Some LDS readers might turn a blind eye to stories that don’t fit their worldview of ‘ultimate authority’ and blind trust in leaders. The gospel is the product being distributed through the LDS Church – all the rest is organizational behavior, which is imperfect and even damaging. I know; I have a doctorate in the field (as well as an MA in Counseling). I joined the church when I was 14. My mother had heard about it from a friend of her father. I remember thinking how weird it was to confess face-to-face to a bishop for certain sins. When I was a Catholic, all was behind a wall of sorts and they never asked questions; the process was for me; to unburden myself if I chose to do so. The Mormon process is about unburdening but also about gaining ‘forgiveness by the church’, which is really about membership and brand image, public relations. I never thought about that until much later. I remember being deathly afraid, obsessing over telling my bishop that I masturbated. I believed that if I didn’t, my salvation was in jeopardy. These thoughts plagued me, and I’m not using that word lightly. I finally forced myself to confess and it was a huge relief; I wasn’t going to Hell. I made the bishop in the image of God (idol worship?). I’d go back to masturbating and occasional pornography and the shame, severe anxiety would come back stronger until I relieved the shame through confession. Does the church understand that this is called ‘negative reinforcement’? Doing something to avoid a negative consequence becomes a habit. Extreme pain and shame causes addictions; the destructive habits that temporarily sooth and bring more guilt/shame that causes more addiction, that causes more shame? All of this is based on ‘never being good enough’. Turning developmental mistakes into shaming experiences has lifetime implications. Most members don’t have the knowledge in these addiction areas so it’s up to the church to take responsibility for it’s ‘system’ and align it with the higher values of emotional health, which will create stronger, more productive members!
Before my mission, my bishop asked me if ‘there were any more sins I wanted to confess’ – since he was all powerful, I assumed there were ‘buried sins’ I didn’t remember. He told me that if I didn’t confess these sins, I would ‘burn up’ in the mission field. I took that to mean guilt and Hell. The entire mission I scrupulously scanned my memory bank to ‘find sin’ so I could be forgiven. The assumption was ‘if I didn’t confess all sins I’d go to Hell’ – my point is that there are so many unintended consequences of these interviews with bishops, especially with trusting, emotionally dependent young people. It’s not just teens; older teens and even young adults might be harmed by the untrained bishop. I’ve been fighting to feel good about myself my entire life. I’ve accomplished much professionally and I raised a wonderful son – but the subconscious worry and fear of Hell, and the underlying shame of my developmental mistakes as well as more serious mistakes (from not dealing with shame and compounded shame from my choices) has plagued me. The combination of my shaming upbringing, predisposition to anxiety, shaming interview processes, and a Mormon culture of toxic perfectionism (never ever enough!) with zero tolerance for mistakes and a looming destination of Hell (God cannot tolerate the least of sin) – leaves one feeling helpless, hopeless, worthless, and stuck (can’t live with, can’t live without). It’s Hell on earth.
Here I am today, about 40 years later, and many of the sexual issues and the toxic perfectionism that I learned still haunt me. It can be difficult for some to pinpoint a ’cause’ for a given issue because shame, perfectionism, and poor self-concepts can be learned in many environments as well as through poor choices. The standard attribution for shame, when I was involved with the Mormon Church, was ‘sin’; something act caused it. That notion is internalized and unquestioned. The fact that I was even sitting in a bishop’s office meant that I had done something terribly wrong; that I had become an enemy of God. To me, it also meant that I was highly dependent on the bishop for my salvation! This created the assumption that I needed to confess all sins to ‘get relief’ from my obsession with sin. This was the beginning of my Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). I don’t lay the entire blame on the confession/repentance ‘system’ – I was predisposed biologically/neurologically, but being in a system and culture where ‘management by exception’ (fixing negative deviated behavior) is the norm can cause one to become ‘hyper-aware’ of doing bad things. My life was consumed by avoiding sin, especially masturbation and pornography, but by focusing on what I shouldn’t do, it actually became more of a challenge. The better approach would have been to focus on my personal, unique passions and enjoyable activities; to focus on more than morals and salvation was important for a young man. A life full of positive relationships, fun activities, and understanding the importance of ‘delaying gratification’ in order to love women and enjoy emotional intimacy would have been a much healthier approach than ‘not masturbating’ or ‘not having pre-marital sex’. These are glaring flaws in the organization, its policies, practices, and a mission/vision that did not emphasize the importance of healthy emotional relationships; everything was reduced to sex and avoidance of sin.
Teaching young people the importance of positive relationships, self-esteem, and about the addiction cycle would have helped me. When people are anxious, never knowing if they will go to Hell for having done minor sexual things like masturbation or occasional porn (I’m not minimizing this, but it is normal for the age and LDS Living even printed an article about the harmful effects of shaming and setting ‘perfection’ standards – it creates a need to escape pain with even more pornography or other addictive behaviors). The bottom-line is this: Bishops and even senior leaders are not trained in counseling or psychology. By not having this knowledge of reality, they are viewing life with incomplete ‘maps’ (assumptions) of the ‘territory’ (reality). They can create more harm than good in this system.
I’ve been caught in the addiction cycle for decades – Perfection standards – the reality of being a mortal (not living up) – shame – escape – back to trying to be perfect again (this is ‘black or white’ thinking – not accepting any developmental mistakes; I was either all good or all bad). I didn’t realize this until I was an adult. Still, my brain and Mormon scripting were conditioned to ignore my ‘secular learning’ and inner wisdom – to ALWAYS default to the ‘perfection’ standards. I’m so glad that young people today are seeing the unhealthy nature of ‘black or white’ thinking (absolutism in cognitive psychology). The outcome is always self-blame, shame, insecurity. We have to be able to accept the process of being human and not beat ourselves up for normal, minor errors. I’m not talking about adultery here! One may, however, commit larger sins due to the underlying, unresolved shame that becomes part of one’s identity (shame-based identity). Soothing, escapism comes in many forms when shame is carried around.
Better to train bishops if they continue their protocol. They need basic training in shame – tame – addiction cycle as well as Rogerian training that encourages individuation, natural mistakes/learning, and frames the entire process with the purpose of achieving healthy self-disclosure, unconditional love for mistakes, stop the fear tactics of eternity (because none of us know) and punishment; replace these with positive outcomes of fulfillment, creative living, uniqueness (not conformity), self-expression (not the conservative, sanitized cultural norms).