Special Words of Advice for ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses
The religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses is one that demands isolation from its members. People who are not JWs are referred to as being “in the world” and association with “worldly” persons is strictly frowned up. Association is not allowed with those who purposely leave the faith (disassociated) or who are disfellowshipped (excommunicated).
Because of this isolation, those who come out of the religion face special challenges; they may struggle with certain emotional issues and with socialization. Consider some special cautions for ex-JWs so the transition is easier and healthier, and note that these are just from my own personal experiences and observations and should never be considered “expert” advice by any means.
See a Therapist
Jehovah’s Witnesses are often very abusive to their children, meting out harsh punishment including spankings and beatings from the time a child is very young. Women are subjected to degrading behavior, being told to be “silent” and “submissive” even in their own homes with their own husbands and even if being abused. Outright domestic violence was common when I was in the religion, with women being blamed for the abuse and told they needed to apologize to their abuser. The welfare of children in these homes was never once mentioned. Some Jehovah’s Witnesses are victims of child rape or are being shunned by their close family, even their own parents or children! The religion is also one of constant demands; you need to be preaching more, studying more, commenting more, and loving every minute of it as well. This can erode a person’s self-esteem, making them feel as if they’re never good enough.
These types of situations are best addressed by a trained professional. Thinking that you can handle such extreme situations by yourself or with a few supportive Facebook friends can be very shortsighted, and many ex-JWs struggle for years with low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, panic attacks, and alcohol or drug abuse as they try to manage on their own. We’ve also lost far too many ex-JWs to suicide because of these things. Don’t waste those same years yourself or put your own life at risk, but see a therapist if and when needed.
Maintain Your Privacy
For those who are inactive or who have simply faded from the religion, it can be best to maintain your privacy online. Many in the ex-JW community use aliases and secondary Facebook profiles so they can talk freely among other ex-JWs without fear of the elders or their family finding out. Unless you are actually disfellowshipped or disassociated, think very seriously about revealing your name and face and other identifying factors. From what I understand, you can be disfellowshipped for being an “apostate” without even being given a chance to defend yourself in a judicial committee.
It’s also good to maintain your privacy when it comes to sensitive or hurtful information. Never say anything in a Facebook message or email message that you wouldn’t want to see exposed, even if you think you’re talking to a trusted confidante. You may assume that you’re talking to someone else whose spouse was unfaithful or some similar situation and can trust that person, but one day you might see those private chats exposed in a Facebook group or on someone’s wall.
The same goes for “adult” chats and photos. Remember that once you share photos you can no longer control what happens with them. The minute you tell someone that you don’t want to have any more sexy talk with them or never intended to have a real-life relationship, don’t be surprised if those photos are posted as a way to try to embarrass you. Remember that even ex-JWs can be imperfect and petty, just like anyone else. This is something for former Witnesses to remember as the religion is very strict about sexual expression, and once a person is outside the Kingdom Hall they may tend to feel like the “kid in the candy store,” and forget to use discretion and exercise some control.
Keep Your Money to Yourself
While you may want to see a therapist after leaving the JWs, you also don’t want to pay just anyone for help. There are many persons who try to sell their own counseling sessions or “expert” legal advice to ex-JWs. They may claim that they’ve helped hundreds of victims over the years or that they’re the only ones who can help a lawyer with your legal claim, but it’s good to ask about their actual qualifications before you pay them any money. If someone is a former elder and acts as an expert witness for attorneys, the attorneys should be paying them for their time, not the victims.
That being said, there are true experts at deprogramming who can be helpful; men like Steve Hassan have a long, successful history of helping ex-cult members, so these ones are of course different. Also, many former Jehovah’s Witnesses have written books about their experiences and these can be helpful and interesting, or they may run legitimate businesses such as selling things on eBay. A person has every right to advertise a book they’ve written or business they run, but paid mental health counseling and legal advice should only come from trained, licensed professionals.
