It’s not always easy to find a community of people we can be ourselves with. I mean your messy, imperfect, and hurting self, not your public face.
All too often, people don't feel permission to show their messy side in a spiritual community, whether it's church, an Eastern religious community, or a group formed out of shared love of the planet.
If, to meet your community's expectations, you feel it best to refrain from sharing struggles you face with the difficult and darker stuff of life, you might not be where you belong.
There’s a good chance you’re not with your tribe.
But don’t jump ship too quick.
If your first response is to bolt, look in the mirror first. You might be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. First, honestly consider why less-than-perfect-you won't be embraced as you are, warts and all? Are you sure? Is being Mr/Ms Perfect an expectation you're putting on yourself, or the community's expectation of itself? Use vigilance when reflecting on this because it's easy to confuse the two.
If you conclude your spiritual culture doesn't allow space to share struggles, consider taking a risk and breaking the mold. You might be hitting on something that's needed for the vitality of your group. It might be begging for someone to take the first step. Your solitary action could lead a culture change that produces strengthened relationships and community healing.
On the other hand, if its values are tied up in good behavior, or there's an unspoken agreement to live from a prescribed worldview that doesn’t offer permission to work through challenges you need support for, perhaps its time to find a place that can give you more of what you need. Or help you face what you're resisting in your life that keeps you from getting what you need.
That's the stuff that grows you.
Transitioning from a formal environment to a deeply personal one, whether it's where you are or someplace new, is an adjustment. It will require changing some embedded practices and behaviors - behavior that's probably unconscious.
A red flag in some spiritual communities can be an immediate response to pray, instead of talk. Even when heartfelt and appropriate, this instinctive response can indicate people aren't prepared to deal with the shadow on a relational level. Bottom line, it's an emotional cop out that keeps people from connecting intimately. Diverting your attention, lowering your head, and closing your eyes in prayer when someone shares something vulnerable, painful, or frightening in their life takes your attention back to yourself in many respects - at the exact moment compassion and connection is needed.
That's called socially acceptable avoidance. It's not to say there isn't a time for prayer. There is. But timing is everything.
You can also test how your community deals with the shadow by asking yourself if, when the group gathers, there’s space to talk about what matters to each other, and encouragement to be present with each other in it. Do people openly talk about what hurts, or what’s not working, without qualifying or negating it in the same sentence? For instance, can you comfortably say, “I’ve been extremely depressed and don’t see a way out. It hurts like hell,” without adding words to soften it like, “but I know I’m creating it,” or “but I'm focusing on the light,” "Jesus will heal me when it's time," or “it’s all an illusion,” or “it will end when I'm more pleasing to God.”
Jargon in this context dismisses and avoids our real feelings by diverting focus from what hurts, giving the listener an out, instead of the opportunity to show up and be present with you when you're hurting or uncomfortable. That's what friends do.
Avoiding and softening it is how we comply with a group’s expectations. Why not get down in the mud and wrestle with it together instead?
Sometimes the only way to get where we’re going is to stay exactly where we are.
That said, if you need to soften your words, that works too - if it's your truth. But if you feel it’s expected, or don’t feel safe telling the whole truth, you might be missing the most valuable experience of belonging to a community.
If you suspect your church community keeps the mess at bay, another indicator to watch for is if they ask prayer for others, but never for themselves. Or if they share concern for friends and neighbors, but rarely disclose how their own life isn’t working. This is a surefire sign. And not their fault. It's a cultural consequence of not paying attention and maintaining the status quo.
When I returned to church, this jumped out like a lake trout at dusk. At first, I assumed it was as simple as not wanting to look bad - or they didn't feel "good enough." When I asked point blank why they didn’t ask for support or prayer for themselves, or share more about who they are, one woman said, “Oh my goodness, I would never! That would be selfish.” She even blushed when she said it! Focusing attention on herself or asking for help was cause for shame and embarrassment. This worldview is a carryover from the 50's and 60's when the trend was to tie life into a neat, tidy package that looked good. Each generation and culture has a particular shape that defines it. This doesn't mean it's good or bad. It was a different time.
A tidy, neat package is not the mark of this generation.
An unspoken assumption that implies people who ask for support are self-centered, or those with problems have only themselves to blame is exactly what’s missing in many of our spiritual communities. Communities with this worldview are often characterized and experienced as sanitized - and fake. Church is not the only place it happens. Expectations of this nature are just as prevalent in Eastern spiritual communities and other social cultures.
It’s not conscious - or intentional. It just happens. We naturally want to project our best life forward. And it's easy to get in the habit of not dealing with problems whether they're our own or someone else.
Avoidance and denial are easy.
Being vulnerable is hard.
Our collective community goal becomes what we all want to be like. Before we know it, the end becomes the means. Soon, our ideals are turned into expectations we must meet to be accepted. We internalize it as a prerequisite to belong, when it was never the original intent. It's simply an unintended consequence.
Most communities hold up standards that are healthy or beneficial to our lives; but without opening intentional space to share the messy and painful parts within this context, the community’s personality cannot maintain its balance. It’s not rocket science that this imbalance will eventually manifest as people relating to each other out of the expectations they think they must meet, instead of authentic connection.
This creates pod people, not human beings.
Without real infused, the result is an insidiously artificial culture that can’t sustain itself. It becomes a performance coupled with the illusion we belong; instead of knowing the powerful experience of true belonging.
The flip side of an artificial culture is an environment that allows people freedom to be authentic and express their personal truth, while being received with understanding and love. As long as the environment maintains integrity and emotional safety through the uncomfortable stuff, the outcome will be genuine, loving relationships characterized by deep compassion and love.
This has staying power.
Why not take some time to reflect how you feel in your spiritual home? If it lacks the deeper side of relationships, consider breaking the mold and risk being vulnerable, even if you have a messy start. You might catalyze a movement. If that feels too scary, reflect on your personal needs and find a community that engages in honest dialogue and support.
You can also approach the group with your concerns. It's likely that you're not alone and new energy might be a welcome shift.
Change is hard, but it’s also fun and rewarding. Old habits can sometimes die hard, but with a few early adopters in your group, you just might end up being family.
Real family with real relationships, that is.
Not a picture on the website.
This includes being vulnerable and acknowledging our shadow side. We've all got one.
A guy named Paul once said, "I am strongest when I'm weakest." I think he had something there.
Plus, it's the only way to be the real you -- and spiritually, you'll never grow into who you are without you.
Another guy I know - named Travis Reed - once said,
He definitely has something there.