You want to be authentic with your loved ones and friends. You crave to be understood. Maybe you don’t know where to start?
Before reading the sample “talk” I’ve created below, I want to be clear that it’s purpose is not to persuade/advise you one way or the other toward a particular course of action: staying, leaving, walking a middle way, all of these are valid paths, and only you know what’s best for your life. I’ve seen clients thrive in all of these scenarios and my job as a psychologist is to help you sort that through for yourself.
These processes take time and there’s no rush to have decided, and even when you decide, you are free to change your mind later. I’ve just seen too many people suffering with anxiety about this particular issue, so I put together a tool for those who have already decided to be open with their extended family and/or friends about their faith journey (whatever that looks like in their own life). Most clients that I work with feel a lot of fear at the mere prospect of opening up, so having something concrete to build upon and adapt to their specific circumstances can be anxiety-relieving. Research shows after the first time you do it, it gets easier over time and is usually not as bad as you feared. That surge of boldness and being yourself feels so empowering afterward, that people tend to do it more often.
So, to be clear: I’m not recommending everyone do this. And in fact, in some cases (such as when you have extended family with personality disorder/mental health issues) the process gets infinitely more complicated. Only you can decide what’s/when’s right for you. You don’t owe anyone an explanation, so it all depends on if and how much you want to share. It’s your journey. But for those who have already thought about this and have decided that being open about their journey is right for them, as a clinician I have seen as a trend that letters/talks like this historically go well when they are:
- Short in explaining where you’re at initially–think brief core statement. Even 1-2 sentences/minutes.
- NOT trying to persuade them to your point of view. If you realize that “converting” them is one of your motives, consider putting a pin in this until you’re at more peace with the fact that they might not ever change (as you may already know, persuasion tends to backfire)
- Rough outline-wise:
- Intro inviting love/compassion/empathy
- The brief core statement itself (see #1)
- Healthy boundaries (one sentence to a paragraph or two–I included a longer boundary section in the sample just in case–it will depend on how good your relationship already is at the time of this interaction, and how much boundary formation/keeping you need. You could even split it up and save this part for later)
- Conclusion reiterating your hope to continue a loving relationship in spite of differences of opinion.
Here is a sample: Rather than copying and pasting, if you do decide it is useful, please edit/add/delete/adapt as you see fit:
Dear _____________, (if letter)
Because I love you and want to share my innermost feelings with those I’m close to, I’m writing this letter (having this conversation now, if doing this in person). The last thing I want is to cause you pain–at the same time, I know you love me and want me to be happy. You wouldn’t want me to be miserable if I stopped short of leading the kind of authentic life that I/we (if married) feel is right for me because I was worried how you would react. I know you–and I know how you’d feel if you thought you were holding me back, and would want me to be myself. And so that’s why I’m telling you now about my faith journey. I honor where you stand with your faith and would never want to take that away from you. So please don’t ever worry I will try to convince you of anything, I never will. I only am telling you where I am at in my journey so I can share my whole self with you, that is my sole purpose. (End of A.)
I am (B. brief core statement here):
- stepping away for now/taking a break from church. OR
- still committed to church activity, but I find myself having a nuanced perspective on _____________ that I intend to live by. OR
- having questions/concerns about _________________________. OR
- done. OR
- (an infinite number of statements could fit here, only you can decide what you will say)
I imagine you may feel the rug has been ripped out from under you, hearing where I’m at. If you any questions about specifics, let me know, but if not that’s ok too. I have no intention to convince you of anything. I can see you are happy/content and respect your beliefs. I am happy too, I/my spouse and I ___________ (are on the same page, or understand/respect each other and our marriage is strong as it ever was, I feel a closer connection and appreciation for my spouse and our children than ever before knowing that we are opening this new chapter, etc). I know it’s a common narrative that people in my shoes are unhappy, but my current state of peace has been hard-earned. I only arrived here after months of hidden/excruciating deliberation and doubting my doubts, and in fact (if this is authentic for you to say) it was my desire to come closer to God and study the scriptures/history/be a better person that brought me here. I did not intend/expect this to happen, believe me. No one wishes a faith crisis on another person, but it happened anyway, and I feel I’ve come out stronger afterward.
