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How to Heal the Trauma of Leaving Your Religion

Leaving a childhood religion is one of the most difficult things a person can experience within their lifetime. I know this because I lived it.

Removing myself from the LDS faith—the religion one ancestor allegedly crossed the Atlantic to be part of—remains a difficult yet powerful part of my story.

It caused me to question every element of who I was and why I existed. Everything I had once known about myself and the world around me was officially up for grabs.

And while there was trauma around parts of this experience, there was extraordinary elation. I was starting fresh. A blank slate was before me and I was writing the narrative:

What do I believe?

What is my purpose?

Why do I do what I do?

All of it was my own reasoning, not someone else’s checklist for me.

Today, I am a wholly better person for the experience. My physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health are unlike anything I could have imagined ten years ago.

But the road has been hard. Leaving the religion of my childhood was fraught with buried resentment, loneliness, and frustration.

So how have I arrived at this place of peace? A state of genuine joy and contentment in the life I have created for myself.

It takes time

On multiple occasions, I thought I had made it through. That the rocky spots were officially behind me. These were, of course, followed by me hitting an emotional pothole and realizing that I still had much to unearth.

When you first leave religion, you feel the earthquake. The ground you walk on has been shaken and you are unsure if you will ever find your footing again. But as the adage goes; time heals all things. The aftershocks become further apart and you learn to trust the world you live in a little more, moment by moment.

Acknowledge that healing is a process. It will certainly not come overnight, and will likely arrive in the form of steps—each one building upon the other until you have reached the ultimate vantage point. An elevated place where you have a grand perspective of where you’ve been and what the world around you really looks like.

With the grace of time, you will heal. Sure, there will be a scar, but it is beautiful. It will remind you of what you’ve been through. That you are brave and you are strong. And with time, this newer stronger, and slightly scarred version of yourself will move forward and find comfort and belonging in this world that you have daringly created. Trust the process.

Religious trauma is a thing

Understanding that you have likely experienced trauma prior to or from the transition is an important element on the road to recovery. The word trauma refers to any event or long-term circumstances that fundamentally and negatively alter our beliefs about ourselves, others, and the world around us. It is fair to say that the common fallout of removing ourselves from a religion fits into this camp.

Religious trauma can form over time through damaging messages regarding one’s self, societal expectations, and relationships with God. These messages might come from church leaders or family. Significant distress can also result from the pure upheaval of past beliefs, the once familiar environment, and existing relationships. The latter being the most challenging for many.

Trauma will generally affect our ability to trust others and our capacity to believe that we can rely on them for support. If you are leaving the religion of your youth, you will likely face uncertainty when it comes to trusting your family of origin. This does not necessarily mean they are wholly untrustworthy. It simply means you sense they cannot provide you with the empathy you require at this time. And you may very well be correct in this feeling. If you are at odds with a partner, the same can occur. This lack of trust in those we have historically relied upon will leave you energetically thirsty with inadequate means to quench your need for emotional safety.

Comparative suffering prevents growth

If you feel guilty that you are having a difficult time with this life change or you are downplaying the pain that you have experienced, you are likely battling comparative suffering. This counterproductive practice gives way to the idea that your distress is nothing compared to someone else’s. Perhaps you have people that love and care for you, though they may be unsupportive. This lack of support would then be undermined by focusing on someone who has been completely disowned by their family. Comparing your pain to someone else’s does not help you grow and heal. Only when we acknowledge what we feel and are experiencing as valid can we begin to overcome our state of despair.

Trust yourself

It is a common thread for those who leave their religion to question their decision. This is natural and makes sense, especially if your family or society remains closely linked to that religion. We often give other people more credit than they deserve, while simultaneously undermining our own.

Have I made the wrong decision?

If this is so right, why am I struggling?

Instead of lingering in your uncertainty, take time to focus on why you chose to leave this religion or why you are considering it. I suggest writing these down. This simple act of putting pen to paper is proven to better transition thoughts into knowledge and practice. Let your intuition guide you and lean into the nuances of feeling over exclusive logic.

"We often give other people more credit than they deserve, while simultaneously undermining our own."

