What I regret from my traditionalist religious upbringing: persistent personality pathologies

A few days ago I shared a number of things that I appreciate, value, and honor from my religious upbringing in the Latter-day Saint tradition. I mentioned that:

Through several years of reading, reflection, and (frankly) counseling therapy, I have come to realize that this upbringing also gave me several unhealthy psychological and emotional pathologies that I continue to struggle with in my life.

I feel it is important to identify and describe some of those pathologies so as to help come to a better understanding of how these pathologies might affect mental health and day-to-day well-being. This is important as well so that we can more carefully identify aspects of our communities (including religious communities) that might be conducive to certain personality pathologies for some people in certain contexts, and take steps to mediate those influences and contexts as needed. In doing so, I am using the term “pathology” broadly to based on this loose definition:

Personality pathology refers to enduring patterns of cognition, emotion, and behavior that negatively affect a person’s adaptation. In psychiatry and clinical psychology, it is characterized by adaptive inflexibility, vicious cycles of maladaptive behavior, and emotional instability under stress.

Wikipedia: “personality pathology

I also wish to emphasize that many of these things are not exclusive to the Latter-day Saint tradition, or even religious communities, but are common in many environments. These are what I have identified in my own past and personal experience. Everyone’s life experience will be different, although many will likely be familiar to those who grew up in conservative religious contexts.

Regardless of where they are found, I do not view these environmental contexts to be conducive to a healthy spirituality or psychology. Nor do I believe them to be conducive to fostering healthy relationships with authority or other members of one’s family or social groups. This is why they are important to identify and, with grace, consider how individuals may navigate these types of communities and contexts as best needed for their personal goals and situations.

First, I developed a habit of thinking that it’s ultimately all up to me to save the world. By this I mean that I developed a habit of assuming that everything was under my ability to control and that if I failed to “fix” a problem that was ultimately my failing. This may have come from my Mormon upbringing in that we’re taught at an early age that it’s our responsibility to bring the gospel to the world and that “God will hold us accountable for those that we might have saved, had we done our duty.” Of course, it is not in my power to save the world all by myself, but the feeling that I ought to be able to, or at least be having more success at my efforts to do so, regularly causes anxiety. I have tried very hard to break these habits of thinking in the last several years, but these types of pathologies caused major rifts with some friends and family members at earlier points in my life.

Second, I developed a strong pathology of feeling “people pleaser” anxiety in almost every social interaction and context. I didn’t even know this was a thing until a therapist pointed it out to me. I always thought that it just meant that I valued inter-personal harmony over conflict, but apparently it’s a legitimate personality disorder at the level that I have struggled with in my life. I am very regularly paranoid about what other people think about me and worried that the things I do or say might disappoint other people or upset them. While this has had positive results in some ways (I tend to be diplomatic and good as resolving interpersonal conflict), it also has often manifested in situations where I have suppressed my own interests or needs in the interest of social harmony that it has resulted in unhealthy bouts of depression and anxiety, or “blowing up” at other people after the resentment builds to an unsustainable level. My therapist suggested that it is very common for people who grow up in conservative religious environments to develop unhealthy levels of “people pleasing” because there is so much pressure toward conformity in thought and behavior in many of these communities.

Third, I developed a strong pathology of guilt and shame regarding physical gratification and sexuality. I was taught frequently at a young age that pre-marital sex was morally one step less abhorrent than premeditated murder. As a teenager I was frequently taught by leaders that masturbation makes one unworthy of the companionship of the Holy Spirit and that one could not serve a mission or get married in the temple (both of which would severely limit the prospects of a good Mormon boy to be an appealing marriage prospect to a good young Mormon girl), making it a key behavioral barrier to being a member in good standing in one’s community. This is not healthy.

Fourth, I was socialized into morally shameful political and social ideologies regarding race. My late grandfather (whom I love fiercely) taught me as a child that the LDS Church’s ban on members of African descent from being ordained to the priesthood was due to their lack of valiance in following God’s plan in their premortal existence. He was only conveying what church leaders of his generation had taught him (and continued to teach) until just a few decades ago, and there continue to be strong strains of racial thinking in Mormon culture, practice, theology, and scripture. These socializing contexts contributed to implicit biases that I have to recognize and counteract on an almost constant basis.

