Sherrae Phelps: In Michael Wilcox's book, “What Seek Ye?” he wrote, "I have discovered after 70 years of life that we all get hard sayings from time to time. Jesus knew in himself that his disciples murmured, and he said unto them, 'Doth this offend you?' Often when our own hard sayings come, we are offended and we answer that question affirmatively. 'Yes, Lord, in truth, I am offended.' There is nothing wrong in answering that question honestly. Above all, God wants our honesty from us. It's okay to be offended at times. It's what we do when we feel that way that matters."
This is Sherrae Phelps, and in this interview Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife discusses how we can approach our religious challenges out of our strength and with integrity.
You've talked about how challenging dynamics arise between a couple when they enter the marriage under a validation dependency framework and how they'll step back from the marriage when they reach a breaking point and say that something's wrong with the marriage when really what's happening is that the marriage is exposing their dependency on validation. And I think in a similar way, we can enter our relationship to our religion under a validation framework, and we might come to a point where we feel that something's wrong with the religion when in reality, what might be happening is that the religion might be exposing our dependency on validation.
Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Yes. Meaning I don't think there's any other way to do it. So from a moral developmental frame, you enter into faith from that validation dependency just as you enter into relationships from a validation dependency. We get married looking for someone who will reinforce us. Most of us get married that way, but that's not really that something's going wrong, it's developmentally on target. And just as when we enter into faith, we're usually entering from a place of seeking safety, seeking approval, and while we all enter there, certainly we don't need to end there and hopefully we grow beyond that, actually. And often we come into a struggle in our faith as an expression of that development.
Sherrae Phelps: Could you explain what a validation-dependent relationship would look like in our relationship with our religion? What you're saying is it's completely natural and normal and maybe even essential to enter into the relationship in that framework, but what does that look like as an adult who still remains in that dependency?
Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: I think what the dependency looks like is wanting a sense of church leaders to be like a parent figure. That they are the ones who will tell me what to do, and as long as I'm a good boy or a good girl I'll have safety or security. I'll have the validation that I'm sufficient because I've been compliant with the rules or the expectations of the leadership or of my family and peers because we certainly expect things of one another. And so it can look like doing what the group will validate in order to earn a sense of belonging. Or the earlier version is doing things in order to earn a sense of safety, like if I obey these rules I will be protected from the anxieties and insecurities of life. And so it's often that compliance position. I'll do what makes you comfortable with me and also makes me feel comfortable so that I'll have safety in the world. It also can look like defiance. Sometimes when people rebel against the rules, some might say that's less mature or more mature, but it's often very similar in that you're pushing against the entity but still dependent upon it. I see people who leave the church but they keep the church as their focal point and their reference point to bash it and to push against it. Some of that's normal because of some disillusionment or some anger. But if it persists and persists, it's often that people are having a hard time moving on to a deeper and richer relationship to truth and goodness and they can stay in a defiant position without growing.
Sherrae Phelps: Let's talk about when your perspectives collide with teachings, specifically church leaders' teachings, or when you feel uneasy about something that has been said or you're not sure if you agree or when you don't agree with something that has been said by church leadership. I feel like that can present a unique challenge especially when we talk so much about sustaining our church leaders. It can be confusing to know how to navigate being unsettled or having questions about something that's being said when we put so much value on sustaining our leadership. How do we navigate sustaining Church leaders when you disagree with them? It seems like the easy way to handle disagreements with Church leaders is to either move into compliance or defiance, which of course is not ideal.
Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: A lot of people take the idea of sustaining as, "you must agree, you cannot question, you cannot challenge," as opposed to a loyalty to what is good. That's the only way you can genuinely sustain because otherwise it's complicit in immaturity or complicit in dishonesty. And so to sustain, in my view, means that you're standing up for the best in the faith, the best in the marriage or in the family. A lot of times people confuse loyalty with complicity or collusion. And so a lot of times people are pressured in that, "If you're not with us, you're against us," but they use it to say you have to buy into things that are dark or dishonest and we're going to frame it as loyal. But to truly be loyal to someone is to stand up for what is good and what ultimately will allow all to thrive, even if it pressures the one that you're disagreeing with into some kind of growth. You can't be loyal to your adolescent children without doing things that are invalidating of what they want. And often you have to tolerate invalidation for the good, and if you won't, the system will suffer—the family, the parent/child relationship, the faith. That is the way we grow.
