In my experience, people who leave Mormonism experience two major things. The first is relief, perhaps even euphoria, that the chains holding them back their entire lives have finally been removed, freeing their minds and releasing them from having to justify problematic things about the religion they once held dear.

The second is pain, and its severity and impact varies drastically from person to person. Some may experience only minor pain that is healed relatively easily once they embrace a new way of life. For others, that pain can linger—even grow—for years after leaving the LDS Church, and continue to negatively impact numerous areas of their lives.

I experienced a decent amount of pain after leaving Mormonism, but it didn’t hit me all at once. The worst of it was that which grew over time, as my bitterness about perceived injustices I thought still affected my life to that day increased. I resented Mormonism for “making me” marry so young, and even resented my then-husband for his Mormon upbringing, despite loving him a lot. I felt trapped in a situation I didn’t choose to be in, and it was made worse by my reliance on a marriage-based VISA to continue living in the United States—something I wasn’t even sure I wanted to be doing, as I’d originally moved here for Mormonism. I longed to know what life would have been like had I not joined the LDS Church at 17, and I was unable to feel genuine peace and joy in my life as a result.

Then, after a couple of years of this type of thinking (peppered with a lot of happiness, too—I don’t want to paint too negative a picture of what leaving Mormonism was like for me), things started changing. Thanks to the words of secular spiritual teachers like Eckhart Tolle, and intense personal discovery triggered by the death of my (very enlightened) grandmother, I began to see myself not as a victim of my experiences, but as the product of them. I stopped feeling anger toward Mormons and Mormon leaders and recognized that they were just the products of their genetics and experiences like I was, and that everyone is trying their best to do what they think is right. I started seeing all the positive ways my life experiences had impacted me. And most importantly, I stopped resisting my current life situation and started accepting it—recognizing that if I could change something, I would, and that if I couldn’t, acceptance was the only way I could feel peace and happiness.

This transformation in the way I thought was completely life-changing. As I started learning how to be the observer of my thoughts and emotions rather than a passive thing they controlled, my anxiety and depression reduced drastically. I still had flare-ups more often than I would have liked, but I was able to handle them far better than I ever had before, and learn what my triggers were. This helped me recover from attacks of anxiety faster and with more resolution, as I could see clearly how I’d allowed my mind to slip back into old toxic patterns. Once I gained this awareness, the frequency of my anxiety “attacks” began reducing, and the depression and despair that used to be a regular part of my life went away almost entirely.

I knew that certain undesirable aspects of my personality (like my anxiety in some scenarios) were the result of specific childhood traumas, so I learned to completely love and accept myself despite my flaws, even when other people couldn’t. This, again, was a dramatic transformation for me, as it also helped me learn to completely love and accept others despite their flaws—because we’re all just the products of our life experiences. I stopped feeling anger toward people (for the most part!) for the shitty things they said and did, and realized that all shittiness in the world is just unconsciousness—people being too identified with their own thoughts and emotions (which are the result of their unique programming/conditioning) to be aware of how their words and actions affect others. You probably have a pretty good sense of this from interacting with your Mormon loved ones, who you know only want to help you, but can end up hurting you because they fail to understand anything but their own style of thinking.

I also became happier in my marriage. By learning to embrace the present moment more (because that’s the only way we ever actually experience life), I was able to appreciate my husband and what we had a lot more. I had learned that fulfillment could only come from within, not from another person, which helped me stop resenting my husband and start embracing my time with him more. This led to so much more laughter and love and genuine enjoyment of him as a person, especially as I’d learned a lot about how selfish I’d been for most of our relationship before then. It was wonderful, even if my husband wasn’t experiencing the same contentment about our situation. (I soon realized that he wasn’t, and we divorced. It’s only been a couple of months, but I’ve continued to experience true joy throughout what could have been a really terrible time, had I not undergone such a powerful personal transformation. I’m excited to bring my expanded capacity for love and happiness into a future relationship when the time is right.)

For a long time before and after Mormonism, I was controlled almost exclusively by my thoughts and emotions. I sought fulfillment in external things and people, which is what compelled me to join Mormonism in the first place—I was seeking the love and stability I hadn’t enjoyed as a child. I then sought it in my marriage, and was resentful that it wasn’t there—because it couldn’t be there. None of us can complete ourselves through things or people, however good those things or people might be for us.

I used to think “you can’t love another person until you love yourself” was a meaningless platitude, but based on my recent experiences, it’s totally true. The way I viewed my husband before and after this huge shift in my thinking proves it to me. When you don’t love yourself, your actions and interactions will come from a place of fear, because you’re seeking completeness you’re unable to give yourself, and that doesn’t facilitate true love and joy in a relationship. When you do love yourself completely, you aren’t seeking to find yourself in other people, or one specific person, so you are free to enjoy them, and your time with them, in a “truer” way. I believe self-love can completely transform every area of your life, especially when combined with genuine trust in your own abilities, as it allows you to enjoy the present moment with confidence that you can handle whatever life throws at you in the future. (So you spend less time worrying about what might happen and how you’ll handle various hypothetical scenarios and more time just enjoying whatever it is you’re doing here and now.)

I believe the only way we can feel “whole”, and experience lasting peace and joy in our lives, is through complete acceptance of ourselves, others, and life itself, and by taking control of own minds. That’s why meditation is so powerful—it helps us learn to observe our thoughts and emotions rather than being completely swept up in them. When we’re completely swept up in them, we allow them to inform our actions in a pretty insane way, which can lead to unfulfilling choices, unmet expectations, and general resentment toward ourselves, others, and our lives. Mormonism made a lot of us feel not in control of our own minds and choices for a long time, and I feel so grateful that I’ve been able to take back that control and discover a happiness I didn’t know was possible.

Questions? Comments? Hair compliments? Book recommendations? Tweet me @TheSamspo!

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Samantha Shelley
Samantha Shelley
Samantha is a freelance writer from England, known in the Mormon blogosphere for co-founding Millennial Mormons and Whatsoever is Good. She has guest blogged for LDS Living and Mormon Women Stand, and worked as a social media intern for Deseret Book. She hated writing all of that in this bio. You can Venmo her money for sandwiches using @Samantha-Shelley-1, and follow her on Twitter @TheSamspo for half-assed jokes and opinions.

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