Dropping the Rope of Addiction

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This post is for those who are struggling – personally or through friends or family – with the monster of addiction. This post is written from the perspective of a mental health professional (which I have training as) but does not constitute professional advice. I am not a therapist (I’ve chosen a career in research and teaching) but I have training as a therapist.

Individuals seeking help in overcoming substance abuse, pornography addiction, eating disorders, or any other addictive behavior often fall into three categories: the home run hitter, the negative and bitter, and the perpetual quitter. The home run hitters do just that – they quit without much struggle, hitting a home run, changing their behaviors right away. The negative and bitter don’t believe that they will overcome their addictions and they try to blame other people or external factors for their problems; they play the victim card, often without any hint of accepting personal responsibility. Those individuals are the hardest to work with because they see no need to change or have no desire to change. On the other hand, the perpetual quitter frequently tries to quit but never succeeds; the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. It is those who struggle over and over to try and overcome addiction that I want to address.

Erase Addiction

The following examples are fictional but are true to life; they are not atypical of people seeking treatment for addictions. These examples are based on people I’ve worked with during my professional training but I’ve changed specifics (e.g., names, ages) as well as taken the liberty to apply them to a church and gospel setting (e.g., made them members or investigators of the church).

Tobacco

Ralph is 53 years old with a 35 year history of smoking 1-2 packs of cigarettes per day. He recently had a chest scan that revealed a spot on a lung. His doctor told him he needed to stop smoking. Ralph has wanted to quit for years to save money and to save his health but never could. He has a daughter he wants to help through college and as he nears retirement he not only wants to have more money for retirement but he also wants to live long enough to retire. Ralph has tried patches, pills, behavioral treatment, and going cold turkey. Each time he tried quitting Ralph slipped and started smoking again. He means well but Ralph has been unable to quit.

Part of the challenge is that Ralph believes that he can win the battle over smoking. Wait, isn’t that what he wants – to beat the addiction and stop smoking? Yes, but stopping doesn’t require fighting. Part of the problem is that deep down Ralph believes that he can slay the giant of addiction. He can’t. Few people have that strength and willpower and those who do usually develop the ability it through years of practice of self-control, something that years of addiction aren’t exactly evidence of – self-control.

Then Ralph meets the missionaries (or Ralph could be someone newly baptized). They teach him and give him blessings. He is excited and hopeful because he believes in the Savior’s Atonement and its power to heal. Yet, even as his faith grows, Ralph is not quite successful; he is not able to stop for a long enough period in which to be baptized (or, if he was baptized already, he slips back into the addictive behaviors). Ralph starts to despair and feel unworthy, his blossoming faith starts to waiver. What can be done?

Pornography

Matt is 19 years old and a life-long member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He developed a pornography addiction at age 18 and has struggled with quitting since he first approached his parents and bishop. There were some days when the urges of the addiction were so bad he spent the majority of those days viewing pornography, shutting out the rest of the world. Concurrent with the addiction he struggles with depression, which feeds his addiction and is fed by his addiction. He meets bimonthly with his bishop and weekly with a therapist. He prays, reads the scriptures, and attends church weekly. His addiction, however, remains. Matt tries to quit but the siren lure of pornography catches him back each time.

Tug-of-war

Both of these cases illustrate a few of the many challenges faced by those who struggle with addictions. Even with the power of the Atonement, behavioral, emotional, psychological, or physical issues might interfere with success in overcoming addictions. Just as not all medical conditions are cured through faith (the vast majority are not), not all addictions are cured by faith and “trying harder”. I’m not downplaying the role that the Atonement must play for many addictions constitute sinful behavior – addiction is not an excuse for sin – but faith and repentance are not panaceas in this life.

Below is a perspective on addiction that I’ve found helpful professionally. It is based on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, an approach to psychotherapy that I feel has much to offer. Part of this approach is discovering true end goals of life and identifying how current behaviors, emotions, and/or cognitions are or are not detracting from those goals. Once overarching goals are recognized, manageable sub-goals can be established and any barriers to fulfillment identified. With these goals in mind, we can understand how some actions are counterproductive, even if they seem like the right actions to be doing (such as trying to beat the monster of addiction – again this post is focused on individuals who struggle to quit or change, not to those few who are the home run hitters).

Addiction is like playing tug-of-war with a monster on the other side of a gorge. You think that if you can just pull the monster in you will be free from your addiction; the problem is that it’s stronger than you are. You might even think that you can cross the chasm and fight it (maybe the other side looks greener too) but you will lose. The only way to conquer it is to let go of the rope and live your life on your side of the chasm. Then the monster will no longer be pulling back on you. In doing this you are not ignoring the monster – it’s there and real but you are simply choosing to stop fighting it so that you can move on to greater and more productive goals.

