Mormonism, Alice Miller, and Me
In the past twenty years much has been written about unhealthy family dynamics and their later manifestation in adult dysfunctional behavior. One of the pioneers in this field is Alice Miller. Miller worked for more than twenty years as a Freudian psychoanalyst before eventually abandoning traditional Freudian theory. In The Drama of the Gifted Child,1 she describes what she believes to be the root cause of adult dysfunction and neurosis, and the path to healing from it. In this and subsequent books, she lays out her own healing journey and her discoveries in her work as a psychotherapist.2
Like many others, I have found Miller's work to be of tremendous value in my own healing. In many ways her discoveries describe not only my healing path in relation to my family, but also in my relationship with the church. In this paper I will explore how the family dynamics Miller writes about may also be applied to relationships with the church. I will begin with an overview of Miller's basic tenets, and then explore some of their applications to my relationship with the church.
Miller's work begins with the premise that all children have a fundamental need to be respected and validated as the people they really are at any given time, and as the center – the central actor – in their own lives. The fulfillment of this need is essential for the development of a healthy sense of self in children. When Miller speaks of children “as they really are at any given time,” she is referring to their “emotions, sensations, and their expressions from the first day onward.” A child’s inner feelings and sensations form the core of the self, the “feeling of self” around which a sense of identity will develop.3
In the first months and years of life children need to be at the center of their parent’s attention, and receive ongoing mirroring and validation from them. If children are lucky enough to grow up with mirroring parents who are able to meet their needs to be validated, understood, and respected as the unique individuals they are, then a healthy sense of self can develop in them.4
Miller defines a healthy sense of self as “the unquestioned certainty that the feelings and wishes one experiences are a part of one’s self.”5 It is based on the authenticity of our own feelings. Spontaneous, natural contact with our own emotions, thoughts, and wishes is what gives us inner strength. It means that we can live out our feelings as they occur. We can allow ourselves to be afraid when threatened, or angry when our needs are not met. We know what we want and don’t want, and are able to express ourselves, regardless of whether or not we will be loved or hated for it.6
Some of the conditions Miller finds in healthy families which enable children to develop a strong sense of self include:
Strivings for autonomy and independence are not experienced as an attack on the parents.
Aggressive impulses do not upset the confidence and self-esteem of the parents, and thus can be effectively neutralized.
There is no need to please anybody, and children are allowed to experience and express whatever is active in them during each stage of their development.
Children are allowed to experience and express strong feelings such as jealousy, anger, and defiance.
Because children are able to express ambivalent feelings, they learn that we all have both “good" and "bad” within us. They do not need to split off and repress the “bad” from the “good,” either in themselves or others.
Children can use their parents in child-appropriate ways, because their parents are independent of them.
Because parents love their children as individuals separate from themselves, children’s ability to experience healthy love is made possible.7
When these conditions are present children are able, during the stage of separation, to give up their symbiosis with their parents and accomplish the steps of individuation and autonomy.8
In order to provide this kind of healthy emotional environment, parents themselves need to have grown up in such an environment. If they did not, they need to have worked through the resolution of their own resulting unmet needs before they will be fully able to meet their children’s needs. Parents who have not become aware of and worked through their own unresolved needs remain emotionally deprived themselves. Throughout their lives they will seek, consciously or unconsciously, for what their own parents could not give them at the appropriate time. This search can never fully succeed, because it belongs to a time that has long since passed, when the self was first being formed. Nevertheless, adults with these unsatisfied and often unconscious needs will be repeatedly compelled to attempt their gratification through substitute means.9
What happens when parents are unable, because they still have unmet needs of their own, to meet their children's emotional needs? It would be natural for children to feel anger and hurt when their legitimate needs are not met. But young children are completely dependent on their parents. Their parents’ love and care is essential for their existence, and they will do everything they can to avoid losing it. So before they are old enough to understand what they are doing, some children adapt to their parents’ failure to need their needs by suppressing these needs, along with their anger and hurt.10 Miller refers to this suppression of parts of the child's true self as a partial “killing off” of what is spontaneous and alive in the child. Some of her clients report dreams in which they experience themselves as partially dead:
I see a green meadow, in which there is a white coffin. I am afraid that my mother is in it, but I open the lid and, luckily, it is not my mother but me.
I am lying on my bed. I am dead. My parents are talking and looking at me, but they don’t realize that I am dead.11
Miller believes that if these people had been able as children to experience and express all of their feelings, including their anger, disappointment, fear, and pain, they could have stayed fully alive. But that would have led to the loss of their parents’ love. So they “killed” (repressed) their anger and hurt, and with it a part of themselves, in order to preserve their parents’ love and care.12
Miller describes several kinds of defense mechanisms and illusions children may develop in order to allow the continued repression of their true feelings and needs. These may include denial (“I‘m not afraid of that.” Or, “That doesn’t hurt me.”), intellectualization, projection of their repressed feelings onto others, and idealization. All of these defenses enable children to suppress the conscious experience of their real situation and the emotions belonging to it, which may only come to the surface years later. It is surprising to see how much of the reality of their early lives can sometimes remain hidden from a child's conscious awareness. This is because of their strong tendency for idealization, and because all children need to believe that they were truly loved by their parents.13
When children repeatedly repress their feelings and needs, eventually it becomes difficult or even impossible for them to consciously experience certain feelings, either in childhood or later in adulthood. This continued repression results in the development of a “false self.” Children learn to reveal only what is expected or desired of them, and they fuse so completely with what they reveal that it becomes the whole of their conscious identity. They are not able to fully develop their true selves, because they are unable to live it. This is not necessarily an obstacle to their intellectual development, but it is an obstacle to the unfolding of their authentic emotional life, and a serious obstacle to later adult relationships. Over time, children may be able to completely adapt to the demands of their situation and develop a false self that seems to serve them well. But their unhealthy adaptation in childhood contains the seeds of their later adult dysfunctions.14
While this process of suppression and denial is taking place, children are also internalizing their early experiences with their parents. This internalization results in the creation of our own “inner parents” – a presence that is incorporated into our psyches from an early age onward. When we have internalized our parents in this way, we no longer experience their influence as coming from outside of ourselves. We experience it as a part of ourselves – as the way we automatically think and feel – often without consciously seeing the connection to our parents’ treatment of us. One of Miller's clients relates the following:
The day before yesterday I was so happy, my work went easily. I was able to do more work for the exam than I had planned for the whole week. Then I thought I must take advantage of this good mood and do another chapter in the evening. I worked all evening without any enthusiasm and the next day I couldn't do any more. ...nothing stayed in my head. I didn't want to see anyone either, it felt like the depressions I used to have. Then I "turned the pages back" and found where it had begun. I had spoiled my pleasure as soon as I made myself do more – but why? Then I remembered how my mother used to say: "You have done that beautifully, now you could surely do this too..."15
If we fail to become aware of the source of these kinds of unconscious, automatic responses, throughout our lives we may continue to conceal parts of our true selves from our inner parents, in order to maintain our childhood illusions and defenses. In this way, portions of our true feelings and needs may remain beyond our own conscious awareness, and the loneliness we experienced while growing up will eventually be replaced by isolation within ourselves.16
When this process of unhealthy adaptation has taken place in childhood, it leads to dysfunction of one kind or another in our adult lives and relationships. Some of the problems Miller repeatedly found in the lives of clients with unresolved childhood needs and feelings include depression and grandiosity, a compulsion to repeat, harmful parenting practices, and excessive emotional dependence on others.
