Do you have exmormon trauma? Try writing your story. Write about your faith deconstruction or crisis. wasmormon.org gives you a place to do this important and healing writing. Consider contributing your story to the site so others can read it and find community and validation as well!
Suppressing the trauma is bad for us and it doesn’t work anyways! For example, try to not think of a pink elephant! You can’t if you try.
Telling your story, as traumatic and painful as it seems, actually helps! It’s cathartic to share your experience. It makes it real, it helps you process it with a beginning, a middle, and an end. We can then find closure, and move on with our growth from the experience. Otherwise, you are stuck trying not to think about it and find yourself in the dilemma of ironic processes.
The Ironic Process Theory
It is the psychological process where a person tries to suppress certain thoughts but ironically ends up thinking about them instead. The more we try to suppress thoughts, the more they surface. Ironic processes are cases where our minds, ironically enough, go to the exact place we don’t want them to go.
Thinking of Polar Bears, or Not
There is a famous Dostoevsky experiment where subjects must try to not think of a polar bear. But just having the desire to not think of something, we end up thinking about it more often. Subjects would hold a bell and ring the bell whenever they found themselves thinking of a polar bear. They’d end up thinking much more of a bear than they wanted to admit!
Ex-Mormons and Pink Elephants
This concept is easy to repeat for yourself. Close your eyes and don’t think of a pink elephant. The very thought of not thinking about something forces us to think of it already!
This relates to many exmormons in that we try our best to put the church and the trauma we experience through a faith crisis behind us. When we try not thinking about the church or our shelf breaking, we end up spiraling and thinking of it more and more! Rather than be stuck in this situation, there is a cure! Let’s stop trying not to think about it. Allow yourself to ruminate in that space. Share the trauma and the experience by talking it through with a friend, the only problem is many Mormon friends are not a safe place to discuss a faith crisis. Even a Mormon spouse can be dangerous to share issues and discuss the topic of faith deconstruction or doubt. The church teaches members to not “rehearse doubts with others”. Another way to process the trauma is to write. This has the same effect of allowing us to cathartically process the trauma and move on. Once we’ve addressed the trauma by sharing or writing, we can move on and grow from the experience.
Find a positive thought substitution. If you find yourself ruminating on negative thoughts, try to replace them with a positive. On a blank piece of paper, draw two columns. When a negative thought persists, counterbalance it with the corresponding positive response. For example, if you think “I am a failure”, you might counteract the thought with “I made a mistake, but I am learning from it now”. If something is “too hard”, your positive substitution could be, “I will work hard to get better at this.”
By turning negative ruminations into positive pledges, the intrusive thought loses the power it has over you. Thinking of positive solutions also helps you to make any appropriate adjustments or improvements.
The Pink Elephant Paradox illustrates that trying to suppress a thought is likely to make it more intrusive. This can negatively affect your emotions, focus and decision-making abilities. Rather than suppress negative thoughts, it is healthier to acknowledge the emotion.The Pink Elephant Paradox: how intrusive thoughts impact our emotions and decisions, Dr. Hannah Rose
Need more convincing? Check out this podcast which discusses the Ironic Process theory and then some research about what sharing or writing about our trauma does for us.
The Happiness Lab
An episode from the podcast The Happiness Lab with Dr. Laurie Santos – Don’t think about the White Bear goes into detail here. It relates the Ironic Process Theory with personal trauma, and explains why many of us, try as we might, can’t seem to “get over” trauma. It describes this via a group of Holocaust survivors. They were encouraged to tell their stories, no matter how traumatic. The stories were gruesome and depressing as can be expected. The interesting part is that even in these extreme cases, telling their story and getting the trauma out, helped them feel better! Not only did they feel better, but those who shared deeper were actually more healthy, even 12 months later!
It’s like holding onto the trauma and emotion is physically damaging to our body. But sharing through telling our stories releases the emotions and lets us processes it and move on. We’re better for it. It’s not good to store something like that internally and not let it out.
The podcast fascinatingly tells us that sharing traumatic experiences actually makes us physically healthier! The podcast host, Dr. Laurie Santos interviews Dr. James W Pennebaker from the University of Texas at Austin, about his research about the effect writing and sharing traumatic experiences has on us as humans. Dr. Pennebaker is also the author of Opening Up by Writing It Down: How Expressive Writing Improves Health and Eases Emotional Pain and Expressive Writing: Words That Heal. The whole episode is great, but to jump to this section go to 19:05-25:20):
Dr. James Pennebaker joined a project that invited survivors to give videotaped testimony of what they had endured at the hands of the Nazis. He noticed that “Immediately after telling these awful stories, survivors felt… better.” He later points out a connection to this feeling better to actual physical health in that “those who wrote about traumas ended up going to the doctor at about half the rate as people in the control conditions.” He also relates that “Since his initial research back in the 1980s, many scientists have seen the same effects of setting traumatic memories down on paper.”
[Host: Dr. Laurie Santos] Jamie wanted to know if the process of sharing memories would have an impact on the survivors whose lifelong mental strategy had been to tamp down those thoughts and lock them away.
[James Pennebaker] What we found was the experience had this profound effect on them. A lot of them were self-reports in terms of the a greater sense well being and happiness. And also we had some health markers that showed improvements as well.
[Host] Immediately after telling these awful stories, survivors felt better. And survivors who share the most traumatic memories, are the ones who reported feeling the best. They had the lowest heart rates and the lowest levels of emotional anguish. Talking about the worst possible things they ever experienced made survivors feel calmer and happier. But Jamie’s results were even more amazing than that. One year after the interviews, Jamie contacted the survivors. He asked. “How are you feeling?” and “Have you been to the doctor recently?” He found that survivors who disclosed lots of details in their interviews were healthier. People who evaded talking deeply about their traumas, went to the doctor almost twice as often. It seemed that getting those awful secrets out in the open made survivors less sick, even a full twelve months later.
