Still Recovering from Toxic Religion: Pass That Buick in Love

It’s OK to keep evolving.

Here’s a story about being inspired and suppressing it.

This morning I got behind a slow-moving Buick on a major thoroughfare. I encountered the same dark green Buick, ten minutes before, when I was crossing a downtown street. On foot, I got up close and looked inside at three senior women – all probably in their eighties, peering out the car windows as if thoroughly lost and overwhelmed by the traffic. Now, as I now rode behind them, they slowed and stopped at every side street.

I felt bad for them – they seemed lost and confused and I’ve been there myself many times. But I also chomped at the bit – just because the sun was shining and I wanted to sail down the street, unfettered, toward Mama Jean’s Famous Tuna Salad. I thought about passing, but then got a stab of guilt. Why? What’s wrong with blowing by the Buick with a smile and a wave?

This felt familiar: feeling inspired to race ahead into a sunny adventure whilst holding back, tucked behind someone who isn’t ready to race ahead. Then I thought . . .

Why do I still do this? Hold back, feeling guilt for wanting to pass someone or say ‘no-thank-you’ to an unwanted offer or avoid a conversation I know will drag me down . . . ?

I was raised to think other people’s feelings were more important than mine . . .

 . . . that I was selfish and arrogant if I needed to be my age or to just get the hell out of someplace that didn’t feel good.

I learned in my family, my church, my Church of Christ school, that if someone is upset by your behavior, that must mean you’re doing something wrong . . . and if someone feels inferior in relation to you, you should always modify yourself, so as not to offend.

While I’d love it if everyone felt warm and fuzzy, I just can’t make that happen and stay sane.

(Yes, I used to try.) Sometimes, we just want to drive a little faster. We get inspired and seek to create or take care of ourselves instead of prioritize someone else’s perceived needs. Be a selfish ten-year-old or a teenager with her own opinions. Grow into an actor or poet when our original life script says, “blend in and be quiet.”

Being inspired doesn’t make us arrogant.

It’s creativity . . . the Divine spark . . . at work in our lives, pressing us forward into growth.

It amazes me how lifelong is this process of getting free from toxic religion. I need a special 12-step group for this. But the Buick represents yet another layer to shed. A very co-dependent layer. My stifling won’t help anybody live better . . . or help them be inspired.

Pema Chodron says when she sees someone on TV who is suffering, she takes a breath, gives a nod of respect and love in their direction . . . a kind of brief meditation for their well-being. And then she resumes her day. If I apply this to my friends in the Buick, I can pass them with love.

Move far away to follow your dreams. Love someone  your parents don’t want you to love. End a relationship that drains your life force. Start a business, take a risk, or make a mistake. Surging forward into sunshine makes us evolve.

It’s okay to shed the guilt and go.

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15 Signs of Religious Abuse: Toxic Faith, Part I


How do I know if I’m in an abusive church?

Religious abuse keeps us quiet because of the beliefs that support it. In fact, if you have difficulty with your faith tradition or your church, you probably think it’s YOU with the problem – not the spiritual guidance you’re receiving.

I felt invisible, stupid, and scared as a girl in the Church of Christ.

My autobiographical novel, Wife Material, deals with the

crazy-making and gaslighting of spiritual abuse.

A person’s faith or religious community should make them calmer, wiser, and more connected (to their higher power and the people in their life). This short list of problems might help you determine if your religion could be having the opposite effect, making you sick instead of whole. The following apply just as easily to synagogue, mosque, prayer group, or drumming circle.


You might be experiencing religious abuse if . . .

  1. You feel worse about yourself after being at services.
  2. You have doubts or diverging opinions but feel afraid to express them.
  3. The lead clergy person ignores you – or, puts a lot of social pressure on you.
  4. The leaders criticize or guilt-trip you.
  5. You feel invaded by the practices of worship (e.g., “Reach out and hug the person next to you!”).
  6. The doctrine requires you to cut ties with family or friends and make yourself more available to the group.
  7. One gender is given privilege over another.
  8. Certain racial or cultural groups are devalued or given privilege over others.
  9. Child corporal punishment is condoned or encouraged.
  10. Certain people’s voices or views are privileged, to the exclusion of others.
  11. Your sexuality is scrutinized or labeled “deviant.”
  12. You feel voiceless, unimportant, crazy, sinful, or ashamed in relation to the group.
  13. You’re told how you should think, feel, vote, or handle your personal life.
  14. You’re continually asked to sacrifice your boundaries or self-care to further the agenda of the group.
  15. You’re pressured to share more personal information with the group than you feel comfortable sharing.

Consider writing down your reactions to this post. Also, Flora Slosson Wuellner’s book, Release, is a gentle starting guide for moving out of the dis-empowerment of religious wounding and into spiritual healing. I’ll be back soon with more signs and an exercise to clarify your basic faith from the toxic religion you’ve learned.

Read Wife Material

Religion, Sex and how EMDR Therapy Can Heal Sexual Trauma

Sex, Religion, and the Ghosts in your Attic

A while back, I wrote about how our religious upbringing can pollute our sexuality. I challenged you to imagine yourself engaging in all sorts of sexual behaviors you might never want to actually do – because just thinking about them causes you to assess yourself. What did my religious indoctrination take away from my sexual expression?

Today, I want to dig a little deeper into the problem. Sexual trauma, harsh religion, child corporal punishment, and relationship troubles seem to cluster together. Families with fundamentalist religious values tend to be the families with inconsistent sexual boundaries and with strict authoritarian parenting practices. And in those families, children tend to be mystified or mortified by sexuality.

Having lots of rules and judgments about your budding sexual identity counts as trauma by itself. Do any of these apply to you? 

