06: Findings

The current study involved six participants, four females and two males. The age of participants ranged from 35 to 54. Four participants were of British origin, with three participants from England and one participant from Scotland. Two participants were of Polish origin, whose mother tongue was not English, but who had a good level of English.

Four participants (Michael, Christina, Urszula and Agnieszka) were interviewed via SkypeTM due to the distance. Two participants (Philip and Isabel) were interviewed face to face. One respondent who lived close to the researcher was met at his home and interviewed there. A second respondent was interviewed in a café. The interview in the café took place early morning, in a quiet corner without outsiders being present. Respondents who were interviewed via SkypeTM chose a time of their convenience. Conducting the interview in the participants home was very insightful, as the researcher gathered much more information as various personal items, including pictures, books and other memorable items that were linked to the research were revealed. Home interviews were previously suggested to be more insightful by Elwood and Martin (2000), who found that conducting interviews at participants home may yield extra information by observation of the house’s décor, people living with the respondent, the neighbourhood and city in which the respondent lives.

Four participants specifically mentioned at the end of the interviews that the opportunity to speak about their life and shunning experience has been cathartic, as they had rarely spoken about their experience in such a detailed manner. Two participants mentioned that the academic interest in their experience instilled hope for a better understanding of people who go through this experience and better support for former members in the long-term.

Four participants were disfellowshipped in their teens, one participant in his early twenties and one participant in her early thirties. Three participants were reinstated after being disfellowshipped, with two participants actively working toward reinstatement and one participant was reinstated due to changes in doctrine. One participant had been reinstated three times, two times after being disfellowshipped and one time after disassociating herself. At the time of interviews, five participants had the status of ‘disfellowshipped’ Jehovah’s Witnesses and one participant was an ‘inactive’ Jehovah’s Witness.

Appendix 11.3 provides a table with information per participant. All participants names have been replaced with a pseudonym, that is sensitive to their country of origin.



Before a decision on whether an individual member is to be disfellowshipped is made, an internal disciplinary board, called the Judicial Committee is formed, that will investigate the ‘offence’ the member has committed and evaluate whether the member shows ‘genuine repentance’. There are several common themes among participants in regard to their experience of the Judicial Committee, such as members in the congregation spying and informing on each other, the formality and seriousness of the initial meeting and a lack of control. Female participants described how their gender influenced their experience, as one female participant was questioned by the Elders (men) in relation to being raped by a co-worker, while another female participant compared the experience to the aristocracy, a time where power was condensed in a small group of men. While some members had been reported to the Elders by other peer members, some Judicial Committees were formed after members had self-confessed. Self-confession in this context, is particularly interesting, as it may serve as a way of controlling or influencing the consequences of the wrongdoing, as self-confession is one way Jehovah’s Witnesses can prove ‘genuine repentance’. In cases where self-confession does not directly influence the Elders decision, it may offer some control and alleviation of the guilt and shame members experienced.
In this segment Philip, who was disfellowshipped age thirteen, recounts being interviewed by two Elders after two members of the congregation had witnessed him smoking:

‘I was thirteen you know, or twelve at the time, so anyway, when the second witness saw me, they then pulled the wheels into motion in the church, and two Elders came out to interview me. That’s the Judicial Committee, and it’s like being questioned by the cops, it’s totally – they go good cop and bad cop and all that ridiculous stuff, – they really kind of went at me.’


Comparing the Elders of the congregation to police officers, ‘good cop and bad cop’, conveys a position of authority and officiality. There is a lack of control and helplessness in Philip’s description of how he experienced the interview process (‘they really kind of went at me’). Philip’s disfellowshipping relied on two witnesses’ accounts, which are needed if an accused member does not confess.

Urszula shares a similar experience:

‘Between 15 and 19 years of age, I did a lot of things which most teenagers did. Even though I knew that any bad behaviour was forbidden by the church, I drank alcohol, smoked cigarettes and went to parties with my schoolmates. I lived in a small city, so most likely I was seen by someone doing one of these things and the church was informed about it. One evening two Elders came to my family home and told me that I was seen behaving badly. I neither denied nor repented so in result I was disfellowshipped.’


This segment highlights a distinction, a sense of separateness of being a Jehovah’s Witness teenager and a non-Jehovah’s Witness teenager, in contrast to ‘most teenagers’, who drank and smoked cigarettes and went to parties, Urszula encountered disciplinary actions to something which she perceived to be normal teenage behaviour. Her perception of being sold out to the congregation conveys a sense of constant surveillance and unease, which was heightened in part due to the rural area Urszula grew up in. This extract highlights the behavioural control element of peer to peer surveillance, as discussed earlier (Hassan, 2015), in which peer to peer surveillance is used as a mechanism to keep members obedient, due to the threat of detection.

Christina, who was disfellowshipped age sixteen for having sex outside of marriage, recounts her experience:

‘I felt so much shame. I knew it was wrong; I could get disfellowshipped, you know. So, I did eventually tell my mum, that I had committed fornication and she told the Elders. So, the Elders had a meeting with me, a Judicial Committee and I went there on my own, my mum didn’t go with me. It was just me and three Elders, and they disfellowshipped me [pause]. Because I had stayed with him because I had sex more than once with him, that showed that I was not repentant [pause] I didn’t argue with it, I accepted it, I felt so guilty at the time. […] There was no doubt in my mind, at the age of 16, that this was the right thing that had happened.’


Christina’s emotional response to her perceived wrong-doing compelled her to ‘come clean’ to her mother, who reported her to the congregation’s Elders. Christina’s account conveys a surrender to a group of men perceived as powerful and righteous. There is a struggle with her own feelings of guilt in coming to terms with the past behaviour, that constituted the ‘offence’, while at the same time being faced with the future emotional turmoil of dealing with the aftermath of disciplinary sanctions. Christina’s account also carries a sense of powerlessness and loss of control, as the fact that she had sex outside of marriage more than once was automatically interpreted by Elders as signifying unrepentance, and prevented her from being reproofed. Christina’s guilt appears to be lifted slightly, as she states that, at the time, she felt that the right sanctions had been put in place.

Isabel was disfellowshipped age nineteen after being raped by a colleague at work who was a non-Jehovah’s Witness. She had told one of her friends about the assault, who reported it to the Elders. The Judicial Committee interpreted the fact that she was friendly with him at work and met him for coffee as a lead-up and wrong-doing on her part:

Meeting up having a coffee and just chatting, you know. It was all just [um] social.’


‘The only way you can be repentant is if you admit to it. I was repentant and sorry for doing all the lead-up to it. I realised that that was wrong, but the actual event I was still adamant that this is not what I wanted. They were so obsessed with ‘were you not tempted at the time?’. So, because I wouldn’t admit to it, therefore I was not repentant, so it would have been easier if I had turned around and said ‘yeah, we just got carried away and I am really sorry’ they would have given sanctions and restrictions, but they probably wouldn’t have disfellowshipped me. It was their own sort of language.’


This speech, like others above, conveys a sense of powerlessness and loss of control, as an honest account of the event led to a decision of unrepentance. It further minimises the impact of the sexual assault on her, as she was pressured to admitting to a ‘moment of weakness’. Isabel describes how the organisation’s rules translate into a language of its own, with the effect here, of disempowering her and taking away her understanding of the process. Isabel further describes the difficulty she experienced in speaking to a group of Elders, a position reserved only for men:

‘You have the original three Elders, probably the worst Elders out of the Congregation, looking back now, it was absolutely horrendous, because you got like a nineteen-year-old being questioned by three men who got no training in anything to do [with sexual assault], they are just men, you know what I mean. It was really horrible, you know, really horrible, intrusive questions, with no reason for it.’


Here, Isabel specifically points out the lack of education Elders have in dealing with complex and sensitive topics such as sexual assault. There is an awareness of a gender imbalance, a sense of not being understood by a group of men. This gender imbalance is further illustrated by ‘you know what I mean’, directed at the female researcher, perhaps in an attempt to highlight a shared understanding of what it is like to talk about sensitive and private affairs with someone of the opposite gender. The last sentence portrays a glimpse of vulnerability, exposedness and meaninglessness, experienced in the face of injustice ‘with no reason for it’.

Michael, another participant, was disfellowshipped at age twenty-one for having sex outside of marriage. He went to an Elders’ house the next morning, to confess his wrongdoings, after which a Judicial Committee was formed:

‘And I’m asked uhm “am I repentant?” And I´m “well I’m very, very sorry because I can imagine the hurt this is gonna cause people.” And they said, “yeah but do you hate what you did?” I’m like “God didn’t design it to be unpleasant. You know. Of course, I don’t hate it” “Yeah but can you guarantee you’re never going to do that again?” and I said, “of course I can’t”. So, it was judged that I was not repentant and I was disfellowshipped.’


In contrast to the above Judicial Committees, this committee was formed after a self-confession. It illustrates a discomfort toward sexuality and a sense of ‘uncleanliness’ of sexual intercourse. Even though the intercourse was consensual, Michael expresses guilt and regret at causing harm to other people. The latter part, again, highlights a point of no-return, a promise forced upon Michael, to not repeat the same behaviour again and a suggested intertwining of emotional and physical sensations ‘do you hate what you did’.

Agnieszka who wanted to divorce her ex-husband lied about having an affair, which would guarantee quick divorce proceedings. The affair, which never took place, in reality, led to her being disfellowshipped. Here, she recounts the anger experienced and the unequal distribution of disciplinary action, dependent on a member’s status within the Congregation:

‘Depends on the person, depends on the money, the position … not everyone is treated the same, it all depends on the Elders within the Congregation … mentally you are a slave to those people, that little group that’s going to decide about if you are going to suffer or if you are pardoned, so and that’s probably the most, where my anger came from. It’s like in medieval times, few people deciding about your future.’


This segment, again, illustrates a position of powerlessness at the hand of a group of men, with a direct reference to aristocracy. Particularly the mention of a ‘mental slave’ is interesting in this context, as she explains:

‘In your mind, you are your own prisoner, but the bars are controlled by someone else, and you leave it that way, and you don’t know any other way, you don’t know any other behaviours.’


There is a sense of despair and urgency in this statement of someone wanting to leave their mentally created prison, but unaware of how to do so. The powerlessness of the participant is poignantly illustrated by describing how outsiders govern this proclaimed self-inflicted prison. This mental prison, even though painful, is the only certainty existing for her, because she ‘doesn’t know any other way’. This is a beautifully descriptive account of first-generation high-control group members. Growing up in a high-control group, severely limits people’s exposure to new environments, as outsiders are often regarded as enemies, and thus opportunities for social learning outside the group are highly restricted. According to social learning theory (Bandura, 1999), we learn from observing other people, and we learn to accept or reject their behaviours depending on the observed consequences (reward or punishment). As high-control groups reward conformity and punish nonconformity, first generation members observe and learn to behave according to group norms.

This section described the process by which members were disfellowshipped. These segments highlight the reflexive response stage, as described in Williams and Zardo’s (2005) ostracism model. Participants specifically described feelings of distress and loss of control, as they were unable to influence the situation they were in. Some participants experienced feelings of shame and guilt, as they had internalised the group’s norms of unacceptable behaviour, a way by which high-control groups hold control over members (Hassan, 2013, 29-30).


After a Judicial Committee has reached the decision to disfellowship a member, one of the Elders of the Congregation makes a formal announcement at the next meeting to make active Witnesses aware of the disciplinary action taken. This is a way of informing active members to stop associating with (e.g. shun) the disciplined person. Three participants were present at the meeting when their disciplinary action was announced to the congregation. One member, Philip, was unable to decide whether he wanted to attend the announcement, as due to his age his parents made the decision for him. The other two participants who attended the meeting attended it in an attempt to demonstrate that they wished to be reinstated.

Philip recounts his experience:

‘Usually, they all disappeared, somebody got disfellowshipped, and they just left, and you never saw them again, but it was different with me, I was too young. So, I couldn’t leave. So, because I was only a kid, and I wasn’t allowed to leave home until I was 16, uh, [my stepdad] said, ‘you are still under my roof, so you still have to go to the Kingdom Hall.’ So, even on the night that it was announced, I was there. They sat me in the Hall and then one of the Elders went up and made the announced ‘[Philip] is now disassociated [the term has historically changed in meaning]. Please view him as such.’ They didn’t even sit me at the back.’