Avoid Hero Worship
Many persons who leave Jehovah’s Witnesses are looking for someone that can help them or even rescue them. They want to see something said or done about the religion and look up to those who have made themselves public in the fight against them. These ones are often seen as bright shining lights and heroes standing up for the little guy, and it’s assumed that they have impeccable morals and adhere to the highest standards of conduct.
Be careful of this thinking. You would be surprised at the imperfections of those who are leading any advocacy work or who are fighting for the victims of any situation. Not only are these ones imperfect but this type of work can actually bring out the worst in some people. They may take advantage of that same hero worship and become verbally abusive with ones who disagree with them or overly aggressive with those who admire them. It’s better to avoid hero worship in the first place than to suffer the resulting heartbreak.
Be Realistic, Tolerant, and Forgiving
All of that being said, it’s also good to be forgiving of others you may meet in the ex-JW community. Someone might come across as being arrogant or self-serving, myself included, but ex-JWs are imperfect. Eric Bottorff did a great video on how people can sometimes just have a bad day and say things that they may even regret, and we need to remember how this can happen. Some ex-JWs also have health problems that result in depression, mood swings, etc., and this can cause them to occasionally say or do something regrettable or have clashes with others.
Remember too that many of us online are doing the best we can and don’t always know the right things to say and do. When I wrote my post about social media blackmail, I didn’t know how to really address the entire mess that was happening in the ex-JW community and wanted to stop the situation from becoming worse, and criticized how many people had resorted to threats of lawsuits and “outings,” hoping it would encourage people to just let it go. I realized later that it sounded awful to chastise others that way when it wasn’t my place to tell them what to do, and for that I do apologize.
I would hope people would forgive my words, and would encourage that same forgiveness of others if they say or do something that just rubs you the wrong way. I’m sure all of us had enough of that in the Kingdom Hall where personality clashes and power trips often got out of hand, so for your own emotional health, try to leave that thinking behind you especially when it comes to simple petty annoyances and personality differences.
Get Off the Internet
Talking to other former Jehovah’s Witnesses online can be very helpful as they understand your unique challenges in dealing with past abuses or a family that shuns you. However, if you spend all your time online with ex-JWs you are doing the same thing the religion did, namely, creating isolation. This is not healthy and can actually make it more difficult for you to move forward, away from the pain of being a JW.
If you’re not sure of how to make friends outside the religion and off the internet, consider doing volunteer work, joining a gym, joining a community center or a nondenominational church, or taking classes at a local continuing education center. You’ll meet real people and in turn, expand your horizons away from the thinking of Jehovah’s Witnesses. This doesn’t mean you should just leave fellow ex-JWs but it’s a good way to nurture your mental and emotional health and not wallow in the pain of the past.
Getting off the internet will also help ex-JWs avoid becoming too attached to those they meet online and having unrealistic expectations about the connections they make. Friends you meet online also can’t always be there for you and this too can create hurt feelings and resentment. Keep your internet activity in its place and spend time in the real world so you can develop healthy, real relationships.
Speak Up, Get Involved
If you’ve left the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses because of some abuse or you want to tell others the real “truth about the truth” for whatever reason, speak up and get involved. I have a list of ways you can help on this page, and being active and speaking out can help anyone to heal. You no longer feel like a helpless victim when you speak up and are proactive in warning others about what really goes on behind the closed doors of the Kingdom Hall. Find one thing you can do within your comfort level, and just try it. You may be surprised at your own courage.
Don’t Get Discouraged, Don’t Quit, Don’t Go Back
If you’re discouraged by all these cautions I’ve mentioned, don’t be. Being careful about your identity and about making friends online is a small price to pay for leaving an abusive, high-control religion where children are not safe and women are abused and treated like second class citizens. If it takes work with a therapist to rid yourself of the hurtful and hateful thoughts and emotions you learned in the religion, remember that it’s worth it, every minute.
And whatever you do, don’t go back. It can be frightening to be out on your own and to try to navigate “the world,” but once out there you’ll find that there’s no reason to be afraid. Whatever difficulties you may face, they’re nothing compared to the difficulties of being a victim of the religion that is Jehovah’s Witnesses.
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