Fifth, I developed a strong paradigm of ethnocentrism. I was taught that the United States was the Promised Land the location of the New Jerusalem. I was taught that those of my ancestral background from Europe were members of the tribe of Ephraim of the House of Israel and had been given the responsibility to spread the Restored Gospel throughout the world. I remember in a college class an anthropology professor teaching us about ethnocentrism and introducing us to an argument about how humanity was better off before agriculture because we had less disease and more leisure time. I remember thinking “yeah, but there was no literacy and without being able to read you can’t read the Book of Mormon and gain a testimony of its truthfulness and thus join God’s true church and receive the ordinances and sacraments necessary for exaltation and salvation, so…”

Sixth, in some ways I developed moderate levels of scrupulosity at various points in my life. This could of course be influenced by my strong Type A, detail-oriented, obsessive personality, but it certainly was exacerbated by the religious culture I grew up in. This was especially the case when I served a two-year proselyting mission. The culture of the leaders of my mission organization was one of “obedience, obedience, obedience.” We were given very strict mission rules (be in bed by a certain time, keep your shoes on during morning scripture study, say this but not that in your conversations with others, do not listen to non-approved music or read non-approved books, etc.) and our mission president (whom we were taught was extremely inspired to convey God’s truths to us) emphasized constantly that our worthiness to have God’s inspiration and guidance, not to mention the companionship of the Holy Spirit, was directly related to the exactness with which we adhered to these missionary rules. Being a “spirit of the law” kind of person, I always chaffed at this culture and theology, but it then introduced massive amounts of guilt and shame and social pressure/anxiety when I decided to “break a rule” in pursuit of what I considered to be a worthy goal. I experienced a strong, strong, strong relationship pathology of obedience and deference to religious authority for years afterwards.

Seventh, I developed a pathology regarding my self-esteem and sense of self-worth. Specifically, this was/is linked to how much I can say that I “did” or “accomplished” in a given day or any other period of time. To some extent this is a function of my obsessive, task-oriented personality, but it was reinforced and exacerbated by a religious culture that focuses on progression, accomplishments, goal-setting, and goal-achievement. When I was serving my proselyting mission, I was to have every minute of every day planned and devoted to “effective” goal-accomplishment for two straight years. If I took any “me time” or “unproductive” time I felt guilty, selfish, and not at ease with myself. I learned in my upbringing that I am to be “anxiously engaged in a good cause” at all times. To this day I feel self-imposed pressure to make productive use of every minute of time that I am awake and resent time that I have to sleep or tend to menial self-care tasks like exercise, brushing teeth, etc. It is something that gives me near-constant anxiety.

Being aware of these psychological habits and pathologies helps us recognize their influence our thinking patterns and emotional reactions. It helps us better assess how they might be affecting our ability to form healthy relationships with ourselves and our communities.

I again wish to emphasize that these environmental factors are not specific to the Latter-day Saint tradition. Indeed, I have learned that they are common in many different conservative/literalistic religious communities. I also wish to emphasize that I do not place the blame for these contexts on any one individual. Most people are doing the best they can with the knowledge and light that they have, trying to live their values as they best understand them. Unhealthy contexts can develop in communities even when each individual member is trying their best to act ethically and responsibly.

Nor does every person raised in these environments experience these same pathologies. I recognize that my preexisting obsessive personality traits increase the strength of these contexts in how they affect my behavior, which is likely not the case as strongly for others in these same contexts.

These are my experiences, though, and they have made me who I am today. I do wonder, though, how my day-to-day ability to cope and deal with stressful situations and relate to authority figures, friends, and family members would be like had I been raised in a more psychologically healthy religious environment. I can also take steps to ensure that my own children are aware of these factors so that they can develop a healthier relationship with the communities that they participate in from a younger age.

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