“I don’t know how to make friends?” “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to trust again.” “I feel socially backward.” These are just a few of the statements I hear from former Jehovah’s Witnesses who have parted ways with the faith. The root cause always comes down to one thing: trust has been broken.
When you’ve lived in a situation where your “friends” are foisted on you and pre-approved by church management, and where your behaviors are dictated by higher ups, there’s not a big need for social skills. What few social skills we did absorb came from watching others at school or work. But, since we weren’t able to rub elbows and socialize with those folks, we could only assume why they behaved the way they did – for better or worse.
The only trust we were told to have was in the god Jehovah, and in his self-appointed governing body of men who sat in their tower in New York making pronouncements on the JW membership. We were also supposed to trust that our “brothers and sisters” had our backs, since we had to trust them when the war of all wars broke out at Armageddon.
For most of us exJWs, our trust was broken along the way. For some, they realized they could no longer trust the Watchtower leaders to provide accurate information, having had many doctrinal flip-flops over the past century. Yet others were emotionally and physically abused by those in authority, or those leaders swept abuses under the carpet, leaving members vulnerable.
Upon leaving, many of us felt the worst of betrayals. Our “brothers and sisters” no longer supported us, often hurling unfounded accusations our way in an attempt to sully our names. And flesh and blood chose doctrine and church leaders over family. While in some terribly vulnerable situations, we were left with no emotional support whatsoever. In addition to these breaches of trust, many have also felt the pain and confusion of losing their faith in God altogether–they feel betrayed by their own Heavenly Father.
So, how does one move through this kind of hurt and breaches of trust to build relationships again? I can only share what worked for me.
As an extrovert, I draw energy from people. Some would say I’m a social butterfly. So, to be cut off from family and a lifetime of friends was excruciatingly painful. I needed people in my life like a duck needs water. But, I didn’t trust anyone. To alleviate some of this isolation I made superficial friendships with co-workers, but these relationships didn’t have much depth…and I needed that.
I began dipping my toe in the trust pool by sharing bits and pieces of my experience as a JW, even going so far as to tell a few that my family shunned me. I still carried embarrassment, guilt, and shame, but soon realized those feelings were misplaced as I began sharing my story. The reaction from listeners was usually outrage and disgust at the situation–not me. I saw people who were righteously indignant on my behalf, and it was freeing.
About 3 years after I was disfellowshipped, I joined a non-doctrinal congregational church. I figured if any religion understood religious oppression, it would be the Congregationalists. This was an extremely supportive community, of which I was a member for over a decade. I became a greeter for Sunday services, helped on a planning committee, and other activities. At one point, to further my trust and relationship building, I joined a prayer shawl group, where we knitted or crocheted shawls for those who were going through a health or relationship crisis. I slowly built some friendships–you notice it was not overnight. I began to learn who exhibited behaviors that were supportive, and those behaviors that I did not want or need in my life.
My biggest learning about myself was that church was filling a giant need I had for community, and I could find that community in any number of places. I left the church, but kept my friendships. As most of you know, I have a passion for gardening…so, I joined a burgeoning garden club. During this time, I made a couple of fantastic friends that I can always count on.
I’ve also made some excellent friends throughout the exJW community. As I travel around with my job, I’m often able to make a little side trip to connect with folks that I’ve chatted with online for years. That is ALWAYS a joy!
The bottom line is this: friendships and relationships can be built again. Trust can be built again. It doesn’t happen overnight, it’s a slow process. And, slow and steady is a great way to do it.
Be patient with yourself, and enjoy the journey.