Adults who learned to repress their feelings in childhood, and who continue to unconsciously censor their own feelings, do not allow themselves to be overtaken by unexpected or unwanted emotions. Depression and feelings of inner emptiness and loneliness are the price they pay for this kind of emotional control. Miller views depression as a sign of the loss of the self, or alienation from the self, that results from the denial of one’s true feelings and needs. This denial begins as a necessary adaptation during childhood.17
The other side of depression is grandiosity. Grandiosity may develop when children are required to maintain their family's image through their achievements, and are “loved” and accepted only to the extent that they are able to fulfill this demand with their good behavior, abilities, talents, beauty, etc. If they fail to uphold the family image, they are punished by being treated coldly or otherwise excluded from their parent’s affections.18
When these children become adults, they may seek insatiably for admiration, using other people to get the mirroring they never received from their parents. Others exist to admire them, and they are dependent on this admiration. Unfortunately, they can never get enough of it to really satisfy their needs, because admiration is not the same thing as love. As long as it is their achievements that are being admired, they are not being loved for the people they really are. All of the admiration they receive only provides substitute gratification of their early needs for acceptance and validation – needs that have been repressed and therefore remain unconscious. And, "like every substitute, it can bring only [temporary] satiation. In fact, true satiation is no longer possible, since the right time for that now lies irrevocably in the past."19 None of our substitutes can fill our old voids. Only the conscious acceptance of and mourning for what we missed at the crucial time can lead to real healing.20
Grandiose people often recount their earliest memories without any sympathy for the children they once were. They may demonstrate the ability to empathize with others, but when it comes to their own childhood experiences, they lack any real emotional understanding or appreciation for the difficulties they experienced, and have no awareness of their true needs, beyond the need for achievement.21
People who are grandiose are generally admired and successful. They feel confident in their abilities and achievements, and will not attempt any new endeavor unless they are confident they can succeed at it. But behind all this there lurks a feeling of emptiness and self-alienation. Depression may come to the surface as soon as the drug of grandiosity fails, as soon as they are not the most successful or admired person in their group, or whenever they get the feeling that they have failed to measure up to the ideal image they hold for themselves. We are only free from this kind of depression when our sense of self is based on the authenticity of our own feelings, and not on the possession of certain talents or achievements.22
Grandiose people may use their achievements to look down on others, believing that, “Without certain qualities (which, luckily, I have), a person is not worth loving. Without these ability, I would not be loved. But because I have them, I am worth loving.” Thus their superiority allows them to maintain the childhood illusion that they were truly loved. Also, contempt or ridicule for those whom we perceive to be weaker than us is the best defense against the breakthrough of our own unwanted feelings of weakness and vulnerability.23
Grandiose people generally seek help only when a depressive episode forces them to do so. As long as the grandiose defense works, they experience no conscious suffering that would lead them to seek help. But they are never really free, because their sense of self is dependent on validation from outside of themselves, and on qualities and achievements that can fail.24
In addition to depression and grandiosity, unhealthy childhood adaptation can also lead to what Miller calls a “compulsion to repeat” in adulthood. The compulsion to repeat is the tendency in adulthood to unconsciously create new situations in which our unremembered childhood dramas are emotionally replayed, in an attempt to find in adulthood what we needed but failed to receive in our childhood.25 For example, if we felt abandoned (either emotionally or physically) in childhood, but repressed the feelings associated with that experience, as adults we may repeatedly be drawn to relationships in which we are abandoned, or fear being abandoned. We may be drawn to partners who are rejecting or emotionally unavailable (as our parents were), and then try desperately to make them love and value us, tailoring our behavior and personality to match their desires. In such relationships we may feel deep fear, to the point of panic, at the possibility of losing the other person. We may feel a desperate need to keep them in our lives no matter what the cost, even if they treat us badly. All of this is because our repressed early experience of abandonment has been triggered, and we are reacting not just to the current person in the present situation, but also to our early experiences and our repressed fear and pain regarding them.26 The compulsion to repeat may be played out in a variety of personal or professional settings in our adult lives, whenever the emotional dynamics of our early experiences are recreated and replayed.
In her practice Miller also encountered adults who continued to reenact their childhood dramas in their relationships with their own children. When parents still have unmet needs from their own childhood, unconsciously, and despite their best intentions, they may use their children to meet these needs. They experience their child not as the center of his or her own activity, but as a part of themselves. If their children do not behave as they wish or need them to, they are deeply hurt and disappointed. Loss of control over their children may lead to uncontrolled anger. These parents may attempt to take from their children (or train their children to give them) the things they never received from their own parents – including respect, devotion, and the presence of someone who always takes them seriously. This can all be done under the conscious rationale of simply training children to be respectful, dutiful, and proper, which is “for their own good” (as Miller later titled another book.).27
This does not happen because parents are bad, but because they themselves remain emotionally deprived, and are still dependent on a specific echo from their child in order to maintain their own emotional equilibrium. They themselves, though quite unconsciously, are still in search of a mirror for their own validation and worth. Their child serves this purpose, because a child is at its parents’ disposal. A child will not run away or abandon its parents (as the parents own parents may have done). Parents can impose their feelings on their children, and see themselves mirrored in their children’s love and admiration. They can feel strong and powerful in their children’s presence, which they did not feel themselves when they were children. When parents have had to suppress all of these needs in relation to their own parents, their needs will continue to live in them on an unconscious level, and will seek gratification through whatever sources are available, including their own children. This can happen regardless of how educated and well-intentioned the parents may be.28
Miller is careful to point out that this does not rule out strong parental love and devotion. On the contrary, such parents often love their children intensely, because their children meet their repressed needs. But this is not the way children need to be loved. Children need parents who are not emotionally dependent on them, and they need a supportive environment in which they can experience and express all of their own feelings. In healthy families, children can be sad or happy or angry whenever anything makes them sad or happy or angry. They don't have to look cheerful for someone else, or suppress their feelings in order to meet their parents’ needs. They can be angry at their parents without losing their love.29
Parents may have the best of intentions to provide a nurturing environment for their children, and yet be unable to do so. They cannot be aware of the ways in which they fail to meet their children's needs, or how this lack affects their children, if they have never allowed themselves to consciously experience their own unmet needs. They will remain unable to realize the full effect of their behavior on their children, because they themselves have never been able to consciously experience their own pain at having been treated in similar ways. This mistreatment may take various forms, ranging from emotional or physical neglect to emotional, verbal, or physical abuse.30
Unhealthy adaptation in childhood also manifests itself in adult relationships as excessive emotional dependence on others. This dependency is the result of what Miller calls “bond permanence,” or the inability to individuate – to separate psychologically and emotionally from one's parents. Parents who have unresolved emotional needs benefit when their children do not individuate at the appropriate stage of their development, because the parents are able to hold on to what they have found in their child’s “false self” – a source of substitute gratification of their repressed needs. The children, who have been unable to develop their own strong sense of self, remain first consciously and then unconsciously dependent on their parents. They cannot rely on their own feelings, because they have not experienced and learned to understand them through trial and error. They have no sense of their own real needs, and are alienated from their deepest selves.31
When these children reach adolescence, they often rebel by adopting new friends and values in opposition to the wishes of their parents. Because they have not been able to separate emotionally from their parents and are still driven to seek fulfillment of the needs their parents failed to meet, they will conform to their friends, who serve as emotional substitutes for their parents, in much the same way as they previously attempted to conform to their parents. With their friends, as with their parents before, they will do anything to be accepted and loved in the ways they once, as a child, so desperately needed. Even as adults they will remain dependent on parental substitutes – on partners, friends, organizations, or their own children – for affirmation and a sense of self. But searching for substitute gratification of unmet childhood needs in adult relationships ultimately fails, because it is not realistic to seek or expect in adult relationships what can only effectively be given to a child in the context of the parent-child relationship.32
Miller believes that freedom from our early wounds and resulting dysfunctions is not possible without the work of “true, deep, and defenseless mourning” for what we needed but did not receive at the crucial time in our childhood. All of our substitutes can bring only temporary satisfaction of our needs. True satisfaction is no longer possible, because the time for that lies irreversibly in the past. None of our substitutes can permanently fill our emptiness. Only the conscious acceptance of and mourning for what we missed at the crucial time can lead to real healing. Without this mourning, our wounds can only be denied or covered up, or else constantly torn open again and again in our compulsion to repeat.33
Real healing cannot happen with words, but only through experience. What is unconscious cannot be abolished with logic, admonitions, or rules. But we can develop a conscious awareness of it and experience it, and in this way gain control over it. If real healing is to occur, at some point our repressed feelings and needs must emerge. When they do, they are often accompanied by deep pain and despair. As children we may not have been able to survive this intense emotional and psychological pain, because this would have only been possible in an empathetic, emotionally supportive environment, which is exactly what we lacked. But as adults we have the psychological resources necessary to experience strong emotions and allow them to run their course, thereby neutralizing them.34
We can discover clues to repressed childhood feelings by becoming aware of those situations in which we overreact, are hypersensitive, or experience other reactions that are unwarranted by the present situation. This is a strong indicator that something in our present situation has triggered a repressed early experience or feeling, and we are reacting not just to the present situation, but to our early experience and the feelings associated with it. The more unrealistic our feelings are given the present reality, the more likely it is that they stem from repressed childhood experiences. To make these discoveries we must pay attention to our present feelings and take them seriously. If we deny or reason away our feelings, important self-discoveries cannot take place.35
The process of allowing repressed feelings to surface and run their course may continue for some time. We will find ourselves working through the issues of our childhood as they surface in our relationships with friends, family members, co-workers, and others. Once we have learned through experience that the breakthrough of painful feelings will not destroy us, and that these feelings eventually pass, we will approach “undesired” feelings differently. We will no longer be compelled to follow the same unhealthy pattern of detachment from our feelings followed by depression, because we now have a new possibility – that of dealing with our emotional life – experiencing all of our feelings as they occur. In this way we gain access to those parts of ourselves that have previously been hidden from us. It is only after the self becomes liberated from repression that it begins to grow, express itself, and develop its true spirit and creativity.36
