Growing up Fundamentalist - recovery

As a convert, even with good teachers, they were equipped more to guard against “worldly” dangers rather than those of religion. They had words for why you shouldn’t have sex before marriage, but no words for those of us who were taught that having a crush was tantamount to fornication. And the scars are often deeper because the thing we were taught looked good on the surface. Faith, chastity, service, all these things - they are good and yet they were twisted so badly.

Many of us still struggle immensely. Discussions that can be innocent for others are fraught with pain, and warnings against sin can quickly become crushing burdens when mixed with such a background. Even the things of faith can sometimes be painful reminders, things fraught with guilt and shame for not being good enough. Comments about how you need to be doing this or that when you honestly may not even know what you’re talking about. Sometimes it can feel very like speaking a foreign language - words just didn’t mean the same thing. Teachings are difficult to understand, or seem impossible to live out, because the way you used concepts is so different in ways that aren’t obvious unless they can be spelled out explicitly.

Secular counseling can’t answer, because it doesn’t know how to handle faith and tends to come down as whatever you believe is ok. Priests and other religious counselors don’t know what the life warped by such teachings is like and don’t know how to handle it.

So how do you recover? How do you learn to live out faith when your conscience screams at you that you’re sinning every step you take? How do you live when you’re trying for a goal it often seems you don’t understand, when you can’t tell the difference between a sin and a necessity?

First of all, I am so sorry about the confusion, anxiety and mixed emotions brought up due to your faith.

Some (not all) fundamentalist groups share cult like characteristics and are very difficult to extricate oneself from. It’s like the person has to be deconstructed and reconstructed mentally, spiritually and emotionally.

You have obviously been through a lot. I would recommend seeing a psychologist who is practicing a faith whether it be mainstream christian/Catholic/Jew or Muslim etc. In your current state looking for a new church group could be detrimental. Rebuild your mental and emotional strength then a spiritual home will follow.

God bless you. :gopray:

I’ve not had luck with psychologists - I’ve been to plenty, including Christian ones, and they don’t know anything more than I do. They’re either so delicate around issues of faith that they can’t say anything, or too committed to principles that they label things that are part of the Catholic faith as bad.

I have no personal experience with this at all. But I do remember one time saying to a priest in confession that I was feeling guilty for something that I had done long ago that had long since been forgiven. The priest told me that it was the devil who was trying to tempt me to dispair. It couldn’t be God or an actual guilty conscious because that sin had been forgiven in confession. It was instantaneous - the guilt disappeared and I haven’t felt guilty about that since (shame/regret never completely goes away… but the irrational guilt is gone).

Mine was an intellectual experience; the priest was able to reason with me to help me understand how Satan tempts us to feeling guilty about things that we shouldn’t. I wonder if it would help you to take the one or two aspects of your post-fundamentalist life that bring you most anxiety and really study them in depth so that you can really reason your way out of your false guilt. For example, dancing, or finding someone attractive, or drinking wine in moderation - these things are all fine but I imagine they may cause someone who was taught otherwise to really feel guilty about them. So take one of them and read up (in good, Catholic sources!) why it’s not sinful and can actually glorify the Lord. Then when you start feeling guilty later, you have the interior resources needed to tell yourself, “No, drinking wine in moderation is fine. The Lord changed water into wine at Cana. He gives His very Blood to us under the appearances of wine. This is not wrong.” and maybe the guilt will cease.

Maybe this will help–or maybe it won’t. Your misplaced guilt is not entirely wrong. We’re not good enough and we are guilty of some wrongs–but Jesus is good enough and He’s innocent.

We rely on Jesus to save us. I’m pretty sure Fundamentalist Christians hold to that theology that we are saved by Jesus. Catholics hold to that belief too. We cannot save ourselves. We need God’s grace and mercy. God is merciful. He is good. Trust in Him for your salvation, not yourself.

It sounds like you are prone towards despairing. Trust in God. He loves you and He’s the Way to recovery.

I’m so sorry for the struggles that you have. I can imagine it would be very hard to find a therapist that can help with something like this.

I think you should at least search out a good solid Catholic spiritual advisor that can help you work out your conscience. You may have to try a few different priests out but you don’t necessarily need to find one that understands the background that you were raised in but one who can help guide you as the Catholic that you are now. Trial and error, but hopefully you can find that priest.

Also, I know there are support websites out there for people like you who have left these strict Fundamentalist sects. Of course the problem is many of them are plagued by people who are bitter towards religion altogether (which is completely understandable) but that’s not going to be helpful to you. Hopefully there are some out there that are gears more towards people who have left for a more mainstream Christian or Catholic faith. I would be willing to bet there are thousands of people out there who are in your shoes and dealing with the same struggles. You just need to find them so you can all lean on each other for support. KWIM?

Prayers for healing for you! Just keep reminding yourself that no matter what you do or how/when you fail, there is always the Confessional. That’s what’s so great about being Catholic. We have that very wonderful Sacrament where we can seek forgiveness and Grace and we don’t have to despair about falling back into sin over and over and over.

It takes time. A LOT of time. It’s a never-ending process, but it does get better.

