Monday, May 7, 2012

Redrawing Boundaries

My journey out of Mormonism has sometimes been a mixed bag, bringing both positive and negative changes to my life. One of the unfortunate negative changes is that I occasionally experience anxiety attacks whenever I have to talk to someone in my ward or when someone in my family tries to talk to me about the church. It's especially worse when someone stops by my house unannounced from my ward to talk with me.

I recognize on an intellectual level that the anxiety I experience is somewhat irrational. Nearly all of the time, these meetings turn out to be no big deal and are fairly harmless. The people I interact with usually have a genuine concern for my well-being and are not out to attack me. Nevertheless, I still experience sensations like a rapid heartbeat, dry mouth, mild sweatiness, and my body flushes with stress/attack hormones every time I have one of these encounters. My thoughts become intensely negative when someone from the ward sets up an appointment with me. My mind immediately jumps to the worst possible conclusions about their purpose for meeting with me and how the meeting will go. I always anticipate the worst. For this reason, I make an effort to avoid my ward members as much as I can and I try to dodge any inquiries my family makes about the church.

Obviously this stuff isn't good for my mental or physical health and it's not possible to avoid all of these encounters. For that reason, I'd like to learn how to better manage these anxiety attacks. One thing I've been doing is engaging in some self-reflection in order to understand what is at the root of this anxiety. I'm sure there's lots of different reasons why I experience anxiety: my propensity for pessimism, perhaps some mild social anxiety, and a fear of not being in full control of the situation (since I have a strong need to feel in control). But I recently had an epiphany that a big part of it comes from the concept of boundaries.

Most healthy people recognize the value of creating reasonable boundaries for themselves. They set boundaries for what they will and will not share about themselves with other people until there is a certain level of trust and intimacy in the relationship. They recognize that there are some things which are public and some things which are private. They set boundaries for what they will and will not do in certain social situations. Healthy people learn how to communicate to other people about those boundaries in ways that will hopefully not make other people defensive. It's a balancing act between being honest and showing respect. It's about being assertive and having a good sense of one's self in relation to other people. Lastly, healthy people also show respect for other people's boundaries. When someone tells them what their boundary is, they try not to cross it. They know that no means no.

I've realized that when I was a Mormon, I had no sense of how to create healthy boundaries for myself. That's partly because there's potentially a thin line between keeping some things private and lying. I definitely think that it's wrong to deliberately deceive or mislead people, particularly when withholding the truth will do harm to others. But I've also learned that there are times when it is fully appropriate not to disclose information about yourself unless you feel comfortable doing so. There are just some things that are really nobody's business until they've earned your trust---especially things like your private religious beliefs and practices. My experience in Mormonism might be different from others, but I internalized that it was dishonest and immoral to keep things about myself private, especially my beliefs. That's partly because Mormonism strongly emphasizes the public declaration of your private beliefs in church settings such as testimony meetings. Missionaries boldly knock on doors declaring their testimonies to anyone who will listen. You're also expected to fully disclose private beliefs or practices in counsels with bishops and other religious leaders with whom you may or may not have a personal relationship. To refuse to be fully candid with a religious leader would be looked upon as a sign of guilt, of having something to hide.

There might be an element of gender training at work here too, but I also internalized that it was wrong to say no if someone asked you to do something. In Mormonism, you are strongly encouraged to say yes to every calling that is extended to you. You are expected to help out whenever you are asked to serve and to do so without any complaint. You covenant in LDS temples to consecrate anything and everything that the church asks from you with no exceptions. If you are a woman, you are taught regularly that it's your job to sacrifice and give service to your children and your husband, putting their needs ahead of your own. In other words, there's not very many times when it's appropriate to say no in church culture. It's seen as rude, rebellious, or selfish to set boundaries for what you will or will not do. When people ask, you give. No boundaries. No exceptions. No personal customization. No negotiations.

I'm sure there are some fully active, believing Mormons out there who have figured out how to set healthy boundaries for themselves in spite of church culture. But somehow I wasn't one of them. Only now do I understand that it is healthy and reasonable to know your limitations and communicate them to others. Only now do I realize that it is healthy and normal to keep some things private. But I only understand it on an intellectual level; my emotions haven't quite caught up yet. I still feel anxiety, stress, guilt and shame when I set and enforce my personal boundaries. It still feels wrong to me on a gut level. It's probably going to take a while to de-program myself. But hopefully I will get there eventually.


  1. I love your blog. Out of all the support material I can read online, your blog seems to be most in tune to where I'm at right now. What I've found is that Home teachers have stopped coming to our home. I specifically had said to my Bishop that I would welcome them for the benefit of my wife (TBM). But lo and behold, none have been in almost two months.
    Funny how any decision that is foreign to all the ward members automatically makes you "dangerous" in some way. I think you should rest easy, your ward members also might be avoiding you like the plague. Heaven forbid they get tainted by your Satan-infested soul ;-). Keep it up. Love reading your stuff.

  2. Thank so much for the kind words, Clayton. I'm glad that you've been enjoying the blog. Now that the summer is here, I should have time to post a little bit more regularly.

    It's also nice to hear that eventually the ward visits will stop. That's what I'm hoping for: to just eventually just be left alone---either because they've just forgotten about me or they don't want to be "tainted" by me. I don't have a preference just as long as it leads to the end result of having some privacy.

    In the meantime, I decided to have a quick visit with a therapist this week to get some advice on how to manage an anxiety attack when it happens. This blog entry was posted after I experienced an hour long panic attack caused by my dad. He called me out of the blue to set up a lunch appointment with me, which almost always means he wants to lecture me about the church. Hopefully the therapist will provide me with some good strategies for managing the stress of my upcoming lunch appointment. :)

    1. I have had anxiety attacks before and know what they feel like. I can't imagine having them caused by family though. Luckily, my entire family is non members, as was I for the first 24 1/2 years of my life. Unfortunately when my life hit a rough patch, the only people I knew in the small town I live in are Mormon. They snatched me right up. Now, post temple-marriage, I find myself a lone wolf facing a bitter pack. My wife and I are trying to work through it, but its like punching gravity because she is dyed in the wool and so are her parents, who also live in town. I have a small handful of non-member friends in this town and being the outcast is awkward at best and physically discomforting at worst. Let me know how things go with the therapist. I'll be rooting for ya. And keeping my head down ;-)