2007-10-06

Dysfunctional fundamentalist families (5): devaluation of feelings

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing notes from Leaving the Fold (Marlene Winell) begun in Dysfunctional fundamentalist families (1):

(i’m keeping the full series here in the “RELIGION:Book reviews:Winell” category in right column)

I recall being taught as a fundamentalist that my “conscience” needed re-education. My intuitive feelings about right and wrong were flawed because they were “human”. Human feelings, being human, cannot be trusted. That was the message. (Luckily I later learned that my “human conscience” could be re-educated to get back in touch with its own “natural healthy” feelings — natural being healthy as the food ads say.)

The biblical attitude toward human feelings is one of great suspicion. Feelings like anger, jealousy, and fear are condemned as of the flesh and the devil. Consequently, many Christians struggle with guilt when experiencing ordinary emotions. There is little help from the church in understanding the function of such feelings, including sadness. In the family, feelings are more likely to be punished than heard. Conflict is considered sinful instead of an opportunity for learning. Yet feelings are inevitable, and without understanding or skill they can be very painful to handle. Individuals can learn self-hatred for having feelings, as well as helplessness for not knowing what to do. (pp.120-121)

Even positive feelings are are under suspicion in the Bible if they do not somehow serve the glory of God. Winell comments on the New Testament’s depiction of non-Christian celebrations as “debauchery” and “carousing”.

Marlene does not say it, but I suspect that this biblical judgment has led some fundamentalists with little life experience outside their group to imagine that at many such “ungodly” functions the worst must be happening as a matter of course. The biblical claims of debauchery etc should always be assessed in the context of standard accusations leveled at any group one saw as anti-social or anti-truth. Even Christians were themselves accused in turn of such practices by the polytheists. I’m reminded of an Afghan woman telling me that when the Taliban first entered Kabul some of them were surprised to find that they could not find any naked women in the streets. They had heard so much of “western debauchery” that they really expected to see naked women in the streets and had come to cleanse the city of such shamelessness with blood. They were asking those in the streets where all those women were hiding.

But I did not start out talking about naked women. Slap face and back to the topic . . . .

The point is “that the impression one gets is that the only acceptable emotional states are muted and controlled positive ones.” (p. 121)

What we had to cultivate was not our “human feelings” but “the fruits of the spirit”. That is, something that originated from outside ourselves.

Mere human love and affection was inferior to godly love. Mere human happiness could not compare with “the joy of the Lord”. Mere human peace was turmoil beside “the peace that passes all understanding”. (p. 121)

In the fundamentalist family, avoidance of feelings can become an actual fear of feelings. Again the costs for the child are heavy. It means a loss of self-respect and trust. In learning to deny their own feelings, children lose touch with themselves. (p.121)

Winell comments that since the Christian approach to life is one of caution, control, conscious of avoiding the pitfalls of sin and Satan, family life can often be missing something when it comes to spontaneous affection and caring and warmth for one another. “Each member constantly struggles with self-esteem while constantly judging the behavior of others.” (p.121)

Children crave and need parents who can trust them and themselves enough to “let go and freely give the hugs, compliments, and unconditional love”. I’m sure all parents hug and compliment their children, but my own experience both as a child of religious parents and as a devoutly religious person myself testifies of something controlled in it all most of the time. Sometimes the thinking would go along the line of, Yes, love and praise are important, but we don’t want children to be vain either, or they need to understand they can do better. As Marlene writes, “There isn’t enough trust to let go . . . ”

Human bonds are a poor shadow of godly (supposedly “agape”) love in the fundamentalist’s thinking so are undervalued compared with one’s relationship with God. Recall Christ’s teaching to love God more than family.

Marlene quotes on exfundamentalist:

In our family there was very little openness and communication with respect to matters of importance, i.e., feelings and beliefs. There was a kind of family loyalty but not affection. My father held daily Bible readings during which he expounded on his own views. There was never any input from or discussion with us children. As I recall, there was occasionally unsolicited input or argument from my mother. I usually fell asleep during these sessions, but did my best to conceal that. (p.121)

Conflict

Conflict “management” is not common — I would suggest it’s because in the fundamentalist’s view conflict should not arise if all parties are behaving “biblically” — which they are striving to do. But this belief system in fact is really a way of avoiding the issues.

Result: avoidance of issues, tensions denied or suppressed, emotions finally erupt, and kaboom — explosion, chaos, anger, insults, pain, abuse.

Followed by: guilt feelings and sometimes apologies.

