How belief in Christianity destroyed my self esteem

I became a Christian in my late teens, of course I had always loosely believed in god but I had never found the topic of religion particularly interesting. For instance, I would have said I believed in evolution, but as a 15 year old who had never taken a class on biology I really had no idea what that meant. My conversion was prodded primarily by my parents who came the the conclusion that I was going to become a hardened criminal if they didn’t get me some religion, so I was forced to attend church.

My parents had been, prior to this, fairly nominal in their religious beliefs so the specific situation that prodded this action on their part was my, unsuccessful, attempt to swipe a couple of porno magazines from a gas station. Not my smartest move by a long shot, and I’m certainly not going to claim that stealing porn is a particularly ethical act. However, their claim, which they still make to this day, that I would have become a career criminal if they hadn’t forced me to attend church just might be a bit overboard. I’m fairly certain that, in the days before the availability of internet porn, more than a few 16 year olds tried (some more successfully than me) to steal a porn magazine and then went on to live productive, non criminal, lives.

I actually converted pretty quickly, within a year I had been baptized at a small Methodist church down the road from our house. I even went through a phase where I got rid of my secular music and started listening to Christian music exclusively. Why did I become a sold out believer so quickly? Well for one, despite my parents belief that I was rebellious and had the makings of a criminal, I actually still looked up to them and wanted their approval; I was also rather alone, having spent most of my childhood being picked on and not fitting in, so I on some level I was enamored with the ready made social group available to me through the church.

What most people will have grasped by this point is that I didn’t have particularly good self esteem. My parents dealt very poorly with my teenage sexual drives and had mostly shamed me for them along with jumping to some rather extreme conclusions about me that both hurt me and made me afraid they might be right. I had very few friends at the time and was often worried that even the ones I had didn’t really like me. In many ways Christianity seemed like a literal God send for fixing the troubled relationship I had with my parents and giving me social outlets through which I could make more friends.

The reality, unfortunately, was a lot more complicated. While my relationship with my parents did improve somewhat during this time it turned out to be (as readers and friends know) a temporary fix at best, and I was still afraid deep down that my new friendships were not entirely genuine. Further, as I became more serious about my beliefs I encountered the notion of original sin. In a twist that should shock no one, being taught that I was a terrible person deep down did not do anything for my self esteem, and being told that despite that God was willing to die for me was not terribly comforting. I did talk about this issue with other Christians, even pastors and leaders, but the answer inevitably reached in those conversations is that I just didn’t understand the concept correctly, so I was a screw up at that too.

We were told that the salvation narrative was supposed to make us happy, that this was not working for me surely had to be my fault and not God’s. Which brings us to the most insidious part of the evangelical teachings about original sin and following god. If something great happens in your life you don’t really get to take credit for it; the correct reaction is to give all glory to god. However, when something bad happens it’s can’t be God’s fault because he is perfect, therefore it must be your fault.

There is an oft repeated saying by evangelicals. “If you feel distanced from god guess who moved?” This saying appears on Christian bumper stickers, memes, and even twitter accounts.

So Christianity visited upon me an inability to properly own my own successes, along with a tendency to take my failures even harder since I managed to screw things up despite an all powerful being having my back. Not only did this not help my self esteem during my college years, it caused me to take foolhardy moves, because I was certain God told me to, and then predictably failing. For instance, I changed my major to music even though I had a poor background in the subject, and then I flunked out of 2nd term of music theory even though I studied for the class constantly. Failures like this not only made me feel inadequate and stupid, it made me feel like I was not close enough to god because I was either not hearing god correctly or not trusting him enough to provide me with what I needed to accomplish his goals in my life.

I was consistently rankled with these doubts and questions during my college years leading to periods of deep depression. Of course friends I had noticed this and tried to talk to me about it at times, but they mostly mishandled the discussions for various reasons, mostly because they didn’t seem to understand what was troubling me so deeply. How could they when I didn’t really understand it myself at the time? In fact, it wasn’t until after I deconverted that I began to understand just how much these ideas had contributed to my depression and low self esteem. These days when I talk about my experiences Christians rarely want to deal with them except to claim, in grand victim blaming fashion, that I just didn’t believe in Christianity the right way. I’ve been down that road of constant self doubt and constant focus on my failures, I’m not interested in traveling it again.

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  • David Turner

    Wow. That’s what bad Christianity will do to you I guess. I’m sorry. I believed that way for a long time too. Then I found Luther.
    Sorry the modern evangelical machine took you in, lied to you, and spat you out.

    • http://www.skeptimusprime.net/ Dylan Walker (Skeptimus Prime)

      Can I take it from your post that you converted to Lutheranism?

      If so, I don’t want to be rude, but let me refer you this part of my post,

      These days when I talk about my experiences Christians rarely want to deal with them except to claim, in grand victim blaming fashion, that I just didn’t believe in Christianity the right way.

      to let you know why I, and lots of other former believers, find these sorts of statements minimizing and dismissive.

      Further, as a religious studies major I know Lutheran doctrine quite well I fail to see how his version of Christianity deals with any of the issues I spoke about here. Lutheran theology is unabashedly steeped in predestination, which holds that a person is so utterly and totally depraved they can’t even believe without an act prevenient grace. So I fail to see how Lutheran doctrine could ever be considered a panacea for the issues I’m discussing.

      You are free to hang around, read, learn, and even comment, in fact I encourage all of those things because I want this to be a place were people can talk about contentious issues in a friendly manner as much as that is posible. However, in the future it’s probably a good idea to not do the very thing I just complained about being annoyed with in the very post you commented on.

  • Laura Bianca

    Thank you for posting this. I can directly relate to this post. I have depression, anxiety, and perfectionism OCD and evangelical christianity exacerbated them greatly to the point where I was completely unfunctional in daily life. Once I accepted proper medical treatment, I realized how toxic the church’s doctrines on original sin affected me and my self-esteem. I went through a lot of the same things you did, and found it ironic that in a church that prides itself on taking the bible literally that I was told I was taking it too literally! I struggled with perfectionism because I never truly gave myself credit for any successes – those all went to God – but I claimed all of my failures and obsessed over them and doing things “just right” to avoid them.

    I’m still on my journey of figuring out what I believe, but I feel I cannot thank you enough for this post.

    • http://www.skeptimusprime.net/ Dylan Walker (Skeptimus Prime)

      You’re very welcome. :)