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How Emotional and Spiritual Abuse Prevents Women From Growing Up (and the two mind-shifts you need to change that!)

by | Feb 24, 2020 | Emotional Abuse, Learning, Survivor Identity | 36 comments

Have you ever felt like you never really grew up? I used to feel that way all the time. Even into my thirties and forties I would think, “Why do I feel like I’m still a child? Everyone else seems to have grown up, but I still feel like a little girl inside.” I thought this when I had nine kids. I thought this when I watched my oldest get married. I thought this when I was running a successful business. I couldn’t shake this feeling that I had never grown up, and it disturbed me.

I no longer feel that way. But it got me thinking. WHY did I feel that way before? And what changed?

In the religious circles I used to run in, girls were taught that they belonged to their daddies until they got married, and then they belonged to their husbands. Their destiny was to get married, support their man, and raise his children.

Girls were taught that they didn’t need to go to college. College would put crazy ideas in their minds about their own value apart from a man, and they would rebel against God’s plan for them to be financially dependent on a man.

Girls were taught that their bodies were a stumbling block for men, and this caused many of them to feel shame about their breasts and genitals. I remember feeling like men were oogling me as a single woman, but once I got married I would be “safe” because I “belonged to someone.”

Girls were taught that having money is bad and selfish. When I was a young wife, there was a another conservative Christian family living on my block. They had nothing on their walls. Their room contained the most basic furniture. The atmosphere was bare-bones. Not because they had no money (they were both engineers who chose not to work in their field of study) but because “beautiful things were a snare of the devil.”

Girls were taught that the role of all women is to serve men and make them successful. To worship their husbands above all else – including God. (Yes – I read a book once that said women should obey their husbands even if their husband asked them to sin.)

The result? Girls who never grew up into women.

Think about it. Children don’t get to make significant choices for themselves. Children do not make, use, or invest money. Children are told what to do, where to go, what to eat, and how to dress. Children face consequences for not doing what they are told. Children are powerless. Children are vulnerable. Children are at the mercy of their caretakers.

When you apply all those things to a grown-up, it’s a pretty dysfunctional picture.

My kids love being kids. They have told me many times that they don’t want to grow up. I actually think that’s healthy for kids. I like to think it is because they are happy and enjoying what childhood has to offer. My adult kids, on the other hand, are total adults. They aren’t perfect, but they manage their own lives, take responsibility for their own mistakes, and continue to learn and grow as all adults should. I don’t think any of them still feel like a kid, and I don’t treat them like kids. I love watching them live their own lives.

When I was a child, all I dreamed about was growing up so I could do all the things I wanted to do. So I could experiment and live and invent and create. I couldn’t do that as a child, and I wanted to. I had a big imagination. Adults were free. I wanted to be free.

As a Christian woman in the cultish environment I was in, one of our most idolized sacrifices was to literally lay down our right to grow up. Our right to be an individual with autonomy and responsibility. Our right to learn, change, and grow. Our right to have our own thoughts and ideas. We could create, it’s true. But we were to limit ourselves to creating in the kitchen and home. I’m one of those people who can bloom wherever they’re planted, so I enthusiastically embraced my role and learned how to cook and bake. I did clay sculpture, quilting, sewing children’s clothing, card making, scrap booking, and soap making. I homeschooled for twenty years and built a soap making business.

It was a good life in many ways, and I have no regrets in any of those areas. Let me be very clear that all those things are good things, and many women, including myself, enjoy those things. My only point here is that they aren’t the only things women can or should do.

The problem for me was that while I stayed busy learning and creating, I remained an emotional child. I had a couple of professors who mentored me in college, and they tried to pull me out of that cultic way of thinking, but I was too brainwashed. I actually felt sorry for them – that they were following “the way of the world” and leaving their families behind each day to teach college students.

Both of those families had emotionally healthy families who all turned out fabulous. I wish I could say as much for the majority of the families I knew in my conservative circles. It turns out that if you do A, B, and C, you don’t necessarily get perfect outcomes.

I think the real key is not in how much you can erase who God created you to be. Not in how much you can sacrifice your personhood. Not in how much you can lay down your resources, gifts, and autonomy. But in how much you can gratefully take personal responsibility for all those things, invest your life using them, and encourage others to embrace who God made THEM to be. 

We will love and accept others to the degree we love and accept ourselves. (Mark 12:31, Luke 6:31) We aren’t God, and we need to stop trying.