[Jamie] It was hard to do a really controled experiment, because we didn’t have another group of Holocaust survivors who did not come into studio. So, as a controlled study, it wasn’t that impressive, but, as a case study, it was a profound really was a profound experience. I’ve become entrigued with this notion that if you have something that’s bad, and you don’t want to talk about it, you probably should think about talking about it, or at least writing about it.
[Host] After his own tough experience with Holocaust survivors, Jamie set down on paper how upsetting and unsettling he’d found the interviews. He found the writing process so helpful, he decided to test the effects of sharing bad memories in a more controlled way.
[Jamie] So I thought, well, we just get random college students who are taking introductory psychology, bring them into the lab, and they would either write about superficial topics or about traumatic experiences for four consecutive days. Those people who wrote about these traumatic experiences, it was a profound experience, and they wrote about things that anybody would agree were a traumatic experience. They weren’t the kind of the classic things, some were these huge humiliations, some were things that sounded superficial, the death of a person’s dog. I remember, every night I would go and read all of these stories. And they blew me away.
[Host] Both sets of students, the ones who had written the stories that had so moved Jamie and the group who set down more mundane thoughts, granted permission for their medical records to be tracked for six months.
[Jamie] And those in the experimental group. Those who wrote about traumas ended up going to the doctor at about half the rate as people in the control conditions. When people were asked to write about a deeply troubling traumatic experience, or an upsetting experience that they hadn’t talk to other people about it, was associated with better physical health. The people went the doctor less, their immune system got better.
Something that has always stuck with me, I remember, in the months afterwards, and this happened at least a couple of times, a student would come up and said “you don’t know me, but I was in your experiment on writing, and it changed my life.”
[Host] Since Jamie’s initial research back in the nineteen eighties, many Scientists have seen the same effects of setting traumatic memories down on paper.
[Jamie] There are easily one or two thousand studies that have been done since then. Across these studies has been associated with reductions in symptoms of depression and post traumatic stress disorder, they’ve been associated with people performing better on creative tests, doing better on standardized tests like SATs or MCATS, they are mentally healthier, and the biological markers have been quite impressive in terms of changes, in terms of improvements in symptoms of arthritis and immune disorders and cardiovascular changes and so forth.
[Host] We often tell ourselves not to think about events in our lives that are painful. We think that dwelling on stuff is not good, and so we squash those bad memories down, but the science of ironic processes shows why that’s a bad idea. It takes work for us to repress those bad thoughts. And that cognitive work, winds up affecting things like sleep and blood pressure and how well we can concentrate on a standardized test. Letting those bad thoughts out and getting them down on paper, finally lets our tired brains relax. It’s like opening our little mental pressure cookers to let out some suppressed steam.
But, there’s a second reason that writing down our bad memories makes us happier. Writing stuff down helps us makes sense of things. Our brains finally get to process and work through some really bad stuff.
[Jamie] I’ve always been fascinated how people naturally deal with an upsetting experience. You know you’re almost in a car wreck, you home, ou tell your spouse, your friend, “Oh my God, you you’re not gonna believe what happened!” By putting an upsetting experience into words, it forces structure, it forces an organisation. Theres a beginning, middle, and an end. It’s now blowing off steam–it’s not some kind of venting, the way many people think about catharsis, instead you are coming to understand the event and also yourself better.
[Host] Writing about your painful emotions, can help you organize those experiences. You finally have a chance to make sense of them, cause they’re not bottled up anymore. And once you make sense of upsetting experiences, you finally get enough perspective to grow from them.
[Jamie] And this is something that I find interesting about adversity. That very often, adversity, having the thing that’s negative certainly sucks, but by the same token, it has the potential to be healing, and to make us rethink ourselves, and rethink our lives.https://www.pushkin.fm/podcasts/the-happiness-lab-with-dr-laurie-santos/dont-think-of-the-white-bear
Share Your Story
So, in order to help yourself process the trauma of leaving the church, share your story. Even if you only write it down for yourself, it will help. In writing your story you will most likely feel better right away, and in the long term, it will help too! If you want to write it on your own, please do! This site is dedicated to giving you the opportunity to write your story too. If you are going to write it, you also have the option to add it to the collection of stories here. It is also helpful to read the stories others have shared. Adding your story can help others in their journey of healing too.
Here are some such stories from profile spotlights. Contributors at wasmormon.org regularly report that they are feel better after sharing their stories, and some explain that part of their motivation is to help others in their own journey of healing. This process is surprisingly cathartic, it’s healing because we’re able to formulate the story around this trauma, and then in telling it, we are able to find closure, and then begin the healing process of growing through it and rebuilding.
Finally a message from a site contributor who mentions that sharing his journey in the growing community has even sparked others to consider their own journey.
Share your story with the community today and start the journey of healing, you may even help someone else along the way by sharing your exmormon experiences on wasmormon.org. You may find better health waiting for you here!
- Pennebaker, J. W., Barger, S. D., & Tiebout, J. (1989). Disclosure of traumas and health among Holocaust survivors. Psychosomatic medicine.
- Pennebaker, J. W. (1997). Opening up: The healing power of expressing emotions. Guilford Press.
- Pennebaker, J. W., & Smyth, J. M. (2016). Opening up by writing it down: How expressive writing improves health and eases emotional pain. Guilford Publications.