(C.) I would love to keep a respectful open dialogue with you so we can both feel understood, but if you’d rather not, if it’s too painful, I won’t push it. You may be worried you won’t know how to react around me, and sometimes this means people accidentally get avoided or treated differently. Given how this unintentionally happens often to others I’ve known, I would ask that you please try not to treat me, my spouse, or our kids any differently than you have. It’s normal to have conflicting feelings, but it would mean a lot to me if your loving actions toward us remain the same: I am the same person you knew the day before this conversation. My core values (family, honor, kindness, empathy, Christ, etc _______________) remain the same. I simply have changed my mind for now, so I would ask you be patient with me and continue to treat me and my children as you always have: with love, acceptance, and kindness. And I will try to do the same. I firmly believe family/friends are infinitely more important than theological differences of opinion and hope we can continue to be close.
My only other ask is that we please not argue about religion. I respect that your faith brings you happiness and I promise you I will not try to convince you (or your children, my siblings, nieces/nephews, grandkids, etc) to my way of thinking, just as I would appreciate you showing the same respect for me (and/or my children). I will never ask you to stop talking about your faith, either, as it is foundational to your life and I respect and understand that. I’m perfectly fine with you sharing church things with me (like talking about a spiritual experience you had, your service in church, etc.) as they come up naturally when we are together. I would simply ask though that you do not preach to or lecture me or my children about _____________ (examples: how we need to come back to church attendance, that living the gospel with exactness is the only way to eternal life, how we need to keep temple covenants, keeping the Sabbath day holy, modesty, Satan, the law of obedience, following the prophet, encouraging my children to get baptized, bearing your testimony directly, giving advice about returning to activity, sending us Ensign/conference talks, etc. Feel free to make a short bullet point list if you know there are going to be specific triggers).
(D.) I love you so very much and I’m so sorry to cause you any pain. I hope you will trust me over time that I’m doing what feels right for me, my family, and (if this feels genuine) for my relationship with God. These bonds have never been stronger, and I hope our bonds continue to remain strong too.
- Often a main reason (if not THE reason) people want to open up is so that they can feel understood and accepted by those they love. It’s not about persuading/convincing (or if it was at one point, hopefully not by the time you are ready to take the plunge opening up), but simply wanting someone to understand your heartache/journey/motives. While it’s true you can’t receive understanding from others unless you put yourself out there and people have the opportunity to respond to what’s going on with you—at the same time you need to be aware that you may never receive that anyway. Acceptance and love tends to be a more likely scenario than complete understanding and empathy, at least in what I’ve seen as a therapist. So before undertaking this endeavor, it’s important that you are at peace with the outcome that you might not ever feel understood afterward by those you tell. And that’s not your fault–you were brave to be vulnerable and share. You were just doing what felt right for you. From my clinical experience, sometimes people are pleasantly surprised by the empathetic reactions they receive, and do feel understood (even if their loved ones don’t agree with them). But you’ll need to make sure you are at peace with the strong possibility that a positive reaction is not forthcoming. If you recognize this and still want to take the risk, I hope this template eases some of the anxiety about getting started in thinking about your approach.
- You may feel a heavy dose of guilt and shame for pain evident in your loved one’s reactions. Their emotions will be real, and it’s important you don’t invalidate their pain to them just as I’m sure you wouldn’t want them to invalidate any pain you have felt in this process. Compassion and kindness will be key going forward. That said, it’s healthy to remember that you aren’t responsible for how your loved one reacts. It’s psychologically healthy to designate responsibility where it is due, and it’s a fact that family wouldn’t be feeling like they’ve lost or are losing you for making your own adult choices if leaders hadn’t taught them that as a reality (Satan’s influencing you, forever families are only for the obedient/church-going, etc). You cannot change their exposure to those teachings, or change how leaders teach your loved ones. Not your fault. It probably wouldn’t be helpful to try to convince them of this, but it is important to remember for your own peace of mind. That shame is not for you to bear.
If you have any questions, or you’d like feedback on your version of the letter/talk you come up with, or just want validation or a witness to your bravery, feel free to send what you’ve written and I’ll be happy to read it. I’m glad to help in any way I can. I won’t advise you want to do, but I can be a listening ear and help you follow your own advice from your inner voice, whatever that is. Contact me here.