Avoid resentment

It is all too easy to blame someone for the hardships we are experiencing. After all, there is likely someone you could point the finger at for sending you to Sunday school every week for the first eighteen years of your life. However, lingering in bitterness for too long will hinder your personal growth.

Above all, it is important to remember that a person can only know as much as they know. If your mother was raised in a strict Christian home, then proceeded to raise you with the same intensity that she understood, it is difficult to hold her accountable for not giving you more agency during adolescence. Focus on where they got it right, or at least what you personally gained from the hardship. Like many plants, our roots have the opportunity to grow stronger under harsh circumstances.

If you feel it is necessary to discuss or write a letter to a loved one regarding your feelings, do so. This could be a powerful step toward addressing where you may feel wronged and what you will need from them moving forward. However, do this at a time when you feel emotionally stable, meaning you are able to recognize feelings of significant anger, resentment, or sadness. I use the term recognize because overcoming these feelings will be a much longer process. Instead, if you at least acknowledge that your emotions are coming in hot and heavy, you can consciously be wary of your words and mindset, allowing you to set the pen down for a different day or withdraw the conversation for the time being.

Discover a new belief system: Yourself

Many people who leave their religion cannot help but to feel a gaping hole. They want to fill it with some other form of belief. This is perfectly expected behavior. However, before rushing to the nearest temple, recognize that there is no rush. It is safe to not know the answers to all of life’s mysteries. Allow yourself to breathe in the present. Most religion encourages us to dwell on the past and worry about the future. Release that thinking and just be.

Take this time to learn about yourself.

Who am I?

What do I believe about life itself?

What is the most important thing this life has to teach me?

What have I gained from my trials?

What am I holding onto that I could release?

Meditate on these and any other questions that come to mind. And if you're like I once was, and find it difficult to focus your mind, especially in the midst of silence, I recommend freehand journaling. This is such an easy and impactful method of meditation. Simply grab a notepad and a good pen. Set a timer for ten to thirty minutes when you will be undistracted and begin writing down everything that is in your head. No filter. You may arrive at the session with a question in mind, but don't be surprised if you divert into other queries and revelations. Just go with it. By the end, you will have moved the chaos of your thoughts and feelings onto the paper, allowing you to better organize them and sort through the mass of information.

"Most religion encourages us to dwell on the past and worry about the future. Release that thinking and just be."

Join a support group

This is perhaps the most important thing you can do. However, joining a support group does not necessarily have to be an official group. Rather, people you know you align with in enough aspects of life.

I was fortunate enough to have my husband and his family of origin as my support group. However, I still longed for a larger circle of people outside of this who I could talk to and comfortably associate with. The city we moved to was still roughly fifty percent LDS, which was an improvement from the ninety percent in which I was raised. However, it remained a challenge to find individuals I aligned with ideologically. Eventually, though, I found my people. Most are LDS, but we share similar principles or political and social beliefs. While others have also removed themselves from the dominant faith of my home state, leaving us with much to talk about and a great sense of belonging.

The thing that is so important about having a support group is it lets you know you are not alone. That you are not the crazy one. Your support group will sustain you, and equally, you will be a buoy for them as well, and that is a wonderful gift.

See a coach or counselor

If you are struggling to find a group of people or person who you can confide in, or if you are battling with excessive shame, anger, anxiety, or the barrage of emotions that can come as the result of leaving religion, it may be time to seek professional help.

I recommend coaches or counselors who have experience in religious trauma. A simple Google search will reveal this information. You can also set up a coaching session with me. Supporting those who have left their religion is something I feel deeply about. With over a decade of managing this in my own life, it has been a joy to support others in this transition. Through our session, each person can learn to trust themselves again—or for the first time—and create the boundaries they need to maintain healthy relationships with their loved ones.

More resources for those leaving religion

​My favorite book on making brave decisions.

A book for making positive thinking a daily practice.

​A beautiful journal for your meditations.

Former Christian Fundamentalist discusses recovery.

By reading these thoughts and ideas thoroughly, you will gain a better sense of what you need to make the transition out of your religion and into the truth stirs within you. And please know that whatever the hardship you are facing in this moment, you are not alone. There are so many more people like you. If you are feeling lonely in this challenge, please don't hesitate to reach out. I am here for you.

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