This concept of overcoming addiction can be quite successful because when you fight things, you dwell on them. If you play tug-of-war with the monster of addiction you focus all your energy on it. In doing so, you allow it to have power over your life. That’s the irony of fighting the monster – you might think that you are choosing to battle it but in reality you are giving up your freedom of choice. You might think that it is a fight on your chosen ground and at your chosen time, but the monster stands there, waiting for you to fight – it enjoys the contest. The monster only has something to do when someone fights with it. This is a fight few people can win.

So instead of playing tug-of-war, should you cross over the bridge to attack the enemy there? No. Once again, that places your focus on the monster; plus then you are in its territory. That’s like an alcoholic who tries to quit by going to a bar just so she can say that she’s there but not drinking – “look how strong I am!”. It’s not a good idea. That is not the way to win. Once again, by striving to do so you focus on the monster. It’s like me telling you to not think about purple bunnies. Whatever you do, do not think about purple bunnies – not the wiggling of their little noses, not the ridiculous purple hue of their fur, not their munching of juicy carrots. Of course, the first thing you just did was think about what I just asked you not to think about – purple bunnies. The more you try to suppress the thought, the worse it gets because you keep your focus on it. Addictions are the same way.

You need to drop the tug-of-war rope and walk away. Acknowledge the monster, accept the monster as part of your life – it’s real and it’s big and scary. When you drop the rope you are not ignoring the monster, you acknowledge it’s there and real, you just choose not to fight. Ignoring it does not solve your problems because then you are in denial and in the river of denial you usually end up eaten by crocodiles. So instead of just ignoring the monsters, say “I know you are there; I know that you are a terrible thing in my life; I know that you want to fight me and I want to fight you but I cannot win. I embrace you and let you go.” Instead of straining and putting all your efforts on fighting the bad in your life, acknowledge it and then fill your life with good. You embrace (or shake hands – whichever metaphorical action you prefer), let go, and move on. What you move on to is important though. You can’t beat addiction with a life full of nothing, addiction will always win over void! Addictions exist in part because of some internal void. So instead, fill your life with good.

The key to overcoming the monster of addiction is establishing positive goals and working towards those goals rather than fighting against the monster. The goals could be related to family, work, hobbies, service, church, or community. It is in striving towards good goals that the monster of addiction finally goes away.

For all the perpetual quitters out there – if you are trying to overcome addiction of any sort (and it could be anything physical or emotional) but find yourself constantly quitting with little success, it is time for a shift in tactics. That shift could be to acknowledge the monster, drop the rope, walk away, and work towards positive goals in your life. Instead of fighting the bad, do good. Jesus “went about doing good” (Acts 10:38) rather than going about fighting evil all the time. In the same manner, addiction no longer has power over you when you stop fighting it and start working towards good goals. It doesn’t mean it’s gone for good – the monster will remain, lying in wait – but if you stop fighting you can start living. This is not an easy thing to do if there are years of addictions to overcome but it is a simple process and will provide success through diligence and over time.

What will give great power to the process and allow you to fully overcome is the Atonement of Christ. Jesus’s Atonement enables you to be free from the shackles of your sin. It enables you to overcome all, just as the Savior overcame all. Sincere repentance will allow you to “shake at the appearance of sin” (2 Nephi 4:31), no longer having a disposition to do evil (Mosiah 5:2). However, just as you must rely on medical treatment in addition to faith in Christ, there are many instances when you must rely on professional help for addictions. When you or the person you love fall, when you stumble along the path of freedom, don’t get discouraged, don’t give up! That is precisely the time when you need to double your determination and your prayers and keep clinging to the iron rod. God loves you and wants you to succeed. Don’t give up hope, keep walking towards your goals. Through faithfulness and honest striving towards Christ, whether in this life or in the next, you can be free. You shall overcome some day.

Rope image by Michael Heiss used under a Creative Commons license.

Elder Holland on Depression

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Elder Jeffrey R. Holland gave a talk at the Saturday afternoon session of the October 2013 General Conference that resonated with many struggling with psychiatric and psychological disorders. He specifically addressed Major Depressive Disorder but his words are broadly applicable. As someone with a PhD in clinical psychology, I appreciated his message of hope and love to those who struggle. While my interests and specialties are in understanding and helping those with neurological disorders, I have experience and training in helping people who struggle with depression, anxiety, ADHD, addictions, and other emotional and mental disorders. Thus I can say as a professional that Elder Holland nailed the issue of mental and emotional disorders right on the head.

