I have sometimes met fellow church members who, where their personality would normally be, they just have the church. They don’t seem to have anything to talk about that isn’t the church. Everything they think about is the church. They name-drop the important church leaders they have met or heard in person, thinking this is going to create a connection with me as a fellow church member. They quote a leader as if those thoughts have become their own by association. They talk about themselves and their family members only in terms of the life milestones that have become colloquially known as “the covenant path”: marriage, missions, baptism, callings.

I have also met ex-Mormons who are kind of the same, but in relation to their newfound freedom as post-Mormons. They are excited to talk about coffee, alcohol, even sexual adventures (depending on the group of people), their family’s benighted TBMness, their new wardrobe, their Sunday freedom. That’s all a part of life, I suppose. This specifically feels like a phase in the process of stepping away from something that was so all-consuming.

I’ve definitely met both Mormons and non-Mormons who were not like this, too. Some people replace their individuality with church membership, base their relationships on it (or their separation from it), and others don’t. They have interests, opinions, experiences, and hobbies that are their own. They don’t see everything through a Mormon filter.

One of the key foundational strategies Christian Kimball discusses in his new book Living on the Edge of Inside is something he refers to as personal differentiation. The risk of not differentiating is that you fall into a binary trap: either you accept everything you are told and conform to it, or you leave. Is this due to their own personality or to the Church’s encouragement? Kimball posits that it is due to maturity.

When I was twelve, I read a short story in one of those magazines that young girls read voraciously at the time. Maybe it was Cosmopolitan (which didn’t used to be exclusively articles about 57 ways to orgasm), or maybe it was something targeted slightly younger like Teen Beat. The story was about a girl who was 11 or 12 who, for the first time ever, noticed that her parents were not perfect. They spoke to each other with an edge in their voice sometimes. Her mother, who she had always thought was beautiful and perfect, had crooked lipstick. These little glimpses at the imperfections of her parents were the author’s way of capturing the girls’ budding differentiation process. When you first see that your parents are not what you thought they were, you begin to think about your own identity as well. You start to realize that your identity is not the same as theirs. It’s a life-long process.

Has someone ever told you that your actions didn’t “reflect” well on them, implying that it was your responsibility to protect their reputation, and that they could be damaged by your (separate, non-harmful) actions? That points to a differentiation issue. If you are responsible for their reputation, that means you are not fully a separate individual. This seems to come up most often in families, but also in the Church. The Church may withdraw your membership if your stake president or higher up decides that what you say or do “reflects” badly on them. Of course, the argument could just as easily be made that shining light on bad things is not the fault of the light, but of the bad things. But this is really about differentiation. I’ve often said that they can correlate the manuals, but they can’t correlate the contents of my head. I know stuff. I have ideas.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.

Isaiah 55: 8

A ward member was teaching a YM lesson years ago and asked the class, which included my son, what was the most precious possession they had. Obviously, that’s one of those incredibly vague fishing questions that’s destined to fail. He got answers like “the atonement,” “our testimony,” and “scriptures.” I mean, really, what did he expect? Well, he expected the answer he finally blurted out in exasperation, “No! Your family name!” This was a guy from a Mormon pedigreed family, with a name that was familiar to every church member, natch. Regardless, it was a strange thing to call the family name your most prized posession when 51% of the population is encouraged to give it up like it’s nothing when they marry. But it also points to a differentiation issue. Not everyone with the same family or family name is the same. You don’t immediately gain cachet because you have one famous relative. What about the content of your (individual) character?

As an adult, I ran into the Sunday School teacher I had as a 13-year old. I apologized for how terrible we were as a class, baiting him with embarrassing questions, disrupting lessons, reading the dirty parts of books in the back of the classroom, etc. He held up a finger and said in a ponderous voice “Never apologize for these behaviors. They are necessary in the process of growing up! You must learn to create your own identity, and this is all part of that process.” He was always one of the wisest people I knew, a college professor of economics who had come to the US from Guyana to teach.

Growing up, my best friend’s mom who was a divorced ex-Mormon had the opening to the Gestalt Prayer tacked up in her kitchen. I read it many many times as a child and older.

I am not in this world to live up to your expectations, And you are not in this world to live up to mine. You are you and I am I; If by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful. 

Gestalt Prayer

The first time I read it, I found it kind of shocking. Weren’t we taught at Church, especially as women, to be selfless, to give up our lives to “save” our lives? Wasn’t it selfish to want things, to be ourselves? Didn’t Jesus sacrifice Himself for all of us, and shouldn’t we also do likewise?

But we were also taught that we had to gain all the knowledge that we could so that one day we could become gods, like our Father, and run our own planets. And to do that, we couldn’t just go through life doing what we are told. You don’t become a leader by simply taking orders. You have to differentiate yourself from the group. You have to, as an individual, have something unique to offer.

The temple ceremony seemed to be a mark against differentiation. We were supposed to agree to give up everything to further the church, time, talents, our very lives if necessary. And the harder thing than dying for the Church is living for it. Literally choosing to suborn your life completely to whatever the thing is the Church wants or expects.

The problem is that’s not healthy, and it’s not being an adult. When people say at Church that they are A-OK with whatever the brethren say, and that they have no opinion about anything that others are finding harmful or objectionable, that could be true–maybe they just don’t care about LGBTQ issues, sexism, or whether Paul wrote the epistles. Not everyone cares about everything equally. Or they might be refusing to differentiate because they believe, as children are taught, that doing as you are told is the safest path. Differentiation is dangerous. Unfortunately, differentiation is necessary to growing up.

Kimball’s book talks a lot about facing your relationship with the Church as an adult rather than the child / subordinate role that is often expected. When you are called in to meet with the bishop, do you revert to a child / parent mindset, hoping for approval and instructions, or do you approach as a differentiated adult, someone who has opinions and experiences and brings them into the conversation rather than hiding them to avoid criticism or consequence.

When we don’t differentiate, we don’t live. We go through the motions and wait to be told whether we are good enough or not by someone in authority. Our opinions come from others. We care what others think of us. We police the thoughts and words of others and see them as a threat if they differ from the norms of the group. We can’t live and let live because we deny ourselves the ability to truly live. If Jesus died that we might live, why do we sometimes think that we can’t actually live our lives, that we have to cower, waiting for others to tell us what to do, hiding our unique opinions and thoughts from detection? There will be consequences if we reveal who we are, but the worst consequence of all is to hide in the shadows waiting for crumbs of human approval.

  • Do you see issues with differentiation in the church members you know?
  • Do you find family relationships within the Church to be healthy or to require hiding oneself?
  • Does the Church encourage differentiation in your experience, bringing your thoughts, ideas, and experiences into the Church, or does it only want the party line? Have you experienced both?
  • Do you remember important moments in your own differentiation process?