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Question

I experienced abuse and neglect in my childhood. Once I found the Gospel, I thought I could just shut the door on my past and begin a new life learning about a loving God and a plan of happiness. I jumped in whole heartedly. I particularly loved the many scriptures and references about the love of God. I longed for the healing power of God’s love to erase the pain of my past and replace it with hope and self-worth.

This is where I have trouble. I know it is crucial to stay connected to the truth of who we are. My problem is how do I do this when I have never felt these truths?

The trauma of my past really damaged my self-worth and I have difficulty feeling that God loves or cares about me. Intellectually, I fully believe in a loving God who watches over me and has a plan for my eternal happiness. But on an emotional level, I don’t feel this at all. I have been praying and studying for decades, and attempting to live the Gospel to the best of my ability. Many, many times I have “prayed with all the energy of heart to be filled with this love”. But I am unable to feel it, or feel the truth of who I really am. It is so frustrating and painful. Church attendance is starting to be difficult because it feels like every week I am reminded that God loves everyone else but me. I believe in God’s goodness and in my own worth – in my head, but I do not feel it in my heart. It feels like I endured significant trauma in my childhood and when I turned to the Divine source of healing and love, I have been completely ignored. I feel so rejected and abandoned. It is so unbelievably painful! I have sought counseling for this, but I have been unable to resolve it. Do you have any suggestions?

Answer

Your situation is both heartbreaking and inspiring. It’s heartbreaking to hear of the lifelong struggle to truly feel God’s care and concern in your life. This is one of the most devastating effects of abuse and I’m deeply saddened to hear of your struggle. At the same time, you inspire me with your earnestness, your faith, your tenacity, and your will to heal the devastating effects of abuse. You haven’t given up hope and I will do my best to offer some supportive words as you continue forward in your journey of restoration and healing. 

First of all, it’s important for you to know that you can be gentle with yourself as you seek healing from the effects of abuse and abandonment. We are physical, emotional, social, and spiritual beings and when we’re exposed to trauma, abandonment, abuse, or other harmful experiences, we have complicated responses that don’t resolve easily. Our bodies are designed to protect us from further harm, so defensive walls go up even when our brain tries to tell our body that we’re not in danger. Our spirits may feel peace, but then our emotions may play tricks on us and convince us that something else is happening. The process of healing is about slowing down and untangling reactions that are trying to keep us safe. If it feels complicated and slow, please know that it’s not always for a lack of effort on your part. 

Elder Richard G. Scott regularly spoke of abuse and offered clarity and hope to survivors of abuse. I’d like to share some teachings and counsel on this topic he delivered in his April 2008 General Conference talk so you can receive some needed reminders and validation about what you’ve experienced: 

“[Satan’s] strategy is to separate the suffering soul from the healing attainable from a compassionate Heavenly Father and a loving Redeemer.”

”If you have been abused, Satan will strive to convince you that there is no solution. Yet he knows perfectly well that there is. Satan recognizes that healing comes through the unwavering love of Heavenly Father for each of His children. He also understands that the power of healing is inherent in the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Therefore, his strategy is to do all possible to separate you from your Father and His Son. Do not let Satan convince you that you are beyond help.”

”Satan uses your abuse to undermine your self-confidence, destroy trust in authority, create fear, and generate feelings of despair.”

“Recognize that if you have feelings that you are not loved by your Father in Heaven, you are being manipulated by Satan. Even when it may seem very difficult to pray, kneel and ask Father in Heaven to give you the capacity to trust Him and to feel His love for you.”

“The beginning of healing requires childlike faith in the unalterable fact that Father in Heaven loves you and has supplied a way to heal. His Beloved Son, Jesus Christ, laid down His life to provide that healing. But there is no magic solution, no simple balm to provide healing, nor is there an easy path to the complete remedy. The cure requires profound faith in Jesus Christ and in His infinite capacity to heal.” 1

I hope these truths from Elder Scott can help you feel comfort as you work through a long and complicated process of healing. Again, please don’t lose hope and give up. Even though your brain knows that you’re not abandoned by God, your body and emotions will work overtime to protect you from getting hurt again. Even though you will be healed completely in a coming day, it can still be frightening and upsetting to feel so alone on a regular basis. 