In the past, many church leaders and members had unflattering views of psychological and psychiatric treatment; frankly, much of it was deserved. Diagnosis and treatment of psychiatric disorders in the past was mediocre to harmful in the past. We have come a long way. Most of this improvement in the fields of psychiatry and psychology has come in the past 30 years, with broader improvements in public understanding over the past 15-20 years.

At any given time in the U.S., 5-15% (varies by state) of adults meet criteria for clinical depression with an overall prevalence around 6.5% (Sources: http://www.cdc.gov/features/dsdepression/http://www.nimh.nih.gov/statistics/1mdd_adult.shtml). The 6.5% rate is from 2008 and rates have increased since then. 2% of the U.S. adult population suffer from severe depression (actual rate is slightly higher due to under-reporting and under-treatment).

The good news is that psychological and psychiatric treatment for depression and anxiety is highly effective (in general, effectiveness for individuals will vary). Around 70% of individuals will respond well to a combination of medication and “talk therapy”. That is not comforting for those who do not respond but there is always room for hope. You can find out more about depression and validated treatment by reading this information from the National Institute of Mental Health: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/depression/index.shtml

If you missed Elder Holland’s talk, you can watch it below. If you didn’t miss it, it is well worth your time to watch it again. I’ll write more on this topic soon. If you have any questions about psychological, psychiatric, or neurological disorders, I’ll be happy to try to answer your questions. If you are struggling with depression or anxiety or some other similar (or more severe) challenge, seek help from a competent professional in conjunction with seeking help from the Lord.

In Which I Choose a Career

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Forgive me for a personal post but this is one dear to my heart and to the overall theme of this website, namely education. As I near the end of my schooling (finally!) and continuing to figure out what my career goals lie on I’ve reflected on what what led me to this point in life. Below is part of the story of this journey. I share this because it is a story of the importance of trusting God.

I was not the most socially adept individual growing up. I got along fine with nearly everyone but talking to people was never a strength. As a freshman at BYU I made progress; I continued that progress as a missionary. However, even now, many years later, I’m still only partially broken out of that shell – a place I’m content to be. What I find surprising given my past is that I happen to have a degree (nearly) that seems to be at odds with my personality and background. This is the story that explains that process.

When I was young I did not have a strong idea of what I wanted to be when I grew up. The earliest educational or career goal I remember is wanting to earn at least a Master’s degree (a goal I reached a number of years ago and then continued on with more school). I had some of the common childhoods desires – to be an astronaut or a pilot. I thought briefly of being a professional musician but accurately realized I didn’t really have the skill or drive to become one. I also thought about being a theoretical physicist but never seriously pursued that. I moved into a stage where I wanted to be an engineer, which was driven in part by brothers-in-law who were or were studying to be engineers. Then in high school I settled on a career in the Air Force as a pilot. I stuck with this, applying for and receiving an ROTC scholarship for college. As part of receiving the scholarship I had to pick a major before college; there was a limited list of approved majors but I settled on electrical engineering because I loved electronics, math, science, and computers. I also chose electrical engineering in part because there were other engineers in the family (brothers-in-law) but no electrical yet.

As a freshman at BYU I jumped into Air Force ROTC and my engineering classes. I loved my ROTC experiences but was not enjoying engineering much. Part of the problem was my own difficulties managing my time well (somewhat ironically, I currently teach people time management skills).

After my first semester, when I had struggled in a couple classes, I took the Christmas break to re-evaluate my career choices, including one in the Air Force. One of my engineering class grades was such that my scholarship with the Air Force was in jeopardy but separately from that I had come to the realization that I was not on the right career path. This realization came as spiritual insight as I thought and prayed. I did not know what I wanted to do instead but I started thinking of going to medical school but I wasn’t settled on anything. I went back for the next semester, resolved to give ROTC a week or two, but I did not feel right continuing with it so I gave it up. Ending my involvement in ROTC was a difficult decision because I loved it so much. Giving it up meant giving up the possibility of being a jet fighter pilot and getting to fly through the air at supersonic speeds, strapped onto a huge jet engine. I’m not a thrill-seeker but that would be really cool. stuck with electrical engineering for the rest of the semester but still did not really enjoy it. I remember thinking one night as I was in the engineering lab trying to get my homework in before the midnight deadline that I really didn’t want my entire career to revolve around computers, having limited social interaction – a perhaps somewhat unfair assessment of the work electrical engineers do. It was a surprising conclusion I came to, given my own social weaknesses.

So I ended my freshman year of college having no idea what I wanted to be. Thankfully, I had 2 years as a missionary to think more about it. Over those two years some of the edges of my social ineptitude started to rub off. When talking with and teaching people is much of what you do for 2 years, you are bound to gain a little skill at it (and in my case that skill was very little). I gained a love of teaching people during those two years. Reflecting back, I always had a love of teaching. I used to enjoy helping other students in elementary school finish their classwork after I had finished mine. Knowledge is only really good when it is shared with other people. Knowledge hoarded selfishly like shiny baubles is worthless. The good of knowledge comes by sharing it with others and hoping that they take it to new places you’ve never dreamed about.

