I’ve been avoiding writing this story for some time now. Not that I am afraid of judgement, I’ve let go of that fear a long ass time ago. I’m more fearful of anyone that might feel hurt through my words or judged themselves for this post. Please note, the stories I share today are my own and the experiences are my own. I’m not trying to suggest that this is the experience that every Christian has growing up, but this was mine. My church taught me a whole lot about love, but even more about shame and judgement.
These stories have been pleading to be shared. I’ve discovered that each time I share these privately, someone can relate. It doesn’t matter what faith they’ve been raised in, there’s usually a lesson at some point about not being “good enough.”
I was raised Southern Baptist and spent most of my free time at some sort of church activity growing up. However, as an adult, I’ve felt the same sort of shame in all sorts of religious places. I was triggered into a shame spiral as a 26-year-old while sitting through a week of Buddhist lessons at a Vipassana retreat. There have been yoga studios that were so judgmental that I walked out and never returned. There’s been “open minded” nondenominational churches that I’ve witnessed publicly shame queer people, my people.
So while the lessons I share today were experienced in my Baptist faith, I see them shared in nearly all major religions that I’ve tried out. I hope that before you get defensive, you simply hear my story.
I ask you to put yourself into the shoes of a young girl who felt unrelenting amounts of fear at the prospects of not only disappointing everyone around her, but also disappointing God.
As a young girl, I danced around the church with an innocent heart, eager to soak in every ounce of goodness being offered to me. I loved being a Christian and wore the title like a badge of honor across my chest. Swaying and singing along to the music on Sunday mornings made me feel so alive, so connected with something greater than me.
Regardless of any challenges I had within the church walls in my early adolescence, I cannot help but be incredibly grateful for the foundation given to me in that place. I knew unequivocally that I was loved and that I had the power to love all those around me. Easily, I breathed in the words of Christ, telling us to treat our neighbors with kindness, to show grace to everyone.
I did my very best to walk his path, priding myself not on how “cool” I was, but on how well I could care for others. My biggest goal was to be known for being the nicest girl in the room, always quick to help someone in need. I loved so grandly, there were times I thought my heart would burst with the intensity of it.
I wanted everyone to feel like I did, so I shared my message with as many people as I could. A young evangelist – I’d walk around with my pretty pink bible in my arms, hoping someone would ask me about it. As soon as I was old enough, I began volunteering time within the church, teaching the younger children. I even hosted my own bible study group at my house when I was around ten-years-old.
So, what changed? I was introduced to shame.
As a child, the lessons I received in Sunday School were always light and hopeful. The focus was always around kindness, around being a good person, and the recognition that we are truly loved by a heavenly father. It was all positive and I soaked it all in.
I can distinctly remember when this changed for me though. I was about eleven-years-old when my hormones began shifting. My cheerful demeanor was suddenly being hit by mini waves of sadness and anger. I also began to notice boys in a new way, notice the changes happening in my body, and was reacting to romantic movies in a way that left me feeling frightened.
That same summer, I went to bible camp. This wasn’t out of the ordinary for me, but there was something different about the way in which the information was being presented to me. While I can’t recall what the exact sermons were, I remember leaving camp that summer feeling like a complete failure. I was a sinner. According to the people I looked up to, I did wrong and was no longer pleasing God. I must be punished.
I came home determined to try even harder to be a good Christian girl. Honestly, I can’t even remember what “sins” I was freaking out about, but I knew it was along the lines of listening to bad music, cursing, feeling things “down there.” To try and control my sinful ways, I wore a rubber band on my wrist and would snap it painfully against my skin when I was thinking something bad.
When this didn’t seem to prevent the sin from continuing, I began scratching a metal mechanical pencil into my skin. Then, safety pins. Eventually, I was using scissors and knives.
My newly formed hips and breasts felt dangerously sinful to me. I would cut there too, trying to keep myself in line. I didn’t want to be bad.
However, that’s exactly what ended up happening. The more shame I felt, the more I spiraled into deep depression, into a surging anger that was entirely new to me. I would sit in the church pews with my family and take in every word being preached about our sinful natures. I felt nothing but hate for myself.
One day, I just stopped caring about myself or religion entirely. Self-destruction became my pastime. I felt there was no way to hold back my sinful nature, so I just plunged into it. Throughout the rest of Jr High, I’d sneak out of the house regularly to smoke cigarettes or drink cheap liquor at the park. I spent hours sexting on internet chats. With little hesitation, I let boys touch my body because I no longer felt connected to it.
I gave up on myself. More tragically, I stopped believing that I was loveable.
