As a bridge between my series on religious trauma and the upcoming series on the patriarchy, I’d like to share a personal reflection on my own experiences. It illustrates how entrenched both of those systems can be in our lives – even when we think we’ve made a lot of internal progress. Subconscious beliefs can be super powerful motivators of behavior, but bringing these beliefs to light can help change our relationship with them.
Before diving in, I’d like to acknowledge (as I often do) that our experiences of religious trauma and patriarchy are incredibly relative compared to a global scale. The levels of religious (or unreligious!) freedom and the opportunities I as a woman have access to are unsurpassed by so many places in the world. But could we do better? Most definitely. I would just like to hold a little space here for people globally who will likely never know the freedoms I experience, and express gratitude for that. You can be grateful and still wish things were better, at the same exact time.
On a recent NARM training weekend, I was acting as client (and as myself) for another therapist trainee. I was exploring some surface-level content in my mock session that, naturally, didn’t take long to turn into a deeper dive. Just for some context, the topic was some big career shifts I’ll be making that involve risk, valuing myself, believing in myself, and pursuing my dreams (yes, I’ll share more on all this later). I was hitting on some core messages around the idea of worth. You see, if there is something I want, something good, something that has me putting my desires first, I have a huge complex about it. I feel like I can’t have it. These are the messages I hear in my head: “You don’t deserve that.” “Are you really worth it?”
There is a critical voice that I carry around with me that 100% believes I am not truly deserving of good things. It questions my worthiness. If I have something good, something desirable, this part of me feels guilty that I am “allowed” to have that; that I might be so spoiled as to have such a lovely thing. It comes up with constant reasons why I shouldn’t pursue such things.
This voice is considerably less strong than it was a decade or more ago, back when I was still a very good evangelical or at least trying to be a very good Christian… or at the very least, a very good person (as my faith shattered around me). Honestly, I thought I’d done a lot of work on it and was surprised in my NARM weekend to hear it pop back up in such a powerful way. Turns out some of these messages (or as we call them in NARM, “strategies” that keep us connected with internalized attachment figures) are pretty sticky.
I am quite sure this belief arises from multiple places, but as I sat with it, I felt especially powerful religious overtones from it.
The idea of “being a good person” is a very strong behavioral motivator! (it especially appeals to my Enneagram 1 wing that is very insistent that I should be good, moral, and beyond reproach). Obviously, I do think it’s important to be a decent person. But there’s a difference between being a decent person, and not believing that you’re deserving of good things.
What my religious training, and many of yours, taught me is that no matter how hard I try, I’m never going to be a truly good person because sinfulness and fallenness are at my core. I was taught that I don’t deserve goodness, including heaven or eternal salvation, but God took pity on me anyway and sent Jesus to die the painful death that I deserved. And that the only reason God can accept me now is because He sees Jesus and not my sinful original version of myself.
Obviously, as I wrote about in a previous post, I no longer believe this and find this staple doctrine of many kinds of Christianity to be very psychologically harmful. But the idea of not being deserving can really stick around, even long after faith deconstruction.
Additionally, the church culture I grew up in emphasized how nothing you have really belongs to you. Discussions about tithing to the church at 10% (pretax, if you were really a super Christian) were pretty commonplace, and of course it was a no-brainer that you should be freely giving your time volunteering for the church as well. Everything you own, all your time, and all your gifts belong to God, they said!
While on the one hand I truly appreciate the sentiment of non-materiality — holding belongings and money loosely, giving freely – this philosophy I was taught really complicated my relationship with money. For a long, long time, I felt guilty for buying… well, practically anything. It also seems that when churches emphasize messages like this, the people who truly take it to heart are the people who in actuality probably need a balancing message of “don’t forget to take care of yourself.” Somehow, these messages roll right off the backs of people who could stand to be more generous and compassionate.
Combining the two beliefs: you’re not a worthy person plus you don’t have any rights to stuff or time anyway, makes for some internal battles in a pretty sensitive, easily guilted person like myself. Money, notions of sacrifice, and feelings of guilt are tender, difficult topics I’ve done a lot of wrestling with. I’ve gotten a lot better, as friends who have known me for a decade could attest (lol!!), but this money ethos really permeated my mind.
Let’s flip to observing how internalized patriarchy affects these core messages. Now, I’ve never been a man, but my understanding from observing them and reading a lot is that they are often far better at advocating for what they want and just claiming it. It’s mind-boggling, really. It’s like no one has been up in their ears all the time whispering to them that everyone else’s needs have to come first.
Oh right, that’s the messaging that women get. Duh. 🤦♀️
The patriarchy, as we’ll discuss in much greater detail in later posts, is a system where men systematically hold more power and control. It sends messaging to men that they are entitled to this – entitled to power, respect, control, women’s submission, and in general a society that functions according to their needs. Women, of course, receive similar messaging but in reverse – constant reminders that they are seen as a little less powerful, respectable, authoritative. Deserving of a little less, and certainly not entitled to a society that operates around their needs. (ugh, don’t even get me started on our lack of paid family leave…)
So as a woman, I’ve been conditioned to de-prioritize my needs and consider the needs of my family or community first. And I really do think this is an amazing superpower that women have! It’s just that so often, we’ve lost how to identify, respect, and tend to our needs – and the situations we find ourselves in are often uninterested in supporting this, either. I actually love working with women clients (they’re so often moms, too!) on this very topic.
But what would it be like if I’d had someone whispering in my ear that I am allowed to say what I want and go after it? I don’t want to be on the dominating side of the patriarchy, but gosh, it sure would be nice to have that sense of confidence that I can pursue that dream I have. And to have a sense of confidence that I can succeed at going after the thing, because I am smart and capable and the world is willing to cooperate with me.
Just imagine what it would be like to have all that ingrained!
And I have to acknowledge there’s a whole lot of -isms that we’re not even mentioning that I don’t have working against me, too: racism and ableism and homophobia and geez, even my being tall gives me an advantage of seeming more authoritative. We’re nuanced enough around here where we can hold all these complicated things together, though.
Back to NARM
What NARM offered me that day was an opportunity to recognize a core message (“strategy”) that was not serving me and work with my emotions around it. To realize there was some sadness I felt that way, and some anger that people had been telling me that I didn’t deserve good things. And it offered a chance to change my mind around these beliefs: my adult (mature, conscious) self DOES believe in my own worth and thinks I’m deserving of good things. There’ll be a tension, a back-and-forth, of remembering that and slipping back into old beliefs, but the more I’m aware of this pattern, the more I can consciously choose how I do want to live.
My work with lots of (mostly women, many religious) clients has shown me that so many of us struggle with these same beliefs and same patterns. My hope in sharing these reflections with you today is that some of you might see some of your own patterns in what I’ve described, and it might give you a chance to think differently about what you want or can have. I think you may resonate with some of these themes, and maybe by becoming more aware, we can all start to change these deeply ingrained patterns and beliefs.