This segment illustrates the powerless situation Philip was in. As a minor, he was not able to leave and had to follow his parents’ instructions of going to the meetings. The last part highlights his sense of exposure and visibility sitting in the front row that he might have been able to escape, was he seated in the back. The emphasis on ‘they’, again highlights his powerlessness of not being able to choose his own place, but also conveys a sense of anger and resentment toward his parents, who made this decision for him and, as he describes, had not acted in his best interest.

Isabel, who went to her announcement voluntarily, recounts her experience of the meeting:

‘I went the night it was announced that I was disfellowshipped, which I don’t think many people had actually gone to that. So, I went along, which was quite harsh, [pause] because you go from like walking in when everybody is a friend, to walking away from it, thinking ‘that’s the end of it’.’


For her, the announcement marked a finality, the end of friendships with people whom she had known all her life. There is a feeling of abandonment as it is her friends who are ‘ending’ this relationship. Isabel’s statement highlights her thwarted sense of belonging (William & Zardo, 2015).

Christina recounts going along to the announcement voluntarily and continuing to go to meetings in general:

‘I kept going to the meetings. I was actually there on the night when the announcement was made, on my own, because my mum did not go.’


Christina highlights that she went to the meeting by herself, without the support of her mother. The word ‘actually’ adds an element of surprise, as though her coming to the announcement was not something that would ordinarily happen. The fact that Christina in particular mentions the absence of her mother, as a supportive figure in her life, suggests an expectation of her mother or an appreciation of her need to have a support person present to help her face this difficult meeting.

The above statements highlight the thwarted need of control and belonging respondents experienced as a result of being disfellowshipped. Despite knowing that people would no longer associate with them, Isabel and Christina went to the announcement. Both respondents specifically mentioned other people’s reaction to their disfellowshipping, suggesting a thwarted need of belonging. As described earlier, individuals whose sense of belonging has been thwarted are more likely to respond in a prosocial manner, seeking to repair their relationship and being reincluded in the group (Gomez, Morales, Hart, Vazquez &Swann, 2011, p. 1575). Disfellowshipping is not a permanent condition and individuals can prove themselves to be ‘genuinely repentant’ and make efforts to be reinstated.


Jehovah’s Witnesses who are disfellowshipped lose their relationships with friends and families and their faith. However, disfellowshipping is not a permanent state and individuals who have been disfellowshipped may re-join and become active Jehovah’s Witnesses again. Individuals who are re-instated by the organization, are welcomed back by family, friends and the extended congregation and can be freely associated with again. Participants reported that for many disfellowshipped members shunning becomes too difficult to bear and they return in an attempt to regain what they had lost.

Two participants of the current study re-joined after being disfellowshipped the first time and one member re-joined twice after being disfellowshipped and once after disassociating herself. Here, they describe their experience of re-joining the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

When Philip turned sixteen, the Watch Tower and Bible Tract Society had changed their rules on disfellowshipping. Unbaptised publishers (members who were not yet baptised) could no longer be disfellowshipped. As Philip had not been baptised at age thirteen, when he was disfellowshipped, his disciplinary action was revoked, and he was welcomed back:

‘The fact that I went back in when I was 16 was only because they love bombed me, only because of that. I felt so happy to be welcomed back,[…] I was 15 and a half when they opened the doors again, it just felt awesome to have got out of that prison, to be released and not having to run about and be sneaky. And then I realised, what I had to do not to be sneaky anymore, which is going back to what they wanted to me to do. And so, I was still living a double life and then obviously got caught again.’


This extract illustrates the impact of ‘love bombing’, a behaviour where members shower new members with attention and praise, creating an emotional high in new members that increases their likelihood of joining the group in an attempt to prolong these positive emotions (Hassan, 2013, p. 27). Philip compares his experience of being welcomed back to a prison release. He experiences a feeling of freedom and relief, a moment where he can be himself and once again enjoy the positive emotions of being cared for and accepted by the congregation. However, in the same vein, he realises that this new-found freedom is only temporarily, as once again he is restricted by the congregation’s rules. Caught between his desire to be his true self and receiving the attention from members of the congregation. He continues to live a double life, one life where he is his true self and another one where he puts on a mask in front of the congregation. Yet again, he is only able to sustain this dichotomy temporarily, as the congregation catches up with his ‘double life’ and once again disfellowships and shuns him. There is an interesting parallel between his description of his ‘disfellowshipped self’, and his ‘active Jehovah’s Witness’ self – both selves are living in restriction, as he describes his ‘disfellowshipped self’ as one living the life of a prisoner, yet his life as an active member is restrictive too, as it forces him to be ‘sneaky’ and to hide his authentic self. The prison, he describes, appears to be one of these mental restrictions.

In the following extract, Isabel describes her experience of continuing to go to meetings and how she made sense of her disciplinary action. For Isabel, the religious aspect was the main motivator for her continued attendance:

‘It was always my intention to keep going and just thinking ‘I’ll just wait Jehovah will sort something out’. So, it was just like a test, just keep going to the meetings and see what happens […]. There is a story in the Bible, the book of Job, where it talks about, in the Old Testament, that God’s favourite people who the devil tests. It’s like a test between good and evil, and I was like I’m just Job, and the Devil is testing me, and I just gotta stay strong, and eventually, God will just say right, I approve you, and everything will be taken care of. So, I don’t think it left me with that finality of like that’s it, I’ve left. It was almost like this is just all a big test to see how strong I am.’


Gomez, Morales, Hart, Vazquez & Swann (2011, p. 1575) found that individuals who believed that the group was likely to re-include them were more likely to act in a social manner. Here, Isabel’s comparison of herself to Job induces faith that she will eventually be re-instated in the congregation and thus serves as a motivation to keep attending meetings and behaving in a manner that the organisation approves of. The fact that she is working towards being a reinstated member of the Congregation also prevents her from experiencing the loss and grief associated with leaving behind the congregation and her former self.

Isabel’s desire to be reinstated and her prosocial manner is further highlighted in this section, as she describes how she went out of her way to behave in a manner that would be accepted by the congregation:

‘I think, because the first time, I was really, committed to being reaccepted into it, I sort of, probably went really out of my way to be seen as not doing anything wrong.’


Reinstatement is a long and challenging process. As mentioned earlier, there is no specific time limit for when disfellowshipped members may be reinstated, and this can carry a lot of uncertainty. Furthermore, members who want to be reinstated are required to attend meetings, and, as participants have reported, may have to follow specific guidelines such as arriving later and leaving earlier than active members, to prevent any form of association between active and shunned members. Disfellowshipped members are also not allowed to speak during meetings and are often required to sit at the back of the Kingdom Hall. This means that disfellowshipped members who want to be reinstated have to actively face their ostracism.

Agnieszka did not attempt to be reinstated after she had been disfellowshipped, but had a difficult experience of being married to a ministerial servant and faced with the social pressure of being an exemplary wife to her husband. Here she describes the difficulty she experienced, living as a member of the congregation:

‘I kind of treat the religion part of my life like living in an abusive relationship. When women, sometimes, they come back to [the] husband, because they don’t believe they deserve anything except being punched and punished and whatever raped, and that is how it was, you don’t believe that you deserve anything else, you don’t believe that you can be something else.’


Her poignant comparison between being a member of a high-control group and an abusive intimate relationship describes an intense sense of entrapment. Agnieszka describes how she devalued her former self, as being someone who was unworthy and undeserving of a better life. In Agnieszka’s description, there is also a sensation of comfort within the discomfort, the certainty of knowing whom she deserves to be or who she can be, as leaving this relationship would be associated with uncertainty about her own personhood. Staying in an abusive relationship, or abusive group setting, even though painful ‘punched and punished and whatever raped’, meant for Agnieszka that there was a continuation of herself and her identity. In Agnieszka’s description of leaving this relationship, there is uncertainty about who she would be without the group. This extract echoes earlier findings, as suggested by Gomez, Morales, Hart, Vazquez & Swann (2011, p. 1583), that individual’s whose identity has fused with that of the group, may experience an identity crisis after being rejected by the group, as one is no longer able to connect with the group.

For others, significant life events may be catalysts for disfellowshipped members to return to their congregation. Christina’s story demonstrates how such life altering events can be a motivating factor in re-joining:

‘My mum died, and that made me think about things, life and the future and my own mortality and I wanted to go back into ‘the truth’.’


Christina’s rumination about death and mortality invoked a desire in her to be re-instated into the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Christina appears to find comfort and safety in being a member of the ‘the truth’.

This segment on reinstatement highlights the powerful nature of belonging and being part of a group and relationships. Even though the participants had been excluded and shunned by the group, the desire to be reinstated was so strong that they continued to attend meetings and to behave in a prosocial manner, in the face of ostracism. The feelings of belonging, being accepted and loved was for several participants, in the case of Philip the only, motivating factor for the participants to return to the group. For Christina, the need for a meaningful existence (Williams and Zardo, 2005) in the context of her mother’s death and her own mortality was a driving factor to return to the group. For Agnieszka, on the other hand, her identity had become embedded with the group, to a point where she was no longer able to see who she could be without the group.

As discussed earlier, the prosocial behaviour may also be motivated by a cost-benefit analysis, where losing a relationship would incur a higher cost (Van Beest & Williams, 2006, p. 919). Since the participants in this study have all been raised as Jehovah’s Witnesses, their social ties outside the congregation were limited and for some even non-existent. This meant that the costs for participants leaving the group were higher than the benefits, as they had no social network to fall back on once they left the group. Furthermore, due to the group’s depiction of the world outside and the fears instilled by the group (Hassan, 2015) the costs of becoming part of mainstream society are high for former members of high-control groups.


Impact on Self

Participants described various ways in which the exclusion and ostracism affected them. Most notably, participants experienced a decrease in their psychological well-being and some developed psychological disorders during or following the disfellowshipping. Several participants spoke about a lifelong lasting effect.

In this extract, Philip shares the hurt and pain he experienced following his first disfellowshipping:

‘When I got disassociated [term has historically changed] at thirteen, that was a massive trauma, massive. It’s impacted the rest of my life, and it will continue to impact the rest of my life. There is a pain; there is a level of pain that’s different from physical pain, the emotional pain, the psychological pain even. I remember that pain. I think it does stuff to you, that kind of pain. That was without a shadow of a doubt, the most hurtful, painful, traumatic experience of my whole life.’


Philip, who is now in his early forties, reflects on the pain he experienced as a young teenager. This extract is particularly poignant in his description of ‘remembering’ the pain. In fact, Wesselmann, Nairne & Williams (2012, p. 314) suggest that social pain, or as described by Philip ‘emotional and psychological pain’ can be re-experienced by individuals as they reflect on it, in opposition to physical pain that ceases to exist. Philip personifies his experience with pain ‘it does stuff to you’. Pain here becomes a living entity. Philip describes how the pain he experiences will never fully cease, ‘it will continue to impact the rest of my life’. This is further echoed in his description of the period in which he experienced the ostracism:

‘The psychological torture on a daily basis, the weekly torture on the group basis, the shunning, the treating me like a pariah, the fact that I was some devil inside like I was the spawn of Satan.’


‘I would class it as a prison sentence. It was an open prison, where my accusers, detractors and so on, were the ones that were guarding me, I wasn’t with other inmates. At least if I’d been in with other inmates, they were the same like me, and we could have gone on fine, we would have hated the pressure, but we would have had the solidarity, there wasn’t any of that. The solidarity was within myself.’


In the following segment where Philip offers a comparable experience:

‘We can all associate with someone getting bullied at school. So, imagine school is your whole life, and you can’t go home. And everybody in the school, the teachers, fellow pupils, everybody is against you, that’s what it’s like.’


The home, a place that children should experience as safe and welcoming, as a place where they can be themselves, becomes a continuation of the ‘psychological torture’ Philip experiences. The contrast between a child being bullied at school that sees his home as an escape, and himself who has nowhere to turn for safety and security.

Philip, who was disfellowshipped for the first time at age thirteen and for the second time around his seventeenth birthday, reflects on the difference between the experiences:

‘I’d say they were both the same. […] The only real difference between the two experiences is, the first time they maintained it as a torturous event throughout a whole two and half year because they were able to keep me captive. The way I was able to react, was different because I was bigger.’


Again, there is a theme of loss of control in his first experience as he was unable to make his own decisions as a minor being subjected to his parent’s guidance ‘keep me captive’. As he is older, we observe a shift in his ability to control his situation and to influence his experience.