What actually helped me the most was to question everything. I spent a lot of time in Al-Anon after I first left home (my mother is an alcoholic, too). In Al-Anon, I met people from every walk of life. Many of them were very kind-hearted but also very secular in their outlook. One of Al-Anon’s slogans is to “take what you like and leave the rest.” My sponsor, for example, didn’t believe in the Judeo-Christian idea of God, and, in fact, believed in a warm, loving, maternal, female god. (Not pagan, exactly–more a concept of a god than anything else.) Obviously, I disagreed with her on the theology aspect, but I examined my own beliefs in light of hers and readjusted mine where they no longer made sense.

For example, I thought of God as a kind of ancient boogeyman, lurking around the corner to jump on you when you did something wrong so that He could gleefully send you to Hell. Not true, of course, but when your parents are pretty much exactly like that, you get that idea about God. When she described her “god” to me, I liked some things about that “god” idea–someone who loved me very much and cared about me, someone who would protect me, someone who would sit with me when I was hurt–and asked myself why my God wasn’t like that. The answer, of course, was that He is like that; I was just conflating my experience with my parents as my understanding of God. As a result, I could see God as someone who loved me and cared for me unconditionally, and when the bad times came, as they inevitably did, I found it slightly easier to lean on Him.

Another thing that helped was talking about my experiences, especially to other people who also escaped. A lot of people who grew up in the sort of thinking that you described are, as another poster pointed out, very bitter about religion as a whole. What I needed to do was to talk to people who understood where I’d come from but who were still capable of seeing what little good there was in it. I don’t condemn all of Catholicism, for example, because my parents were very extreme examples of it: after all, I wouldn’t condemn any group for a few people in the group who didn’t follow its teachings well anyway, so why would I do so with religion?

I’ve mentioned before helping people who were in that movement to get out and start their own lives. That’s one of the most freeing and healing things for me. In any twelve-step program, the last part of it is to help other people find their way to healing and hope, and there’s a reason for that: it not only helps the person being helped, but it gives the helper hope, and we who come from abusive religious backgrounds but who want to continue drawing closer to God despite that really need hope.

On a practical note for discernment of sinfulness in an area, I have found two things to be helpful. For the more straightforward stuff (“Is birth control a sin?”) I use both research and logic to figure out the answer. So, for example, if I was asking if birth control is a sin (I use this topic just for an example), I’d read what the Church has to say about it (Humanae Vitae, etc) and then see if I had any rational arguments with it. If I do, I do more research or write out both sides to the argument. If I don’t, then I go with it.

For the less straightforward stuff (“Is this top too tight?” “Should I watch that movie?”) I have found it helpful to imagine what someone whose judgment I trust would say about the given subject. Probably sounds odd, but since in the family I grew up in a kiss onscreen between a married couple would be considered risqué, I know that my judgment about such things is off, so I try to model mine on someone who has a clearer picture of the whole thing.

A priest told me this once in confession: Something to keep always in mind is that God desires your salvation. He is not looking for ways to trip you up, or waiting for you to fall so that he can send you to hell. Christ died for you, and he loves you more than you can imagine.

Maybe you could find a good priest to do some spiritual direction with you; I think the ongoing help would set you on the path toward healing and peace, and help you get into healthier thinking patterns about God and sin and redemption.

The point of the Christian life is to love, not just to avoid sin. I find reading actual theologians helps, folks who explained the catholic faith that was once and for all delivered to the saints, the doctors of the Church, or other solid theologians actually trained in theology and not just sharing what they think the bible “really says”. If you’ve grown up influenced by American evangelicalism and the aberrant theologies which influenced it from enemies of this faith like John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards and Charles Spurgeon, you need to start to soak in the real gospel and not heresies like “total depravity” and other disgusting innovations from folks giving us their opinions on what the bible “really says”.

This is an excellent post.
Nothing to add but want you to know I am praying for you.

You have had a lot of excellent responses to your post already but I wanted to let you know that I will pray for you.

You are right that it is a deep spiritual wound. Don’t forget that Jesus wants you to be healthy, happy and whole.

It sounds like you are an individual that will benefit from a Spiritual Director and frequent confession.

What a painful struggle! You are being transformed by the renewing of your mind, and it will take time.

I am not sure such assumptions are always accurate. Intrusive unwanted thoughts can be treated successfully no matter what their content. A properly trained therapist can do this no matter what your religious views.

It is also not accurate to assume that priests and "other religious counselors’ don’t know what it is like, since many of us have come from fundamentalist backgrounds - perhaps not as wounded as you have been, but enough to understand the struggle. And again, intrusive and unwanted thoughts can be successfully addressed with a variety of spiritual practices, no matter what their origin.

You definitely would benefit from help, so that you are not lost in your own tortured thoughts. I suspect that God already has a plan for you, and you only need to discover it, so I strongly urge you to search for help until you find the help you need. None of us can recover from such wounds in an isolated vaccuum.

I totally relate. I could have written OP’s post at different points in my life.

Remember that recovery is a process. It’s not a “one-time” thing.

I also know what you mean about therapists, they get weird sometimes when it comes to religion.