So, for most of my life I was stuck in this pattern of being a wounded little girl who believed with all her heart that she had to obey her mommies and daddies. And there were a lot of them by the time I hit my forties. It was hard to keep up with what they wanted! They didn’t even all believe the same things – and yet they all claimed to be God’s voice for me.

It’s kind of ridiculous when I look back, but it was real when I lived it. I was drowning in brainwashed beliefs that had permeated the very fiber of my being.

Do you know what got me out? It was a simple light bulb moment. I finally saw myself as a separate person from everyone else.

I had to detach myself from my family of origin. My friends. My church. My husband. My children. I had to figure out who in the world Natalie was. I didn’t know. I didn’t know what her favorite color was (my closet was full of black and grey clothes). I didn’t know what her style was. I didn’t know what she loved or hated. I had spent my whole life trying to be whoever I needed to be in order to make my relationships work, and I hadn’t been able to just fully show up as myself. I tried, but I always paid a high price when I expressed my own thoughts, opinions, or preferences.

So began my journey into adulthood in my late forties.

As of this writing I am 53. I no longer feel like a child. I feel like a badass adult woman, and I like myself exactly as I am. I know what I like and don’t like. I know what I will tolerate and what I won’t tolerate. I know what my boundaries are, and I know what I will do when someone crosses them. I’m not afraid to say “STOP.” And I’m not afraid to be disliked or criticized. Because someone else’s opinion is just that. Their opinion. And they get to be an individual with their own preferences just like I do. I can accept them BECAUSE I now accept myself.

I lost everyone who only liked the chameleon version of me, but I’m so much happier now. I have peace. I have joy.

So let me boil this down for you so you can hang your hat on it. Because this is critical.

  1. God wants you to grow up. He does! People like you to stay an emotional child because you can be more easily manipulated and controlled, but God created you to be an adult who can responsibly take care of yourself. This means YOU manage your emotions, your choices, your life, your thoughts, your spiritual growth, and your results. You. Nobody else. You get to decide who you hang out with. Who you listen to. Who you respect. What you believe. Taking responsibility for your own life is adulthood.
  2. By the same token, God wants you to stop controlling your environment and those in your environment. This includes your parents, your siblings, your spouse, your friends, and your kids. They get to be themselves. They get to act and behave however they want to. They get to be assholes if they want to. Really! You don’t get to tell them how they need to change or what they need to do so you can be with them. That’s their responsibility. That’s their business. They are only there to love. Not control or manage. Understanding this is adulthood.

This means if someone in your life is making your life miserable, you don’t get to force them to change. But you DO get to decide whether or not you will make them an integral part of your life.

If someone tells you that you need to do A, B, and C in order to be in their club, you don’t get to change their club rules. But you DO get to decide if you want to be in a club with rules like that.

Does this make sense? If you have any questions, leave them in the comments section. I’d love to know how you’re processing this.

Also, if you need some help becoming the adult woman God created you to be, consider joining the Flying Free Sisterhood. Because adults fly, and I want that for you!

Fly Free,

Natalie Hoffman

36 Comments

  1. FM

    Loved reading your positive story. It gives hope and an example. We need examples like this. Thank you for sharing!

    Reply
  2. KEG

    Wow! As many others have said, I felt like I could have written some of your journal entries. I knew very early on in my marriage things weren’t right but thought if I was more submissive, never complained, encouraged and served my husband it would get better. Sadly it has gotten progressively worse especially over the past 5 years. Three years ago, I sought help from family and the church after realizing my husband’s abusive behavior wasn’t going to change, no matter how much I hoped and prayed. He’s the typical “nicest guy in the world” to everyone who doesn’t know him well. Two years ago I started reading Proverbs and trying to acquire more wisdom. Studying through that opened my eyes that my husband is the fool which explained the blameshifting, lying, anger and gaslighting. I have also read Psalm 37 over and over and memorized part of it. Despite the struggles going on for almost 21 years, God has opened my eyes and I see things clearly although I still have a lot of work to do. By God’s grace, He has kept me close and shown Himself faithful over and over. The longer this has gone on, the more compassion I actually feel for my husband. He is so deceived and in bondage to his sin. But I am also more determined to do what’s best for HIM, which at this point is separation. It’s the last chance to open his eyes for His need of Christ. In the meantime, I’m making plans to get out with our kids. It’s been tough but as I’ve said before, the more my husband has pushed me away, he has pushed me towards Christ and for that I’m thankful. I know and understand God’s goodness more now than I ever have. Thank you for being open and honest!

    Reply
    • Natalie Hoffman

      May God guide your steps and lead you in His peace.