It was during this period that I started to become interested in psychology, in understanding people and behavior. I was interested in part because I felt I was fairly clueless about people and behavior so it would be interesting to learn. I also thought about going into economics with the goal of setting up micro-loans for people around the world, to help them improve their situations. The more I thought, I realized I kept hovering around psychology and wanting to understand the brain so I registered for an introduction to psychology at BYU for after my mission.

One week into that class I knew that I wanted to study psychology. I changed my major from engineering to psychology and never looked back. What really drew me in was the brain, something that had been fascinating to me for years. I did not really know what I wanted to do with psychology but the one thing I knew I did not want to do was go into clinical psychology, to help people struggling with depression or personality disorders or other difficulties. That was the last thing I wanted to do. So naturally what do I (nearly) have a PhD in now? Clinical Psychology.

This path came about by talking with a teacher’s assistant in one of my courses. He was in BYU’s clinical psychology program, focusing specifically on neuropsychology. This meant that his specialty was going to be studying the brain and brain-behavior relationships. I realized that what I really liked in psychology had to do with understanding the brain more, particularly as it dysfunctions such as in dementias or Parkinson’s disease. While there were non-clinical paths I could have taken to do research in those areas, I liked the applied clinical side; it has direct implications and benefits in people’s lives.

So I decided on clinical neuropsychology, still really not wanting to deal with people’s depression and other psychological and psychiatric issues. This decision turned into a long path of schooling, one finally nearing its close in about 2 months. Even though I was so opposed to clinical psychology initially part of my decision to study clinical psychology was because I thought I would finally learn a bit about people and social behavior, something that has proven to be true. I knew what I would learn in clinical psychology were areas of weakness for me, which made it important to work on them. Our weaknesses cannot become strengths without effort.

Never when I was younger would I ever thought I would be where I am now with the degree that I (almost) have. I would have found the idea ridiculous. I, who was at times painfully shy and at best socially apathetic, spend nearly every day talking and working with people. Yes, I also provide psychotherapy, helping people cope with depression and anxiety and other issues, although that’s not really where my interests lie.

I share all this because this process serves a testimony of the truth of the Lord’s words to the prophet Moroni: “And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.” (Ether 12:27; emphasis added).

Through many years of effort and excellent training, what were before chasms of weaknesses are at least smoothed out. Valleys of weaknesses have been elevated. The fact that I am doing something I never even imagined doing is evidence of God’s guidance and grace. There is still much to learn and many weaknesses to work on but the Lord has promised that our weaknesses can become our strengths, which I find encouraging.

One additional thing I’ve learned is that I’m not particularly good at knowing what is best for my life. Thankfully, I have a loving Father in Heaven who knows more and better than I do and who is willing to be patient with me when I’ve tried to walk on paths that did not lead to where I needed to go. I’m also grateful for Him letting me walk on those paths long enough to discover that for myself.

Blaming and Judging

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Preface

The other day I came across a website that quoted something I wrote in my post: For Anti-Mormons It’s All About Joseph Smith. My post was about how most anti-Mormon attacks on the Church boil down to ad hominem attacks on Joseph Smith, at least of the ones that I’ve read or seen over the years (there are also attacks that try to make Mormonism look ridiculous by taking doctrines or practices out of context and presenting them in flippant ways). Keep this in mind throughout the following post – my original post, from which a quote was taken, was about anti-Mormon tactics. I’m responding indirectly to a couple points people were trying to make but my response goes far beyond a response to what was said on that site. I only included the source for completeness sake – this post is not meant to be a specific response to what was said on that site, even if I do address it. [Sorry if that’s confusing.]

Start of post

A selection of my post (taken out of context) was used as an example of Mormon “blame projection”, which is, according to this individual, that the “‘blame’ for ‘failure’ [people leaving the church] has to be projected onto the individual that just isn’t ‘cutting it’, or just didn’t ‘cut it.'” (Source; note: the site has a lot of “ex-Mormons” and others not friendly to the Church; that’s not necessarily a problem, it just means that what’s posted will generally be biased against the Church, just like my posts are biased towards the Church).

What this person was meaning by “blame projection” is that practicing Mormons are not willing to blame the Church or its doctrines so Mormons blame those who leave the church (not just stop going to church but actually leave it by having their names removed from church records) as having “failed” the Church or its doctrines and not the other way around. There must have been something wrong with the person if they can’t handle the rules of the LDS Church. It also means that we want people to take responsibility for their actions.

