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Mormon Culture and The Problem of Assertiveness: A Thoughtful Faith Podcast

As a therapist, one of my favorite things to observe and write about is the intersection of religious beliefs and mental/emotional health. That’s why I was so excited to sit down with Gina Colvin of “A Thoughtful Faith” podcast and discuss Mormon culture in terms of assertiveness, specifically challenges LDS women may experience when it comes to being assertive. Here are some of the main themes from our conversation:

Motherhood & Family Enmeshment

One important idea that I discuss in my book is that of differentiation, which refers to developing one’s self in a way that is distinct from others but still allows for closeness. A person with low levels of differentiation cannot tolerate differences and either has to conform to family rules and norms or completely separate from them. A healthy emotional attachment is one in which we can be comfortably close to others while still maintaining differences of opinion.

So how does differentiation relate to Mormon culture? In my practice, I’ve worked with many LDS women who’ve gotten married and become mothers very young. They didn’t differentiate from their family of origin and so they didn’t quite learn how to allow their children to become individuals, separate from them. Our doctrine teaches that parenthood is a calling from which we are never released, and while our beliefs concerning families are beautiful, it’s easy to see how women may become confused as to where their influence ends and their kids’ agency begins (particularly as their children grow older). This can lead to enmeshment, which simply means low levels of differentiation. An enmeshed family is one in which individuals are too close, there are poor boundaries (or none at all), it’s unclear whose thoughts and feelings are whose, and people take on others’ problems as their own.

As members of the Church, our goal should be to move past this type of family system to one in which loved ones support and help each other, but each person ultimately makes decisions for him/herself and is responsible for their own personal development. This will look different for every family, and parents of course need to have limits and consequences for their children, but as they get older, we need to let them differentiate into who they choose to be.

Differentiation in Our Relationship to the Church

Differentiation is a sign of healthy emotional development in our interpersonal relationships, but I have also found it to be a key component of how we relate to the LDS Church. It’s no secret that there have been many controversial stances, doctrines, and pieces of history throughout the years. This has led many Mormons to dig deep and question what they’ve been taught and what it is that they believe for themselves. In a theology that values agency, I encourage readers to really grapple with the issues, then decide how much to differentiate. Some cannot tolerate the cognitive dissonance between their own beliefs and what the church teaches and choose to leave. I hope you will think about what you agree with vs. what you perhaps have concerns, questions, or even problems with. Viewing our connection to the church as a relationship can help us reach more peace in our lives and lead to better emotional health.

Our culture of sacrifice and service to others has given way to the common practice of serving until you drop, and always putting others’ needs ahead of your own. I certainly believe in the Christian values of service, sacrifice, and hard work, but these things taken to an extreme can have a negative impact on our selves and can ultimately hurt our families and relationships. Part of being assertive is being able to set boundaries, recognize your own limits, and even say no! I’m not saying that you should ditch all your church responsibilities or stop serving other people, but if you feel chronically burnt out, unhappy, and resentful, it’s likely a good time to step back, reevaluate, listen to your feelings, and make changes that will lighten your load a bit. Paradoxically, the more we really prioritize our selves, the more we have to emotionally to give to others.

Listen to the full interview with Gina here

Click here to download a FREE chapter of my book “The Assertiveness Guide For Women: How to Communicate Your Needs, Set Healthy Boundaries, and Transform Your Relationships.”

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About Dr. Julie Hanks, LCSW:
Dynamic self & relationship expert Dr. Julie de Azevedo Hanks, LCSW loves to make a difference for women. She owns Wasatch Family Therapy and regularly contributes to KSL TV's Studio 5, and her advice has been featured nationally including Wall Street Journal, Parenting, Fox News, and others. Connect on Facebook & Twitter. Her books The Burnout Cure and The Assertiveness Guide are now available.

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