      Reply
  3. Mom2Littles

    Hi there! What a great article!!! I found your site from Sheila Gregiore’s To Love Honor and Vacuum and have been reading all your articles because I have a friend who is in an emotionally abusive marriage. I have sent a few of your’s and Sheila’s articles over to her about how to recognize abuse but she is stuck in denial, still giving her husband excuses for his treatment of her and the kids and blaming it on herself. Do you have any articles or advice about how to deal with a friend who keeps calling you for prayer, but won’t take any steps to set boundaries or get help? She is just hoping she can wait it out and “win him without a word” and pray and one day her husband will wake up totally repentant and see how wrong he was all these years. After reading this article I realize I can’t force her to take steps to change but it’s just SO heartbreaking and infuriating to watch her and the kids suffer at the hands of this “Christian” man. I plan to give her a link to join the Flying Free group I know it would be a game changer for her. Anyway, I just want to say thank you for this website! I believe you are helping SO many women!!!!

    Reply
    • Natalie Hoffman

      It’s wonderful of you to be so supportive of your friend! It sounds like she wants to do one thing – and you want her to do another. Both of you are motivated by wanting to change another person (for their own good). I’m sure you both have excellent motives and you’re wanting these things because you genuinely care. Both of you have an opportunity to truly care by letting the other person be and do whatever they want to be and do. I think what you’ve done so far is wonderful. Just giving her information and support is plenty for right now. Victims have to get to the end of their rope. They need to get to a place where they can no longer manage the abuser and give up. They eventually realize they are trying to control a person they have no power or right to control – while at the same time not taking back control of their own life – a life they CAN control (even though those initial choices are very difficult.) It’s a long road, and waking up is only the first step.

      I wish all victims had friends like you. I know many women who would have been so grateful for someone to love and support them. She is blessed to have you for a friend.

      Reply
  4. Vanessa Knight

    My oldest was being and has been disrespectful for years basically manipulation which I allowed to keep the peace. I hit a breaking point. I told him he could continue to act this way but I would leave his presence if he were in my house I would ask him to leave because I would not be treated unkindly anymore. Was this forcing him to change or was I setting a boundary for who would be allowed to be apart of my life.
    The particular som hasn’t spoken to me since March of 2019.

    Reply
    • Natalie Hoffman

      This isn’t forcing him to change. He can be an asshole in his own home and yard – just not in yours. That’s all. All you did was let him know that if he behaves that way around you, you will create space between the two of you because you aren’t the kind of person that enables people to be chronically rude to you. (Good job!)

      We give people freedom to be who they want to be, but if that means they are hurting you or infringing on your personal space (well-being, peace, freedom, joy) in some way, you have the right to ask them to stop. They don’t have to stop. But then you have the right to leave or set some other kind of boundary.

      Reply
  5. Beverly

    OH MY GOODNESS!!! How many times in my adult life have I felt like a child – probably every single day!! I am 50, so much of my story is the same as yours – grew up in a cultish church from the age of 6, and that’s where the ridiculous indoctrination started!!! Got married to a christian man at 19 – I was presumed really lucky because he was a youth leader, plenty of potential for ministry blah blah. Well over the past almost 32 years of marriage it has turned out to be insane, as he had a porn addition from around the age of 14, and his father before him (a wonderful man in ministry LOL); and of course a covert narcissist and very emotionally abusive – passive aggressive etc. In my case I had to work most of my married life due to necessity so I have always been ‘exposed to the world’ but come from a very different world, so I have always felt different, lonely and of course, always felt like I was being treated like a child, even though I am in a fairly professional job. Long-story-short, I am only now over the past 3 years starting to discover truth, and thank God I found you, Natalie, in my desperate search for knowledge and truth. So yes, I am SO glad I am not alone in this, but this is going to take a while to process and find my true self so that I can really start feeling like the adult I deserve to be!! Please keep flooding us with gems from your journey; I am so sorry any of us even has to be on pages like this, but I am eternally grateful for those of you who have gone before and are helping us infants who only ever wanted to do the right thing and be a good person!!
    Blessings and prayers to each one of you beautiful people 😉

    Reply
    • Natalie Hoffman

      Thank you for sharing part of your story, Beverly! (((Big hugs!)))