It is one of the turning points in healing when we are able to experience the reality that much of the love we have struggled so hard to gain with so much self-denial was not intended for us as we really were, but rather for our false selves. When we realize how much of ourselves we have sacrificed in order to gain this love, we will feel a desire to end the courtship. We will discover in ourselves a new authority – a need to live according to our true selves. And we will no longer strive to earn a love that, “at root, still leaves us empty-handed, since it is given to our false self, which we have begun to relinquish.”37
When we have faced the reality of our childhood, we will see that all our lives we have struggled to ward off something that has already happened. “[Our] loss...has already happened in the past, and no effort whatsoever can ever change this fact.”38 When we are able to accept this reality, we will no longer be driven to create illusions and dysfunctions in order to avoid it. Unhealthy behaviors that we could not be admonished or shamed into giving up can be surrendered when they are no longer driven by an unconscious need to maintain our illusions and ward off our repressed feelings.39
The dream of finally receiving what we needed from our parents – a dream which many adults both consciously and unconsciously still hope and search for – is unattainable. But the experience of our own truth and the post-childhood understanding of it makes it possible for us to return to the world of feelings at an adult level – without paradise, but with the ability to feel. And with this ability, we can finally develop our own sense of self – the self we were never able to develop in childhood.40
When we have worked through our childhood experiences, we will have regained our sense of being alive. “The true opposite of depression is not gaiety or absence of pain, but vitality: the freedom to experience spontaneous feelings.”41 We cannot have this freedom if our childhood roots are cut off. Living out of our true selves is only possible when we no longer have to fear the intense emotional world of our early childhood. Once we have experienced this world, it is no longer threatening, and need no longer be repressed and hidden.42
When we have experienced for ourselves how we were manipulated, even unintentionally, in the process of our upbringing, we will be able to see through present manipulations quicker, and will feel less of a need to manipulate others. We will be able to join groups without becoming dependent on them, and will be in less danger of idealizing people or organizations. And we will recognize other’s suffering more easily and will not discount or belittle their feelings, because we no longer deny our own suffering or discount our own feelings.43
In my own life, learning to experience and express repressed feelings and needs has helped me to find my own voice, and this has spilled over into every area of my life, including my religious life. The stronger my own voice has become, the clearer my experiences and feelings about Mormonism have become. I have come to see many ways in which the dynamics Miller describes also apply to my experience of the church. I realize there are as many different experiences of Mormonism as there are Mormons, and I can only speak with complete authority to my own experiences.
I grew up in a very active Mormon family. The church permeated every aspect of my world. As a young child I took to heart everything I learned in church, and built my understanding and experience of reality around it. I knew that I was a child of God, and that before I was born I lived with my Heavenly Father. He sent me to earth to gain a body and to learn to choose between right and wrong. If I chose the right and kept the commandments, one day I would be able to return and live with him forever. Because my parents had been married in the temple, our family could be together forever if we all lived the gospel. And if I kept myself worthy to go to the temple, someday I could get married and have a family of my own to be with forever. This was the lens through which I saw and interpreted everything – myself, my family, and the world.
On the surface there was nothing wrong with these simple doctrines. I saw only goodness and beauty in them the whole time I was growing up. But what I didn't see during all that time were the psychological and emotional forces that came into play in my acceptance and incorporation of these beliefs. For example, Miller describes the mental and emotional lengths children often go to in order to suppress their own needs and feelings when the expression of them might cost them their parents’ love and care. In the Mormon worldview as I understood it in childhood, the psychological risks for children were even greater. For me to have consciously experienced feelings or beliefs that did not agree with what I was taught in the church would have meant not only risking the loss of my parents’ love in this life, but also eternal separation from them (as well as the loss of my chance to ever live with my heavenly parent again).
I don’t recall a specific incident in my childhood in which I was straightforwardly told, “You must think and believe this way, or you will never see your family again after you die.” But it was certainly implied as the only logical conclusion to what I was directly taught – which was that only those families who believe in Mormonism and are sealed in a Mormon temple will be together forever. In some ways the indirect threat that results from this teaching is more difficult to deal with than a straightforward threat would be. When a threat is presented clearly and straightforwardly, it can be seen for what it really is, and dealt with directly. But when the threat is indirect, or only implied as part of what is presented as a beautiful, eternal truth, it can sometimes be difficult to consciously realize that this unspoken threat is a motivating force in our lives.
To teach young children, even indirectly, that unless they feel and believe certain things, they will be separated from their families for all of eternity seems to me now to be a kind of emotional blackmail. It plays heavily on a child's fear of abandonment. In Mormon theology, faith and family cannot be separated. To deny our faith is to also risk severing eternal ties to the people we love and need the most, and to hurt our family throughout eternity. This gives our theology a powerful conscious and unconscious tool – our love and need for our family – with which to ensure acceptance and compliance. But genuine spiritual belief and commitment must be freely chosen. They cannot be compelled under the threat of losing one’s family, even if these threats are unintended or not directly communicated. If we are not truly free to say no, then we are also not truly free to say yes.
I also see this perhaps unintended manipulation of family affections in our policies regarding attendance at temple sealings. I experienced this for myself when one of my sisters married in the temple several years ago. At the time, I had made a voluntary decision to stop attending the temple. Having one of my sisters marry during this time showed me a perspective on temple marriage that I hadn’t seen before. Through the church's policy of only allowing Mormon temple recommend holders to attend temple marriages, I was being told, in effect, that unless I felt and believed what the church said I should, and was willing to commit myself completely to the church, I would not be allowed to attend my own sister's wedding. This feels like more emotional blackmail, and I believe it damages family relationships because it makes them conditional. It makes the acceptance of certain theological beliefs a prerequisite for full inclusion in important family celebrations.
A friend of mine from a devout Mormon family married a non-member, and before her wedding her father told her that if she saw tears in his eyes during the wedding, they wouldn't be tears of joy. When I look back on that situation now, I don’t believe that my friend’s decision to marry a non-member was the true source of her father’s unhappiness. The real source of his pain was within himself – in his own exclusive religious beliefs.
