How Emotional and Spiritual Abuse Prevents Women From Growing Up (and the Two Mind Shifts You Need to Change That!)
Have you ever felt like you never really grew up? I used to feel that way all the time. Even into my thirties and forties I would think, “Why do I feel like I’m still a child? Everyone else seems to have grown up, but I still feel like a little girl inside.” I thought this when I had nine kids. I thought this when I watched my oldest get married. I thought this when I was running a successful business. I couldn’t shake this feeling that I had never grown up, and it disturbed me.
I no longer feel that way. But it got me thinking. WHY did I feel that way before? And what changed?
How Emotional and Spiritual Abuse Prevents Women From Growing Up
In the religious circles I used to run in, girls were taught that they belonged to their daddies until they got married, and then they belonged to their husbands. Their destiny was to get married, support their man, and raise his children.
Girls were taught that they didn’t need to go to college. College would put crazy ideas in their minds about their own value apart from a man, and they would rebel against God’s plan for them to be financially dependent on a man.
Girls were taught that their bodies were a stumbling block for men, and this caused many of them to feel shame about their breasts and genitals. I remember feeling like men were oogling me as a single woman, but once I got married I would be “safe” because I “belonged to someone.”
Girls were taught that having money is bad and selfish. When I was a young wife, there was a another conservative Christian family living on my block. They had nothing on their walls. Their room contained the most basic furniture. The atmosphere was bare-bones. Not because they had no money (they were both engineers who chose not to work in their field of study) but because “beautiful things were a snare of the devil.”
Girls were taught that the role of all women is to serve men and make them successful. To worship their husbands above all else – including God. (Yes – I read a book once that said women should obey their husbands even if their husband asked them to sin.)
The result? Girls who never grew up into women.
Think about it. Children don’t get to make significant choices for themselves. Children do not make, use, or invest money. Children are told what to do, where to go, what to eat, and how to dress. Children face consequences for not doing what they are told. Children are powerless. Children are vulnerable. Children are at the mercy of their caretakers.
When you apply all those things to a grown-up, it’s a pretty dysfunctional picture.
My kids love being kids. They have told me many times that they don’t want to grow up. I actually think that’s healthy for kids. I like to think it is because they are happy and enjoying what childhood has to offer. My adult kids, on the other hand, are total adults. They aren’t perfect, but they manage their own lives, take responsibility for their own mistakes, and continue to learn and grow as all adults should. I don’t think any of them still feel like a kid, and I don’t treat them like kids. I love watching them live their own lives.
When I was a child, all I dreamed about was growing up so I could do all the things I wanted to do. So I could experiment and live and invent and create. I couldn’t do that as a child, and I wanted to. I had a big imagination. Adults were free. I wanted to be free.
As a Christian woman in the cultish environment I was in, one of our most idolized sacrifices was to literally lay down our right to grow up. Our right to be an individual with autonomy and responsibility. Our right to learn, change, and grow. Our right to have our own thoughts and ideas. We could create, it’s true. But we were to limit ourselves to creating in the kitchen and home. I’m one of those people who can bloom wherever they’re planted, so I enthusiastically embraced my role and learned how to cook and bake. I did clay sculpture, quilting, sewing children’s clothing, card making, scrap booking, and soap making. I homeschooled for twenty years and built a soap making business.
It was a good life in many ways, and I have no regrets in any of those areas. Let me be very clear that all those things are good things, and many women, including myself, enjoy those things. My only point here is that they aren’t the only things women can or should do.
The problem for me was that while I stayed busy learning and creating, I remained an emotional child. I had a couple of professors who mentored me in college, and they tried to pull me out of that cultic way of thinking, but I was too brainwashed. I actually felt sorry for them – that they were following “the way of the world” and leaving their families behind each day to teach college students.
Both of those families had emotionally healthy families who all turned out fabulous. I wish I could say as much for the majority of the families I knew in my conservative circles. It turns out that if you do A, B, and C, you don’t necessarily get perfect outcomes.
I think the real key is not in how much you can erase who God created you to be. Not in how much you can sacrifice your personhood. Not in how much you can lay down your resources, gifts, and autonomy. But in how much you can gratefully take personal responsibility for all those things, invest your life using them, and encourage others to embrace who God made THEM to be.
We will love and accept others to the degree we love and accept ourselves. (Mark 12:31, Luke 6:31) We aren’t God, and we need to stop trying.
So, for most of my life I was stuck in this pattern of being a wounded little girl who believed with all her heart that she had to obey her mommies and daddies. And there were a lot of them by the time I hit my forties. It was hard to keep up with what they wanted! They didn’t even all believe the same things – and yet they all claimed to be God’s voice for me.
It’s kind of ridiculous when I look back, but it was real when I lived it. I was drowning in brainwashed beliefs that had permeated the very fiber of my being.
Do you know what got me out? It was a simple light bulb moment. I finally saw myself as a separate person from everyone else.
I had to detach myself from my family of origin. My friends. My church. My husband. My children. I had to figure out who in the world Natalie was. I didn’t know. I didn’t know what her favorite color was (my closet was full of black and grey clothes). I didn’t know what her style was. I didn’t know what she loved or hated. I had spent my whole life trying to be whoever I needed to be in order to make my relationships work, and I hadn’t been able to just fully show up as myself. I tried, but I always paid a high price when I expressed my own thoughts, opinions, or preferences.
So began my journey into adulthood in my late forties.
As of this writing I am 53. I no longer feel like a child. I feel like a badass adult woman, and I like myself exactly as I am. I know what I like and don’t like. I know what I will tolerate and what I won’t tolerate. I know what my boundaries are, and I know what I will do when someone crosses them. I’m not afraid to say “STOP.” And I’m not afraid to be disliked or criticized. Because someone else’s opinion is just that. Their opinion. And they get to be an individual with their own preferences just like I do. I can accept them BECAUSE I now accept myself.
I lost everyone who only liked the chameleon version of me, but I’m so much happier now. I have peace. I have joy.
So let me boil this down for you so you can hang your hat on it. Because this is critical.
- God wants you to grow up. He does! People like you to stay an emotional child because you can be more easily manipulated and controlled, but God created you to be an adult who can responsibly take care of yourself. This means YOU manage your emotions, your choices, your life, your thoughts, your spiritual growth, and your results. You. Nobody else. You get to decide who you hang out with. Who you listen to. Who you respect. What you believe. Taking responsibility for your own life is adulthood.
- By the same token, God wants you to stop controlling your environment and those in your environment. This includes your parents, your siblings, your spouse, your friends, and your kids. They get to be themselves. They get to act and behave however they want to. They get to be assholes if they want to. Really! You don’t get to tell them how they need to change or what they need to do so you can be with them. That’s their responsibility. That’s their business. They are only there to love. Not control or manage. Understanding this is adulthood.
This means if someone in your life is making your life miserable, you don’t get to force them to change. But you DO get to decide whether or not you will make them an integral part of your life.
If someone tells you that you need to do A, B, and C in order to be in their club, you don’t get to change their club rules. But you DO get to decide if you want to be in a club with rules like that.
Does this make sense? If you have any questions, leave them in the comments section. I’d love to know how you’re processing this.
Also, if you need some help becoming the adult woman God created you to be, consider joining the Flying Free Sisterhood. Because adults fly, and I want that for you!