      Reply
  6. Shelly Fullerton

    Amazing article Natalie. So much wisdom. I’ve read this several times today because you’ve described EXACTLY my journey. So many lightbulb moments.
    I tried to “die to self” for so many years (did we all deal with that?) that I got pretty good at it! Boy it’s been a challenge to revive the me inside. After 27 years of marriage I had SO little confidence in my ability to make good decisions and direct my own life that every time I faced a choice it was agonizing. For years. The people pleasing has been a hard habit to break. It’s hard to give up the fear that if I am myself I will lose the precious resource of relationship. But things are beginning to change. I’m slowly rediscovering my autonomy. I’m cautiously speaking truth more often, less concerned about the fallout. I’ve forced myself to be the instigator – to invite friends to get together, to organize outings, and to try new things. And color is appearing in my life to accent the basic black. Small decisions, small actions, small movements. Thank you Natalie for giving me hope, for speaking boldly and honestly. I so admire your courage. And you inspire me (us) to be more courageous!

    Reply
    • Natalie Hoffman

      That makes me happy! I’m excited to see you blossom and fly!

      Reply
  7. Christina S.

    Wow! I didn’t realize so many other women felt the same way! Thanks for your ministry, Natalie, and thanks for everyone who shared. Very validating, and encouraging, that we can grow up whatever age we are right now!

    Reply
  8. Karyn Bosch

    Clarify more what you mean about not telling someone what they need to do in order for you to live with them. Isn’t that just clarifying your boundaries ? You can come this far but not this far. Isn’t that healthy communication? I would appreciate additional thoughts on this subject.

    Reply
    • Natalie Hoffman

      If your spouse is violating your boundaries, you can make a request for him to stop. And you can let him know what you will do if he chooses to continue violating your boundaries. But you can’t make him choose to behave. He gets to choose who he wants to be and how he want to treat you. You get to choose what you want that to mean for YOU and your life.

      Reply
      • Karyn

        Ok that makes sense to me now. I thought you were saying we shouldn’t request change. Rather, you were saying we can’t demand change. I agree wholeheartedly. Thank you for this clarification. I loved this whole article. I finally feel like a grown up too at 48! Praise God for freedom

        Reply
        • Natalie Hoffman

          Exactly!! We should always make our requests known. It can be scary at first – but their response will also tell you the truth about who they are and how they intend to show up in your life (or not.) Knowing the truth about ourselves and others sets us free to make choices rooted in reality and not wishful thinking.

          Reply
  9. Bintu

    OMG this is so true! Natalie, are you in my life? A couple of weeks ago, I was talking to a friend and I said that I feel like a 19-year old trapped in a 37-year old body. I feel like I don’t have many experiences of life that people my age do, and I don’t know what my mates know. Mind you, I met my abusive covert narcissist husband when I was 19. And he took over my life since then. He made all the decisions, he managed my life, and basically controlled everything, then made me feel like i was ungrateful if I complained. It was last year that I finally started understanding what was going on in my marriage, and I’m only just starting the process of breaking free. But I am also just starting to grow up as an adult and make my own choices! Gosh, this abuse twists the victims in so many ways that we don’t even fully understand.

    Reply
    • Natalie Hoffman

      Hey! You’ve got your whole life ahead of you! Go out and get it!!

      Reply
  10. Lacey

    Phenomenal article!!

    Reply
  11. Susan

    This is me! I am 55 & have never lived on my own. I went from my parents home, moved to CA & stayed with my sister & her husband & then got pregnant & married( narcissist, emotional & spiritual abuse for 31 years. I am divorcing him & it’s taking a long time & is a battle everyday. He was the parent & I was the child! Now at 55 renting a room in someone’s house I am alone & must grow up fast. I was in bondage for so long I am not free! 8 months I have been away from him. No contact. It’s a struggle. My concept of God is also messed up. Final day of court is in October 2020. I see a therapist but I am all over the place. Help!
    Susan

    Reply
    • Natalie Hoffman

      You’ve been on quite a journey, Susan. I hope you’ll find some good resources here. I also have a more intense training/support group called the Flying Free Sisterhood education and support group. It’s opening up for new members again this week. You can find out more: https://joinflyingfree.com

      Reply
  12. Naomi

    This so closely mirrors the beliefs I grew up with and I completely relate with feeling like a little girl long after being a married adult and mother. Since my husband also grew up with spiritual abuse, we both thought his job was to continue ‘parenting’ me which didn’t sit well with either of us…he never wanted to be a controlling father figure to me and we floundered around feeling stuck trying to fit our stereotypical roles for about 10 years.
    It was around age 30 that I started the journey of facing my emotional and spiritual abuse and I discovered Boundaries as well as resources like this blog and the Think Differently materials.
    Thank you for this article! It’s so validating to hear from others that similar environments have affected other people in similar destructive ways, and that there’s hope and a strategic way out.