My friends and family did the best they could with me during this time. I was sent to a Christian counselor, put on medications, and told repeatedly that I was cared for. My family dragged me to church every weekend, where I began to avoid all the girls my age.
Once so involved in the church life, I was suddenly the outcast. I wore dark, gothic clothing and my smiley personality had turned into a constant “don’t fuck with me” stare. Instead of reaching out a hand of support, the girls at church began to mock me. When I was no longer shiny and perfect, it was made very clear that I didn’t belong.
I hated going to church.
The rose-tinted glasses had come off and I noticed how judgmental my entire church was. We didn’t love others, we compared our righteousness to others.
I began to notice the sneaky way the church perpetuated gossip and separation, through the sharing of “prayer requests.” It became clear to me that the lessons my pastor presented us with were less and less about love and more about judging the “others.”
My faith was already dangling on a tiny string when my mother moved out of our family home. She had been an important part of the church, having worked within its walls for nearly as long as I could remember. Suddenly, my mom had no friends. The church completely turned their back on her.
Throughout the rest of my high school years, I was in and out of the church. Still loving the music, I would allow myself to be dragged there so I could get lost in the sounds. But I never trusted people the same way. It would take me another ten years to truly let people into my world, because I learned that even the most “loving people” will turn their backs on you the instant you break from their molds.
Try and Try Again
From the moment I became disenchanted, I was a strict atheist. When I finally got out of the cloud of what felt like childhood brainwashing, I realized that no “God” would encourage so much shame in a young girl that she would feel the need to hurt herself. To me, there was no way that a higher power could’ve watched me attempt suicide or starvation without getting involved.
It wasn’t until I was married and struggling again that I decided to give the church another chance. Even though I didn’t believe in God, I was adamant that I didn’t believe in divorce (my childhood beliefs still pop up and cause me anguish to this day). My ex-husband was a Christian and he believed one of our marital problems was my lack of faith.
To save my young marriage, I decided I would force myself to believe again. I began attending a new church, sought individualized counsel, and went to a weekly marriage class alone. With determination, I tried my best to strip away my doubts and allow myself to be moved by the teaching. I repented my sins (except I refused to repent the practice of yoga) and I began reading my bible again (my parents were overjoyed, I’m sure).
To give credit to the couple who led the marriage class, I truly did learn a lot of useful information there, things I use in my relationship to this day. But I also remember feeling that under no circumstance was I allowed to leave my marriage. It didn’t matter how miserable I was, how unsafe my home environment was, I was to be a good wife and stick it out.
Perhaps, I wasn’t fully honest about how dangerous my home situation was at times. To me, this is the only thing that makes sense as to why no one ever suggested that I leave. Right?
I’ll never be sure.
Finding My Own Faith
What I do know is that I was able to find faith that same year – my own faith. I had already began teaching yoga, was moved by the philosophies of the practice, and was building a community of real support for the first time that I could remember. It was at this time that I stumbled upon Gabby Bernstein’s book – Spirit Junkie.
While I plan to dive deeper into the lessons learned through her teachings later this week, I can confirm one thing I knew for sure – THIS is was real love looked like. Her book felt like pure love and light, like the bible used to when I was a child, but I was now harsh and critical and still, so moved. She spoke about the beautiful ways in which relationships could end – in love instead of anger and judgement.
Her work led me into my desire for personal development. The realness of the books I was reading was everything to me. It turns out, you didn’t have to be near perfect to be a good person, that I could let go of the baggage of all my past mistakes and become new – not through some great power, but through my own strength.
The Shame Needs to End
As I’m coming to the end of this article, I’m feeling the anxiety pulse through my entire body. My chest is tight, my pits are sweating, and there is a slight dizziness taking place (palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy….?). There’s a huge amount of fear sitting on my shoulders and I’m not even sure what it is. I can’t give it a name. But I know why it’s there – I’m still shaking off the weight of what I feel was brainwashing. It’s never fully gone away.
I felt the need to share this story for all the others who can relate. Who have become brave enough to create their own belief system. Who have turned their back on deep-rooted fear to seek out a life that is true to their soul.
The teaching of shame is NOT okay, under any circumstances.
It leads to nothing good – just self loathing and self destruction. How is this still the model for so many religious teachings? I mean, how are we still “beating the gay” out of people with bibles? How are we still teaching hormone-driven teenagers that sex and masturbation are filthy and evil?
It’s gotta stop.
This is why I am sharing my story, to hope that you share yours as well. Comment below, send me an email, talk to a friend. The more we talk about it, the more we can create community instead of separation, the more we can share real love instead of judgement.
Thank you for hearing me out.
All my love,