In addition to being manipulative of our family ties, I think our temple policies can also be spiritually manipulative. When two people fall in love and want to get married, if they are from devout Mormon families there is only one socially acceptable way for them to marry – in the temple. To marry outside of the temple brings disappointment and heartache for the family as well as a certain amount of shame within the Mormon community. But in order to marry in the temple, couples must pass a worthiness interview in which they profess belief in all the tenets of Mormonism. In addition, temple marriage requires a prior endowment in which lifelong commitments to the church are made. This means that if I fall in love and desire to marry (as most young people in or out of Mormonism eventually do), the only way I can get married that will not wound my family and bring us shame within the larger community is to also profess my belief in Mormonism and make lifelong commitments to it. These two things are so tightly bound together that one hardly even considers the possibility of doing one and not the other. This provides a very powerful unconscious motivation for young people in love to make a lifelong commitment to Mormonism, and unconscious motivations are the strongest and most difficult to see through.
In my youth I was encouraged many times to “study it out” and then pray and ask God for myself if the Mormon church was true. But long before I felt the need to ask this question for myself, I had already internalized what the answer to it would need to be, if I wanted to live with my Heavenly Father again, and if I didn't want to be separated from my family forever. This was true not just with prayer, but with my whole spiritual life. Before I was old enough to begin seeking for my own spiritual experiences, the limits of what those experiences could consist of and reveal to me had already been established. And should I ever think I had received an answer from God that fell outside of these pre-set limits, that would mean the voice I was hearing was not really the voice of God.
Imagine a fast and testimony meeting in which someone stands and bears witness that after serious study and prayer, the Spirit has told her that the Book of Mormon is not a historical document. Or a 19-year-old boy bearing witness that after sincere fasting and prayer, God has told him not to go on a mission. Imagine someone bearing testimony that the Spirit has told them not to go to the temple, or that their priesthood leaders are wrong. In the mind-set I grew up with, the possibility of these kinds of revelations being true revelations from God was, by definition, non-existent.
One might argue that if I ever came to believe that God himself had revealed to me that Mormonism wasn't true, then I would no longer need to believe that failure to accept it would mean eternal separation from both God and my family. Logically this makes sense, but unconscious fears internalized at an early age rarely surrender to logical persuasion. And one of the fears I absorbed growing up in the church was the fear of being spiritually deceived. Church history lessons were full of people who followed their own revelations from God instead of those of church leaders, and lost their chance at exaltation because of it. Who was I to think I knew any better than men who talked with God himself, face-to-face, when I never had? (Of course, if my answers to prayer always fell within the boundaries I'd been taught true answers would, then I would never have to deal with this kind of internal conflict.)
I now believe that the fear of being spiritually deceived hindered my spiritual growth. It made it impossible for me to develop spiritual maturity and autonomy, because I learned that it was not safe to trust my own feelings and perceptions. I remember once in a class at BYU discussing what each of us thought about a controversial topic, and my first thought being that I would need to find out what the brethren had said about it before I would know what my own position was. I had not developed my own independent spiritual life and intellect, because I had been unable to live it.
Another unhealthy adaption Miller describes which I can see in my church experience is the development of a “false self.” This happens when we adapt to an unhealthy environment by completely repressing parts of ourselves. We reveal only what is expected or desired of us, and we fuse so completely with what we reveal that it becomes the whole of our conscious identity.44 I think we can also develop a “false spiritual self” in the process of growing up in the church. The church has an idealized image of its members – the kind of perpetually happy and successful individuals and families we see on the covers of the Ensign or the Church News – and it rewards those who conform to this ideal (or who can at least maintain the appearance of conforming to it). Parents can feel a great deal of pressure to maintain the appearance of the ideal Mormon family, and may in turn put pressure on their children to comply with this image.
But what happens when a person’s experiences or feelings fail to meet the ideal, as is often the case? What happens to members who struggle with anger, doubt, depression, or unhappiness with their church experiences, or to families who struggle with divorce, poverty, addiction, or abuse? One way to adapt ourselves to the church’s ideal is to simply suppress and deny those parts of ourselves that don’t fit the ideal image – to reveal only those parts of ourselves that meet the ideal while consciously denying that the less acceptable parts even exist, thus developing a kind of false spiritual self that becomes the whole of our spiritual identity. In one of her books, Miller describes what she calls “poisonous pedagogy” – ingrained societal beliefs that are harmful to children's development. They include the belief that anger (or any other feeling) can be done away with simply by forbidding it, and that the way you behave is more important than who you really are.45 These beliefs would contribute to the development of a false spiritual self.
Some argue that in the case of the church's ideals, the ends justify the means – that the ideal is desirable, and if we live “as if” it represented our real selves long enough, eventually we will become the ideal (or at least closer to it). But in my experience this kind of change is only surface change – we may appear, even to ourselves, to measure up to the ideal, while remaining far from it in our deepest being. Surface change is the only kind of change that institutions, dogma, or manipulation can bring about. For many years I tried to live as close to the ideal as I could, and it failed to change who I really was. It failed to heal my deepest wounds or make me truly free. In my experience, real transformation at the deepest level of our being is only possible through awareness and experience of the whole truth – the truth about ourselves, and the truth of God’s amazing love for us.
If we live out of a false spiritual self long enough, eventually we may internalize the church’s influence on us just as children internalize their parents’ beliefs and influence. When this happens, we may continue to self-censor what the church originally censored in us, often without any conscious awareness that this is what we are doing to ourselves. We may refuse to allow ourselves to consciously experience doubts, or hide even from ourselves our unhappiness with some aspects of our church lives. Once this external influence has been thoroughly internalized, it is easy to understand how it can be almost impossible for us to see anything other than what we have been taught to see. To paraphrase Miller, things we can see through do not make us sick. What makes us sick are those things we cannot see through – things we have so thoroughly absorbed that they have become a part of who we are.46
One of the dysfunctional behaviors that results from unhealthy adaptation in childhood is excessive dependency on external sources of validation for one’s sense of self. When people have unresolved childhood needs for mirroring and validation that drive them to search for substitute sources of gratification, the church may function as one such substitute. The church gives love, acceptance, and respect to those who are obedient. And because its leaders are viewed as God's agents, acceptance and validation from the church can also be experienced as acceptance and validation from God. What we may have failed to receive from our earthly parents, we can now receive from our heavenly parent, through church activity and faithfulness.
