the most beautiful places on Earth, it is actually most known for its’ predominate religious culture. On the surface, there is a strong emphasis on family values, morals and ethics – most people are kind and appear relatively happy, but if you look at statistics, you quickly discover that appearances are drastically deceiving, and, in fact, countless “white picket fences” cloak dysfunctional dynamics that top the national average.
Even though over 60% of Utah's residents are LDS (members of the Mormon Church) and Mormonism forbids the use of drugs, including alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and even tea, Utah has one of the highest rates of prescription drug addiction in the USA, as well as related deaths caused by opiate overdose.
The church strongly emphasizes family values and yet Utah’s domestic violence homicide rate is 13 percent higher than the rest of the nation with domestic violence homicides accounting for 47 percent of all homicides in Utah in 2015, while Utah’s child abuse statistics are also among the highest in the country, and, in fact, statistics show that more children are sexually abused in Utah than any other US state.
Taking all this into consideration, it is not surprising that a study by Mental Health America ranked Utah the most depressed state, which explains why Utah has the highest anti-depressant use in the USA. Sadly, a devastating symptom of Utah’s excessively high prevalence of depression has resulted in the youth suicide rate tripling since 2007.
And, if all that is still not enough, with similarly high statistics on rape and sexual assault, Google search-trends have ranked Utah the #1 porn capital of America, which is quite astounding when you consider that the religion condemns any sexual conduct outside marital relations, including pornography and even masturbation.
Although there may be ways to rationalize these statistics, they inevitably point to a serious issue that demonstrates the repercussions of repression. Many other studies conclude that the fall-out of repression commonly results in some form of escape that inevitably leads to an underworld of shame and secrecy, involving drugs, sex or other addictions, and often manifests as anxiety disorders, depression and suicide.
The first step in recovering from religious repression is recognizing the dynamics of repression, but remember, we are not singling out any one religion - we are talking about virtually all religions.
Repression virtually always operates through a system of fear that relies on self-judgment to be self-regulating; this means that when a church teaches its parishioners to judge themselves according to the doctrine, self-judgment and the fear of consequences are intended to prevent “ungodly behavior.” However, this ultimately backfires because it is human nature to be attracted to behaviors we are not allowed to do, and, therefore, the behaviors we are taught to judge become compelling, and, consequently, one of two things occur: 1) We suppress our desire but suppression often results in psychological disorders such as anxiety and depression. 2) We act on our desire in secrecy, but the shame and secrecy of indulging in forbidden behaviors often leads to addiction of the behavior or other types of dysfunctions. When it comes to repression, every road leads to, and from, disempowerment, and when people feel powerless, their behaviors become dysfunctional.
Many religions began with pure intentions but whenever there is a hierarchy of power and the potential for monetary gain, the religion inevitably becomes a business and the church may even become a corporation, and, although local church leaders may have high spiritual ethics, they don’t realize that they work for a business and many of the rules and bylaws are intended to perpetuate profits. Just as retail stores need buyers, all religions need believers, and this means that it is necessary to ascertain parishioners who blindly follow the faith, and not raise questions that could threaten the (financial) integrity of the organization, and, therefore, repression is a necessary component.
Most local church leaders are completely unaware of the consequences that inevitably spring forth from religious repression, and because they have no idea that repression leads to the behaviors it is meant to inhibit, they unknowingly perpetuate the very “sins” they condone.
When religious rules undermine the values they are meant to preserve, those rules are self-sabotaging and obsolete.
The dynamics of repression are meant to be invisible from within the organization, but when you observe from outside, the formula for repression is easy to identify.
When a church is built on the premise that people are spiritually powerless without the religion, and they must depend on the religion’s leaders, and/or following religious doctrine in order to have a relationship with God, it sets the stage for repression.
If you were born into a religion or any structured organization, you probably had no awareness of transferring your power to this entity, simply because you modeled your parents and other abiding members, and more than likely, you had no idea that you even had any power to give in the first place.
Nonetheless, any time we believe something has more power than us, power over us or the power to provide something we think we need, we instinctually relinquish power – inadvertently giving our intrinsic power to that external source, and once we give it away, they can use it to control us any way they desire, and in most cases, powerlessness makes us blind to the very dynamic that causes it.