And irreparable damage.

And the cycle repeats, — and repeats.

Family members take on ever deeper scars over time.

Guilt, confusion and frustration are inevitable. Where is God’s promise to “heal”, to effect the changes prayed for, and worked at?

Marlene Winell observes that the sense of inadequacy that this cycle generates in individuals itself must be denied, since to admit inadequacy in getting one’s family relations right is to doubt one’s faith or to doubt God’s promises.

“Feelings are repressed again and the cycle continues.”

Marlene concludes this section with a passage from an (“unusually”) insightful Christian author, Sloat:

Too often, well-intentioned Christian parents treat their children as though the kids’ opinions and feelings have little, if any, worth . . . Evangelical parents who do not listen are creating danger points for their children because they are communicating through their actions that they do not care about their children at a personal level. This contributes to a negative self-concept in the child.

No doubt most readers with any fundamentalist family experience will be able to add their own “testimonies” to this section of Winell’s.

It’s not easy undoing the damage. I know. Fortunately Marlene’s book does offer some helpful programs and advice in this direction.

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Neil Godfrey

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0 thoughts on “Dysfunctional fundamentalist families (5): devaluation of feelings”

  1. Winell’s book was immensely helpful to me during the first year of my escape. And I still struggle with this whole issue of knowing what I’m feeling, after a lifetime of denying that I felt anything at all.

    “Mere human love and affection was inferior to godly love. Mere human happiness could not compare with “the joy of the Lord”. ”

    And therefore, we were admonished to avoid “enthusiasm” or “temporal affections”.

    “Children crave and need parents who can trust them and themselves enough to “let go and freely give the hugs, compliments, and unconditional love”. I’m sure all parents hug and compliment their children, …”

    Not mine. Ever. Even though I somehow was supposed to know that they loved me. Their duty was to “bring me up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord,” not to make me feel comfortable or happy.

    I found it difficult to express my own feelings towards my children; there was always the awareness that I was supposed to prevent selfishness on their part. And the guilt when I watched them and realized that in my eyes they were the most beautiful children on earth; I wasn’t permitted to love them more than anyone else, but I did.

  2. Your story brings back many memories and makes me think how easy I had it by comparison. I once had an “(ex-)cult veterans support group” going for people like us to share experiences. At least if you were aware of your own experiences, even with difficulties you were able to take even one step towards a healthier relationship, however imperfect, with your own children. I’m guessing your experience on the basis of mine.

    Music that could be considered “heavy” or “hard” rock was of the devil of course. When attempting to deal with feelings after leaving my church(es) I sometimes found that sort of music therapeutic. The raw emotion it expressed was the very thing I needed to embrace within myself. We are all different, but for me that helped.

    I also made many mistakes trying to find the right “balance” — though “balance” can be a dirty word to an exfundamentalist since it smacks of “control” and suppression.

    Even now, years later, when at a gathering of strangers, I still find myself sometimes “amazed” at the goodness of people in their natural state, and all the goodness — the trust and the humour and the bonding — that comes from freely expressing one’s feelings.

    Naturally we need and accept certain controls for the functioning of civil society, but that’s where benign “self-interest” kicks in as our control. We don’t need to fear gods and devils and attempt to control ourselves in some imaginary war to save ourselves from being collateral damage in the war between them.

  3. Neil Godfrey;

    “Music that could be considered “heavy” or “hard” rock was of the devil of course. When attempting to deal with feelings after leaving my church(es) I sometimes found that sort of music therapeutic. The raw emotion it expressed was the very thing I needed to embrace within myself.”

    A very enlightening comment. It may explain, to me, some of my current tastes in music. Music that touches the emotions, music that hurts, somehow, but is at the same time, comforting; the pain is shared.

    Something to think about.

  4. That’s it, better than my sweeping “hard/heavy rock” — certain songs of John Lennon, Sting, Billie Holliday became favourites in the deepest hurting times, no doubt at least as much for their emotional and life experience resonances as for their musical qualities. But also including Blues that could make one laugh and grin too — classical music smacked of too much control. Not enough room to laugh in classical compositions and one needs to laugh a lot when stepping out of the coffin of religion to begin real life.

  5. “…one needs to laugh a lot when stepping out of the coffin of religion…

    Yes. Laugh. Waste time. Make silly jokes. Be ridiculous. Dance. Even if you never really learned how.

    I learned to love jazz; the sense of freedom as each player expresses his delight in the music, and the range of emotions it can carry.

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