When the church is meeting our childhood needs for mirroring and validation, we can become as dependent on it as a young child is on his or her parents. We may idealize (and idolize) the church and its leaders the same way children idealize their parents, even abusive parents. And we may use the same kinds of defense mechanisms and illusions children use in order to maintain our idealized images.
I experienced this kind of idealization in my own need for the church. The church met my needs for validation and belonging, and I believed that it was without fault – that our history was inspired at every turn and our prophets and apostles infallible. I believed that all of my leaders were completely benevolent and wise, and would always know what's best for me and act in my best interest because they were God's representatives. I needed the church and its leaders to be perfectly loving and wise, because for a long time they were the source of my sense of self.
I maintained my idealization of the church and its leaders by refusing to even listen to anything about them that was contrary to my idealized image. I saw the world in black and white – those who accepted the ideal image, and those who questioned or found fault with the church or its leaders in any way. For many years this idealization enabled me to accept without question things I now consider to be manipulative, inappropriate, and unhealthy.
I see now that my idealization of church leaders, both past and present, was unfair. No human being is as perfectly benevolent and wise as I believed my leaders were. Leaders are human just like the rest of us. They each have their own life story, complete with biases, blind spots, needs, and fears, as well as unique strengths and gifts. It's unrealistic to expect them to be more than human. Nevertheless, I believe the church fosters this idealization through its unwillingness to make a full and truthful disclosure of church history and current governance. I believe that if we could see the complete picture of these things behind the public presentation, we would see that the church, while it does a great deal of good, is still very much a human and fallible organization, just as our leaders, while at times inspired, are just as human and fallible as we all are. This would prevent the unhealthy idolization of our leaders, and give us a much more realistic view of God’s dealings with all of us.
My own idolization of church leaders led to another unhealthy dependency in my spiritual life. Because I saw my leaders as God’s representatives, I experienced my relationship with them and my relationship with God as being one and the same. If the church and its leaders were pleased with me, so was God. If I was doing what my local and general leaders told me to, then I was doing exactly what God wanted me to do. If I was good enough to win their love, then I had God’s love too. And if I angered, disappointed, or disobeyed my leaders then I had also angered, disappointed, or disobeyed God. Church leaders stood between God and me, and functioned as the mediator of my relationship with God. This gave them a great deal of psychological and emotional power in my life.
Using the church as a substitute source of validation and love leaves us with the same problem we have whenever we seek our sense of self from outside sources. Much of the love we are given is not directed at us as we really are, but at our faithfulness and devotion. If these fail, so can much (or all) of the love we have been given, because it was conditional. When this happens, the shattering of our illusion that “the church” truly loved us and would always act in our best interest can be as painful as the realization that much of our parents’ love was not aimed at us as we really were, but at our false self or our ability to meet their needs.
When people who use the church as a source of substitute gratification for their unmet needs become parents, this unhealthy dependency can affect their relationships with their children. Because they gain their sense of self from the church, they may put loyalty to Mormonism above everything else in their lives, including their children’s emotional needs. I remember in my youth being told the story of a church leader who went to the train station to see his son off on a mission. As his son was leaving, the father told him that he would rather have him come home in a coffin than having lost his virtue. The story was meant to convey to us the grave seriousness of sexual sin. But all I can think of when I hear it now is how painful it would be to be told by my father that he would rather see me dead than having made a mistake – that he valued my sinlessness more than he valued me.
I have seen this kind of family dynamic result in two extreme outcomes. Some children adopt their parents’ loyalty to the church above all else. They sense that their parents love the church more than they love anything else, and they adapt to this by staying firmly inside the circle of what their parents love most. By doing this, they are able to receive at least some of their parents’ love. Others may completely reject the church out of anger because they know, if only unconsciously, that it is the thing their parents love more than they love them. In both cases, somewhere deep inside the children sense that given a choice between them and the church, their parents would choose the church.
Miller's writings and my own healing experiences have also helped me to better understand instances of ecclesiastical abuse in the church. They have shown me how it is possible for leaders to be good people with kind hearts who genuinely love and desire to serve those they preside over, and yet still act in abusive ways in the exercise of their authority. When people grow up unable to see through the manipulations or abuses to which they themselves have been subjected, in either their family or church experiences, they will be unable to see their own perpetration of the same kinds of abuses for what they really are. If leaders are to provide a healthy church environment that is free of abuse and manipulation, they need to have grown up in such a family and church environment themselves. If they did not, and have not been able to see and work through the reality of their own manipulation, they are far more likely to behave in manipulative or coercive ways with those they have authority over in the church. They may act our of a sincere belief that what they are doing is for the member’s own good, just as it was (or would be) for their own good when it was done to them. Only when we have been able to feel the reality of our own manipulation or abuse will we be able to recognize our similar treatment of others as abusive.
I first began to see some things about the church differently during and after my mission, when for the first time in my life I began to read and experience things that left me with real questions about the truthfulness of some of what I believed about the church. On my mission I grew to love people of other faiths whose spiritual experiences seemed as valid and meaningful as my own. I attended a Catholic first communion service that was as spirit-filled as any LDS meeting I have been to. After my mission I began reading new books about church history that presented a more complete and realistic picture than I had been given in seminary and Sunday School classes. But I remember thinking during this time that I could not allow myself to seriously entertain any of my doubts, because if I were to lose my faith and then turn out to be wrong, I would be separated from my family forever, live singly throughout eternity, and lose my opportunity for exaltation and eternal happiness. It seemed much wiser and safer to just save my questions for the next life, and trust in the church and its leaders in this life.