However, an external entity can never repress or imprison you unless you give it your power, and, in fact, it has no power over you without using your power against you.
Through formal and informal religious teachings, church members are taught strict conditions and rules that must be consistently met in order to be worthy of church membership, family inclusion and good standing in the community. Acceptance and approval are the rewards for obedience, but in order to meet the rules, and live up to the conditions, natural authentic expression must be repressed, and when expression is repressed, disempowerment results.
Due to unrealistic expectations, it is impossible to meet all the rules and conditions all the time, which results in inevitable failure and consequent shame, but just the thought of disobeying religious doctrine is enough to induce feelings of guilt, impending regret, and fear of rejection, and, in fact, church members are systematically programmed to feel unworthy to such a deep extent that even secret shortcomings induce shame, and this allows religions to control each member internally.
Preying upon the fear of unworthiness is a powerful strategy for repression because there is no greater manipulation than teaching people that their worth is conditioned on following rules, especially when you consider that human beings instinctively fear that unworthiness will lead to “tribal shame” and abandonment, and our primitive instincts associate this with the fear of death.
According to some religions, shame follows us into the next dimension, making us unworthy of eternal salvation or other heavenly rewards, and depending on the religion, if you are deemed unworthy, your punishment for “bad behavior” might be eternal damnation where your loved ones go to a heavenly afterworld while you go somewhere else.
No doubt, the horrific fear of “tribal shame” and eternal punishment perpetuates powerlessness and repression, but even holy promises and impending dread are often not enough without two more steps in the formula.
As parishioners portray an acceptable image and conform to the standards that are dictated by the organization, they play the game according to the rules by fulfilling roles, performing required duties, paying dues or tithing and acting according to expectations, and in order to make sure everyone is complying an invisible system of judgment is in place.
Although usually unspoken, church members are expected to keep each other in line through “mutual judgment,” which means that your church community of friends and family are always watching you (and you are always watching them) and if you break the rules for any reason, someone you know might report you to church officials who deal with you directly through punishment or even rejection from the church, but possibly even worse than excommunication, your “sins” are publicized through community gossip, resulting in “tribal shame” and feelings of worthlessness that can cause deep emotional trauma, and with no support from those closest to you, the repercussions of being judged ultimately manifest - as demonstrated in statistics.
One important thing to keep in mind is that fear of “tribal shame” (being shamed by one’s community) always makes people conceal behaviors that could be judged, and this leads to secrecy.
Virtually all dysfunctional behaviors and dangerous social dynamics are held together by secrecy, and, in fact, the formula for repression creates the space where an underworld of shame and secrecy can grow unnoticed.
If no one is openly talking about their issues and everyone is hiding their real thoughts and feelings because they are afraid of being judged or reported, each individual silently believes that he/she is the only one with any problems or concerns, and believing you are the only one increases the fear of judgment and consequences, thereby perpetuating more secrecy. Even though you might be part of a “tight-knit” religious community, when you have to hide your real self or face intolerable judgment and possible rejection for speaking openly, it is very common to feel all alone in your own confined world and this often results in anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation.
Even though churches pretend to shun secrecy, they really depend on it to keep church members repressed, and, in fact, the Invisible Power of Secrecy is the glue that holds the whole illusion together, and without secrecy large groups of people could not be repressed - only through a system of secrecy and separation can an organization maintain the blind compliance of its followers.
While repression creates a world of secrecy, secrecy perpetuates the cycle of repression.
Recovering from religious repression is a journey from disempowerment to freedom, and it usually takes a fair amount of time, but, in the end, nothing is of greater value.
The journey begins when you choose freedom over repression and you acknowledge that you have the right and ability to reclaim your power, but, you must do it for yourself, and you must be prepared to overcome resistance from those who are invested in your repression, as well as those who are also programmed to be repressed.