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland also taught that even though we may believe we are alone, it’s simply not true. He talked about the multitude of companions given to us as we sojourn throughout mortality. I hope his words can give you additional strength and comfort: 

“One of the great consolations of [the] Easter season is that because Jesus walked such a long, lonely path utterly alone, we do not have to do so. His solitary journey brought great company for our little version of that path—the merciful care of our Father in Heaven, the unfailing companionship of this Beloved Son, the consummate gift of the Holy Ghost, angels in heaven, family members on both sides of the veil, prophets and apostles, teachers, leaders, friends. All of these and more have been given as companions for our mortal journey because of the Atonement of Jesus Christ and the Restoration of His gospel. Trumpeted from the summit of Calvary is the truth that we will never be left alone nor unaided, even if sometimes we may feel that we are. Truly the Redeemer of us all said: ‘I will not leave you comfortless: [My Father and] I will come to you [and abide with you].’” 2

You have likely received lots of encouragement, advice, and support over the years. I don’t want to pretend for one minute that you haven’t heard this type of encouragement. At the same time, truth is truth and trauma can make us easily forget truth. Continue to embrace truth, ponder it, and let it sink in as deeply as your body and emotions will allow. 

I am confident that you can get answers and direction for your healing. I have worked with thousands of individuals over the past twenty years who have been led to resources that helped them along in their healing journey. Even though you have tried many things, I know there are still options for you. You might be directed to a certain type of trauma therapy (there are so many great ones out there – EMDR, Somatic Experiencing, Lifespan Integration, Neurofeedback, Emotion Code), medication, setting limits with others in your life, visits with a priesthood leader, or other supports. As you know, it’s a long and difficult path, but please do not believe that you’ve reached the end of the road. Your willingness to continue forward and trust the idea of a loving Father in Heaven who guides your path is a better option than stopping and giving up. 

You are fortunate to at least have an intellectual understanding that God loves you. Your body and emotions can’t take that in just yet, but hold fast and don’t decide it can’t happen. I’m certain that Christ’s strong rebuke toward those who abuse little ones has something to do with his understanding of how trauma impacts our connection to Heavenly Father. Even though you can’t feel him, I want you to know that he’s never left your side. 

Perhaps you’ve tried this, but do your best to deeply breathe while slowing down the internal reactivity and fear around not feeling God’s love. Sometimes our earnest efforts can turn into panic, which narrows our ability to be sensitive to delicate feelings. Instead of trying to frantically find God’s love, continue showing up in holy places and let yourself notice subtle ways that God is surrounding you. It might be a feeling, an observation, a spoken word, or a thought. Stay slow and mindful. You’re understandably anxious to feel God’s love and presence. However, your anxiety and fear may be activating those physical and emotional self-protective walls. 

Finally, in addition to the truths you are seeking from the words of living and ancient prophets, you will likely find support in the writings of Wendy Ulrich, who has written extensively on how the temple and Gospel can heal patterns of abuse and trauma. I’ve included three resources below in the footnotes. 3

Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at [email protected] 

About the Author

Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, UT. He is the owner of Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com) and the founding director of LifeStar of St. George, an outpatient treatment program for couples and individuals impacted by pornography and sexual addiction (www.lifestarstgeorge.com). He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, available at Deseret Book, and the audio series “Strengthening Recovery Through Strengthening Marriage”, available at www.geoffsteurer.com. He also writes a weekly relationship column for the St. George News (www.stgnews.com). He holds a bachelors degree from BYU in communications studies and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Auburn University. He served a full-time mission to the Dominican Republic. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children. 

You can connect with him at:
Website: www.lovingmarriage.com
Twitter: @geoffsteurer
Facebook: www.facebook.com/GeoffSteurerMFT 

Notes:

1 https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2008/04/to-heal-the-shattering-consequences-of-abuse?lang=eng

2 https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2009/04/none-were-with-him?lang=eng

3 Read Wendy Ulrich’s article, “Rites of Passage” here https://ldsamcap.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/AJ- 1995-vol-21.pdf
I also like her article, “The Temple, Psychotherapy, and the Traditions of the Fathers”
https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi? referer=https://www.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1339&context=irp

She published a book, “The Temple Experience”, that sensitively addresses how all of us, including those who have been abused, can find a personal relationship with Heavenly Father in the temple.