Urszula, who was age sixteen when she was disfellowshipped, fell into a depression following the announcement:

‘It [disfellowshipping] was a massive shock because I used to get a lot of attention from my parents, but my parents stopped talking to me. I felt like I had to move out of my family home, because of this, I became depressed quite quickly, I have been depressed on and off since I left, so it kind of never went away. The shunning has affected my entire adult life, I think. I definitely lost a lot of confidence because of it; I have to kind of fight the feeling that, loneliness, and emptiness, and longing for a family, every day.’


Here, Urszula describes the impact disfellowshipping had on her everyday life. Communication with her parents ceased, and she felt that she was no longer welcome in her family home. Even though the Watch Tower and Bible Tract Society does not currently have any concrete rules that require family members to leave the family home after disfellowshipping, members may still feel unable to live in the same home, as many activities families would have shared in the past may no longer be possible. Similar to Philip’s experience, Urszula speaks about a life-long, daily impact of her disfellowshipping and shunning by her family.

Isabel, who attempted to be reinstated following the first disfellowshipping announcement, recounts the difference she experienced between her first disfellowshipping and the second time, for marrying in a mainstream domination church:

‘Initially, I thought, I’ll go back into it, so the first time, I thought, this was just this period in between and then I’d go back into it, that I just kept as busy as possible, to just block everything out. The second time, was more just like closure. That was the door closing on it, and you knew then, that was it all left behind. So that was more of a [pause], I think it was sad because there were people that I knew that were never going to speak or see me again, but then on the other side it was, like the start of a new life.’


Isabel recounts a mixed set of feelings. The first time, she tried to suppress her feelings (‘block everything out’), as she was waiting to be welcomed back. The desire to be reinstated almost acts as a pause button, putting her feelings on ‘hold’ until she was back in again. The second time, (disfellowshipping without the desire to be reinstated) she describes in terms of a finality and ‘closure’. The metaphor of the door marks a sharp discontinuity of her old life, a life in which friends and family were left behind, and the start of a new life, which, in Isabel’s case, meant marriage with her new partner. Isabel describes this new life in positive terms. The fact that she was not facing an entirely uncertain future, due to her new partner and the upcoming wedding, may have allowed her to welcome this new life with optimism.

Agnieszka, who was torn between remaining a Jehovah’s Witness and being married to her ex-husband, describes the effect of the social pressure she experienced from other members of the leading up to her disfellowshipping:

‘I felt very lonely. I was not a good wife, I was not good this and that and pressure, pressure, pressure. I went into kind of coping mechanism, destruction, like walking my dog for ridiculous hours, I didn’t sleep much, stopped eating as well, I was around 60 kilos, I dropped down to 47. I was drinking a lot, just to numb the pain. I had panic attacks, to the point that I was paralysed. […] because everything [everyone] was pointing out that I wasn’t eating, […] I started binging, so from anorexia, I went to bulimia. Then when it went to the stage that it was really showing, someone was making a comment like ‘pull yourself together, what are you doing? You are not good example for anyone, you are doing wrong, if you pray to Jehovah everything will be fixed, just put your marriage first […].’ So, I kind of gave up, basically. I took the bottle of wine; I took the knife, I took the pills and um, went for a bath.’


Agnieszka describes how the social pressure of being an exemplary wife to her husband, who held a highly regarded position in the Congregation, became too much for her to bear and how she developed destructive, harmful and ultimately life-threatening coping mechanisms. Suicide ultimately appeared to be the only viable option to Agnieszka to end the social pressure and criticism she was exposed to.

Agnieszka, who entered therapy to recover from her experience, explains how she was unable to identify her own feelings:

‘You are always doing everything so that your husband looks good. […] So, your feelings, your needs, your kind of wishes are completely not important in it. And when I started therapy, they asked me questions, about what I feel – and I felt nothing, I couldn’t even realise if I felt something or not.’


The emotional control employed by high-control groups means that members are required to put other people’s needs, the group’s leader(s) or the supernatural being the group believes in, before their own (Hassan, 2015, p. 27-28). Being a high-control group member led Agnieszka to suppress and disengage from her own feelings and needs. This went so far that she was unable to detect and describe her own feelings.

An important aspect to understand about Jehovah’s Witnesses, in relation to mental health, is that Jehovah’s Witnesses teach their members that any member who disassociates from them or is disfellowshipped is ‘mentally ill’. Being labelled as mentally ill, on top of an indoctrinated fear of secular authorities, presents a barrier for shunned individuals to seek help from mental health professionals during their adjustment process.


While not all participants experienced the same level of ostracism from their families, each participant’s family and social ties were deeply affected by their excommunication. The effects of ostracism were not limited to the participants’ family of upbringing, but also affected their own parenting styles, as well as future generations, as decisions needed to be made about whether and how their own children could have a relationship with their grandparents and extended family.

Philip speaks about his experience living with his family while being excommunicated the first time:

‘I hated the world, and I hated reality because everything in my reality turned against me, isolated me […] I was even ostracised in the house. Uhm, while living there, my brother and sister still communicated with me fully, as did my mom and step-dad, conversationally, but still, there was their Jehovah stuff, and I didn’t want anything to do with that, so I took part in that separation, this is your world, and this is mine. I suppose I didn’t really see that as ostracised at that point, but again in hindsight that is what that was.’


Philip shares how he felt isolated and ostracised against a backdrop of ‘full communication’. Philip describes a divided family life, one where communication occurs normally and conversationally, and one that is religious in nature and from which excommunicated members are excluded. This arrangement is typical for what in Jehovah’s Witnesses terms is referred to as a ‘divided household’, one in which non-Jehovah’s Witnesses and Jehovah’s Witnesses live together. The Congregations typically instruct this arrangement.

Philip describes his own active role in this separation, caused by his desire to be left out of the religious aspect of his family’s life. Even though he states that this separation is partially self-inflicted, this does not prevent him from feeling isolated and ostracised in his family home. It is only on reflection that he labels his family’s behaviour as ostracism.

There is a sensation of him reliving his own childhood through his children, as he describes how, through raising his own children, he has gained a deeper insight into his own lack of security as a child:

‘The removal of security, the security that you get from leaning on someone that you know you can trust. I have seen it in my own kids when they needed that security and I provided it. I have been acutely aware that I didn’t get that.’


Philip was similarly isolated and ostracised in school, for a duration of two and a half years:

‘I wasn’t allowed to hang around them [non-Jehovah’s Witness children]. I was pushed out of the general population into them [Jehovah’s Witness children], but then they weren’t allowed to talk to me, so from first year for two and a half years until third year.’


This extract describes how he was trying to find a peer group where he was able to fit in and be accepted, without finding one. Not being allowed to spend time with non-Jehovah’s Witness children meant that he was only permitted to associate with other Jehovah’s Witness children, something that was no longer an option after he became disfellowshipped. Thereby rendering him completely isolated at school. As mentioned previously, the school environment is often the only source of outside contact Jehovah’s Witness children have. Thus, the experiences these children make at school in their interaction with non-Jehovah’s Witnesses may play a crucial part in their adjustment process to life outside the group, hypothesising that positive experiences from interacting with outsiders may lessen or weaken the instiled fear of outsiders imposed on them by the group.

Philip’s experience as a teenager later impacted his own parenting style:

‘Anything that I saw as a big influence in a negative way, that was in my childhood and the stuff from her [wife] childhood, anything that our parents collectively have done that harmed us or that caused us issues, that we as adults had to try and fix, I made sure that we didn’t impose those things on our own children. Breaking the chain, breaking the cycle.’


Philip’s extract evokes a sense of drive and responsibility, of learning from ones’ own parents’ mistakes and of not repeating similar patterns. Furthermore, there is a desire of providing his children with something that he lacked in his own childhood. There is pride in the way Philip speaks about his parenting (‘I made sure’). Philip speaks about fixing ‘issues’ from the past as an adult. This extract is filled with positivity and possibility of being an active agent in the process of changing and ‘breaking a cycle’ and turning a traumatic experience into something positive. This positivity is re-iterated in the way he speaks of himself and his wife collectively, as a strong, forged bond.

As Philip’s wife fell pregnant, he was presented with another challenge: What would it mean for his own children and their relationship with their grandparents that the family ostracised their dad? While his parents and extended family were not allowed to associate with him, they were able to build a relationship with his children as his children were unbaptised and thus regarded by the organisation as potential future members.

‘When we were pregnant with her [daughter], there was a decision to be made, do we tell them, do we let them have any association with them [grandparents], because they chose not to have any association with me, but they are their grandparents. I had a choice back then; I could have said to [wife] ‘they are not getting to see the kids’. But that would have created a mystery, you know, who are those people, we don’t know who they are? Like conjuring up an idea of what they wanted them to be like.’


Philip’s extract describes the difficult choice of whether to allow his parents to have a relationship with his own children. Trapped between his own feelings of being ostracised by his parents and wanting his children to have a relationship and realistic view of their grandparents. There is uncertainty or even fear of what might happen if he allowed this ‘mystery’ to happen. Is there simply a fear of his children missing something if he prevents a relationship between his parents and children, or is there a fear that his children may develop an idealist or romantic idea of their grandparents and the Jehovah’s Witnesses as a group? While his children were able to form a relationship with his parents, Philip’s interaction with his own parents was purely of a logistic nature, to arrange dates and times for meetings. His parents would not interact with him when picking up the grandchildren for the visits.

Isabel shares a similar effect on her parenting style:

‘I have always been conscious that they have to be allowed everything that the other kids are doing. So you know, even to extremes like, if they had been invited to a party ‘he has to go to that party, because he can’t be missing out’, so if we were doing something else, I’d be like ‘no, no he has to go, I don’t want him to miss out’.’


Being aware of the restrictions she experienced in her own childhood growing up as a Jehovah’s Witness, she now finds the idea of her own kids being restricted and ‘missing out’ intolerable. There is a sense of attempting to seal the gap between what her own children are allowed to and what the other kids are doing.

Other participants spoke about the effect disfellowshipping had on their desire to become parents themselves:

‘My girlfriend has this huge extended family. It’s like family life is important. Whereas I never … been brought up to believe that family life is important, being a Jehovah’s Witness family is important, but being a family isn’t so important. And that’s one of my big regrets I suppose… I suppose if I had believed more in families, I may be more interested in having one myself.’


‘I’m not really a children-orientated person, but probably because I don’t trust anyone […]. I think that would be too much for me to bear, just in case if anything happens, if I make a wrong decision like it has been made in my case, that kid will suffer. So, it’s better not to have it, and make mistakes.’


These extracts describe how their own experience of childhood and family life has impacted their perception of families and in turn their desire to build a family of their own. In Michael’s description, there is a dichotomy between being a Jehovah’s Witness family and being a family. Being a Jehovah’s Witness family was something he perceived as important and something that was to be aspired to. Whereas being a family, as in family life being an end in itself, was not something he was brought up to value. This devaluation of ordinary family life influenced his struggle to find value and meaning in having a family of his own.

Agnieszka describes the impact on her desire to be a parent as a fear of making mistakes. As with other participants, there is a sense of reliving and healing their own childhood in their children. However, whereas other participants found a means of repair and restoration through raising their own children, Agnieszka is confronted with a blocking fear of repeating her mother’s mistakes and what this would ultimately mean for a child.

Not everyone strictly adhered to the Watch Tower and Bible Tract Society’s rules regarding friendships with non-Jehovah’s Witnesses.

‘I lied a lot about my friends to my mum, because I wanted to be involved in a social life and because my mum worked long hours, I just sneaked into the house before she actually came home, so she didn’t even know about what I was doing. And probably that kept me a bit sane because I could still manage as a social person.’


Agnieszka here describes what she believes to be her source of sanity, growing up as a Jehovah’s Witness child. She describes herself as a social person, who longed for contact with other people. Her sanity is only possible through a veil of secretiveness, going behind her mother’s back and ‘sneaking’ in and out of the house during her mother’s absence. Having had contact with non-Jehovah’s Witnesses also provided some support out with the Congregation and fostered the building of trusting relationships with what is in Jehovah’s Witness terms labelled ‘worldly people’ or ‘worldlings’.
This was different for Christina, who did not have any friends outside the Jehovah’s Witnesses:

‘I completely shut down [after being disfellowshipped], because the only thing I had were the Witnesses, so that was gone. My brother to whom I was very, very close to, couldn’t associate with me anymore, my mum was scared to walk around town with me. She felt so guilty about doing that, because the Elders if they saw you mixing with a disfellowshipped person unnecessarily, it shows that you condone what they have done.’