Now, is this true? If so, is it even a problem? First, let me provide background and context before I return to those questions.

What did I write? “This is because the gospel of Jesus Christ as revealed to His living prophets is Truth; it is sound and without contradiction. This does not mean that our understanding is perfect, nor have we been revealed everything yet (not even remotely) but the gospel is true. Any supposed imperfections are caused by our lack of understanding. (Source: For Anti-Mormons It’s All About Joseph Smith).”

That is what someone quoted from my post. From that quote, someone turned my commentary on our limited understanding of the gospel into how Mormons blame others [those who leave the church] for their “failures” [this person’s word, not mine] instead of blaming the Church. What happened is this individual interpreted what I wrote as “The gospel is perfect, I don’t understand the gospel, so I must not be perfect; that means I’m a bad person.” That’s a gross distortion of my words and an example of distorted thinking – the kind that I address with people in therapy (i.e., that’s not a healthy chain of thoughts). While I know that chain of thoughts occurs in the minds of some church members (and maybe most at some point in time, if only fleetingly), my quote was not meant to apply to the perfectionism that some individuals might feel (although, taken out of context, I can see how someone might derive that from what I wrote). That quote was addressing the anti-Mormon tactic of resorting to character attacks on Joseph Smith when people show the flaws in their attacks on LDS doctrines or teachings or scripture. Any “flaws” left can be chalked up to shortcomings of Joseph Smith (mistakes he made, not character flaws) or to our imperfect understanding of the fullness of the gospel and of all of God’s plans. We know Joseph Smith was a prophet and that He restored Christ’s Church so that means that we shouldn’t get too worked up about things we don’t understand. The gospel is true, we’re not perfect, so don’t sweat the small stuff; we need to just do the best we know how to do. If there was an implied message in that quote, it was that – we need to hold to our foundation of faith in Christ and our testimonies of the restoration and not worry too much about the tinkling of cymbals and the sounding of brass.

Anyway, back to the topic. The writer did a similar thing (use a quote to establish Mormon “blame projection”) with something Elder Russell M. Nelson said, so I guess I’m in good company. The distortion of my words becomes clear in the broader context of my post. Let me comment on a different comment on that website first before I tie everything together.

In that same thread on that website, someone used the quote from my article as an example of “the ‘attitude of superiority’ that is ingrained in the mormon [sic] membership from day one.”

This misperception of my motives is a good example of the necessity of not taking quotes out of context. Here are two paragraphs from my post (from which the quote was taken). Take particular note of the second paragraph:

“I am not stating that all negative questions and concerns about the church stem from some conscious or subconscious antipathy towards Joseph Smith but almost all anti-Mormon materials essentially boil down to impugning Joseph Smith’s character, at least in the attacks to which I’ve been exposed. This is because the gospel of Jesus Christ as revealed to His living prophets is Truth; it is sound and without contradiction. This does not mean that our understanding is perfect, nor have we been revealed everything yet (not even remotely) but the gospel is true. Any supposed imperfections are caused by our lack of understanding. I am also not implying that Joseph Smith was perfect, he would be the first to recognize his faults, but none of the anti-Mormon attacks on his character are warranted. I know some disagree with that statement but it’s easy to defame the character of people who are dead.

People can have honest disagreements. Those of us who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can have enriching discussions with all people, should they and we do so with an attitude of honesty and respect. We in the LDS Church do not have a monopoly on truth or inspiration. We do not have a monopoly on goodness or virtue. What we do have is membership in Christ’s church, which is a blessing and a responsibility. We are responsible to never be arrogant or exclusive. We have a responsibility to share what we have with others. Membership in Christ’s true church is never an excuse to look down on others, it is a calling to raise others up. We must never let the symptoms of antipathy dwell within us. We can never find happiness in tearing down others. Antipathy is part of a disease that will spread and consume us with its cancerous cells.”

One commenter looks at a portion of what I wrote and labels me as having an “attitude of superiority”. Now, what constitutes superiority can be a matter of opinion. It’s likely this individual was begging the question about Mormon superiority. That means that the conclusion (that Mormons might think they are superior to everyone else) is implicit in the premise. In other words, the person needs to show evidence that Mormons believe they are superior but instead of producing evidence, makes the assumption that Mormons do believe they are superior. It’s like saying, “I’m going to show why cats are better than dogs. First, cats are better than dogs. Second, cats are smarter. Etc.” There are a lot of assumptions in there that might or might not be true and simply stating them does not make them true.