I have sometimes said to my kids that the way to sustain the church or the way to be a good member of the church is to lead with your honesty, even if it means you disagree with something, and not to be flippant or casual. There is something to going along with things because it's just the right thing to do even if it's inconvenient for you or even if you would do it a different way. So it doesn't mean that unless it's your way you're not going to support it. It means that when you feel that something goes against the core of your integrity, the way to keep the group healthy is to speak your peace. And that doesn't mean that you're right and everyone else is wrong. But it's a way of keeping more truth on the table, more perspectives on the table so that the most truthful reality can emerge. And I think in our faith we really have this idea, which I think is not true or even supported by history, that the truth comes from the top down. We love that idea, but the truth emerges from the group. Evolution happens as the group is responding to society and to one another. Many of the revelations that have come from leadership have come from questions being asked of group members, different entities including the primary, the relief society were not just coming from the top down, these were in response to membership either citing a problem or citing a solution, and then it was sanctioned by leadership, but so often this is how good things happen. Even in my own little sphere of the world, often it's my kids' ideas or my assistant's ideas that are the ideas that emerge and become the helpful thing to do because we need all that information for good to happen. It's a simple-minded idea that it just comes from one going downward.
Sherrae Phelps: I think that's really important to understand that sustaining doesn't mean pushing aside all your thoughts and your perspectives and your beliefs but embracing them with honesty in a respectful way.
Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: And I think sometimes to do the best thing is to put aside the way you would do it, to put aside what's convenient for you and to just help and to step in and to back up something because it's just good to do it. And it's okay that there could be a different way or even a more efficient way or whatever because it's the right thing to just go in and support and facilitate something good happening. Which is a different idea than when something goes against the best in you or goes against your integrity. That’s when it's important to perhaps speak up or say, "I can't or won't do that."
Sherrae Phelps: Can you talk a little bit about the disorientation that occurs when someone starts to see the humanity of a religious organization or see the humanity in religious leaders, when they start to see their flaws and imperfections? I think we almost want to believe that they're infallible. We want to believe that God is the puppeteer and they're the puppets, so everything they're doing is exactly in alignment with exactly how God would do it. And I think it can be a little disorienting to take in the reality that there are flaws in a religion and flaws in the leaders.
Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Absolutely, because I think we like that idea, we want that idea. My friend said this to me, I don't know if it was her idea or not, in Catholicism it is said that the pope is perfect, but no one believes it. But as Latter-day Saints, we all say the prophet is imperfect, but no one believes it.
Sherrae Phelps: Yes.
Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: So we love this idea that they're infallible because it gives us a sense of security and safety. We think, “I don't need to take up my moral responsibility and really think through something for myself and really take responsibility for my choices.” And so we want that idea very much and so we will deny the fallibility and we'll deny our personal responsibility in that moral conversation. And certainly, there's a lot of reinforcement for this. People aren't just making this up in their own minds. They go to church and they hear things like, "Obey, obey, obey and everything will work out great." And the reason why it takes hold is that we like the fantasy that that will give us security and allow us to exit from the responsibility of our choices. A lot of us want to just live by, "Obey and God will reward it" rather than "Are these consequences I really want to live with? Are these really accruing to my strength? Are these really choices I personally believe are true and right?" So that's why it works to kind of reinforce that idea. But it isn't true. Even though there is lots of truth in our faith and lots of inspiration within our leadership, we don't get a pass in being a part of the moral conversation and responsible for what we choose. We always are responsible for what we choose.
Sherrae Phelps: It feels to me that there's almost this freedom that can come when we're able to tolerate the discomfort of the imperfections and humanity of our leaders. I think it allows you to stay awake to the reality, but to be able to make decisions in the face of the complexities.
Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Absolutely. So I think that at first it can feel disorienting like, "Who should I reference now, if not them?" It's also scary because if they are also imperfect and they aren't just the kind of pseudo-parents, then it puts more responsibility on the individual. And I think that's scary. I see this in couples dynamics as well and just people's personal development in so many spheres of their life. But if you can weather that and tolerate the anxiety of being in this imperfect process in a moral conversation without all the answers, there is also tremendous freedom. And I don't mean freedom from morality, but freedom to define your life more deeply and not to be living other people's lives. When you're in a compliance frame or doing what gets validation from others, while it can seem more secure, it also feels much more entrapping because you have to suppress your individuality. It's harder to fulfill the measure of your creation of who you uniquely are. And there is a lot of scriptural support for not doing that, for not taking safety in that and expressing and developing your unique expression of godliness of divinity. But that means deeper responsibility within ourselves. That's also in our theology, the idea that we're growing into more godliness. But we want the compliance frame so much, we love the validation of it and the perceived safety of it that we're complicit in keeping that idea dominant culturally.
