07: Discussion

This overriding purpose of this study was to explore the experience of former Jehovah’s Witnesses who were born into or were raised in a Jehovah’s Witness Congregation and subsequently disfellowshipped for a variety of reasons. Two sets of qualitative interviews were conducted with six former members, four female participants and two male participants, to gain an in-depth understanding of how being disfellowshipped and shunned, as a result, affected the participants sense-making of this disciplinary action and how they coped with being excluded from their former community.


The chosen themes disfellowshipping, shunning, adjustment and transformation into something positive aimed to capture former Jehovah’s Witnesses lived experiences of ostracism at the hand of a high-control group. Participants descriptions of each subtheme were poignantly expressive and vivid.


Disfellowshipping was commonly perceived as an additional punishment to the emotional turmoil participants already experienced as a result of the events leading up to the disfellowshipping. Several descriptions illustrated how Elders and the wider Congregation neglected the emotional needs of their members, minimised, ignored or actively covered up crimes, thus, creating an environment in which members were exposed to further risk. Instead of offering support and guidance to lessen participants emotional burden, Jehovah’s Witnesses Elders partook in a blaming game, holding victims responsible for the own victimhood. In other instances, teenage curiosity was demonised and punished with full force. The most striking element of this theme, as one of the participants pointed out, is the power structure of this high-control group that is governed by a small privileged group of men, who are making decisions based on self-serving principles. A central aspect of this theme, in the detection of disfellowshipping offences, was peer-to-peer surveillance, a control mechanism central to high-control groups. While some participants left the Jehovah’s Witnesses immediately after being disfellowshipped, others continued to attend meetings in an attempt to regain group membership. Motivators behind regaining group memberships, for those participants, were centered around an interpretation of a higher purpose in the punishment (e.g. divine challenge), the desire to re-experience the group’s love and acceptance, external triggers such as parental death and questions about mortality as well as issues around identity fusion with the group and the inability to break the vicious cycle of control.


The second overarching theme ‘shunning’, illustrated the impact ostracism had on participants in the aftermath of being disfellowshipping. This impact was centred around two core themes, the effect on the individual’s self and to his/her relationship ties with families and friends. Participants described their personal experiences of ostracism in terms of serving time in solitary confinement, like being bullied at school or mental slavery. Central to participants feelings of isolation were elements of powerlessness, uncontrollability and inescapability. Particularly participants who were too young to leave their parental home described their experience as a constant, never-ceasing psychological torture. Others, who were old enough to live on their own, described how the treatment they experienced by their parents drove them to leave their parental home as they were psychologically unable to cope with the changed circumstances. The meaning of home was a pivotal element in participants experiences of ostracism across the themes. The value of the home as a place where one can be authentic, a place of comfort, became a place of psychological torture. Participants who lived in smaller houses were denied access to their own bedrooms at times as Bible studies or other group meetings were held in those rooms. Others were not allowed to share meals with their family. As ostracism was an immediate consequence of being disfellowshipped, participants had no means of growing accustomed to the psychological effects of it. From one day to the next, their whole lives had turned upside down. The social isolation, the breaking of ties with friends and family, uncertainties and fears about the future took their toll on participants mental health. Members reported falling into a depression as they had to leave the homes they grew up in, not being able to navigate in the ‘world’ outside the group. They experienced panic attacks, eating disorders, suicidal ideation and suicide attempts. In regard to family ties and friends, some members described how parents, brothers and sisters and their larger social network completely vanished as a result of being disfellowshipped. Others reported that even though conversations with family members, who were living in the same house, continued, the emotional affection was lost. Some members described how they actively partook in socially isolating themselves from their families as a means of self-preservation. Another member described how different rules in his congregation at the time of his disfellowshipping meant that his parents would still have a normal relationship with him, but how the stigma of the wider community meant that he felt guilty about living with his parents as the Congregation stopped socialising at his parents’ house. Several members described, how the impact on family relationships did not only affect themselves but also future generations in terms of their own parenting style which they adapted to be more authoritative and nurturing in contrast to what they had experienced in their own childhood. In several extracts of participants parenting styles, there was a theme of healing their own inner child through correcting their parents’ mistake. While other extracts demonstrated a determinacy in having their children participate in all social activities and perhaps leaning on the other side of the spectrum with adopting a permissive parenting style. Two participants shared how their own adverse childhood and family experiences contributed to their reluctance of having children with one participant disclosing her fear of repeating her parents’ mistakes. There was also a single observation on the challenges of family recovery, as one participant shared the ups and downs of rebuilding the relationship with her sister, who left the Jehovah’s Witnesses several years after her.