This extract highlights the isolation and separateness Jehovah’s Witnesses experience from the mainstream population. After Christina had been disfellowshipped, she was left without a support network. While she was still living with her mother who had continued normal conversation within the house, her brother broke all communication with her. Outside the house, she experienced, even more, isolation, as her mother feared the repercussion of openly associating with her daughter in public.

Urszula speaks about the situational circumstances that forced her to move out of her family home at age sixteen:

‘The situation became very difficult, it wasn’t for me, mentally, good to stay at home and live with my parents. I had to stay in the kitchen and eat dinner on my own, or when I was told that I can’t access my room because there was a meeting of JW’s [Jehovah’s Witnesses] and so I had to stay again in the kitchen. It was like psychologically it was unbearable, and my parents communicated me that, it’s their house and that they’d behave as JW’s [Jehovah’s Witnesses] and that, it was my decision to leave JW’s [Jehovah’s Witnesses] so therefore, I had to carry on with the consequences of it. So, I’m not sure if I’d say it was my decision, I was forced to it. Yeah, I was forced to move out.’


This extract highlights how Urszula’s everyday living was impacted by her being disfellowshipped. Mundane tasks, such as eating dinner or accessing her own room, were no longer ordinary and in fact became tasks that she experienced as mentally challenging and exhausting. Urszula was deprived of the access to her own room, at times, a place where otherwise she could have sought refuge. This sensation of being without possessions is further reinforced when the house she has grown up in as a child, is no longer regarded as her family home (‘their house’). Again, there is a sense of houses being places where one cannot be and behave like themselves (‘they’d behave as JW’s’). Urszula was being robbed of the place where she can be most like herself, in her family home and in her own room. The restrictions and ramifications following her disfellowshipping ultimately pressure her to leave.

Michael had a different experience with his close family with whom he was living at the time he was disfellowshipped:

‘I do remember that I used to go home every weekend for the next couple of years. Even then, my mum was perfectly pleased and happy to see me every weekend. So, there was no, back in the early 80s, there was no close up shunning of family members basically. They would just say don’t have spiritual association with them.’


This extract shows that individual differences exist in the application of shunning rules, across time, congregations and individual families. However, even though his family continued to associate with him normally, his family relations and living situation were affected by other members of the Congregations, as he explained how he experienced pressure to leave his parental home:

‘The thing that made me move away from home, in the first instance was because I was being shunned. So, nobody could be near the house. So, my parents got shunned as well. So, it made sense for me to move, get a job away from home. So, at least the Congregation would stop ignoring my parents. They wouldn’t ignore them at the meetings or out, but they wouldn’t come by the house anymore in case they came across me.’


This extract highlights how the effects of shunning do not halt at the disfellowshipped individual, but similarly affect their broader environment. He experienced sorrow at the way his parents were affected by his shunning and found it intolerable that active members of the Congregations avoided his parents’ due to the possibility of running into him. He rationalises his move away from home as a means of enabling his parent’s lives to resume normally.

Agnieszka shares the impact shunning had on her social network:

‘It was bitter-sweet because I was glad that no one is nudging me, no one is constantly telling me how bad I am and that I should repent, putting me down as a person, but on another side, I lost everything. I had no community, no social life, no friends, obviously, the worst thing, no husband, from renting a flat that was kind of my space, I started renting a room, everything was different. You feel that literally, you have to run. You feel like a fugitive.’


Agnieszka experienced contradictory emotions. While she was glad to have escaped the constant criticism of the Congregation, she had also ‘lost everything’. Agnieszka shares an urgency of leaving behind her home and finding another place to live. This urgency is coupled with the feeling of being a fugitive, of being on the run and escaping a situation that was unbearable.

Urszula describes a complex relationship with her sister, who faded from the Jehovah’s Witnesses after she had been disfellowshipped:

‘Me and my sister had lots of ups and downs when it comes to our relationship; we are both very troubled by what happened to us. We feel a lot of pressure on our relationship because we know that we have only each other. We felt the pressure to be close, to be very close because we have got only ourselves when it comes to family members. So, probably because of this pressure we weren’t able to sort certain things, we were kind of brushing things under the carpet, things were building up.’


This extract shows how family reunions and family recovery from high-control groups can be very challenging. The pressure of being a family in the backdrop of being shunned by the extended family meant for Urszula and her sister that they were unwilling or unable to be open about their experiences with each other. The segment describes an urgency to leave difficult moments and emotionally loaded memories behind in order to experience the positive emotions of being a family again. There are hesitancy and fear in lifting ‘the carpet’ and revealing ‘certain things’, due to an uncertainty of what this would mean to their relationship. Would lifting the ‘carpet’ allow for closure to take place, or would it drive the only family member they were able to associate with away?

For some children who are raised in a divided household, having a parent that isn’t a Jehovah’s Witness may offer respite from shunning. Philip here shares his feelings towards his biological dad, who had died by the time he was disfellowshipped:

‘I was too young. So, I couldn’t leave. I wanted to leave, but my only choice was to run away from home. That was it. This is one of these things, I hated my dad, my original dad, because him dying, took one of my escape routes, which is frustrating. His parents died, and my mum’s parents died, they all died, while I was between 9 and 15-16. During that time period, where I could have done with them, they were old people suffering through cancer and all the various illnesses, that eventually killed them, so they weren’t capable of looking after me. So, none of my escape routes were there.’


Seeing no ‘escape routes’, Philip perceives running away from home as his only escape from the constant shunning he was subjected to while living at home and being forced by his parents to attend meetings.

This theme explored how shunning affected each participant on an individual, social and familial level. Participants struggled with the isolation and loneliness shunning brought about and adversely impacted their mental health, with some falling into depression and attempting suicide. The effects participants experienced went beyond their individual circumstances and impacted upon the lives of future generations, such as their children and their relationship with the extended family who shunned their parent. One participant also recollected her experience of rebuilding and recovering her relationship with her sister and the challenges they faced.

As we now revealed the immediate impact of disfellowshipping and shunning, we turn to discussing how participants managed to adjust and build new lives outside the Jehovah’s Witnesses community.

Adjusting to Life Outside

‘Fitting In’

A central theme in participants experiences of adjusting to life outside of the high-control group was a perception of being different from everyone else, of not fitting in and not knowing how to navigate in the world.

‘I moved to the city – I was taking home 350 pounds a month and paying 200 pounds a month in rent. I was skint, had no friends, knew nobody… I remember just sitting in my company car on the edge of the road thinking, what’s the point? Why am I staying alive, you know? This is dreadful I don’t know anybody, and I don’t understand how the world works.’


In this extract, Michael describes his early experiences after moving away from his family home and restarting his new life in the city. Faced with financial problems and isolation, he struggled to find meaning in a world that he perceived as strange. Michael reflects on his reasons to stay alive.

Christina describes her struggles of making friends and jelling with other people, whom she perceived as very different to herself:

‘You are so different to anybody on the rest of the planet, you know, you haven’t much in common with other people. You don’t find it easy to make friends because you got nothing to talk about. You haven’t grown up with the usual things, having Birthdays, Christmas, things like that. You know. Your values are all different; your beliefs are all different. So, you don’t jell with people very much.’


The word ‘planet’ describes a sense of being overwhelmed, of being one person in a world full of strangers. Christina describes what she believes to be things that help people bond: similar things to talk about, ‘growing up with the usual things’, having similar values. It is these commonalities amongst ‘the rest of planet’ that she perceives to be the successful ingredient in making friends. It is interesting that she does not use ‘I’ throughout this extract and refers to a more general population. It appears to be an attempt at describing what she perceives other former Jehovah’s Witnesses must feel. There is a sense of solidarity and connectedness in the way she refers to the experience as ‘you’, as perhaps she feels less alone referring to the broader community of former Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Urzsula describes how her experience of being a Jehovah’s Witness child, that did not fit in with other Jehovah’s Witnesses, affected her relationship to the world outside:

‘I was scared, I was, for years, I struggled feeling part of anything, part of any community, I didn’t know how to. I never felt part of JW’s; I never had any JW friends. I always felt like an odd one out. It still affects me until now. I find it quite hard to; I don’t know, feel part of society, see good things in the world. I don’t believe that world is a good place.’


This extract reveals another source of disconnection with the world outside, a lack of knowledge of how to be in this ‘outside’ world. Urszula describes this lack of knowledge as a way of comparison with her life as a child growing up with other Jehovah’s Witness children, where she did not feel she fitted in either. She does not know where she belongs, she feels like she did not belong to the Jehovah’s Witness community, but she also does not feel like she belongs to the ‘outside’ society. There is a sensation of being trapped, in between. Urszula is looking for a place where she fits in, as she describes the challenges she faces trying. The last part is very poignant, as she describes the world to be a bad place. As we have seen earlier, this is what Jehovah’s Witness children are raised to believe. Jehovah’s Witnesses are raised in fear of the outside world, a world that they consider being inhabited by wicked people, living under Satanic rule. This appears to be a fear that Urszula has been unable to shake.

Isabel also describes her experience of not fitting in and feeling separate from other people:

‘I do feel like as if you are there, but you are not quite fitting in with it. As if like, you are different to the other mums at school. I would always think that I am that little bit different. You are still separate in your mind, you might participate in all the things, doing cakes and do everything that you need to do to be seen as socially acceptable, but then in your mind, you are still separate to it all.’


Isabel describes how she feels different, but how the difference is invisible – while on the outside she is there, present in the moment, she does not feel like everyone else. She further elaborates on this invisibility, when she refers to this separateness as existing only in her mind. She explains how she does things, like everyone else, mundane things that mother’s do for their kids at school like baking cakes, but despite the behavioural effort she still is not at the same level as everyone else. In this extract, she expresses a need in behaving like others, as being seen to be conforming to mainstream societal rules. This need seems to stem from an external source (‘you need to do’). By putting in extra effort in mundane tasks, she may manage to reach a level where she is accepted by the society and appears to fit in on the outside while remaining just somewhat separated from it all on an emotional level.

Two participants, Philip and Michael, recall rebuilding their lives in the outside world, as naïve young men:

‘It was a very interesting time. I was meeting a lot of eclectic people, but I was really naïve. I got robbed constantly. I had been brought up in a group, although there were a lot of lies in the church, there was the promotion of truth, and they want you to tell the truth all the time. In my family, we were all pretty honest with each other, and then in the collective of other families, in our clique, as we called it, it was honesty. So, to go out in the big bad world, I was so naive and to then step into the drugs world, from that, you can imagine how naive I was.’


‘They just do not encourage critical thinking at all! And… I´m… I still [takes a long audible breath] I’m so bad for just accepting things at face value… Even now, if somebody tells me that something is the case, I just believe them. I would never stop [and]think about it critically. So, you end up being a bit more gullible than the average person.’ [Michael]

Philip’s life as Jehovah’s Witness stands in sharp contrast to the outside world, which he describes as a ‘big bad world’, filled with dishonesty. There is a sense of leaving behind a world that promoted honesty and integrity. His lack of exposure to any adverse circumstances meant that he was unprepared to enter a world where not everyone’s interests were in his favour. A steep learning curve lay ahead for the innocent young man he was when he left his home. Entering the drugs’ world in an attempt to deal with the trauma he experienced, being shunned by his family and leaving behind his family home, opened him up to new adverse experiences (‘I got robbed constantly’).

Michael explains how the discouragement of critical thinking in the Jehovah’s Witnesses still affects his judgment of other people to this day. There is a sense of danger in Michael’s statement about being more gullible than other people, of potential exploitation from others. As in previous extracts, there is a theme of not knowing how to be or behave differently. Even though Michael is aware of his own naivety or gullibility, he seems unable to change it (‘I would never stop to think about it critically’).

Christina shares a similar experience:

‘You don’t believe critical thinking skills as you are growing up as a teenager and as child. You don’t develop that part of the brain because you are just told what to believe.’


The encouragement Jehovah’s Witness’ children and teenagers experience to follow along with orders and to conform to group norms, meant that some participants were unable to reflect critically and too trustworthy when they left this high-control group, ultimately rendering them more vulnerable to exploitation than others.


