Getting God’s Self-Appointed Messengers Out of Your Head

Image by Kali Sánchez

The self appointed messengers of God are legion.  Some lived thousands of years ago; some stand weekly in front of thousands of people.  Some lecture you from the pulpit; some lecture you when you go home for the holidays.  And even when they don’t make sense, their words can haunt you: “Believe and ye shall be saved.” “Lean not unto your own understanding.” “Wives submit to your husbands.”  “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way.”  “Jesus was a liar, lunatic or Lord.”  “God has a wonderful plan for your life.”  “God hates fags.” Which buzz phrases from your past are stuck in your brain?

Despite the demi-divine status given to religious authorities by social traditions and institutions, each of God’s messengers was (or is) a real, complicated human being with biases and blind spots and favorite foods and morning breath.  They are not gods and they are not you.  So how can you get them out of your head—or at least reduce them to muffled background noise?

I was a psychotherapist for twenty years, but I like to say that long before I was a decent therapist I was an excellent “therapee.”  What I mean by that is, therapy worked for me.  Two factors seemed particularly powerful. One was taking the time to excavate the past. If I could understand why I was thinking/feeling/behaving in a certain way—where it came from in my own history, or the history of my family, or even the history of our culture–that changed it.  The “aha” experience somehow freed me up.  The past became less able to dictate the present, and I became more able to live according to my here-and-now dreams and values.

On top of that, therapy was very good at helping to separate the me from the not-me.  “Who says you have to go rock climbing?” my therapist would ask.  “Because it sure sounds like you hate it.”

“Oh.  Yeah.” I would say sheepishly.  “That’s my Dad.”

As I learned to recognize other people’s voices in my mind, I learned to pick out the authentic voice of Valerie despite the competing clamor. But I wasn’t done. The next step in getting the not-me out of my head was learning to talk back.  I practiced (tentatively at first and then firmly) saying, “Tio, you may value sleek cars, but I don’t; I love my ugly hatchback.”  “Mom, you may be ashamed that I’m living with my boyfriend [now my husband of nineteen years] but I’m flourishing in this relationship.”  “Glamour, you may say I should weigh less, but I like my strong, sturdy body.”

Then, once I started arguing back, something else happened. I began realizing that those opinionated guilt-trippers I was arguing with weren’t actually the voices of other people after all, at least not flesh and blood people.  Instead they were made-up versions who lived only in my head, often fairly two-dimensional, cartoonish versions at that.  Real world people might––get this radical notion—grow and change, but my internal version of them wouldn’t.  By the time I had the conversation with my therapist about climbing, my father had long outgrown any desire for me to be his first son; he could care less whether I did bouldering.  He didn’t even do it himself anymore.

The secret to my therapy was this combination:

  • Delving into my own history and figuring out where some of my screwy notions and out-of-balance feelings came from.
  • Dealing with the clamor of opinionated people in my head who were not me.
    • identifying the not-me cast of characters and arguing back
    • realizing that they were mere synaptic programs and challenging the authenticity of their scripts—and, finally,—–
    • discovering that I could be true to my own values and dreams regardless of their opinions

This was powerful stuff.  In fact, it was life-changing.  Mind you, the work is ongoing.

Getting other people out of your head isn’t easy because they get in there so early.  While most animals have their behavior largely programmed by instinct, humans rely on information being handed down from one generation to the next.  For this reason, one of the key characteristics of human childhood is credulity.  If trusted authorities like parents or teachers say it, children believe it. 

But children don’t simply parrot what adults say; the process is much more sophisticated than that.  Yes, they do memorize specific phrases, but also they construct an internal representation of each trusted authority figure, like a virtual version of mom or dad –what developmentalists call an “introject.”  The ability to create introjects is adaptive.  Owning a virtual copy of each parent, even an imperfect copy, means you can venture away from your actual physical caregivers and still have some access to their superior knowledge and experience.  In other words, early on, carrying authority figures around in your head actually helps you to become more independent.

But when the time comes to leave home, the opposite can be true.

Each of us reaches a point when we need to question what we learned as children, to revisit some of our basic assumptions in light of our own life experience and ability to think.  We need to make major life decisions based on our own deepest values and sense of life mission.  In this situation, having your parents et al in your head can be a liability—especially if they were particularly opinionated, or smart, or powerful, or enmeshed or (ironically) abusive—or if you were particularly anxious or compliant or prone to self-doubt.

It has been said that in young adulthood we need to individuate from two sets of parents:  reality parents and introjected parents.  These are two related but distinct challenges.  For those of us who were raised religious, there is another set of authority figures in our heads:  gods and their messengers.  By messengers I mean pastors or priests, Sunday school teachers, Bible study leaders, youth ministers and Christian college professors.  I also mean the writers of sacred texts, whose words we have often heard repeated over and over.  (One of the most powerful tools for creating belief in the absence of evidence is simple repetition.)  I use the word “gods,” plural, deliberately, because even people who are raised monotheistic often have multiple conflicting god-concepts that can be activated under different circumstances:  the judgmental god, the abstract god, the Jesus buddy . . . .

At some point in the process of identity formation we may realize that we have a Ben-Hur-sized cast of religious authorities in our heads and that we ourselves don’t actually agree with them.  We may set off on our own journeys of inquiry despite their disapproval. We may, by sheer force of will, live by our own values rather than theirs.  But even after years of independence, the fight can be exhausting. A wicked-smart, fiercely independent friend who walked away from fundamentalism decades ago recently confessed, “Deep down, I’m still afraid I’ll go to hell IF the God of Joshua should be the real ruler of the universe. It’s illogical and flies in the face of all the empirical evidence–but it’s POSSIBLE.”  He knows that at some level all things are possible, and he also knows that many things that are possible are just plain silly.  He knows that being mentally healthy means living in a world of probabilities, not possibilities.  But those childhood myths still echo.