I still struggle when people get legalistic about faith because it’s not just about rules, but attitude. Are you sincerely trying to follow Christ is more important to me than have you prayed X number of times today.

I don’t have any words of wisdom, but I wanted to let you know that I do understand how things can get twisted and then when you are talking with “normal people” (who aren’t trying to twist and manipulate things) about your experiences, they just don’t seem to understand. They don’t have that experience, so they just can’t relate.

You both are using the same language, but the words and meaning are two very different things.

Again, .

Have you tried connecting with some of the blogs online of people who are sharing your same experience like recoveringgrace and homeschoolersanonymous?

I have some experience in fundamentalism and reading other people’s stories has helped.

This is the hardest part, in my experience. It’s not just the constant feeling of guilt, but the sense that you just don’t know how to do many of the things that you’re supposed to do. A lot of terms like “modesty” or “forgiveness” or “charity” just didn’t mean the same thing as they did in other places.

So, for example, when I was growing up, the concept of charity meant giving to your church. The only acceptable charity towards those outside the church was evangelism. Giving to those living in sin meant participating in their sin. One could not so much as give a meal to a starving gay couple without first demanding that they give up their lifestyle. To do otherwise was putting “worldly” things over saving souls, to save someone’s body while damning them to hell. This was just totally normal to me - it took a year after my confirmation, 2 years after I started attending a Catholic church, to realize this wasn’t how Catholics behaved.

Gossip and judgementalism is another big one for me. The way I grew up, looking around and being scandalized by the state of the world and what other people are doing was just how good Christians behaved. The opposite was also true; you had to show a perfect face all the time, because if you were seen as anything short of perfect you were a bad reflection on Christianity. No being depressed or upset, because that will make people think Christians are all sad people who are missing out. And then they’ll go to hell and it’ll be all your fault. Now I recognize that’s a bit much, but it’s still very hard to both keep my mind on my own behavior and not that of others, and to not mind too much what people think of me when I’m so used to that being critically important.

It sounds like you are making sure and steady progress DarkLight.

Do you study the lives of the Saints? Most of them felt very out of place in their cultures and even their families.


Are you familiar with Elizabeth Esther? She grew up in a fundamentalist cult and converted to Catholicism as an adult. She wrote a book about her childhood experiences:

Perhaps you could identify with her journey?

PS: The book is called:

“Girl at the End of the World: My Escape from Fundamentalism in Search of Faith with a Future”

You are not alone!

In many ways having people who understand and can explain things to your specific needs is one of the hardest parts. So for example many people have a horrified reaction to any hint of permissiveness when it comes to modesty. But then you look back at the standards you grew up with, and obviously that’s not what they do, even if that looks like the logical conclusion of what they’re saying. So normal people might even agree, with, say, the statement that “women should do what they can to prevent men from lusting after them.” If you haven’t dealt with fundamentalism that’s a pretty innocent-sounding statement. I’ve had people I’d generally otherwise respected who would say things like that, or would say things like “wow isn’t it great that some people have such high standards?”

And it’s confusing because it often seems like trying to figure out a topic without triggering a giant war and people’s fears of their values being threatened is next to impossible.

This. Ohhhhh, yeah, this.

I ran into this recently with my MIL. A little background: I’m a singer, and have a degree in music.

Her: Did you sing in choirs when you were a kid?

Now, this is a perfectly innocuous question. It’s a bit loaded for me, though, because my parents didn’t allow us to socialize with more than a very rare and chosen few kids (and then only with a lot of supervision) lest we be led astray by evil worldly influences. :rolleyes: As a result, my siblings and I are, to varying degrees, very socially awkward.

In an effort to get to know her better and vice versa, I’ve been trying to be honest but not share TMI with her about my childhood, which can be a rather fine line.

Me: No, not really.

Her: Oh, why not?

Me: My parents didn’t let us do that kind of thing. They were the kind of homeschoolers who believed in not having their kids socialize with others very much; they didn’t want us exposed to other children.

Also background: she knows that my parents were abusive to the point that we have no contact with them. They don’t even know they have a granddaughter.

Her: Well, it is a really good idea to monitor your kids’ friends.


I don’t think any reasonable person would disagree with that. Thing is, there’s a world of difference between knowing who your kids are playing with/keeping an eye on things and not allowing your kids more than a rare friendship, and that usually based on if their parents were politically aligned with you. Just hearing her say that–she probably meant well–made me clench up and go into a silent, futile rage because it is SO difficult to explain this to anyone who didn’t grow up in it without coming off as crazy.

Yes, so true.

Some people absolutely do not understand what it’s like to suffer childhood in a crazy household, they just don’t. It is beyond their comprehension. And they say things that in their world make sense, but in our world is just insane. And you know, wouldn’t it be nice to be that oblivious??? What a blessing they have not knowing what you have endured.

I think we need be discerning about what we tell to whom.

Also, I think God brings people into our lives who do understand, who can help us, but it’s not everyone. I knew I had an understanding friend when she told me her mom slit her wrists when she was 15 and she found her mom on the bathroom floor. She picked her up and drove her to the hospital, where she recovered. Later her mom killed herself with pills. I knew this was a person who understood pain.

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