Another problem is what constitutes superiority. Superiority is a feeling; it is motivation. Making assumptions about motivations and feelings is risky at best. I’ve received years of professional training in uncovering motivations for behavior and I’ve found that it is always unwise to make assumptions about motivations (I do it and sometimes I’m right and sometimes I’m wrong). If we want to know motives, we should ask directly. If we think that the answer we receive is either untrue or lacking insight, then we can make hypotheses about motives and then try to refute them by a series of tests. When we are trying to establish motives for a group of people, we have to sample randomly from a significant portion of that group. What this individual did was pass judgment (particularly final judgment – more on that later) on Mormons without weighing the evidence. My point is that assuming Mormon superiority is a shaky proposition that needs to be tested. How can it be tested? By investigating what Church leaders say and do and what church members do. However, even then, leeway must be given for human imperfections. I bring that up not to give Mormons an “out”, I bring it up because it is doctrine – we are not perfect and Mormons do not claim perfection from anyone within the Church, even the Prophet. That’s another post though.

Maybe the assumption that Mormons believe they are superior was an easy assumption to make without the full context of what I wrote (he or she likely did not read my full post). Contrary to what this individual stated about “Mormon superiority”, I wrote exactly the opposite – that the gospel of Christ requires that Mormons never have an attitude of superiority. I know some Mormons do have that attitude and sometimes what Mormons say can come across as superior but superiority – in the prideful, condescending sense – is not part of LDS doctrine.

So not only was what I wrote incompatible with the conclusion that Mormons believe they are superior, it had nothing to do with providing rationale for blaming others. Personal responsibility is a major part of the gospel so there is plenty of room for blame. “We believe that we will be punished for our own sins and not for Adam’s transgression” is not just a statement about our beliefs about the Fall, it is a statement about who we believe should be blamed for sin – namely, ourselves. Just as I cannot take responsibility for what my neighbor does, I cannot eschew responsibility for what I do. The Lord can do that for us – take others’ blame and absolve us of responsibility, but we cannot save ourselves. Thus, when people leave the church (again, by leave I don’t just mean stop coming to church and/or stop following the tenets of the LDS Church, I mean have their name officially removed from church records), we do have a tendency to blame them and not the Church. This is because we blame ourselves for our own actions as well.

This is not to say that there are instances when the actions of other church members, even church leaders, do not result in other people leaving the church; that happens. I know people who left the church because of what other church members did to them; in at least one of the cases I know, I think leaving the Church was almost justified. I say almost because my faith in Christ and in Christ’s church transcends church members and leadership. In other words, I do not equate the Church with the actions of any individual church member (although the Prophet comes pretty close). But I do not blame this particular individual for leaving the Church under the circumstances he did. Even so, with time, he eventually came back to church. That’s one of the miracles of the gospel – the miracle of forgiveness. This man was able to forgive the church member (not in person, just in general) who had seriously wronged him (this wasn’t a case of a flippant remark, this was a case of adultery between another church member and this man’s wife). Cases like this (people leaving the Church because of other people’s serious sins) happen more often than they should (which is not at all) but thankfully are quite rare overall.

When Mormons blame others, or seem to blame others, for leaving the church, this blame is not what has been referred to as a final judgment. Only the Savior can pass final judgment on people. We do not know everyone’s circumstances. That is why we are encouraged by church leaders to not pass these final judgments on others (e.g., Elder Oaks’ CES address on judging). We do sometimes have to make judgments about others. As Elder Oaks said in that address,

“In contrast to forbidding mortals to make final judgments, the scriptures require mortals to make what I will call ‘intermediate judgments.’ These judgments are essential to the exercise of personal moral agency. Our scriptural accounts of the Savior’s mortal life provide the pattern. He declared, ‘I have many things to say and to judge of you’ (John 8:26) and ‘For judgment I am come into this world, that they which see not might see’ (John 9:39)…. The Savior also commanded individuals to be judges, both of circumstances and of other people. Through the prophet Moses the Lord commanded Israel, ‘Ye shall do no unrighteousness in judgment: thou shalt not respect the person of the poor, nor honour the person of the mighty: but in righteousness shalt thou judge thy neighbour’ (Leviticus 19:15)…. We must, of course, make judgments every day in the exercise of our moral agency, but we must be careful that our judgments of people are intermediate and not final. Thus, our Savior’s teachings contain many commandments we cannot keep without making intermediate judgments of people: ‘Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine’ (Matthew 7:6); ‘Beware of false prophets. . . . Ye shall know them by their fruits’ (Matthew 7:15­16); and ‘Go ye out from among the wicked’ (D&C 38:42). We all make judgments in choosing our friends, in choosing how we will spend our time and our money, and, of course, in choosing an eternal companion. Some of these intermediate judgments are surely among those the Savior referred to when he taught that ‘the weightier matters of the law’ include judgment (Matthew 23:23)….