The third theme ‘adjusting to life ‘outside’ offered an exploration of participants early and continued experiences of integrating themselves into mainstream society. Particularly, in the early stages participants perceived themselves to be different from mainstream society and reported a lack of understanding of how society worked and how to behave as part of mainstream society. Some participants explored how the low self-esteem they were raised with, as part of the group where the members’ perception of themselves as unworthy and imperfect was constantly upheld led to a deflated sense of self-worth in comparison to other people. Participants shared how the fears they were raised with, such as Armageddon and a fear of the ‘outside’ world, magnified, as they were pushed into mainstream society themselves. Some participants feared that being a worldling themselves meant that they would not be able to join their loved ones in Paradise and that they would die a horrible death at Armageddon. Other participants’ fears were influenced by the significant events at the time such as contracting AIDS. The exploration of adjustment further focused on coping mechanisms that participants used in order to deal with the ongoing effects of social isolation from former families and friends. Several participants described how they used drugs as a means of escape from the painful emotions and memories and how, in the midst of their despair, drugs offered some momentary normalcy. Other participants drowned themselves in work and study, spending every waking moment learning about new things. Even though they drew positive conclusions for their lives from these career ambitions, one participant shared how her career goals were motivated by a desire to feed her low self-esteem in an attempt to seek approval and self-confidence in external sources. The constant need for career progression and ambitions left her feeling exhausted, although, she was unconsciously aware that no matter how hard she worked, she would not rid herself of this subtle but omnipresent feeling of just not quite fitting in and being on the same level as others. Another participant shared how she became socially avoidant, creating situations where she would turn people against her, and find comfort in being alone and in being able to control her relationships. Vangelisti (2001), argues that social withdrawal or social avoidant coping is characteristic of people who fear future rejection or have low self-esteem and uncertainty about their own value in relationships.

A common element of coping among participants was starting psychological counselling to try to understand themselves and their experience better. The destructive coping mechanisms that participants used to overcome the pain and negative emotions associated with shunning, demonstrate a discrepancy between leaving a high-control physically versus leaving it psychologically. Even after participants had physically left the controlling and abusive environment, they still experienced the psychological distress from, amongst other aspects, being cut off from family and friends, instilled fears and not knowing how to behave or integrate themselves into mainstream society.

Participants described the impact forgiveness had on their journey to make sense of what happened to them and to heal from the negative effects of shunning. Forgiveness is an interesting coping mechanism, as it is often overlooked by researchers. Evidence suggests that unforgiveness can have adverse consequences on people’s physical and mental health (Worthington and Scherer, 2004). Researchers are in agreement that forgiveness is a complex social phenomenon. Worthington and Scherer (2014)? distinguish two types of forgiveness. One that is decisional and involves an intentional behaviour on the individual’s part and emotional forgiveness. The first may or may not include the second. If, however, forgiveness does not involve an emotional component, the individual may still experience negative emotions, such as anger, anxiety and depression. Emotional forgiveness, on the other hand, is a positive emotional response to a perceived injustice or boundary transgression, that leads to negative emotions being partially or fully reduced or resolved. Forgiveness thus can be viewed as an emotion-focused coping strategy, that individuals employ to reduce negative feelings, such as stress, anger, frustration or depression, arising from injustice.

The theme also uncovered a need for learning and advancing participants’ understanding of religion and a desire to make sense and integrate their experience in their own narrative. A central element in these participants’ journey was the discovery of the individuality of religious experiences. Some participants retained their faith in God but transformed their relationship with Him from a group experience to something that they would cultivate and nurture by themselves. Others shared, how their ability to dig deeper into various belief systems and to critically examine their own relationship with religion, led them to the realisation that they did no longer or may never have believed in God. Lastly, the theme explored participants feelings toward mainstream celebrations and traditions. Participants shared a common experience of discomfort around celebrating worldly traditions. Some described this discomfort in terms of a lack of knowledge of how to celebrate, while others’ discomfort appeared to stem from the negative connotations they had grown up associating them with.


The central message of the last overarching theme disclosed by this study was the construction of positive narratives. Participants described how, despite all the heartache and suffering, they learnt valuable lessons and gained important skills as a result. In fact, research (Updegraff, 2000, p. 3) suggests that stressful and adverse life experiences can lead to positive long-term effects, as people learn more about themselves, their social network and set different priorities for themselves. Participants of this study shared how their own experience contributed to their desire to help others, for example through becoming peer supporters, or through educating others on the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Using their own, lived, experience to help others, gave participants adverse experiences a new meaning. Most importantly, the last theme is a compelling exploration of hope and optimism in the face of ostracism and adversity.

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