Jehovah’s Witness’ children are raised in fear of the outside world, to promote group cohesion and reduce the risk of members leaving the group. Members are made to believe that anyone who is not a Jehovah’s Witness is a wicked person that lives under Satanic rule. Jehovah’s Witnesses are also made aware of looking out for possible signs of Armageddon, a battle that according to the Watch Tower and Bible Tract Society will end governments ruled by humankind and give rise to a Godly rule. In this fight, anyone opposing Jehovah (‘unbelievers’) will be killed, and even Jehovah’s Witnesses themselves are not guaranteed survival. These possible warning signs include earthquakes, adverse weather conditions, fire, diseases and wars. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that if they survive Armageddon, they will continue to live in a transformed Paradise on Earth. Members who died before Armageddon will be resurrected. Therefore, Jehovah’s Witness’ children are exposed to a specific set of teachings about the nature of life and death.

Isabel recounts how she experienced being prepared for Armageddon as a child:

‘You live it every day, thinking every time there is a thunderstorm like is this the start of Armageddon? Because they keep it, you keep it fresh every meeting, so it could be like, Armageddon is coming, deep in the night, it’s gonna be sudden, it’s gonna be really quick.’


‘I would have a genuine concern that people were going to die. And I was just like, vivid moments of like, being in a public place and then going into a panic, looking around and thinking if Armageddon would come tomorrow all these people are going to die, you know, and then I would see the images of what I had seen in the magazines where people were lying around, killed.’


Isabel recounts how she was swept by a feeling of urgency as she was prepared for Armageddon (‘it’s gonna be really quick’). There is a sense of remorse of knowing that people around her would be dead, as she recounts seeing flashes of vivid imagery that were used to educate members in the organisation’s magazines.

Participants recount how these instiled fears followed them as they were rebuilding their new lives:

‘The next few years I still had the old Armageddon panic. Tom Robinson had a song in the mid-eighties called “War Baby”, and there’s a line in it where he says, “my friends talk and joke and laugh about Armageddon, but like a nightmare, it’s still waiting there at the end of each and every day”. And that was pretty much it, you know. […] It [the fear] took about 5 years to start to stop and about 10 years to disappear completely.’


Michael describes how he empathises with a song, which talked about Armageddon. There is a notion of a constant, overhanging gloom of something terrible waiting to happen. The fear of Armageddon appears to have crystallised in Michael’s mind particularly strong after being disfellowshipped as his chances of surviving Armageddon dropped to zero. Michael is plagued by his fear of waiting for mortality:

‘It tore me apart. Just [pause], just now, you know that God’s going to kill you. It’s not, as a Witness child, you think there is a strong chance that God is gonna kill you because you know that you are not perfect enough. But once you are disfellowshipped you know that God’s gonna kill you, and that’s it, your life is over, and you cry yourself to sleep.’


The period in which Michael was disfellowshipped fed into his fears of Armageddon and his perceived certainty of finding death:

‘That was when AIDS [auto-immune deficiency syndrome] was just being discovered. So, I was convinced that I was gonna catch AIDS because God would kill me.’


However, not all fears were supernatural or disease related. Here, Michael describes how the portrayal of society, with which he had been raised, affected his perception of and interaction with non-Jehovah’s Witnesses (‘worldlings’):

‘It probably took about six months to a year, until I even approached worldlings, because they were these big bad people who sinned. And you didn’t want to tie yourself by association with them. Even though you were now a worldling yourself, you were still better, because at least you once were a Witness [laughs]. The arrogance it instils is frightening, yah, and you slowly begin to realise that Witnesses and worldlings are both just humans, and for the most part, they are actually nicer people than Witnesses.’


For Philip, fear was a different experience. He was fearful of the uncertainty that awaited him in a world that he was not used to:

‘I suppose even though I have never been a fearful person, there was a bit of fear in there if I’m honest. Fear of the unknown. Because all I knew was that, so everything that was outwith that, was unknown and the fear of the unknown is the biggest fear that you can have. Once you gain the knowledge, you lose the fear.’


Again, we observe the theme of a lack of knowledge, and the effects this lack of knowledge had on participants’ experiences in the outside world. Philip’s differentiation of what he learnt as a Jehovah’s Witnesses and which experiences he was exposed to. A barrier beyond which he could not step and that controlled his exposure and experiences. Philip’s extract is filled with positivity, though, as he explains the possibility of reducing and eliminating this fear, through the gathering of new knowledge. There is also an element of autonomy and empowerment in actively being able to reduce or eliminate this fear.

It would appear that members who identified and believed in the religious nature of the group, were more affected by the superstitious fears than members who stated that the religious aspect never rang true for them. It may be that the non-identification with the religious aspect prevented these fears from manifesting themselves and thus, once these members had left they did not re-live them.


Participants used a variety of helpful and unhelpful coping mechanisms to deal with the emotional impact of their trauma. While it was beyond the scope of this analysis, it is worth mentioning that several participants had not only been exposed to the trauma of being shunned by their families but had been the victims of other traumatic events, such as physical or sexual violence committed within the Congregation and kept secret by the Elders. Thus, several participants had to learn how to come to terms with being shunned, left without a support network, without education or job prospects, sometimes homeless and the effects of physical and/or sexual abuse. A common theme amongst participants, particularly present in the immediacy after being disfellowshipped, was the use of coping mechanisms to escape painful emotions, such as fears, confusion, low self-esteem, post-traumatic stress and suppression of memories of what had happened. Some of the coping mechanisms employed by participants were destructive and unhelpful in nature (e.g. avoidance, drug use), others were experienced as destructive due to the rigidity of the way they were used to (e.g. workaholism). Participants also used healthy coping strategies, particularly as a means of making sense of their trauma and promoting healing: counselling, peer support and forgiveness.

Here, three participants share how they developed addictions to block out painful memories and to feel good in the moment:

‘I never had any interest in taking drugs before. Even before, when it was around me, amongst my friends, I had no interest in taking drugs at all, but after shunning the situation changed. I didn’t see a point in saying ‘no’ to drugs, I was searching for anything that could make me feel better. I think altogether; I was using drugs for over three years. Before I left Jehovah’s Witnesses, I used to consider myself an optimistic person. After I was shunned by my family, life stopped having any meaning to me. I behaved recklessly and even overdosed a few times. After I had an episode of some kind of mental breakdown, I decided myself to stop using drugs, turn my life upside down and come to the UK.’


Urszula shares how her attitude towards drugs changed after she had been disfellowshipped and shunned by her family. She explains how she used drugs to ‘feel better’. There is a notion of trying to hold on to the person she was before (‘I used to consider myself an optimistic person’), and the use of drugs appears to be a way for her to reclaim her previous ‘optimistic’ self. Her perceived lack of meaning in life is reinforced as she describes how the shunning affected her behaviour (‘I behaved recklessly’) – with nothing to lose, she took unprecedented risks with her own life. As Urszula describes how she turned her life upside down and made the decision to come to the UK, there is a sense of fresh start, of leaving behind her old self and discover who she can be. There are elements of optimism and empowerment as Urszula describes how she decided to stop drugs, which is underlined by the word ‘myself’. Moving abroad appears to be a way for Urszula to leave some of the pain behind and distance herself from her experience at home and her former self.

Philip shares a similar experience:

‘When I was 13, and it happened [disfellowshipped], I don’t know how I coped. I was very aggressive towards my step-dad and really tried to create this barrier, which would stop him coming close to me. I created a fantasy world in my head, which allowed me room to have communication and conversations, Space within the isolation, to deal with it [pause]. That helped me coping in the moment because I was escaping the reality of it. I recognise later, that when I was taking acid and ecstasy and MDMA [Methylenedioxymethamephetamine] and methamphetamines, I was taking them to do the same thing, to stake out reality because I didn’t like it.’


Philip describes how his coping mechanisms changed over the years as he has been disfellowshipped twice. As a young teenager, he created a ‘barrier’ between himself and his stepfather, who forced him to attend Kingdom Hall meetings. It appears that this barrier allowed him to find some space that he could claim for himself. As other participants described earlier, Philip’s everyday life at home had changed, and he was no longer able to behave as carefree at home as he could before he was disfellowshipped. As he was living under pressure, his ‘fantasy world’ gave him a space that was his alone, that no one else could access and where he felt safe. When he was disfellowshipped the second time, he started to use drugs, in an attempt to reclaim that earlier experience of his ‘fantasy world’. Drugs offered him an escape from the ‘reality’ he was living in. Drugs allowed him to recreate the fantasy world he had created and escaped to earlier on.
Agnieszka developed several destructive coping mechanisms while she was still a Jehovah’s Witness fighting against the social pressure she was exposed to in the Congregation:

‘Destruction, like walking my dog for ridiculous hours, I didn’t sleep much, stopped eating as well, I was around 60 kilo. I dropped down to 47. I was drinking a lot, just to numb the pain. I had panic attacks, to the point that I was paralysed. I collapsed, I started because everything was pointing out that I wasn’t eating, but I started binging, so from anorexia, I went to bulimia.’


Similar to other participants, her coping mechanisms were a way of blocking the feelings she experienced in relation to how she felt treated by the Congregation. This extract shows the effect external comments had on her coping mechanisms, as she went from one extreme to the other (anorexia to bulimia). Agnieszka sustained these strategies after she was disfellowshipped and shunned. It was only after she met her current husband that she sought help from a therapist.

Two participants dealt with the impact of shunning by going back to the Congregation and being re-instated:

‘The fact that I went back in when I was 16 was only because they love bombed me, only because of that. I felt so happy to be welcomed back.’


‘Initially, I thought, I’ll go back into it, so the first time, I thought, this was just this period in between, and then I’d go back into it, that I just kept as busy as possible, to just block everything out.’


For Isabel, the hope of being reinstated meant that she was able to block out her feelings of abandonment, as she perceived her current state as a disfellowshipped member as only lasting temporarily. The temporality of it also meant that she was not exposed to the uncertainty that building a life outside of the Jehovah’s Witnesses would have brought about. Philip’s experience is similar. After his disfellowshipping had been overturned due to doctrinal changes, Philip experienced love and attention from the Congregation. As he had been shunned for two and a half years, he was overwhelmed by the positive attention he received and was set on staying a Jehovah’s Witness in an attempt to avoid reliving the feelings associated with shunning.

Two participants coped with the effects of shunning by throwing themselves into work and study:

‘You’re so used to, on a Tuesday, Thursday, Sunday and Saturday morning, being in field service or meeting. So, you’ve got all this spare time; you don’t know what to do with. So bizarrely, IBM PC [International Business Machines Corporation personal computers] had just come out, so computers were very new. So, I threw myself headlong in learning, all there was to learn. I’ve just been reading books and learning it. So, in that respect, it was a good thing. It sort of launched my career in a sense. I just – the big regret is “what would my life have been if I had been gone to university?” It’s not a bad life now, but how much better might it have been?’


‘Initially, it probably made me more determined, to be successful, to try to prove that I wasn’t this unworthy, worthless person. […] I was a workaholic. I do believe that half of it, was trying to make something of your life. In the Witnesses, you are told that you are unworthy as if somehow you are not good enough. They are up here, and you are there, and you are just this outcast. By being successful, you could be like ‘I’m feeling good about myself’, but underneath it all, you don’t feel good about yourself.’


Michael describes how as a newly excommunicated Jehovah’s Witness, he was left with much idle time as he was no longer attending several Kingdom Hall meetings a week. As in earlier extracts, the period in which he was disfellowshipped impacted on his future prospects, as computers were just being developed. There is both a sense of optimism and regret as he reflects on this time. While he appreciates the positive influence his determination to develop computer skills has had on his life, he also shares the regret that he did not continue with further education, something that he was discouraged from as a child due to doctrinal stance against higher-education.

In relation to employment, it is interesting to note, from the research findings, that several participants are now self-employed. While the current study can only hypothesise about the reasons for the high self-employment rate, it is worth pointing out that participants have reported that many active Jehovah’s Witnesses are self-employed, as this offers them more flexibility to determine their own hours and to fit them around their preaching work. Self-employment after disfellowshipping, could thus simply be a continuation of a pre-existing pattern. However, another possibility may be that participants struggle to accept the power relationship with employers and choose self-employment as an alternative to a contract with an employer.

Christina developed a defensive coping mechanism through which she actively seeks to recreate situations that resemble the original shunning situation. Albeit, in this situation, she is the one actively creating the situation and, as such, retains a level of control. There is a notion of wanting to prove to herself that through her experience of being an excommunicated Jehovah’s Witness, she has learnt to come to terms with being shunned and to be able to be on her own. On some level, a certain level of comfort appears to be associated with these recreations as she states that she can better cope this way. There are elements of vulnerability and isolation in her statement when she describes how she has learnt to rely on herself for survival. There is a fear of what might happen if she does not actively create these situations and loses control over the relationship. As such, this coping mechanism ultimately serves as a means of self-preservation.