First of all, a righteous judgment must, by definition, be intermediate. It will refrain from declaring that a person has been assured of exaltation or from dismissing a person as being irrevocably bound for hellfire. It will refrain from declaring that a person has forfeited all opportunity for exaltation or even all opportunity for a useful role in the work of the Lord. The gospel is a gospel of hope, and none of us is authorized to deny the power of the Atonement to bring about a cleansing of individual sins, forgiveness, and a reformation of life on appropriate conditions. Second, a righteous judgment will be guided by the Spirit of the Lord, not by anger, revenge, jealousy, or self-interest.”

In this way do we sometimes “project blame” onto others but only in an “intermediate judging” capacity. Yes, there are Mormons who do not follow this counsel but I’ve yet to meet any who openly try to pass lasting judgment on others. As I said, none of us is perfect. When we seem to “blame” others, is that a problem? No, if our “blame” is intermediate and if we understand the context of people’s choices. Blaming, or judging, others is a problem when we try to make it final; only the Savior can do that.

Now the original context of the someone quoting me was about Mormon youths who supposedly (I say supposedly because I have not personally reviewed the research in question) feel pressured to be perfect and when they fall short, have existential anxiety. There is the doctrine of perfection taught but thankfully, in recent years, we’ve had much clearer teachings that we cannot expect perfection in this lifetime (that’s not a change in doctrine, it’s a case of emphasizing a point enough so that it finally gets through our far-too-often-thick-skulls). I know there is still anxiety about perfection but striving for excellence almost always results in anxiety (if you want to see anxiety, look around at a university – I don’t mean the students, I mean the faculty). High standards can result in anxiety. Anxiety is not bad though. Too much is bad, just as too little is. We get optimum performance with the right level of anxiety. If it’s too low, we don’t try hard enough, if it’s too high, we give up. That level is different for every person though. This is why the gospel is an individual gospel and why Christ will judge us; He knows us. He knows our strengths and our weaknesses. He knows the desires of our hearts. If we are facing Christ and striving to have His Spirit with us, we are doing all we can do. His grace is sufficient for our needs.

Postscript

The purpose of this post was to point out the necessity of quoting in context (the context of my original quote negated the point someone was trying to make with and had nothing to do with the other use someone made for it). Secondly, there are many people – non-Mormon and Mormon – who do judge others too harshly or with too little information. This might include ascribing motives to others without providing sufficient evidence to support those motives. One poster on that site stated that Mormons like to blame others for their “failures” but that the Mormon standard is perfection, so no wonder there are so many confused and suicidal Mormon teens (I’m not making that up, that’s the point someone was trying to make when quoting me {and others, including Elder Nelson}). If you want the truth about suicides in Utah (which some critics try to equate with Mormon suicides), read this post. But that’s getting off-topic.

There are some complex issues in LDS theology and LDS history. There are honest people who have honest questions. None of us is perfect; we all need the Savior’s Atonement.

I know I didn’t address the issue of where the idea of “Mormon superiority” came from as well as I could have done. That might be interesting to explore some more at some point but this post is long enough for now.

Faith, Psychology, and Therapy

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While I spend most of my time doing research (both testing participants and dealing with the MRIs of their brains), I also spend time conducting therapy with clients. The more I learn about common mental health issues such as depression or anxiety, the more convinced I am of the benefits the gospel of Jesus Christ can have for mental illness. I find that at least some of the time in every session I find myself thinking, “The gospel sure could help with this problem.” I am not implying that the gospel is a panacea for issues such as depression but it can benefit a person tremendously.

I am going to focus on a narrow range of psychological disorders in this post. As psychologists we are most concerned about people with depression who state that they feel hopeless. It is usually a precursor to suicidal thoughts and intent, at least in the United States of America (depression manifests differently in different cultures). That is why when someone states or acknowledges that they feel hopeless, we become quite concerned. There might still be other things that are keeping people from killing themselves but hope is one of the most important keys. Those who are without hope despair (see Moroni 10:22) and have a tendency to act in desperation. However, there is a cure for this despair.

The gospel of Jesus Christ and faith in Christ provides one thing that makes mental illness – be it depression or anxiety or even something more severe – bearable. The gospel and faith provide hope. Hope is not always happiness but it can exist even if happiness is gone; hope can exist even when the inner calm is gone. For someone who is suffering from a mental illness, I believe that illness can become more bearable when faith in Christ leads to hope – hope for a better and brighter day and hope for a life when there will no longer be sadness and sorrow, at least not quite like we experience here in mortality.