  1. Your family considered it immoral to be gay or lesbian.
  2. Your parents acted like they never had sex (or, never had sex).
  3. You were taught that sex outside of marriage is a sin.
  4. You were taught that masturbation is a sin.
  5. You were taught that parents have a right to hit their children’s bodies in order to teach them.
  6. You had a sibling who got in trouble for her/his sexual behavior (e.g., pregnancy, etc.).
  7. You were taught that sexual thoughts or feelings, outside of marriage, was a sin.
  8. You were taught to fear God’s judgment of your sexuality.
  9. You were taught that girls/women should not have sexual desires.
  10. You were taught that men/boys were sexual aggressors or that they could not control themselves.
  11. You felt ashamed of your sexual development (e.g., puberty, menses).

How many of those fit? Any one of them suggests rigid family thought patterns – that may have been passed on to you. And thought patterns can be traumatizing. In families that have lots of prohibitions around sexuality and/or use harsh parenting practices, children grow up believing that a part of them (a natural, healthy part) is unhealthy, bad, ugly, or shameful.

If you have more than one of the above list, you probably carry unresolved trauma that affects the life you live in your body. And you may also carry sexual trauma from:

  1. being sexually abused by a sibling or parent.
  2. being punished physically, even if no official injuries were sustained.
  3. learning to think your body deserved to be treated with disrespect.
  4. learning to consider your body a source of sin.

This kind of trauma may have few memories attached to it, so it may seem invisible and baffling. But you know it’s there because you can’t enjoy yourself like others seem to be able to.

EMDR Therapy can help with this. We start by targeting the feelings, sensations, and pictures associated with your sexual situation. We reprocess old feelings and replace false ideas about the self with more helpful information that lets you move past old ways of being.

Many couples tell me that their sex lives have improved as a result of EMDR. One or both partners had family backgrounds full of shame and secrecy – but now, they can shed their old lives, live more fully in the present, and feel joy and closeness.

Check out these blog posts for how therapy can help you:

If you have questions about my pathway for helping you or how healthy rebellion can positively impact trauma therapy and family psychology, please contact me or call me today at 417-886-8262.

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Couples therapy: The impact of religion and sex

Religion and Your Sex Life

Warning: Religion and sex – not a dainty topic. You have problems with sex. It confuses you, because you long for a close, physical relationship with your partner. It breaks your heart because you love the person with whom you share your life. But something stands in the way of sexual satisfaction that’s hard to describe.

She’s given up on me.

I can’t think of her that way.

I’d rather have sex with a stranger.


He never wants sex with me anymore.

I don’t have what it takes.

I just cant go there.


I’m too tired.

We’re too busy. We work too much.

We have three kids…

Another warning: This is not a simple topic. Like fly paper, sex grabs every dust particle of our lives and causes it to stick there. Health, body image, beliefs about pleasure, stress and work, and every relationship nuance attaches itself to your sexuality.

Sex often disappears in long-term, committed relationships. We joke about it – but for celibate marital partners, it’s anything but funny. For some married couples, sex vanishes as soon as they walk down the aisle as legal partners. For lots of these people, religious training plays a role.

Could your childhood religion affect your libido – or that of your partner?

If you have any doubt that your sexuality is affected by religious worldviews, try the following exercise.

  1. List three “off-limits” sexual behaviors you’d never try in a million years (e.g., masturbation, a threesome, an extramarital affair, a sex toy, paying an escort for sex, having sex with a person of the same gender).
  2. For each example, write about your reasons for never trying it (Im straight; I love my husband; Its wrong; Its horrifying.).
  3. Fill each reason with more detail. Pretend you’re five and ask, But why? Why? Why? Why? Keep going…..Write for at least a minute on each.
  4. Start to notice the patterns in your thinking.

Some things arent natural.

Its morally repugnant.

Its not real.

I dont want to betray my commitment.

I would feel guilty, shameful, ridiculous.

Thats just not how I roll.

Do you notice harsh self-judgment? I mean, sure – you may not want to do these things for any number of reasons. But when you consider them, what happens? Disgust? Turn-off? If you picture yourself engaging in forbidden sexual acts, what emotion do you get? Anxiety? Shame? Excitement mixed with something else?

Now, think about your Sunday School years.

First, what did you learn about sex? What did your parents tell you? What did they model by their own relationship patterns? How did they react when you did normal childhood things like discover your genitals for the first time? What did they show you about their own experience of sensual pleasures (e.g., wonderful tastes and smells)? How did your parents respond to each other’s touch?

Next, what religious practices and beliefs did your family have? And what do those traditions have to say about pleasure?

In my childhood religion, pleasure made people suspicious. People worked hard and saved sex for the bonds of matrimony. Nobody joked about the body, because the body was a serious threat to one’s godliness. If a girl became pregnant outside of wedlock, she became a social pariah – more-so than her boyfriend, who was supposed to marry her. People assumed women only submitted to their husband’s sex drive – nobody considered women as having their own need for sex. And the marital pledge trumped everything, be it pleasure, intimacy, or personal growth. You stayed married and you kept your mouth shut about your own desires.

This taught me to seriously undervalue my needs for sensual pleasure. I became very skilled at working hard, staying focused, and pretending that’s sufficient. What about you?

I’ll be back with more on this subject. But for the meantime, let’s make a commitment to write about sex and religion. Which views do you retain from Sunday School? Which ones do you reject? How does your sex life figure into this mix of powerful beliefs?

Is it possible for us to reprogram our early childhood training about sexuality? I certainly hope so. Do we deserve to try? Yes. Without a doubt.

Dr. Deborah L. Cox discusses many healthy topics in couples therapy to best help her clients find their true selves individually and in their relationships.

Read more blogs from Deborah about relationships:

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