‘This might sound a bit bizarre but in certain situation … I think I create … I create situations to turn people against me, so they stop talking to me, and I cope better that way. I don’t seek to repair things, I don’t seek to repair relationships with people, if they go wrong, I just let them go wrong, if they want to hate me, if they stop talking to me, then that’s just it, because I know I can cope with it, and that’s what disfellowshipping has taught me. It taught me to survive on my own, and that’s not healthy, it’s not healthy at all. And if things go wrong, if I’ve done something wrong, I’m back out, I don’t often seek to put it right, because I’m doomed kind of thing [laughs nervously].’


Four participants have sought professional therapy to deal with the aftermath of the disfellowshipping:

‘I don’t remember what happened, it wasn’t anything massive like two years ago, I was like I can’t do this anymore. I started having trouble sleeping and having nightmares and flashbacks. Eventually, I did go to some counselling, and I do understand it more, trying to understand the reason why I do certain things, and what I am trying to achieve from them.’


For Isabel, counselling was an important step in gaining an understanding and awareness of her behaviours and the motivating factors behind them. The fact that she does not recall what started the decline in her psychological well-being suggests that at the time she was not aware of factors and triggers that impacted her mental health. As Isabel explains, it is important for her to understand herself and to make sense of her experience (‘trying to understand the reason’). This is further reinforced as she states:

‘The biggest part of it, for me, was just to make sense of it all. I always think everything needs to have a meaning and make sense.’


Making sense of her experience and finding the meaning in it appears to give Isabel some clarity on how and why things happened. It may be that gaining this understanding and the ability to make sense of her experience allows her to gain some control over her life, some predictability over her future.

Urszula shares a similar experience, as she, too, finds solace in understanding the reasons behind her family’s treatment. There is a notion of comfort in knowing that there are reasons and psychological motivators behind her family’s behaviour towards her. Perhaps, as she learnt about coercive control and how it is affecting her family, she may have come to see her parents as victims herself.

‘I attended counselling, it was, one was private counselling, and one was from the NHS [National Health Service], actually three counselling, how do you say [pause], not sessions, [pause] therapies. So that was, oh and I read Steven Hassan’s book about cults as well, ‘Combatting Mind Control,’ so that was, these things kind of helped me to uh, understand things and understand why my family is shunning me and all of this.’


Michael, who saw three different therapists and had an unsatisfactory experience with one of them, explains how talking to a professional counsellor helped him to gain a deeper understanding of his emotions:

‘That was productive counselling, and it wasn’t Youngian it wasn’t lying down, just sitting opposite each other and talking so […] Yeah… just to re-align the viewpoints on things, it’s like, you know, why do you feel that way?’


A theme of understanding oneself, of gaining clarity over one’s own emotions and cognitions, is again central in Michael’s experience of therapy, which is similar to Agnieszka, who had to learn how to listen to her inner state of mind and to identify her own emotions:

‘When I started, therapy, they asked me questions, about what I feel, and I felt nothing, I couldn’t even realise if I felt something or not. Whatever I have been told to believe, I still applied to every single situation in my life. So, I have to undo what I have been told for 25 years; I have to undo everything, literally reset my brain.’


In Agnieszka’s description of therapy, there is a third element, a behavioural aspect. Of ‘undoing’ what she had been told to believe, or told to do. The word ‘undo’ evokes a notion of freeing or ‘resetting’ her ‘brain’, starting with a clean slate. Interestingly, this segment demonstrates, how living in abusive relationships can leave people vulnerable to entering similar relationships again, as her behaviour and her belief system had not automatically shifted. In fact, as her experience suggests, it takes commitment and effort to ‘undo’, relearn and adapt to a new ‘culture’s’ or mainstream society’s rules.

Albeit participants received help from professional counsellors, there was a common consensus around participants’ experiences of counselling services as not being adept or having insufficient knowledge of coercive control. Members found that they had to educate the counsellor on coercive control and often had to ‘translate’ the ‘loaded language’ for the counsellor:

‘There has to be more professional support because some of the people who join [ex-JW peer support group on Facebook®] have got real issues, that you are not equipped to deal with. You need proper counselling, like counselling that understands mind control. There is a definite sort of need for that.’


‘It´s a very specialist field; I think in the UK there is only one that I know of who specialises in ex-Witnesses.’


Another way, how participants found closure in a therapeutic sense, was through creative expression. Three participants, Isabel, Christina and Philip, wrote about their experiences, shared their story via blog posts and one participant wrote a book about her experience to help others understand what some Jehovah’s Witness might experience.

Philip found closure in an artistic way:

‘I’ve an ex-JW tattoo. When Jehovah’s Witnesses are allowing someone back in who has been disfellowshipped, they have to repent. Big word. You have to repent your sins. Well, [laughs and shows tattoo across chest] ‘Forever unrepentant’. What I noticed was, that the instant I got this done, the reasons that I got it done weren’t there anymore. The act of doing it sealed it all.’


Christina explained how bringing her brother, who had raped her when she was a teenager, to justice was a turning point in dealing with her former life as a Jehovah’s Witness:

‘I decided […] that I needed to get this sorted out, what had happened to me when I was sixteen. I needed to take it to court, to report it to the police and really get it sorted out. So that was what I did. And it went to trial in 2010 and my abuser, my brother, got an 11 years prison sentence. That was the turning point for me, yeah.’


Another major form of support for former members are peer support networks that are available both locally and online, and offer friendship and support in the recovery from their trauma. Here, the participants share their experiences of meeting other former members:

‘It’s [making friends outside] very hard. It’s such a big thing, that has affected my life. I felt that it was quite a big barrier to making friends. Because they wouldn’t understand, they wouldn’t understand what I have been through […]. The people on the Facebook page have been brilliant; you don’t even have to explain, they just know.’


Christina describes how the lack of understanding in society has been an obstacle for her in forming friendships. Being part of an online peer support group allowed her to feel connected and to be understood by people who have had similarly traumatic experiences. Christina experiences a comfort in not having to explain herself and potentially mentally reliving her experience.

Urszula shares a similar experience:

‘I feel I am not alone basically; there are other people who went through stuff like this. It’s kind of; it helps me to gain distance to my own problems.’


Meeting other people who have lived through similar situations instils hope in Urszula. In earlier extracts, we saw how she and others felt that they did not quite fit into mainstream society, or even within their former Congregation as they were growing up. Knowing that others have had a similar experience evokes a notion of arrival, at a point, where she finally fits in. Being aware of the universality of this experience and her peers’ stories, allows Urszula to view her own story from a broader perspective and gain an emotional distance.

Michael and Philip explain how peer support played a major role in their recovery:

‘There was this ex-Witness meet up, and I was like, ‘Oh ok, I’ll come along’, and suddenly you’re in a room with forty ex-witnesses in a pub and it’s like, wow, this is weird because you instantly have so much in common. […] I didn’t seek out the company of ex-Witnesses, which is something that I regret, purely because it would have helped to regain sanity sooner.’


‘When we go and speak to people, as ex-JW and speaking to someone who is not an ex-JW, as you are learning, there is a whole vocabulary, I can speak in certain words, that you’d go ‘what?’ […] All these words that are unique to that cult, so that’s the whole part of your language. That when you are trying to communicate with other people, they go ‘what? What does that mean? What’s that an Elder, what’s this, what’s that?’ And then you have to constantly explain, so when you have other people, who have been through the same and you don’t need to explain, that’s like coming home and putting your slippers on. It’s comfort.’


The commonalities that former Jehovah’s Witnesses share appear to be the main binding ingredient in their friendships. Michael experiences this universality of experiences as refreshing, hopeful and therapeutic. People who experience traumatic events and subsequently socially isolate themselves experience an increased sense of uniqueness which is further heightened as they are retracting and isolating themselves from others. Thus, meeting peers serves as an opportunity to disprove this sense of uniqueness and to experience validation and acceptance from others (Yalom, 2005, p. 6). This is particularly important in the context of shunning as this experience can easily lead individuals to feel undeserving of love and acceptance. Philip experiences a comfort from being understood without the need for ‘translation’. As we have seen in earlier extracts of different participants, the word ‘home’ takes on a different meaning, as many participants had felt the need to leave their home in order to cope with the traumatic experiences following the disfellowshipping. Meeting other peers appears to become a new home, a place where they can be themselves, where they belong or fit in and can ‘put [their] slippers on’.

Isabel shares, how, as a Facebook® peer support group administrator, she actively supports and instils hope in newly excommunicated Jehovah’s Witnesses:

‘I will talk to people who come out, and I will be like you just got through all of this, and it might last for 3 years, 4 years, 5 years and it’s horrendous, but you will, there will be a point, the turning point where you look back on it and say I’m glad that happened.’


While peer networks are perceived as an invaluable source of support, people administering these groups can also experience a flip side. Here, Isabel and Philip, two administrators of peer support groups, share how being a peer supporter can be an overwhelming and consuming task:

‘There was a little group that was sort of forming, like an ex-JW group and I thought it’d be really good to get involved in, it was really interesting and really nice to meet other people who had gone through similar things. Then after a while, I realised that this was just going from one extreme to the other. They were sort of forming their own little following. It’s almost like you have to replace something with another thing. So, after a while, I was just like you know what, I just need to cut off from this whole thing, because I’m not an ex-JW. I am just me.’


‘I gave too much of the time, and because of that the rest of my life suffered or began to suffer. There was an imbalance and because, because it’s such a passionate subject for me, when I was a younger man, that passion would almost boil over and I was wrapped into it. I wasn’t willing to let that go, and so I spent all my time. I was spending 24 hours as an ex-JW, not 24 hours as [Philip].’


Isabel and Philip both share a very similar experience. Albeit they both resumed their work as volunteer peer supporters, they had to reconsider the amount of involvement they were able to offer in order to achieve a healthy balance. Both describe how their participation overshadowed and eventually claimed their perspective identities. They became consumed by an identity that was living in opposition to their former identity, from a Jehovah’s Witness to an ex-Jehovah’s Witness. By turning their suffering and their passion for helping others into a role, they lost control of their ‘whole’ self and were reduced to a ‘part’ of themselves. Their past had caught up with them, in a new way. The way in which Isabel describes former Jehovah’s Witnesses desire to replace their previous life with something new, elicits notions of a need for certainty, a longing for something new to hold on to. Former members are perhaps anxious and overwhelmed about the many possibilities and opportunities this fresh start brings with it.

Another coping mechanism that was central to participants experiences was forgiveness. Participants share their experiences of forgiveness:

‘There is this wonderful phrase, ‘holding on to anger is like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die.’ So I don’t hold on to my anger. I’ve let go, and this is where it ties in with this belief, that I chose the childhood so that I wanted to give myself the lessons that I need, to give myself the opportunity to learn from those lessons and become the person that I needed to become. Whether this is just me taking it for solace or not [pause], I really don’t care actually.’


Philip employs one of the ways of dealing with forgiveness, by creating a new narrative about the injustice he experienced. He rationalises his experience as being something he chose for himself. He believes that the trauma he experienced was necessary to become the person that he was meant to be. There is a sense of pre-determinacy, a decision made before he was born. Philip finds comfort in his interpretation of events when he describes that his viewpoint may, in fact, serve to provide ‘solace’. He continues by stating that it does not matter to him, whether his belief is true or not, all that matters to him is that this belief makes sense to him. There is a level of control in his statement, as he explains his belief that his trauma was something that he has chosen for himself. Following his interpretation, it revokes the power of the people who shunned him and puts him in the powerful position, as the people who shunned him simply followed what he had planned for himself all along. He thereby creates a deeper meaning of the trauma he experienced. He did not experience trauma for trauma’s sake, but for a greater purpose – the one of becoming his authentic self. As such, his interpretation turns his experience into something positive as it allowed him to become his true self. Part of Philip’s acceptance, as he states further on, is influenced by his view of the people who shunned him:

‘I have come to this stage where, and I have for some years, where I completely forgive him. I completely forgive my mom. I completely forgive those Elders and all the others who took part in any and all bits of the abuse that I went through as a child, but also the continued shunning and its effects as an adult. I accept it as being behaviour that they were coerced into doing, indoctrinated by a money making cult, so why wouldn’t I see them as victims?’