It would be inaccurate to state that much sorrow and even depression was not caused by sin and other wickedness; after all, Moroni wrote, “Despair cometh because of iniquity” (Moroni 10:22). Also, “Wickedness never was happiness.” (Alma 41:10). People will not always find happiness in sin (see Mormon 2:13), whether in this life or the next, they will sorrow. Sometimes sorrow is good – it can help spur people to repentance (see 2 Cor. 7:10) – sometimes people become so ingrained in wicked habits that their sorrow is not unto repentance (see Mormon 2:13).

If you do a scripture search for the word sorrow you find many instances of the word; in most of the cases sorrow is juxtaposed with sin – the people’s own or some one else’s (see Mormon 5:9,11; 2 Nephi 1:17; Alma 31:2). The righteous can be sad and feel down because of the wickedness of those around them and those they love. The cure, at least in the scriptures, for most sorrow is repentance.

I want to repeat that in no way do I think all depression is caused by wickedness but I also not deny that wickedness can play a large role in the sorrow and depression people feel. It is not possible to live a wicked lifestyle and remain happy over time; we all have a divine spark within us that is offended by wickedness. As that flame burns dim, it affects how we feel. I have to add that any member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who is depressed should receive treatment from a competent mental health provider (and preferably one who respects one’s religious beliefs). Sometimes a bishop can be involved if the person feels that he or she has unresolved issues but the gospel is not a panacea for depression. As Elder Wilford Andersen stated at the April 2010 General Conference: “I do not wish to minimize the reality of clinical depression. For some, solutions to depression and anxieties will be found through consultation with competent professionals. But for most of us, sadness and fear begin to melt away and are replaced by happiness and peace when we put our trust in the Author of the plan of happiness and when we develop faith in the Prince of Peace.” (Andersen, Apr. 2010 Conference).

Now I want to shift gears for the rest of this post. Within the organization of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are built many tools that while not explicitly established as treatment for mental health issues, can be beneficial for a range of psychological problems. One frequent contributing factor in depression are feelings of loneliness. All LDS Church members should be assigned home teachers (two men or a combination of a man and a young man 14-18 years old) who are supposed to visit monthly. All members of the Relief Society (women 18 and over) are also assigned visiting teachers (two women who are part of the Relief Society as well). In theory no one in a ward or branch (and thus the whole church) should feel completely isolated because they should be visited regularly by fellow church members. This program is not perfect but there are many people who fulfill their responsibilities every month. Related to this, all church members are also either a part of a Primary class (for the children), a Priesthood quorum (young men and men), a young woman’s class, or the Relief Society. Thus, ideally there should be a number of people who are involved and interested in each church member (in addition to the Bishop or Branch President). People are not perfect so this organization does not always work as it could but the organization is sound, even if the people are not always sound.

In addition, all church members are ideally assigned a responsibility – from librarian to Elder’s quorum president to Primary teacher to Bishop to General Authority to ward usher. All should have some level of responsibility and should (I’m dwelling in an ideal world for this post) feel needed. Some callings are busier than others – most bishops spend at least 20 hours per week fulfilling their responsibilities whereas a ward greeter might only spend a few minutes each week with his or her calling. Regardless of the level of responsibility, if a person has the right attitude he or she will feel needed. Even something as simple as that can alleviate symptoms of depression.

One thing that we often teach people who are depressed is that they should do something active every day, even if it is only for a few minutes. The Church provides numerous opportunities for people to be active and involved with other people. The Church provides a social situation where friends can be made. These social interactions are also key in helping people feel less depressed. That gets back to feelings of isolation or aloneness that so many people who are depressed feel.

Now what about other mental illnesses? I want to focus briefly on social phobia (performance anxiety or anything else related). The best and most lasting treatments for phobias are behavior treatments and in particular, exposure therapy. Exposure does not work for everyone but it is generally very effective. If someone has performance anxiety (specifically about public speaking) there are opportunities to overcome that anxiety. A person might be called as a teacher in church and have to teach every week. A person also might be asked to give a talk in Sacrament Meeting or bear his testimony or say a public prayer. Doing any of these these can serve as an informal exposure therapy. In addition, many young men and women in the Church serve full-time missions where they spend 18 to 24 months interacting with complete strangers. If you want a good situation to get over any social phobia one might have – that is a great time to overcome a phobia. With repeated exposure things become normalized and easier to do. This does not mean all anxiety will go away but it can be alleviated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Fear comes not of faith – faith replaces fear. Fear is at the root of a lot of anxiety disorders and faith can help someone overcome that fear. Again, I do not want to downplay the role that competent professionals can play but I think there are a lot of blessings that come through believing and living the gospel of Jesus Christ. Certainly we will not be free from sorrow or psychological or medical or neurological problems but through faith we can find meaning in such adversity and have hope to overcome.