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How to come out to your parents as non-religious

By Marlene Winell ~ 

After going through your own deconstruction of religious belief, it can feel like a challenge to reveal your change to your religious parents. You might have a lot of fear about their reaction – anger, hurt, disappointment in you, and so on. You might fear being disowned. This is a common concern because our families mean a lot to us. It’s natural to want approval from your parents. When you were young, you depended on them for your life; you absolutely needed their love, care, and approval. So, even in adulthood, we long for our parents to love us unconditionally. 
However, in terms of human development over the life span, it is necessary for everyone to outgrow their parents. Growing up to maturity involves becoming the authority in your own life and taking on the job of self-care and self-love. This is true even if you aren’t recovering from religion. Personal health and well-being, in other words, means that your inner “Adult” is taking responsibility and caring for your inner “Child.”
Religious families are a little more complicated. The religion promotes black and white thinking about what is right and wrong. Parents feel compelled morally to raise their children as believers, or they aren’t doing their primary job as parents. Consequently, if their children leave the faith, they feel like failures. This is in addition to feeling sorrow and panic about the future destiny of their children, or the ultimate separation of family members. 
Personal responsibility is very confused in a religious family. Not only are the parents taught to have inordinate responsibility for the fate of their children, but children are taught to “Honor thy father and mother.” Many religious groups teach a hierarchical system of obedience and control in which the children are obligated to live in obedience to parents. (Usually this is also patriarchal where the wife is subject to the husband.) This results in feelings of responsibility for parents’ feelings. Small children can think, “If I was good, my parents would be happy.” For all these reasons, the boundaries between family members can be blurred.

In working with reclaimers coming out to family members over the years, I have come up with the following guidelines:

1. Recognize that you and your parents are separate people. They have their own lives, beliefs, attitudes, career, family roles, pastimes, and passions. They are responsible for their own choices and the consequences of those choices. One of those choices is to belong to a religious system which condemns those that are different. So when they are faced with a significant difference in their own family, they are the ones who need to adapt, and you need to let it be their task.

2. Remember that your only obligation is to be authentically who you are. You have a right to be who you really are and the desire to be seen that way can only be fulfilled if you present your true self. There is no apology for so doing.

3. At the same time, you can have compassion and empathy. Your parents will have feelings and you can be understanding. In fact, it helps to begin the conversation with empathy, e.g. “I know this means a lot and it’s hard for you. . ."

4. As you approach talking with your parents, be aware of your Inner Adult and your Inner Child. Let your Adult take the lead in doing the talking. Your Adult can be rational, emotionally calm, understand the issues, speak clearly, maintain boundaries, and make reasonable requests. Speak in your adult voice.

5. Before you address your parents, take time to talk to your Child, having empathy for their feelings, assuring them of safety, and promising to handle the situation.

6. Be sure to express your positive feelings toward your parents, and reassure them that you want to maintain a good relationship. State your intention clearly.

7. Realize that there are no guarantees. Your parents may or may not ever accept the changes in your worldview. Most likely they will adapt in some way.

8. Be careful about wanting an apology. While you may think that your parents have done things that hurt you, realize that from their perspective, they have not done anything wrong. Getting an apology is unlikely and asking for one will only be frustrating.

9. Going through this process will take time and it will include grief over what your parents can’t give. The relationship will change and that can be uncomfortable. Allow yourself to grieve.
Wherever you are in your recovery process, we invite you to join us for our online support groups or book an individual coaching session. We’re here to support you.