His empathy towards his detractors appears to allow him to let go of the hurt and anger he has experienced as a child, teenager and adult. This segment highlights, how Philip experienced both parties, himself and the people shunning him, as being victims. The traditional boundaries between perpetrator and victim become blurred in his interpretation of his shunners being victims of a ‘money making cult’. The position of the perpetrator or transgressor is displaced, in his interpretation, as it shifts to a more complex place, that of institutional control and power. Seeing his family as being victims themselves, who were forced to shun him in order to remain members themselves, rather than perpetrators, perhaps enables him to find forgiveness for them, as he understands their behaviour as being outside of their control. Amy Siskind (2001, p. 420) writes about parents in high-control groups: ‘parents are not parents in the same sense that mainstream parents are. The parents do not decide where they or their children will live, what they will eat, when they will go to sleep, or when and where they will go to school. In some cases […] parents have input into some of the decisions, but overall, they are much less likely to exercise power over a large part of their own lives, let alone those of their children’. Philip’s ability to understand his parent’s decisions and behaviours in this context, allows him to shift and transform his anger into forgiveness.

Understanding their parents’ and in some cases, grandparents’ history and reasons for joining the Jehovah’s Witnesses, eliminated some of the anger and blame that participants may otherwise have experienced:

‘You cannot blame people like three hundred years ago for not having laptops and computers. It’s the knowledge that they don’t have. So, I know because she [mother], lost her husband at the age of 24, she was glad that she had a community and they helped her a lot. She is my hero, and I was trying to explain to her that I have no blame for anyone.’


‘I don’t blame her because I think, the whole history of this […] She was brought up by her father because her mother left her when they were quite little […]’


As this theme illustrates, former members of Jehovah’s Witnesses may use a variety of coping strategies to deal with the emotional trauma they experienced in the aftermath of disfellowshipping and shunning. Some coping mechanisms had adverse effects on participants mental health and became additional obstacles, which participants had to overcome and recover from. Other coping mechanisms were not unhealthy per se but caused participants’ distress through over-reliance and rigidity. Again, other coping mechanisms, such as counselling and peer support allowed participants to understand themselves and their life stories better, as well as decrease their isolation and promote connectedness and hope by interacting with peers who had lived through and survived similar experiences. What all their stories and coping mechanisms show, is how difficult and challenging it was for them to come to terms with their experiences, and to adjust to their new life.


As we have seen earlier, a theme among participants is the need and desire to understand their life stories, in particular, to understand why their families treated them the way they did, and why they behaved a certain way after they had left the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Participants achieved this understanding through seeking professional help such as therapy and self-study of material that they were previously prohibited from reading.

Here, Philip shares how he fulfilled his desire to learn more about different religions:

‘I never stopped researching about religion, I have studied comparative religion, and while all my friends were watching movies, I would still watch, but I would get a book out, stuff on the Freemasons, the Bible, whatever, things that interested me, this whole eclectic journey of knowledge gathering.’


There is something interesting in the way Philip describes his passion for learning and studying. The word ‘gathering’ contributes to a desire to collect something, to bring things together. This is further reinforced by the adjective ‘eclectic’. He experiences a thirst for gaining an insight into as many diverse topics and viewpoints as possible. Perhaps, studying different religions and different views, allows him to make sense of his upbringing, to find a new narrative for himself or to choose for himself, what he wants to believe. This segment is filled with emotions of drive, passion, perhaps even urgency, as he describes how he would read books while he was watching movies with friends.

It is important to note that Jehovah’s Witnesses are prohibited from reading, listening, watching or otherwise engaging with any media that is not published by the Watch Tower and Bible Tract Society. Outside media is also referred to as ‘Apostate Literature’. Jehovah’s Witnesses are taught that reading ‘Apostate Literature’ causes ‘spiritual harm’ and ‘contaminate’ their faith like ‘rapidly spreading gangrene’ (Watchtower, 2004, p.28). Children attending school are taught that the information in school books is false and designed to weaken their faith in God. It is therefore unsurprising that this instilled fear of outside media creates a barrier for disfellowshipped members from researching their faith via outside resources.

‘When you got freedom of reading whatever you want because as a JW, you are not allowed to read any ‘Apostate Literature’. Even if you are at school, you are kind of in this belief, that this is Satan rubbish. So, when I had the freedom, freedom of opinion, my own opinion, and I had to make my own decisions about what I actually think, it was so liberating. I started to like wanting to know everything, about everything, I wanted to be everywhere.’


Agnieszka shares how being allowed to read whatever she was interested in, allowed her to experience a sense of relief and freedom. There is a notion of being stuck or being restricted in her prior life. Similarly, there is a sensation of exploring your true self and finding your identity, discovering who you truly are as she explains how she allowed herself to find out what she actually believes. She is taking control of her own mind. Leaving behind the old self that was restricted by the beliefs of the congregation, and meeting her new self. There is a sense of adventure in this discovery of herself, as she describes her desire to know ‘everything, about everything’ and an urge to be everywhere. She poignantly summarises her desire for experiential learning:

‘I don’t want to believe in cake; I want to try it. I want to taste it, instead of just imagining how it’ll taste.’


When Urszula was asked what she believes would have happened if she hadn’t been disfellowshipped, she explained how she would have left the Jehovah’s Witnesses eventually, to fulfil her desire to explore the world without restrictions:

‘I was just, too interested in the world around me. The limitations that were imposed by them, I didn’t feel alive because of them, I didn’t feel like I was able to explore life as I wanted.’


Again, we observe a desire to learn, to discover and to ‘explore’. Urszula appears curious in this statement, taking off on an adventure to find out what else there is in the world beyond the experiences she had made as a Jehovah’s Witness.
For disfellowshipped members and particularly for those whose faith in the organization had remained strong, conducting their own independent research was a powerful tool in their recovery, as it allowed them to gain a different perspective of the disciplinary sanctions they had received. In this extract Christina describes how conducting her own research and re-looking at things had been a major topic in the past four to five years of her life:

‘Up to that point, I still believed it all, even though I was not doing it properly, I still believed all of it. You know, I still believed that the Elders were right in what they said, but it was slowly dawning on me that they had actually been very wrong and very cruel to me. And I came to realise that this is what happens all around the world, you know. And it can’t be right; it can’t be right, you know. So since then, the last four, five years, I have been on a bit of a journey, emotionally. Sorting through my feelings, looking again at everything that I have ever believed. Making up my own mind after doing research.’


The theme of learning and exploration highlights how accessing literature and material, that wasn’t available to participants while they were part of the high-control group, was a way for former members to re-invent themselves and to re-evaluate their old beliefs. The journey of learning and exploration opened new possibilities and understandings.


For some participants, their relationship with religion and faith changed after being excommunicated. It is important to remember that the examination of religion and belief systems is not a light-hearted endeavour as many life altering aspects are linked to them: ethics or codes of behaviour, social structures, the meaning of life, death and mortality. Thus, the close examination of one’s belief system can be a challenging and distressing experience for individuals. In the current study, one participant joined a Protestant church after being invited to attend mass by her flatmate. Another participant ‘shopped’ around and looked at various religious and spiritual groups and decided that she no longer had the need to belong to such a group.

One member, Philip, strictly separates religion and spirituality describing himself as a ‘spiritual being’.

‘I don’t really like labels, but if somebody would push me and say, I would suggest that I am a spiritual atheist, because I don’t believe in any God, but I am a very spiritual being. […] as far as I can see it, religion is collective of people who think the same in regards to a, to a spiritual understanding of God, or who they want to worship. I don’t want to worship anybody, nor do I want anybody to worship me, I think we are all on an equal foot.’


In this extract, Philip differentiates between spirituality and religion on the basis of equality. His interpretation of religion is one in which people, acting as a group, worship someone or something supernatural. There is a relationship of power in his portrayal of religion as being a ‘collective’ of people with different roles and hierarchies. Following this interpretation, Philip experiences equality and individuality in his practice of spiritualism.

Christina explains how she felt a need to replace what was taken from her, to fill a hole that was ripped open after she was excommunicated. Here, she explains how she was eventually able to develop a personal relationship with God:

‘At some point, I thought that I had to replace my religion. I felt that I still needed to go and attend a church, or join a group of spiritual people and so a couple of years I searched around, but now, I have got over that. I don’t feel that I need to belong to a group, you know. I can have my own spiritual relationship with God. I still believe in God. You know, I have separated what the Witnesses do from what God does.’


Similar to Philip’s extract, Christina managed to separate collectivism from individualism. There is a notion in breaking an association, the association between what Jehovah’s Witnesses do and believe as a collective from what an individual relationship with God can look like.

Isabel, who followed an invitation of her former flatmat to attend a Protestant church, describes her experience:

‘I found the church was; there was no pressure there. I expected somebody would go alongside you and like almost like ‘I’m going to convert you’, but people were very much just like, sort of ‘if this is where you are in life, and that’s your journey’. Everybody was really friendly but not overpowering, and it was not, I suppose it’s not conditional, you either go, or you don’t, it was very non-pressure.’


Isabel describes the dichotomy between her envisioned and the actual outcome of attending church. Contrary to her initial hesitation, she experiences a feeling of acceptance and a person-centered approach (‘if this is where you are in life’). Isabel appears to be relieved and to have found a new freedom in the unconditionality of attending church, which she had not experienced before with the Jehovah’s Witnesses. However, God remains a crucial part of her life:
‘I do believe that there is something bigger that’s in control of things, but to a degree, we got free will. I have always believed that there is a God because to believe that there is not a God would just be too much.’ [Isabel]

There is a sense that, for Isabel, the world would be without meaning without the existence of God. She experiences comfort in knowing that things are ‘in control’. There is a notion of various levels of control, as she describes how ‘something bigger’ is overseeing things, but that a personal level of control (‘free will’) nevertheless exists within that overarching control. In the last phrase, the non-existence of God would throw Isabel into a sense of despair, reinforcing the feelings of comfort and relief she experiences in her belief in the existence of God.

After researching religion and attempting to discover her own beliefs, Agnieszka discovered that not only did she not want to attach herself to religion, she did not believe in it at all:

‘I was doing my research about religion and I kind of look in myself. I had a conversation with my husband about it, a lot, I was trying to explain to him, what kind of environment I was put into and I was trying to find out what actually is my belief, and I said to him, you know, I asked him, do you believe in God? Do you believe in all of that? He said that he wouldn’t attach himself to religion itself, but he believes that it’s something there and I just, it took me barely a month or two to admit to myself that I just don’t believe it, I am hundred percent atheist.’


Michael, similar to Agnieszka, considers himself an atheist:

‘But I’m not particularly in [getting] people out of the Witnesses. If they believe it works for them, then it works for them. I happen to think it’s a cult, but I happen to believe all religions are cults … so I remain atheist.’


In Michael’s description of being an atheist lays a sense of atheism being a cure or vaccine against falling into the traps of high-control groups. Even though he believes that organised religions all share similar aspects to high-control groups, he also appreciates that individuals may benefit from their religious affiliation (‘if they believe it works for them’).

In all of the above extracts, there is a common theme or consensus around spirituality or religion as being an individual and personal experience. Being excluded from a religion based high-control group, for the participants meant to study and research the nature of religion and various religious groups in order to clarify for themselves what their personally held beliefs are. Several participants no longer desired to be part of a religious group, which for some was partially motivated by a perception of religious groups as holding power and control over its members.


One of the aspects of the Jehovah’s Witnesses that is commonly known to outsiders besides the refusal of blood donations is the fact that Jehovah’s Witnesses do not celebrate events such as birthdays, Christmas, Easter or other mainstream western holidays and traditions. These traditions, according to the Jehovah’s Witnesses are ‘worldly’ or pagan rituals, that bring offence against Jehovah. The non-partaking in these celebrations means that Jehovah’s Witnesses are excluded from these traditions that constitute important events for social bonding in western culture. Particularly for children growing up and going to school, it can create a gap between the surrounding society and Jehovah’s Witnesses and contribute to feelings of ‘otherness’, social isolation and loneliness (Pietkiewicz, 2014, p. 10).
Here, participants share their experiences of growing up without these celebrations:

‘I think as a child the biggest difference is you don’t celebrate Christmas or birthdays, so um probably the things in the year that people gear towards and look forward to, and it’s like you have to take a stand against it at an early age. I think that, obviously, they instill in you what the reasons are, even though the reasons don’t make any sense for you when you look at it from a logical viewpoint. It’s all like; it’s like a bizarre type of pride that they put in you, it’s almost as if you look down on other people because they are doing it.’


