The seductiveness of being certain: When I was a child, moments of doubt would cross my mind. “What are the chances that I was born into the one true church, in the greatest country in the world (because my religion tells me so), and that I truly have all the answers to life’s difficult questions?” It seemed too good to be true! I felt something deep within me, begging me to challenge my basic assumptions, but I would immediately shut down that line of thinking and feel guilty for doubting. I felt like I must be such an ungrateful little brat to bite the hand that fed me, to question the religion that was already central to my identity and the source of all my blessings. I shamed myself back into submission. Besides, it felt really safe and comfortable to believe I had answers and a sure foundation.
As I moved into my teenage years, I was so sure that the church was true that doubts didn’t even surface as conscious thoughts anymore. My most basic, core assumption was that the LDS church was God’s one church on the earth, and that I absolutely had to follow its teachings to be happy. When I went to the temple to receive my endowment two days before my wedding, I was horrified to discover that women really are secondary to men in the church. This concept flew in the face of what I had wanted to be – a strong, confident woman, a scientist, equal to my husband in our marriage, independent and amazing. But I was so certain that the church was true, that instead of disbelieving what I had learned in the temple or brushing it off, I questioned my own goals and inner voice. I accepted that God didn’t love women as much as he loved men, a devastating blow to my self-esteem and spirituality, because the truthfulness of the church was even more central to my identity than my gender or self-respect.
In my adult life, I thought I must be the worst kind of person because I was so lucky to have the true church, a comfortable life and all the answers, and yet I was mostly unhappy. It seemed like something must not be right. Depression is the repression of expression, and I paid the price for shutting down my inner voice. Because I had sold myself out for the church, it took several years and a mountain of evidence before I could even ask the question “What if the church ISN’T true?” Like everyone else, my confirmation bias was always ready with excuses to defend my most basic assumption. It was just so hard to admit that my entire world view was warped, that I was wrong, and that I had been wrong for my entire life! What made it harder for me than others to admit I was wrong and move on?
The Fixed Mindset: In her book Mindset, Carol Dweck explains that the “fixed mindset” is the belief that your talents and abilities are innate, and there isn’t much you can do to change them. Conversely, the “growth mindset” is the belief that your achievements are based on your efforts. I started to realize that I’m just about the most fixed mindset person on earth. This explained a lot about the differences between myself and my husband. He is very growth mindset, which enabled him to see that the church wasn’t true much earlier. No wonder it was much more difficult for me to decide that the church wasn’t true.
A fixed-mindset depends on the idea of superiority, and then uses defensiveness to keep yourself superior. We have been told we are the chosen generation, that our spirits were saved for this dispensation of time, that we are special to have found the true church, and this means we can have true happiness. Dweck explains: “The problem is when special begins to mean better than others. A more valuable human being. A superior person. An entitled person.” Buying into this view raises the stakes for being wrong. That’s the blessing and the curse of leaving the church: you have to realize that you’re just like everyone else on the entire planet. It makes you not special anymore, but helps you connect with people in a way you never could before.
The good news is that you can change your mindset – in the end it’s just a belief. It can be hard to break old habits, but it is possible to transform yourself from a fixed to a growth mindset. You can become comfortable with challenge and uncertainty. You can see your true self, without the distortion that inevitably comes from trying to prove yourself. You can be less self-conscious and less anxious and worried about judgment. You can develop yourself in new ways without fear of failure.
The gift of being wrong: I started to realize that I had been given an incredible gift: the perspective of intimately understanding what it feels like to be 100% certain that something is true – and then to disprove that to myself. To accept that I was WRONG on something so crucially important to me that I built my life around it. Which begs the question: what other underlying assumptions in my life are wrong? Well, here are some examples that I’ve found in my personal life over the past year:
- What other people think of me does not define me.
- I’m a smart person, but I sometimes make bad decisions.
- Although I consider myself socially capable, I have a mild autism spectrum disorder.
- I am accountable for my choices even if I was just being obedient.
- No one else is responsible for my emotions.
- Even though I consider myself a nice person, I can be hostile, mean, or even cruel.
- I can put down my idealism and face reality without losing a sense of hope.
- My emotions don’t mean something is true, they are just information on how I’m feeling.
- My contributions are still valuable even when they are average.
- I’m emotionally immature (ouch!) after being focused for so long on one version of what I “should” be.
Challenging myself in this way has been SO HARD. And I know it’s far from over. I felt much more comfortable as a card-carrying member destined for special VIP heaven. Following a set of rules allowed me to consider myself a “good person.” Now I have to recognize the light and dark inside of me, to see that it’s not a binary of good and bad, but just me trying every day to be my best self. Because I experienced being fundamentally, devastatingly wrong about the LDS church, and have been better off by challenging that assumption, I learned that I could challenge other deeply held beliefs and continue to grow. Also I have hope that I will be able to effectively change other harmful beliefs because I was brave and overcame a world view that I no longer value.
And finally, I can have more empathy for people whose world views differ from mine because I know what that’s like. I know how it feels to be so invested in a paradigm that you can’t see out of it. I know what it’s like to fall flat on my face, and I know how it feels to get back up again, even when I’m not sure I have the strength. I have the gift and the power and experience of being dead wrong about something very important, and moving on.