Sherrae Phelps: I think guilt can be an uncomfortable mentor. I think it can guide us to align with goodness and virtue. But I also think guilt can be unreliable and deceptive. For example, I read Deborah Feldman's memoir, Unorthodox. It's her story about growing up in a Jewish community in New York.And she talks about the guilt she felt when she bought a book because she had been taught that it was wrong for women to read and it was especially inappropriate to read in English. The first book that she bought was a religious text, and it was in English. And she talks about how she went to the bookstore and lied and said that she was buying it for her cousin. And she talked about how guilty she felt. So I think it's interesting how we can participate in something that morally is not wrong, but still feel guilt.
Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Absolutely. I have two or three thoughts about that. One is that when we first emerge as moral actors, like as young children and so on, we have no choice but to reference the people around us to understand what is good, to understand what is reality, and to even define ourselves. So we are borrowing a framework of thinking about what it is to be good. And so in that early validation dependency we don't really have another option except to borrow that frame and to believe in it. And so the guilt we feel is when we betray that socially validated frame at first.
Sometimes I make a little bit of a distinction between guilt and this other kind of guilt you're talking about as more of an anxiety. That is, "I feel like I'm going against what will get the approval of others. I'm anxious about it. I'm unclear about it. I feel afraid of the social invalidation." But I think as in this story or in my own lived experience, I would feel guilty for questioning things like polygamy or questioning whether or not the prescribed role for women was really God's will. I felt guilty. I felt broken that I would question it because I knew it was going against what others were telling me was the best way to be. But there was a part of me that also didn't feel guilty about it like I felt like there was something there. And so I was in that tension as I was evolving out of a compliance guilt and into a deeper integrity position.
I think it's in some ways discerning between, "Is this a guilt that's coming from my honest conscience that I know I've done something wrong, that I've done something harmful, that I've done something that I can't back up? Or is this about going against what others have told me but that doesn't feel right to me?" And I'm not saying this is easy. This is a tension and a necessary one and an uncomfortable one to discern and to tease that apart. But if we have been taught that we shouldn't listen to ourselves, that listening to ourselves is dangerous, well then that will inherently infect that developmental process.
Sherrae Phelps: I like how you use the two different words, guilt and anxiety. I think it takes walking through it to be able to discern is this guilt or is this anxiety? Am I truly feeling that there's something wrong with this or is it just my anxiety based upon how I might be perceived?
I think the way that we relate to our religious practices, and in some cases, the way we explore them and try to decide for ourselves the value that we see in them and how we want to participate in them can cause some confusion around guilt and anxiety as well. There's the scripture in the Book of Mormon that talks about how it's after a trial of your faith that you receive a witness. So I feel like there's this idea that if you want to gain a testimony of garments, for example, then you need to wear garments. If you want to gain a testimony of tithing, then you need to pay tithing. And so there can be some anxiety if you're stepping back and participating in some of those religious practices differently.
What advice would you give someone who is trying to navigate and create a more honest relationship with their religion and their religious practices, who in an effort to do so, for example, might be wearing their garments less or paying their tithing a little differently?
Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Well, I think one thing I would say is to have patience with that process of discerning and teasing things apart. "Is this coming from the best in me? This uncertainty, this anxiety, this guilt? Or is this coming from something lesser in me?" I think there is real value in stepping fully into something to try it, to test it, to test its merits, to commit. I think there's great value in that because I think it can help clarify. I think there's also value in trying the opposite, and we're afraid of that idea. And I don't mean to be flippant about it, but it's to say, "Can I see myself as an honest agent in the moral conversation rather than just being afraid to consider the alternate hypothesis, the alternative idea?" And I think that I've found both things to be helpful in my life. For me, going on a mission, in part, was me stepping fully in. I was kind of a doubter from an early age, even at age nine I remember asking my primary teacher questions like, "What if you don't get an answer when you pray?" Things like that. I think I was just like, "Wait a minute if there's only one right answer then there's something fishy about that." It just didn't sit right with me. And so I was always trying to consider, although I was very compliant by nature. So I had these questions that persisted, but I was going to seminary, I wasn't disobeying anything really. I mean, I was a pretty compliant kid, but I just couldn't quite get the confirmation that I wanted. So going on a mission for me was, "I'm going to step fully in, give it everything I have because I need to do that to test its merits, to test what it is." And so I did that. And that was clarifying for me because it allowed me to know what I really embraced. But it also allowed me to know what I could let go of because I was staying honest with myself, even as I fully submitted not out of fear but out of choice. And that actually allowed me to discern what I claimed and what I didn't claim.