But once I consciously realized that fear kept me from seriously questioning my faith, my spiritual life began a gradual change that was irreversible. Little by little, my fear began to eat away at my faith. I found I no longer had the same degree of certainty in my testimony of the church. How could I continue to be certain that what I believed was really true, when I now realized that deep down I had fears that prevented me from seriously considering the possibility that it wasn't? Having spent my whole life immersed in the mind-set that produced and maintained those fears, how could I ever hope to see the church objectively? And how could I continue to wholeheartedly live out a commitment that I could now see was at least partially rooted in fear?
Eventually I reached a point where the only way I could retain any genuine faith in Mormonism was to risk losing everything – to entertain my doubts and questions, and allow myself to seriously consider the possibility that some or all of the things I believed about the church might not be true. This was a much different process than the one I undertook in my youth – to read the Book of Mormon and ask God for myself if it and the church were true. This was an attempt to remove myself at least temporarily from my immersion in the church, in order to get a clearer look at both it and myself. I realized that I had internalized such a strong “inner church” voice, and at such an early age, that my own voice was nowhere to be found. And I felt that as long as I remained within hearing distance of the thundering voice of the church, I would never be able to hear my own. It took several years away from the church before I could even turn on the television during general conference and hear those voices again without feeling my own disappear – without feeling as though the church was a giant vacuum, threatening to swallow me whole again if I got too close. It felt as though if I accepted anything the church said, I would once again have to accept everything it said. Everything about the church was strictly black and white, and there was no middle ground. It was only after I became aware of groups and publications like Sunstone, Dialogue, and the Mormon Women’s Forum that I realized a middle ground exists, and that many wonderful and interesting Mormons live there.
During these years away from the church, my spiritual journey progressed as I continued to read and search for God and truth (and myself) wherever I might find them. I finished college, where I benefitted greatly by being exposed to new ways of thinking and understanding, and began my professional life. I had been taught that the almost inevitable result of ceasing activity in the church would be a sinful and wasted life – that those who cease activity in Mormonism lose the Spirit, and are therefore likely to descend into a life of sexual promiscuity, alcohol, drugs, crime, or some similar fate. I am happy to report that none of those things happened to me.
One of the first things I discovered about my own feelings after stepping back from Mormonism was that I did not believe that a perfectly wise and loving God was the author of those aspects of Mormonism that I had experienced as coercive and manipulative. Even I can see the ultimate futility of such tactics in matters of the spirit, and I have to believe that God is far wiser than I am.
I also realized that if the celestial kingdom was even partially like I had been taught it was, then I didn’t want to live there, with or without a family. I was taught, among other things, that in the celestial kingdom we would continue to be presided over by faithful patriarchs – from Adam to Joseph Smith and beyond. But I soon discovered that I didn’t like patriarchy, and felt no desire whatsoever to be “presided over" by men, even benevolent men, throughout eternity. And I felt no desire to become a heavenly mother who sits silently in the shadows with my daughters while my husband and sons create worlds and brings to pass our children’s immortality and eternal life. One of the reasons I had accepted everything I learned in the church, including things that bothered me on a gut level (like the doctrine of plural marriage, or the subordination of women inherent in the structure of the church), was because I believed that even if something didn’t necessarily make me happy in this life, if I just hung in there I would see that it would make me happy in eternity. But I now realize that eternity is right now. If eternity means forever, then this present moment is as much a part of eternity as any past or future existence in other worlds, and it is the only portion of eternity to which we currently have access. So if there are truths that will bring me joy and peace “in eternity,” it only stands to reason that they ought to feel right and bring me joy and peace in this life too. In fact, if the Mormon plan of salvation is accurate, it was God himself who structured mortality so that the only part of eternity we would have any conscious awareness of, and thus be able to experiment with and learn from, is this life.
Another important thing I discovered about myself was that, at least for me, the inner voice of the church that I internalized while growing up and the voice of God’s Spirit are not the same thing. If I had not spent time away from the church I don’t think I ever would have realized that these were two different voices.
As I became increasingly independent from the institutional church, I found myself able to explore Mormon doctrine and history with a freedom I had never felt before. Being several years into this process now, I no longer believe everything I used to about Mormonism, and my idealization of the church and its leaders is gone. But some parts of my faith remain, and they are genuinely mine – arising from my deepest being and my own direct experiences of God. They work for me, and bring joy and meaning to my life.
I retain my faith in God and the power of prayer. I have felt God's presence within me both inside and outside of Mormonism. I am grateful that one of the things being raised Mormon instilled in me was the belief that I could communicate directly with God in prayer, just as Joseph Smith did. Once I became free of pre-determined constraints on my experience of prayer, it became even more real and immediate. I have never seen God face to face, so I don't know with certainty the exact nature of God's being, but I am more certain than ever that God is a real being who knows and cares for me, and will help me.
I still believe in Christ. To me Christ and the Holy Spirit are manifestations of the love and power of God – a power that can heal our wounds and change our hearts, making us into beings more like God – more joyful, wise, and above all loving. They represent God’s ability to redeem what is godly in each of us. My experience of what God offers us in Christ has been so full of generosity and love (and free of threats or manipulation) that no coercion has been needed to make me desire or accept it. In fact, I believe that what God offers can only be efficacious in our lives if it is completely freely chosen – in an atmosphere totally free of coercion or manipulation.
I still embrace Joseph Smith as a prophet and a spiritual pioneer, but I no longer look at prophets in the same way. To me, a prophet is a person who has his or her own direct encounter with God, and then tries to live by and share what they have received. Prophets point us beyond themselves, to our own direct experiences of God. Joseph was a common boy who sought God for himself, and then tried to live out his understanding of what he received. In doing so he left me a valuable legacy. The most important thing for me now is not to live out Joseph's answers from God, but to do as he did and seek God for myself.