Isabel shared how she not only experienced a childhood without these traditions but how she felt that she had to actively and openly disagree with them. There is a sense of sadness and a feeling of missing out, as she explains how other people would ‘look forward’ to these celebrations. Furthermore, Isabel shares that the reasons she was given on why these traditions were not to be celebrated, did not make sense to her. Perhaps Isabel experiences a confusion, as to why, as a child, she was not allowed to partake in something that other people appeared to be so excited about. Celebrations naturally create a hierarchy and differentiation between people who celebrate and people who do not celebrate. Isabel explains that by not celebrating she felt that she was projecting an attitude that she stood above such mundane things.

Agnieszka describes how celebrations are something that Jehovah’s Witness believe that humans are not worthy of. There is a notion of celebrations to be exclusively reserved in honour of Jehovah. Following this interpretation, the desire to celebrate these traditions almost becomes something selfish and grandiose as if someone believed himself to be God-like:

‘JW they make it about, if you have a birthday, someone is worshipping you, which means that Jehovah is angry with you.’


Some families, however, would choose arbitrary days to celebrate traditions that they were not officially allowed to participate in:

‘We got presents from our family, who wouldn’t listen, but the presents were given in brown paper. We got presents from within the family, from my mom and stepdad, they picked a day, which many JW’s parents do, they give it some arbitrary name – we called it ‘surprise day’. It was very similar, and psychologically, we told ourselves that we get it early, but still, Christmas day you were kind of looking out the window, watching all the neighbouring kids.’


This extract captures how families perhaps tried to alleviate some of the disappointment their children experienced on celebration days. By giving it a different name, families were able to pretend that they were not partaking in ‘worldly’ events. Even though Philip appears to have enjoyed these celebrations and found a way for himself to justify them, it appears that, when the actual holiday period came around, he still felt sad and left out. There is a longing in the way he describes how he was looking out the window, hoping to be able to join the neighbourhood’s children who were playing and celebrating outside.

As participants left the Jehovah’s Witness, they were exposed to these celebrations. Particularly, participants who married partners who were never Jehovah’s Witnesses were affected by the diverse cultural upbringing:

‘I don’t really like Christmas [laugh]. That’s for the girls. I’ve never really enjoyed Christmas, other than when my children were young, and I enjoyed it, wholeheartedly taking part, well, I have always felt like a stranger in a strange land.’


Here, Philip describes how he celebrated Christmas with his children. It is interesting how he explains that, on the one hand, he used to enjoy celebrating it with his daughters, but on the other hand, felt like a stranger doing so. Perhaps he experiences joy in knowing that he is giving his children the childhood he did not have himself, knowing that his daughters would not be sitting at the window, looking outside and wishing to be the other kids like he was when he was a child. Perhaps there is even a true sense of joy in being able to immerse himself in this forbidden celebration. Perhaps it is the conscious reflection on it that makes him feel misplaced, as he remembers all these childhood years without these celebrations.

Agnieszka illustrates how celebrations caused friction between her and her husband:

‘We had so many … discussions and arguments about celebrations, birthdays. I kind of felt that this was again getting into, someone is telling me what to do, and what to believe and how to behave, that I became very upset about that. Because I love him, I wanted him to understand that I just can’t share the excitement with you. I never had childhood memories like you have, or the fairy tales, or whatever it is. I was told that this is evil.’


Agnieszka appears to feel torn between wanting to make her husband happy and her own adverse feelings towards celebrations. She experiences the force of celebrations being imposed on her. Her husband choosing something for her that she does not want herself. She describes a sensation of despair and urgency, in trying to explain to her husband how she was not allowed to experience the same things as he had been. In addition to simply not being allowed to celebrate these holidays, the Congregation instilled fear about these celebrations ‘this is evil’. In order to compromise with her partner, the started their own Christmas traditions. These new traditions appear to enable her to put aside certain fears:

‘We started to have our own traditions like we’ve always got champagne breakfast on Christmas, and we walk with the dog in the morning after all the champagne, and then we see the family, so I am glad about it. It’s a good feeling that someone is compromising for you.’


Christina, who was still an active and practicing Jehovah’s Witness when her own children were growing up, describes how she celebrated birthdays and Christmas with her children despite doctrinally being forbidden to do so:

‘I never pushed anything on them. I always bought them Christmas presents, you know. I didn’t want them to have what I had when I was a child, and that was going to school and your classmates ‘oh what did your mum get you for Christmas this year?’ and they would have had to say ‘nothing’. Like I had to say. You know, I didn’t want that for them. So, I did buy them Christmas presents, definitely.’


There is sadness in the way Christina describes her own experience as a child, as she walked up to her class mates who were discussing their Christmas presents. Christina appears sad, disappointed and perhaps embarrassed by her answer ‘nothing’. This cultural difference seems to create a differentiation and social isolation between Christina and her school mates. Her emotional experience of not being gifted presents as a child means that, as she becomes a mother herself, she puts the emotional needs of her children above the doctrinal rules of the Congregation. The word ‘definitely’ at the end reinforces her desire to do everything possible so that her children fit in and live a life as similar to other kids as possible.

Isabel shares how not celebrating birthdays as a child meant that she did not learn the social and behavioural scripts of how to behave at a birthday party:

‘People will say I’ve got a birthday party to go to and I don’t really know what to do. And it’s like, that’s when you are like 25, and you have never been to a birthday party, it’s a big thing.’


This extract illustrates how events that are perceived as mundane by mainstream society can be challenging for people leaving high-control groups in which certain behaviours were discouraged, frowned upon, or, at the extreme, forbidden. Isabel appears to feel anxious and confused as she states that she does not know how to behave. Perhaps she is afraid that she would not fit in, that not knowing the socially acceptable behaviour of how to conduct herself at a birthday party may mean that she will embarrass herself or that others would not accept her in their social circle.

Michael experienced a similar situation as he explains how he had to learn how to celebrate Christmas and birthdays:

‘There are some things that you never even realise as issues. It’s like [pause] I still don’t properly celebrate my birthday, because I’ve never [pause] because you’re growing up not celebrating birthdays. It’s not that I feel bad about celebrating, it’s just that I don’t know how to celebrate. You know, I don’t know how to celebrate Christmas. I’ve learned over the years but, you know, I don’t have a tree at Christmas, I don´t put up decorations… I eat black pudding – pretty damn awesome! You know, I’ve signed up as an organ donor, I [pause] But there are just some things you don’t think to do, that non-Witnesses would sort of take for granted I suppose.’


Michael appears to perceive his lack of knowledge on how to celebrate Christmas and birthdays as a problem. As he explains, over the years, he has learnt how to celebrate them: the items involved in the celebrations (Christmas tree, decorations), the behavioural scripts, etc. It seems that for Michael, celebrating is something that needs to be learnt, perhaps even rehearsed. Michael’s description evokes a sense of confusion as he explains that as raised Jehovah’s Witness there are things that he does not think of doing. In the last part of this segment (‘that non-Witnesses would take for granted’), Michael appears appreciative of things; he believes non-Jehovah’s Witnesses would perceive as mundane. There is a curiosity in his own experiential learning, as he describes several decisions he has made, such as eating black pudding and signing up as an organ donor. It would seem that not having grown up with these things, makes the world more exciting for him.


Each participant in this study underwent traumatic events while being part of and after leaving the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Many of the participants underwent these traumatic experiences in childhood and early adulthood. While participants shared how being disfellowshipped negatively affected their experiences of self, friends and families, as well as the adjustment to life outside the group, each individual participant has been able to turn their experience into something positive. Shared themes in this transformation are: becoming more attuned and sensitive to other people’s needs, becoming peer mentors, educators and advocates for former members of Jehovah’s Witnesses, increased resilience and the rewriting of personal narratives. What stands out from each participants’ experience, is that regardless of the amount of pain and trauma they have experienced, they all share the belief that having left is better than the alternative life they would live as an active Jehovah’s Witness. Philip shares how being shunned by the family and friends he grew up with has made him stronger and resilient as through losing both emotional and financial sources of support after leaving his parental home; his survival depended solely on himself. His own experiences made him attuned to negative interpersonal behaviours. There is a part of the young teenager who he was, in this extract, as he describes his desire to defend the undefended. As he told in earlier extracts, being shunned at the age of thirteen meant that he was unable to make his own decisions about remaining or leaving the group, he was unable to defend himself against and stand up to his parents’ authority. Perhaps, his desire and passion for helping others is a way to regain some of the power he lacked as a teenager. Perhaps, by helping others, he does not only try to defend others, but he is also able to heal his own inner child.

‘It made me contemplate, learn and understand what it is like to be alone. To become comfortable with myself. It made me strong willed; it made me very very independent. Being shunned has made me acutely aware of the effect of how we treat other people, particularly as groups, and, I have from that day to this, at my own risk, defended the undefended. I swore back then if I knew someone who needed a hand and wasn’t getting a hand, and I could see it, then I would do it.


Isabel shares how being disfellowshipped, even though painful, was her only means of rescue. Her commitment to the group and the shared belief in Jehovah was so powerful that it would have overshadowed any doubts. The metaphor of the bubble conveys, on the one hand, sensations of floating protection and bliss, but on the other hand, also depicts something that is fragile and in danger of bursting at any given time. Her commitment appears to have existed in a protected vacuum that prevented any uncertainties or critical questions from manifesting themselves. Her description of her alternative life, in which she would still be a loyal and active Jehovah’s Witness, is filled with horror and fear. There are echoes of earlier extracts, in which other participants compared their involvement in the group to prisoners living in a closed prison system. Isabel justifies the trauma and pain that had been inflicted by an external source as being an enabling force in the life she has come to live. Isabel appears to be weighing the scales with her current life winning over the pain she experienced.

‘I am a big believer in things happen for a reason. When I look at it, I can still remember, for quite a number of years afterwards thinking, do you know what? If that hadn’t happened, I’d still be in there now, and to me, that is more horrific. I was so into it that nothing what anybody would have said would have burst my bubble. I do believe that I would just be in it, like for my whole life. I don’t know how I would ever have gotten out. So that this happened, somebody literally had to come along and literally drag me out.’


Urszula describes how being disfellowshipped allowed her to escape from a life of unhappiness and regain personal freedom:

‘I think [if she would not have been disfellowshipped] … I would be unhappy to the core. I think I would be unhappy and in a big conflict with myself. I feel I am much better of right now. I never for once, even for a second, regretted my decision of not reconciling with them.’


Her life outside the Jehovah’s Witnesses appears to have allowed her to live a life that is aligned with her own personal values, and find her authentic self.

Michael poignantly illustrates how he took ownership of his experience:

‘Whilst I am a victim of my upbringing, I’m not going to identify myself as a victim. I have overcome it, and while I will never completely remove the harm it has done, but people have had much worse things, and they still have to live.


Michael shares how being raised as a Jehovah’s Witness was an upbringing not of his choosing. Michael describes how he has transformed his experience, by becoming a survivor and fighting against the label of victimhood. The irremovability of his past is what characterises the quintessentiality in his personal re-written narrative of a survivor. The realisation that his past made him to the person he is now and continues to be. Michael describes a sense of closure in the way he says that he has ‘overcome’ his past. The irrevocability of his childhood and upbringing are reinforced in the acknowledgement that the negative effect has a lasting impact. His comparison to other people’s traumas forms an intriguing aspect of this extract. It seems that his perception of the severity of other people’s trauma may help him to rationalise his experience.

Christina, who regularly comes in contact with Jehovah’s Witness children through her work in schools, describes how she used her personal experience in writing a book about her experience in order to educate others about the unique environment Jehovah’s Witness children grow up in:

‘I have written a book recently, […]. Because I have been working in a school, I am a medical officer in a school, and so I come in contact with Jehovah’s children, and it struck me that you know, teachers and student counsellors don’t know what is going on. So, I have written a small, a short guide, it’s very simple, about what children that have been brought up as Witnesses actually have to put up with. The pressure they got on them, that no other children have got.’


This extract illustrates how Christina uses her personal experience to advocate on behalf of Jehovah’s Witness children. By educating others about the situations children growing up in this high-control group face, she creates her own positive narrative of a survivor imparting information on others to positively impact future generations of Jehovah’s Witness children.

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