As long as your worth is conditioned on meeting unrealistic religious expectations, you will consequently give your power away, so it is essential to begin the process of claiming your worth, and this requires you to release the need for external approval and acceptance. Deep inside, you already know that you are unconditionally worthy, and you do not need approval or acceptance from anyone. Inevitably, this means that you must stop seeking external permission, you must listen to your inner guidance and you must learn to trust yourself. (link to my article on Trust Yourself ?)
Maybe your religion teaches that you must exhibit “perfect behavior” in order to be saved, but salvation cannot be found through perfection because, first of all, you don’t need to be saved by an external source, and second of all, perfection is impossible to attain because it is unrealistic, and no matter how perfect you may try to be, just like quicksand, the perpetual pitfalls of perfection will suck you into shame and secrecy at every turn. So, instead of wasting precious energy by judging imperfect behavior (yours and others), why not save yourself by practicing radical forgiveness? Subsequently, as you generously allow yourself space to breathe without perfection’s punishing hand, you will discover the space for exploration and expression, and as you slowly fill this space, you will align with freedom. link to my article on overcoming perfection?)
Find a counselor, therapist or open minded professional (or friend) who is not connected to the religion in any way. This should be someone who can objectively support you, and if you so choose, help you break free of repression (regardless of whether you stay or leave the religion). Also, consider that group support can ease your journey out of repression. If you cannot locate a local support group, why not create one yourself? You might be surprised who shows up to join you.
Healing the fall-out of repression requires the obliteration of secrecy because when issues are revealed, it becomes impossible for them to perpetuate in the same way. Of course, disclosure alone does not resolve dysfunctional dynamics, but without it, healing and resolution is nearly impossible.
Putting an end to secrecy dissolves the foundation of religious repression, because once parishioners begin to share honestly, the truth is exposed and it is not long before the organization loses power.
Open communication will likely bring hidden issues to a head, and, as a result, things might seem to get worse before they get better, but if you can ride the tide by being true to yourself, the turbulent current will slowly begin to calm down over time, and along with your power, you can reclaim your life.
Communication and information results in empowerment and empowered followers stop following.
As your fear subsides and your confidence grows, consider “planting seeds” that get others asking their own questions. Humanity’s collective consciousness is waking up, so a gentle yet thought-provoking comment or question could be the tipping point, and when you provide seeds of higher consciousness, it silently communicates that you are someone others can open up to, when and if they are ready, and you might actually be surprised where those seeds sprout.
Supporting others on their journey to freedom is a beautiful gift, but remember you are not responsible for anyone’s awakening but your own, and the more you try to save those you love, the more you risk being pulled down to a level where you can’t help anyone.
Along those same lines, it is important to give up the idea that anyone or anything can save you. The way out of repression is through self-empowerment and this means that each person must find and express their own power. If you expect or allow someone to save you, or you try to save someone, you are only trading one form of repression for another, and, therefore, nothing really changes.
In the process of reclaiming your power, it is usually very helpful to understand the hidden truth about the religion that seems to have power over you, so do some independent research. As you investigate, be open minded and look for “holes in the story” – where details don’t match up or history doesn’t make sense. Discovering the truth may rock your whole world but, along with many others on the same path, you will recover, and once free from repression you can build a new foundation on solid ground.
Most religious followers are taught that they need a “middle man” in order to commune with God, and, therefore, if you want to have a spiritual relationship with the Divine, you must depend on those “certified” as go-betweens.
The truth is, you don’t need religion or a religious “middle man” in order to connect with God, and, in fact, no matter what you have been told, a deep connection with the Divine can only come through a direct relationship. So, what would it look like to discover God on your own terms?
This answer is unique for each of us, but one thing is clear – the Divine Connection that most of us seek can only blossom when we stop looking outside ourselves. Only by going within can you cultivate an intimate spiritual relationship with God, and in this sacred space you can finally experience the kind of unconditional love that can heal you from the inside out.
As you begin to remember who you really are, the truth will dissolve the illusion of powerlessness, shame and unworthiness, and you will be free to express your True-Self as you fearlessly live your best possible life!
We are living at a remarkable time of Global Awakening, and, as a result, the restraints of repression are becoming obvious so that we can finally free ourselves.
You are love, you are light and all is well!
In love, grace & gratitude,
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