Sherrae Phelps: When is it valuable and when is it destructive to take in differing views? For example, I've heard some people say things like, "I'm never going to read the CES Letter because I know someone who read them and they were fine before, but now they are filled with all these questions and they're dissatisfied and they've lost their testimony. So I don't want to risk losing my testimony, so I'm just going to stay away from that." And it's like there's this fear of being exposed to it. But could there be some wisdom in choosing or making decisions around what you're exposing yourself to? Can it be harmful to spend time reading or listening to others who disagree? Can that make you more vulnerable? When is that valuable and when is it destructive?
Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Well, I think that to chronically be unable or unwilling to look at an alternative view is limiting your moral development because if you're saying, "I can't or won't deal with it," it's just going to limit how deep your knowledge and understanding can be. On the other hand, I remember when I came back from my mission, I had more clarity but I also still had uncertainties. And I had a friend who had left the church while I was on my mission and she was very clear that it wasn't true and that it wasn't for her. And spending time with her was just very stressful for me. It was more than I wanted to deal with at that point. And so I just made a decision, and I was honest with her about it, I said, "I just feel like it's beyond what I can handle right now. And so I don't want to stay in this level of a conversation with you." And I think that was, in some ways, less courageous of me. But I also can understand where I was at that point. I needed more time. I didn't want to constantly be trying to either defend my position or question it. It was too tiring for me, so I owned it as my limitation, not as hers because I knew that that was true. I knew that I just wasn't ready for that, but I was able to reenter into a deeper conversation with her and others with time. I just needed some time. So I think in some ways giving myself that space was legitimate. But also I didn't see it as my final position. I knew that I needed to keep having courage. I needed to keep being able to think about these complexities. I felt it was expected of me for being a loving person. I felt God expected it of me. I also was being kind to myself in that process.
So I don't think this means you have to rush headlong into every complex issue. But I do think sometimes we have the idea that protecting ourselves from reality is God's way. And I don't believe that. I think we have to be able to account for complexity because it helps us be better moral thinkers. And that's part of becoming more godly. God is in reality. That's where we see truth is in reality. And it can be easy to deny it and stay in a bubble of thought. It can also be easy to go into it and just go into disillusionment and a kind of cynicism, which I think is also indulgent in a way. I think it's harder to keep integrating what is real and true and let it refine your morality and let it refine your sense of truth and good and to stay hopeful to continue to believe in the good. I think that's harder. And to keep expecting of yourself to do what creates good.
Sherrae Phelps: I really love that perspective from your experience with your friend of recognizing that this may not be something I'm ready for yet. And maybe this isn't the best time. Maybe I'm not in the right place to take on this information. And I think that can be really powerful in the sense that it's not you pushing it away, it's just you recognizing where you're at in your own life and what you're ready to take in. And just because there's value in taking and understanding different views doesn't mean, as you said, we need to run headlong into it and try to consume it all and digest it all and make sense out of it all. But to be honest with ourselves about what we're ready and capable for.
Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: That's right. And to be kind to ourselves and kind to others in that too, because I think sometimes our desire is to judge others as a way to close off the complexity that their life represents, or to judge ourselves too harshly. We need to be kind to ourselves in this process of growth.
Sherrae Phelps: In one of your Room for Two podcasts, you said your goal in working with people is to help them choose from the best in themselves, from their strongest selves rather than their reactive self, or their angry selves or their fear-based selves, but to choose from the best in themselves. And I love that perspective because I think sometimes we look at a choice like if someone's going to respond honestly and faithfully with their religion, then that means they'll always stay, or if someone's going to respond in an honest, strong way with their marriage, then that means their marriage is going to work out and they won't get divorced. And so I think too often we look at the decision to judge whether it was good or bad. And what I think you're saying is you step back and look at what's driving the decision. Is that a decision made from the best in ourselves and from our strength?
Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Yes, exactly. It's sort of back to that idea of sustaining. What's driving it? Is it self-serving? Is it reactive? Is it fear-based? Or is it morally courageous? Is it about trying to discern and assert what's most right even if it means invalidation and personal discomfort in trying to get to your strongest self when you're making these really important decisions, these self-defining decisions? Sometimes the most good is to leave a marriage, I mean, it's often not, often it's to stay and struggle. To keep developing through what the marriage is exposing about you, but sometimes it is the most right thing to say no to what's happening in the marriage, even though it may be hard and may not get the validation of others. So yes, exactly
Sherrae Phelps: In that same podcast, as you were talking with the couple you said something like, "I don't know what the right thing for you to do in this situation, and I don't think that you know yet, either." Meaning that they weren't acting out of their best selves. If you were talking with someone who was maybe struggling in the religious aspect of their life. What might be some indicators to you that you would be able to say, "This person is acting out of their best selves in this situation." How would you as a therapist be able to see that?
Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Well, it's tricky because I think sometimes people feel disillusioned and that's a fair response. You know, I grew up in a family where there was a little more complexity allowed within the church conversation. So I was already aware of some of the church's complexities in its history just because my dad was a history guy and so that was more familiar. There was more room in my family to have dissenting views. It didn't really challenge your belonging in the family. But I work with lots of clients who grow up with a very black and white obedience frame and are taught to defer completely. And so when they see that there's more complexity, well, they have a lot of anger and they have a feeling of being seduced into something or betrayed. So I'm saying all that as a caveat, because if you're just in a reactive anger, well, it still may be the right thing to step away. It still may be the right thing to distance yourself. But to your question of what are things to look for, if there is a kind of self-righteous indulgence in your choices or if fear drives your choices, then you just kind of know that it's from a reaction. Now that doesn't mean that whatever you're leaning towards is the wrong thing. It's just coming from a more reactive, primitive place than something that's more thought out and more sound. For example, I think that if you lead with your behavior too quickly, it often may be a position you can't fully back up. So you want to spend some time discerning and thinking through your choices so that you know that you can stand behind them fully.
Sherrae Phelps: Jennifer, to wrap up the conversation, I'd like you to comment on something you said on one of your recent podcasts. You said, "Use your faith to love others and to live your life well." Can you talk about that?
Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: I have a faith, a strong faith, in a God who loves us, parents in heaven who love us, and that how we relate to one another is everything, how kind we are to one another, how much compassion we have for ourselves and others in this deeply imperfect experience of living in which suffering is real. Good people trying to make their way through a complex and often dark reality. And so my faith is in a God that cares that what I do matters, matters for me, matters for others. And so even if it's hard or I feel uncertain or I feel depleted or confused, God still expects me to move forward because I can't get out of the moral conversation. I'm in it whether or not I want to be. There are moments, like in conversation with my children or where I feel my own sense of uncertainty, when I don't know what the right thing is, I don't know how to be helpful, and yet it helps me to know that God cares about that uncertainty and my struggling for clarity matters because it matters for me. It matters for my child. It matters for others. And so I think about my faith is what facilitates that in me. It is prayer for me, it is a self-reflective process. It is self-honesty. It's knowing that God cares about my honesty and cares about what I'm doing. I think that participation in church and in the conversations around the scriptures and all of that is about finding the lessons that facilitate the best in ourselves. That's what I care about. I care about finding those lessons and offering them to others and offering them to myself. So I think it gets it out of a rigid "are you doing all the things" framework because that's more about compliance for validation, compliance for safety. It's much more about how are we as members of this faith community, people that I care deeply about, how are we relating to this beautiful faith and theology that we have? Are we relating to it in the best way? Is it helping us to be more loving people? Are we gleaning from it what's there? I mean, it's such a rich theology and we often focus on the most behaviorist elements of it because it's very human to do that. But I'm interested in us reaching for the richer, deeper parts that are there for us to facilitate our ongoing relational and moral development.
Sherrae Phelps: Jennifer, thank you. I really appreciate the way that you approach life in general. There's so much focus in everything that you talk about in responding and making choices with our integrity with the best of ourselves and I find that to be a very powerful and freeing way to live. So thank you. And thank you for this conversation.
Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: You're welcome. And I think just one thing I might add to that is that we talk a lot that "we are that we might have joy," but often when we're in this kind of fear-based behaviorist black and white frame, joy has nothing to do with it. You know what I mean? It's more like maybe you're looking for freedom from guilt or you're looking for social validation, but there's always a sense of entrapment. And if we are that we might have joy, we have to move from that frame into one in which we are actors and choosers and tolerate more of the anxiety that comes with that and the responsibility that comes with that, but also the beauty that's in it and the joy that's in it. That's where the joy is, in my opinion. And it allows us to love more deeply and be loved more deeply. It's a scary process at times, but it really is a very essential one to our happiness.