Cleansing your mind of outgrown religious ideas is individuation work, just like learning to question your parents, learning to distinguish their opinions from yours.  And the tricks and tools are much the same:

  • Dig into history—the history of the Christianity you inherited and your own history.  Remember, when you understand the past, it has less power to control the present.  To better understand Christian history, first read about how to look at ancient texts through a critical lens like scholars do.  (It’s very cool.)  Start with Bart Ehrman.  Try Thom Stark.  Poke around in the work of the Jesus Seminar.  When you examine your own history, ask how the Christian dogmas, priorities, and buzz phrases in your head got there—Were there pivotal experiences like summer camps?  Bible studies?  Youth groups? What made you particularly vulnerable to certain handed down beliefs?
  • Deal with the cast of characters that have made their way from the pages of the Bible and the Christian hierarchy into your mind.
    • Remember, the Bible is an anthology, a collection with a lot of authors.  Once you let yourself pay attention, you’ll notice that the Bible quotes in your mind don’t even agree with each other about what is real and what matters.  Tell yourself that every epistle, creed or doctrinal statement was half of an argument (because this is true).  Who were the writers arguing with?  What was the other side of the argument? 
    • Learn to recognize the voices of your old authority figures, the ones that transmitted ideas from the Bible writers or John Calvin to you.  What do you know about them now that you didn’t then?  Which of your values do they share?  Which do they not share? Push back, and be firm about it.
    • Question the authenticity of simplistic, cartoonish messages.  Inerrant texts? Four Spiritual Laws? Eternal flames and streets paved with gold?  Really?  You know better.  Use what you’ve learned about psychology, science, history, and ethics.  Trust what you know about beauty and love, wonder, joy, curiosity, and kindness – because you do know, deeply, about each of these.

and, finally,

Pay attention to your own values and dreams.  You may have to listen hard at first because of all the clamor.  But if you can learn to identify the other speakers, eventually you will be able to tune in to the voice that is not theirs, but yours.

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington.  She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light, (Revised ed of The Dark Side) and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org.  Her articles can be found at Awaypoint.wordpress.com.

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About Valerie Tarico

Seattle psychologist and writer. Author - Trusting Doubt and Deas and Other Imaginings. Founder - www.WisdomCommons.org.
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7 Responses to Getting God’s Self-Appointed Messengers Out of Your Head

  1. Peter says:

    Though I have not read your Trusting Doubt book , after reading this post, I am going to refer others to it. This is profound, and I am thrilled to have come across you, your work, and this blog.

    I appreciate your encouragement to “dig” into the Bible and become familiar with critical scholarship. In addition to understanding critical biblical scholarship, I have found that becoming familiar with the socio-biological, evolutionary underpinnings of ethical and moral systems has been very helpful. Haus’ Moral Minds is a good work in this regard. With your background, I am sure you know about this work already.

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  2. Joe Golike says:

    He knows that being mentally healthy means living in a world of probabilities, not possibilities.

    This is a principle I’ve been intrigued by, having heard it mentioned in the context of neuroscience. But I’ve never heard it talked of in terms of mental health. Can you expound?

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    • Perhaps the clearest example is when people have obsessive compulsive disorder with contamination as an obsession. Yes, you can get a lethal disease from a doorknob, but the odds of it happening are vanishingly small. So avoiding doorknobs or using energy to pull your sleeve end over your hand, or washing compulsively, or spending mental energy being vigilant for symptoms — all of these are maladaptive. Treatment of anxiety disorders often involves cognitive and behavioral interventions that bring subjective sense of threat into line with realistic probability of the feared events actually happening. If we live in a world of probabilities rather than possibilities we are able to direct our energy where it willl have the most benefit. We are able to decide which risks we should be avoiding and which courses of action are likely to be rewarding.

      Here is another example. In working with kids who have self-management problems (conduct disorder and sometimes attention deficit) I found that as they dug themselves deeper holes, they alternated between avoiding goal-oriented behavior and setting their sights on goals that were highly improbable. A kid with a healthy self-concept might say, “I’m going out for the JV squad this year and then varsity next year. A less healthy kid might say, “I want to be varsity team captain” –when they clearly lack the requisite skills. In these cases, the problem is clearly more complex than a failure to differentiate probability/possiblity, but I think this is part of the self-defeating cycle. Realistic goals, meaning those with a high probability of success, are needed to build confidence and the experience that effort can be rewarding.

      Is that what you were looking for?

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      • Joe Golike says:

        Thanks Valerie. I hadn’t thought of mental disorders like OCD, and your examples make sense. I’ve read that our brains have a hard time prioritizing probabilities over possibilities. For example, the odds of dying in a car are much higher than in a plane. But I don’t think twice when I get behind the wheel, while I still feel nervous every time I fly. Somehow the possibility of a plane crash (fueled perhaps by spectacular images like the 9/11 jets) gets to me even though the probability of that actually happening is incredibly low.

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  3. Sid says:

    One of the main things about fundamentalist Christians and especially IFB and now it seems even SBC is the self appointed status to give you their opinion for how you should run your life and it’s always from their perspective even though they haven’t walked a single minute in your shoes. IFB and the like are nothing but a mild form of cult. In many ways they are worse than a cult because with a cult it usually gets so bad you will attempt to leave. With IFB their methods are to plant guilt and then reenforce guilt. One of the ultimate evils for living a successful and content life.

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  4. Pingback: How I Left My Evangelical Christian Faith « Freethought

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