emotional cutoff.

11 Apr

By the time I was midway through my freshman year of college, I thought I had completely cut ties with Christianity. I was sick of hearing about a God who would wreak violence and destruction on the world in Armageddon, I was sick of a God who could choose to act in the world but didn’t. I was sick of being told that because Eve had eaten a bite of apple eons ago, all humanity was doomed unless we believed the right thing. After years of repenting, years of being born again (multiple times), years of trying to have faith, I was sick of it. Done.

My friends and I explored other religions and we stumbled NeoPaganism. I traded my mean, vengeful God for a life-giving goddess. For a few years, I traded my rituals celebrating the life and death of one man for rituals that celebrated the cycle of all of life.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not angry about this anymore. But I was. I was very angry. That anger also covered up the hurt that I felt. Hurt by a God that would base eternity on one wrong decision. Hurt because I had tried all those years to be a Good Christian Girl and all it had done was left me feeling shut outside of everything. Hurt by a church that told me that, because God had made me a girl, there were certain things I was unfit for (such as Ministry).

When my spouse and I eventually started attending a Unitarian Universalist Church, I wanted nothing to do with any “language of reverence.” In fact, much of my new path had been formed directly in opposition to anything that reminded me of what I had left behind.

In many ways, my story is not unique. Many of the folks in our Unitarian Universalist congregations come out of similar experiences, and carry similar wounds. They have cut themselves off from the faith traditions in which they were raised, and no longer want anything that reminds them of it AT ALL.

So it was with much surprise that I found my world opening and my wounds healing at the Methodist Seminary that I attended. There, I found Christians whose understanding of God was not the old, white-haired pointy-fingered God of my youth but was instead right in line with how I now understood “The Ultimate.” I found Christians, studying to be ministers, who did not believe in the literal interpretation of the virgin birth or resurrection. I found Christians who were trying to follow the teachings of Jesus, not the religion that had been founded upon his death. And I began to heal.

I changed seminaries when we moved, and I started attending a UCC seminary that was even more religiously liberal. There I found professors and ministers whose theology and ethics and sense of the spiritual lined up with mine so well that we could easily worship in the same church, but they chose to stay with Christianity and I chose to leave it. I found my own way to translate and understand such loaded terms like “God” and “Salvation” and “Atonement” – so much so that, though I still understand myself to be more of an agnostic, mystic humanist, I can visit and be comfortable in almost any liberal religious congregation. Quite a difference.

I am reflecting on this right now, because I have recently finished a course in Bowen Family Systems Theory. I took the course to better understand how the way we are in our families is replicated in how we are in our congregations (both as ministers and lay people). It was enlightening.

One of the key concepts in Bowen Family Systems Theory is the concept of emotional cutoff. “The concept of emotional cutoff describes people managing their unresolved emotional issues with parents, siblings, and other family members by reducing or totally cutting off emotional contact with them.” However, the person who cuts themselves off from their family still has all that anxiety and emotional reactivity, and nowhere for it to go. We can try to bottle it up, wall it off, but even if we try to ignore it it can build up and cause stress in unrelated parts of a person’s life, even physical illness.


Using Bowen Theory, I can describe my experience with Christianity as one of intense anxiety leading to cutoff. But I still had so much reactivity that I could not even hear language that reminded me of the pain I had experienced! My blood pressure went up whenever I heard someone talk about “faith” or “prayer” or anything that reminded me of what I thought I had totally given up on. This left entire areas in which I was bound up and in which I could not grow.

The only way to heal cutoff, according to Bowen, is to bridge it. For me, seminary served that role in unanticipated ways. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to heal, and begin to grow again.

Many of our congregants are still cutoff, hurting from previous experience and trying to distance themselves from the faith traditions in which they were raised. This is particularly problematic now that we are getting more people who are raised in our congregations or come to us without this history and who are more comfortable with a language of reverence. There is a clash between those who are cutoff (and thus unable to form their own understandings of commonly used religious language) and those for whom this language comes naturally.

Plus, cutoff gets passed down through the generations. So if my grandmother was cutoff from her family, I would likely see that tendency arise in my mother’s generation, my own, and even with my children.

This has me wondering about our congregations. If so many folks came to UUism through a cutoff with their previous religious tradition, does this explain why so many people reject UUism as adults? Is cutoff built into our system at this point? If so, how do we begin to help folks bridge the cutoff – for their sakes as individuals and for the sake of our congregations?

Bowen Theory would suggest that the only way I can impact a system is through working on myself. For me, this has meant beginning to utilize this language reverence more often by telling my own story. Perhaps, if others who are cutoff recognize that they are still living their lives in reactivity to the faith tradition in which they were raised, in my story they will realize that there is hope for more – hope for a whole, healthy spirituality that is not formed in reaction against one tradition but instead allows for exploration and growth across the spectrum of human experience. For me, this has been powerful, indeed.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: