Building Resilience After Being Shunned

Let me start off by saying that the topic of this post may be disturbing and may be uncomfortable for some people to read. This feeling of discomfort is what I’ve been feeling for weeks ever since I started writing my book, entitled, You Know the Rules, named after the infamous response my father gave me when I asked him just over a year ago why he continues to treat me like I don’t exist. 

I promised myself that this website would only share things of value to its visitors in terms of building resilience. Since being resilient relates to the ability to recover from adversity, I’d like to share an area of extreme adversity that I’ve endured for over two decades. And that is abandonment of my father as a result of his adherence to the fundamentalist religion, Jehovah’s Witnesses, that promotes the practice of shunning your children who no longer subscribe to beliefs and practices of that religion. 

A Double Standard

The irony and hypocrisy of my father’s abandonment and strict adherence to his religious principles is that they only appear to apply to me. In fact, all but one of my siblings, also no longer subscribe to the beliefs and practices of the religion, but they are not shunned. Not even the baptized ones who lead what is called by the witnesses “a double life”. It appears they have been spared shunning by taking advantage of loopholes in organizational policies. I can’t say I blame them for living a double life. After all, they’d run the risk of also being shunned by their father. 

To be honest, I’d gotten used to his rejection and mourned the loss of my dad over ten years ago. I remember calling him to inquire about how he was doing after a surgery he had. At that time, he asked me, “When am I going to have a proper relationship with my daughter?” My response was, “Anytime – you just have to meet me halfway” to which he responded, “No. You have to come all the way.” Meaning, I’d have to come back to the religion to have a relationship with him.

I explicitly remember at that moment shutting off my affection for my father. I knew at that moment, no matter what I did, what I said, no matter how good of a person I was in the eyes of others, I was worthless in his eyes unless I was a practicing Jehovah’s Witness. So, I shut off and I moved on. 

An Extreme Situation

It wasn’t until I was attacked this summer that my dad reentered the picture. He presented himself to the public like a father-of-the-year – visiting and bringing gifts to me in the hospital, visiting me at home and bringing meals made by my stepmother, which I really appreciated. This lasted for about six weeks after I got home from the hospital.

Needless-to-say, I was very cautious and suspicious of his interest and presence in my life. I thought, maybe this extreme situation had made him see the error of his ways in rejecting me for so many years. I was ready to forgive him and put his abandonment behind us and move forward with a renewed relationship. But, just as quickly as he reappeared, he disappeared. In fact, I haven’t received as much as a text message asking about my well-being for three months.

Interestingly, he became the centre of attention from the Jehovah’s Witnesses who once knew me. My case was very high profile, so everyone was contacting him to inquire about my well-being. This, too, is evidence of epic hypocrisy. No one has ever inquired about my well-being. It appears that everyone just wanted to be a part of the social media action and or to say they were connected to me in some way. Very sad.   

I will explore the practice of shunning, and what I affectionately refer to as my shame reel, in my book, but if you are someone who is currently suffering in silence because you don’t conform to the beliefs of your parents, or you’ve vocalized dissenting views from the faith of your upbringing and have since been rejected or shunned, you’re not alone. 

If you are someone who is currently suffering in silence because you don’t conform to the beliefs of your parents, or you’ve vocalized dissenting views from the faith of your upbringing and have since been rejected or shunned, you’re not alone. 

Sometimes, the people that should love you unconditionally, like your parents, instead, reject you, shame you, and sometimes, disown you. In those instances, it’s important to acknowledge and to seek help for the pain you feel since suppressing it will only lead to that pain resurfacing later in life in unexpected and unpleasant ways. But it’s also important to recognize that despite their rejection, tantamount to emotional abuse, you are worthy, and you are loveable, and you are full of potential. 

Find Your Tribe

I just finished reading the book Lost Connections: Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Hope. This book was gifted to me, not because I’m depressed – thankfully – but because of a discussion I had around the theme of abandonment, which emerged while writing my book. 

Johann Hari shares extensive research into nine causes of depression and frames these causes as disconnections. One of the disconnections is from other people. You’ve probably heard in marketing and social media contexts that advocates for you to find your tribe or for channels to give a name to the members of your tribe. This notion of a tribe has prehistoric references. Belonging to and staying close to your tribe meant safety and protection as well as access to food and connection with others. Leaving your tribe meant sure death. 

Johann Hari shares, “Every human instinct is honed not for life on your own, but for life in a tribe. Humans need tribes as much as bees need a hive.”

I Was Misled

Being raised as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, I was led to believe that ONLY Jehovah’s Witnesses have a sense of community that takes care of its members. That ONLY Jehovah’s Witnesses truly care about each other and will take care of each other in a time of need. I was led to believe that anyone outside of the faith was ultimately evil and unclean in thoughts and actions. 

This theory was completely obliterated this past summer as evidenced by the support I received from my own local community, my neighbours, coworkers, business associates, social media connections, my non-Jehovah’s Witness family members, my husband’s family, my close friends, and complete strangers extending to far-reaching distances. Thousands of people banned together to lift me up and carry me through one of the most difficult times in my life. Support from Jehovah’s Witnesses was not evident. 

Emotional Manipulation Through Shunning

Johann Hari also gives insight into the outcome of the practice of shunning, even of your own children, through isolating them from the most fundamental tribe – the family. “The sense of dread and alertness triggered by being alone for too long evolved for a really good reason. It pushed people back to the group…loneliness is an aversive state that motivates us to reconnect.” He goes on to say that loneliness often exists alongside anxiety and that evolution has shaped us to not only feel bad in isolation, but to feel insecure. 

Brene Brown, a shame and vulnerability researcher and author, reinforced Johann Hari’s insights. Brene Brown discussed the impact of extreme isolation in her book Daring Greatly. She shared that “The most terrifying and destructive feeling that a person can experience is psychological isolation….a feeling that one is locked out of the possibility of human connection and of being powerless to change the situation…people will do almost anything to escape this combination of condemned isolation and powerlessness.”

How I Built Resilience

If I had not worked on building resilience to the adversity experienced at the hands of my father and other practicing Jehovah’s Witness family members, perhaps I would have shrunk into despair and loneliness and insecurity and made my way back to the Jehovah’s Witness tribe. Perhaps that’s what my father was waiting for during the weeks he made a brief reappearance in my life. 

But I have built resilience through what Johann Hari defines as reconnection. I have aligned myself with good and caring people – people who don’t put conditions on their affection for me. I have attempted to develop my skills and advance my education in order to contribute to meaningful work, and I’ve reconnected to meaningful values by engaging in intrinsically motivating activities like salsa dancing and teaching. 

During this unique time in history where we’re discouraged, even prevented, from connecting face-to-face, we are more prone to loneliness, anxiety, and depression. Seeking opportunities to find your own tribe of like minded individuals – even online – who share your aspirations and values will be a protective force in developing your resilience. 

It has taken courage and self-belief to withstand the rejection and hurt imposed upon me by Jehovah’s Witness members of my family. This courage has contributed to my own resilience, and it is my hope that by sharing aspects of my story with you that it will also give you courage to believe in yourself, your worthiness, and your potential. 

Thanks for reading. B Positive!  

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