I still value the scriptures, and I find beauty and truth in scriptures from other faiths as well, but I no longer believe scriptures are infallible, any more than I believe the men who wrote them were infallible. Growing up I believed that the scriptures came directly from the mouth of God – word for word. I accepted the picture of God contained in them and built my own understanding of God around it. It never would have occurred to me to look at anything in the scriptures critically, or to judge them against my own experiences of God. Rather, they were the standard against which I judged and interpreted my experiences. I now see scripture as the story of how different people in different historical times and places experienced and understood God. Some of their experiences resonate with my own, and others do not.
I still find beauty and inspiration in many other things in Mormonism when I look at them symbolically. It is only when I take the symbol literally – mistaking the symbol for the thing itself – that I find some of our doctrines manipulative. For example, I believe that the power of our love can connect us to one another forever, and that this truth exists independent of any one group or practice. In Mormonism, we have a beautiful ritual that symbolizes this truth. To me, temple sealings mean that the highest ceremony there is in Mormonism is one that acknowledges our eternal interconnectedness with one another. It only becomes manipulative when we take the symbol literally, by teaching that it is the ritual rather than our love that connects us, and that only those who participate in our ritual will be able to experience the larger truth is symbolizes.
Baptism is another symbolic ritual I find beauty and meaning in. I see baptism and receiving the gift of the Spirit as a symbol of inner cleansing and rebirth. For me they symbolize the new life and growth that comes when we fully open our hearts to God and one another. This is not a onetime event that takes place in the actual moment of our baptism. The reality behind the symbol is a process that once begun will continue throughout our lifetime, on deeper and deeper levels of our being. I believe it is a process that people in many different faiths undergo. I don't believe God only engages in it with those who have received baptism in the Mormon church.
The meaning of my own baptism has evolved as my spiritual life has evolved. The day of my baptism was a happy and exciting day for me. I was doing what Heavenly Father and my parents and teachers wanted me to do. I was becoming an official member of the church I loved, which gave me a wonderful sense of belonging and community which I still feel. I was also being forgiven for every sin I had ever committed, and I vowed to myself that I would never do another wrong thing after that day. I sincerely believed this was possible, because I now had the Holy Ghost, who would always be with me to guide and direct me.
When I look back on my baptism now, I see that its primary value at the time it occurred was in the sense of membership and belonging that it gave me. It wasn't an outward manifestation of an inner experience of cleansing or rebirth, because at age 8 I simply didn’t have enough life experience to feel or understand a need for inner rebirth. For me, childhood baptism was only a foreshadowing of a process that began some years after the actual event – a process that has continued both inside and outside of Mormonism.
The most important thing I have discovered about myself and Mormonism is that when all is said and done, my deepest remaining tie to Mormonism is the simple fact that these are my people, and I love them. They are my family, both literally and figuratively – the people I live among, and with whom I learn to understand and love both myself and others. I am deeply connected to this people, and will always want to be a part of them. I have come to believe that our relationships with one another are the most valuable thing a church can give us.
When I started on this journey several years ago, I had no idea where it would eventually lead. Growing up I always believed that my deepest tie to Mormonism was my testimony that it was the only true church on earth, and the only way I could reach exaltation in the celestial kingdom. When I found my own truth, I found that my ties to the people I love are far more important to me than any doctrinal truth claims. Alice Miller teaches that the discovery and acceptance of the truth of our own unique lives is the only way to find true healing, freedom, and joy.47 Her whole philosophy could be summed up in the simple verse, “ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”48
1. Alice Miller, The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1981).
2. Additional books include: For Your Own Good: Hidden cruelty in child-rearing and the roots of violence (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Girous, 1983; The Noonday Press, 1990.); Thou Shalt Not Be Aware: Society's Betrayal of the Child (New York: Penguin Books USA Inc., 1984.); Banished Knowledge (New York: Doubleday, 1990.); The Untouched Key (New York: Doubleday, 1990); Breaking Down the Wall of Silence (New York: Penguin Books USA Inc., 1991.). See also J. Konrad Stettbacher, Making Sense of Suffering (New York: Penguin Books USA Inc., 1991.).
3. Miller, The Drama of the Gifted Child, 7.
4. Ibid., 32.
5. Ibid., 33.
6. Ibid., 33, 39.
7. Ibid., 33-34.
8. Ibid., 7.
9. Ibid., 7.
10. Ibid., 7-9, 31-32.
11. Ibid., 13.
12. Ibid., 13, 81.
13. Ibid., 12, 68, 70, 73.
14. Ibid., 9-10, 12, 14, 20-21, 87.
15. Ibid., 52.
16. Ibid., 14, 19, 20 -21, 45-46, 52-53, 86-87, 92-93, 101-102, 110-111.
17. Ibid., 21, 30, 45-46.
18. Ibid., 40.
19. Ibid., 43.
20. Ibid., 40, 43.
21. Ibid., 6.
22. Ibid., 6, 38-39.
23. Ibid., 67-69, 102-104, 108.
24. Ibid., 42. 50.
25. Ibid., 18, 56, 58, 78, 81-83.
26. Ibid., 20.
27. Ibid., viii, 8, 31, 34-36, 93-94. See also Miller, For Your Own Good: Hidden cruelty in child-rearing and the roots of violence (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Girous, 1983; TheNoonday Press, 1990.)
28. Ibid., viii, 11, 34-36.
29. Ibid., 14-16, 34.
30. Ibid., 90.
31. Ibid., 13-14.
32. Ibid., 13-14, 60.
33. Ibid., 43, 56-57, 85, 89.
34. Ibid., 11, 90, 99-100, 102.
35. Ibid., 56, 58, 78, 87.
36. Ibid., 20-21, 54-55.
37. Ibid., 15, 57.
38. Ibid., 63.
39. Ibid., 63, 101.
40. Ibid., 15.
41. Ibid., 57.
42. Ibid., 57, 111-112.
43. Ibid., 112-113.
44. Ibid., 12-13.
45. Miller, For Your Own Good, 59-60.
46. Miller, The Drama of the Gifted Child, 100.
47. Miller, The Drama of the Gifted Child, 3-4.
48. John 8:32.
Reflections: A Personal Journal