    Reply
    • Natalie Hoffman

      So glad to hear that you (and your husband too?) have been able to break some of those generational cycles and find your own voices and autonomy as adults. Relationships made up of two adults with healthy boundaries are incredible!

      Reply
  13. Stephen Charity

    Natalie. Thank you for sharing this. It is a word that applies to me and I’m a man!

    Reply
  14. Mary

    I have felt like a kid inside, even though I have finished professional school and have worked for over 30 years in my profession! Initially in our 28-year marriage, I felt we were more of a team, then it started to deteriorate with having kids, homeschooling, and continuing to work. I became a peace-keeper, as is my personality. I didn’t want to rock the boat, plus in homeschooling circles things were very patriarchal at the time and I was sucked in (I may be the odd woman out in one area: I still like the idea of having an adult daughter who is living at home be under the protection of her parents in the area of “courtship,” being able to give advice about wise choices in whom she dates and having those guys be willing to interact with our family, mostly because I wish I had done that to honor my parents’ wisdom). I let myself be treated like a child in many ways in our marriage, and when you give an inch to a controlling person, they will take a mile. I am expressing my opinions and feeling more and more.

    I am guilty of being controlling, too, with my kids, because I wanted them to “turn out right.” I am better now at letting them be who they are, and they are pretty awesome adult women. I know they have scars from our parenting, but I have to let that go because I can’t change the past.

    I am so amazed at all you have done and come through in 53 years! You are an awesome Daughter of the King, and you are so generous in continuing to use your experiences and your gifts to help other women (and perhaps some men!). And your comment on your wardrobe was so interesting to me because every time I watch your podcasts I think, ” Oh, I love her shirt/jacket/necklace/taste in clothes!”

    Reply
    • Natalie Hoffman

      Awww – thank you, Mary! I’m reading more about the amazing super-traits most survivors have that enabled them to endure so many years of this kind of abuse. It’s crazy that we have these super-traits – and yet feel like children. We are SO not children! Time to take our place at the table of adult world-changers in our own sphere’s of influence!

      Reply
  15. Nancy Lincoln

    Wow this is me. Or it was. I’m working thru many years of being wounded. It’s hard but I do know I’m free. It’s like being born again all over again. I need stronger wings to fly out of some of this and I pray daily I can know how to do that. It’s a bit overwhelming. I’ll keep writing and learning from you. Thank you for the hope you are sharing with me.

    Reply
    • Natalie Hoffman

      It’s definitely a process, but you are on your way!

      Reply
  16. Robin Marlo

    Natalie!!
    I honestly believe you are my twin and we were separated from birth!! Lol
    This is so spot on and what I’ve been looking for to explain why I don’t seem to be able to do adult things on my own! I never got to grow up and make serious life decisions. Sure, I AGREED to decisions, I’ve had children, but I’ve never made a major life choice on my own! Even getting married was because that’s what women do and I would make a great mom. I didn’t even get to make the decision on when to have children. I went along with him and his timing.
    Excellent article. I’m taking this to my counselor today. ☺️

    Reply
    • Natalie Hoffman

      I know we’ve talked about this on the backend, so I won’t say anymore here, Robin. But let me know how your counseling appt. goes! I’m so glad you’ve been able to get this shift in your thinking!

      Reply
      • Robin Marlo

        I will keep you posted. Thank you! ☺️

        Reply
    • Lisa

      Like so many other women, it’s like we lived the same life!! I am turning 51 next week, and within this last year of life, all of these issues finally clicked with me. Instead of staying in the same mundane job, I worked hard, came way out of my comfort zone, and in the next 2 weeks I begin a job with lots of responsibility, and where I’m making $6 more an hour! I finally feel like a grown up…..thank you for adequately expressing the feelings that go on inside of me. You simply ‘nail it’ every time! Love to you and your powerful ministry!!

      Reply
      • Natalie Hoffman

        I’m so happy to hear this! Rock on, Sister! ❤️❤️

        Reply
  17. andrea snider

    Good heavens Natalie!! You’ve had 9 children and are 53?!! Where can one acquire a tube of this bad-ass woman face cream?!! You look amazing and you are amazing! I’m so thankful for you and your wisdom. I love this concept of becoming an adult. I am realizing I too need to get there. I have choices, what?! lol. I am going to pray for this to happen in my life. 🙂

    Reply
    • Natalie Hoffman

      Lol! Knowing we have choices is absolutely life-changing! And the transformation can happen quite quickly once that shift happens in your mind!

      Reply

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