Written By: Miss Usato- October 22, 2023
The aim of this article is to raise awareness of the danger inside a highly controlled religion. The outcome of breaking the bonds from being psychologically manipulated & coerced by Jehovah’s Witnesses -specifically centering around the topic of Masking themselves to survive.
Anna Hendricks is a former Jehovah’s Witness and an advocate for domestic abuse, women’s rights, religious indoctrination, and child abuse. She and her husband and 2 kids, all former Witnesses, left the organization after one of the hardest nights of Anna’s life. She was included in the book ‘Epiphany; The Mask’ * and was interviewed for this article. She was recently in 2 articles, One written by a journalist Leah Shepard in August 2023 who was asked to take it down, but intends to be republishing an updated article soon. The other article ‘Everyone has a story: 9 Local Authors share life-changing stories in ‘Epiphany’’* is linked below. Parts of Anna’s book and her statements in the interview will be in Bold throughout this post.
“Hide your face so the world may never find you.” Masking was used to describe the act of concealing disgust by Paul Ekman (1972) and Friesen (1969). It was also thought of as a learned behavior. Developmental studies have shown that this ability begins as early as preschool and improves with age. Masking can really mean many things, but in this article I am focusing on the escapism and self-defense process that active and former Jehovah’s Witnesses have used to mask their feelings, values, hopes, and most of all true identity. Masking is mainly influenced by environmental factors such as authoritative parents, authoritative leaders, rejection, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. It is a trauma response and also a conscious and at times unconscious behavior to fit in with perceived social norms.
“Growing up as a Jehovah’s Witness I was scared of disappointing others. I felt like I had to please people around me and live up to their standards. I was sexually molested as a child by someone in the Jehovah’s Witness organization. When I came out to my parents about it, they did not believe me. They even accused me of creating problems for the family, and to stop talking about it. I needed tears, support, and love. Instead I was punished and accused of lying. I remember I started putting on the mask when I was 5 years old. I had gotten used to shielding myself to get through those unspeakable years. The mask protected me. I suppressed a lot, I suffered in silence for decades.”
When wearing a mask it is like prioritizing another version of perceptions and feelings with something you wouldn’t normally react to. It can cause you to lie to yourself. The image of perfectionism is the boldest of these lies. This leads us into a state of toxic positivity* where we fake our gratitude and positivity in order to assuage that guilt. Some feel the need to hide every little thing about their true selves and emotions, and some only mask for a period of time to protect others, such as their family. Masking has many definitions throughout history but they all tie together with cover, conceal, and disguise of oneself.
The ‘Living to our true potential’ idealism can be heavy on the conscience and heart, especially if you are being controlled. Being in a consistent routine of putting others’ needs before your own causes you to be misinterpreting what true potential you can achieve, and misrepresenting how you really feel. This causes distress, depression, and confusion. This essential characteristic of hiding and revealing personalities or moods is common to all masks.
There is a gendered disparity in masking behavior; studies show women mask negative emotions to a greater extent than men. According to psychologist Teresa Davis, “This may be due to the greater social expectation for conformity placed on female gender roles, causing women to develop the skill to a greater extent than men during childhood.” Applying this to a highly controlled religion with these factors, women become even more suppressed, looked down upon, and expected of lower strengths – but also so do the men, and in an even higher regard with this Organization. This is discussed below.
“Throughout the years of having this mask on I began to make excuses for my molester and my parents. ‘If they said I was wrong, I must be?’ I believed their words- It was me who was ruining the family dynamic. It was all my fault, my behavior- me without the mask. What followed was self hate, sleepless nights, anxiety and depression. I became numb and every day I lost a piece of my real self. The mask had hardened, and I with it.
Masking goes in line with;
Neurodivergence which is when someone’s brain processes, learns, or behaves differently from what is considered “typical” which happens to every single person in a controlled religion. Behavior, Information, Thought, and emotional control as Steve Hassan’s B.I.T.E model* brings out a conformed intent to change or morph your thinking to what the certain religions’ tactics and teachings are.
Defense mechanisms are unconscious responses that help protect people from feelings of anxiety or threats to their sense of self. Ones that have endured abuse of any kind -bullying, assault, forced, toxicity, manipulation, repression at a young age will modify themselves for an extended period of time. They do this to express through the mask to others that ‘I am okay’ or to themselves ‘I will be okay’. Some keep this mask on for the rest of their lives.
Social Masking is when someone engages in social behaviors that do not come naturally to them, such as being forced to sing at a church/Kingdom Hall when you feel very uncomfortable doing so, or mirroring body language of others around you so that you do not stand out.
Compensation is how an individual might compensate by spending more time and energy on tasks than their peers in order to hide that they are struggling. This is something people with ADHD often do as well. These are the terms, the definitions, and the reasons Masking occurs.
Eventually, If you keep the mask on for long enough- you think this is your identity.
I was also wearing a mask for a long time, being born and raised in the Jehovah’s Witness organization. The surroundings that I was built with, like Anna- eventually contorted and blended my ideas and versions of what reality was to what I wished to hear, what I wanted to say, and yet what I did for others sake. I did what I had to do, reacted how my authority figures would want me to react, and created a solid mask. It engrained so deep in my skin that I didn’t realize who I really was. I didn’t know what I liked, I didn’t choose until I knew what someone else chose. What I thought was me driven by pure obedience to God, was only a mask of disorientation at a young age to carry the burden of matured higher standards forced upon me by the religion.
While wearing a Mask means hiding parts of yourself from your family, religion, the world, even your own desires it does not mean,
“On the outside, what’s not to like about the Jehovah Witnesses? You have this beautiful mask of people that all appear unified and aligned in perfect harmony. But behind the scenes as the layers peel away you have a horrifying truth that is revealed. What can appear beautiful on the outside as you dig can reveal an unbalanced unalignment underneath.”
In a high control religion such as the Jehovah’s Witness Organization, masking can lead to feelings of dissonance, insecurity, dissatisfaction in everyday things, emotional and physical exhaustion. I say high control because not all religions cause masking or a loss of self. Some give you the freedom to be yourself without the guilt of being yourself. If you are going to church/Kingdom Halls a few times a week and attending service, religious functions, being constantly taught that your heart is treacherous and told only to associate with your religions peers – your life is not your own. You are suppressed into the mold that this powerful and influential Organization pushes on everyone that abides, and wants to do right in what they say are ‘God’s wishes’. Thinking for yourself is taught to be selfish, and it will gradually become easier to keep a mask on to blend and feel like you are doing right. Even the stress, depression, anxieties that one’s with this burden starts normalizing in your everyday life- and can at times mold into a personality disorder.
2 major factors the Jehovah’s Witness Organization uses to control one’s mind is their; publications and videos.
2. Their videos. On their website JW.org, What is called JW Broadcasting features hundreds of 9 years worth of videos that cover a vast amount of topics similar to their publications. In what looks like a typical newsroom- they interview their dedicated followers, announce updates, and give talks on certain topics. They also reenact stories from biblical times and have their own animation following the lives of 2 young Jehovah’s Witnesses to guide younger ones. The children of this organization are now actively watching these videos to teach them how to also abide by their guidance (through god, of course) – to which they say these teachings are all from God. These videos in detail show how to act, feel, express, view their teachings compared to the rest of the world, and how not to be a part of the world themselves. A lot of the money that is contributed by their followers goes to funding theses media tactics.
“Elders hide behind a mask in many facets of their leadership; One area is they use women to spread gossip and hurtful judgment of members. These men put this shiny happy face of Love on. Woman would become privy of information and start sentences such as “the elders feel-” “at the last elders meeting-” Many do not know how to talk for themselves”
It’s all really just a masquerade. The elders’ position in the congregation (the followers as a group in their Kingdom Hall) is to constantly be on guard against bad association. To counsel and judge accordingly on someone that could harm or stumble the congregation. In retrospect, they have the entire congregation’s family matters, decisions, and lives in their hands. All so that they stay in line. They also decide if someone should be shunned- what they call disfellowshipping you away from the congregation with its association.. If you can imagine how easy it is to mask yourself for even a few short moments, imagine what it is like not only to mask yourself to that extent, but to also feel like you are morally sound enough to decide someone else’s discipline, fate like this. It’s a tactic that blinds your real sound of mind and reasoning.
“They are deprived of having an identity which leads to any little title or privilege being taken advantage of. Gathering a little nugget of information from a person of authority in their mind puts their ego in a position that makes them feel they are of greater importance than another person.”
These are former Jehovah’s Witness testimonies of why they needed to mask their true selves while being in the organization. Some I decided to put just their initials for privacy reasons.
“I had a mask on for a very long time. Our family was ran by my husband, ” the head of the household” and the elders. As a Jehovah’s Witness you’ll know that women are not treated the same as the men. Every time a small dilemma or situation went wrong with the kids or our marriage, the elders heard about it. They walked all over my kids and I. I put this mask on for years about how I truly felt, that I went into a deep depression. When I was casted out from the congregation for the marriage ending, I didn’t know who I was. I hardly had a personal thought anymore, I had gotten so used to having the men think for me. I had to relearn my true self” -Lynn W. Ohio, U.S.
“I was considered PIMO while I was waking up. I was still going to meetings and gatherings, but also learning all I can about the Organization behind closed doors, so I had to create a mask to act as if I was the same so they wouldn’t suspect me. Our family was preparing for our final departure from the Organization, but there was this Special Pioneer friend that asked me to do some work for him. What felt odd was as I was doing the work and talking about the Organization, there was a Christmas Tree up in our house. Its been 5 years being out now. I’ve learned more about myself, was able to take the mask off, and will never again. Now I actively speak about the harms in the organization and its harmful policies.” -James W.- Virginia, U.S.
“I realized that I was gay at a young age. In this religion there are so many conflictions with what you feel in your heart and what you are controlled to thinking what should be in your heart. I- as with everyone is taught getting baptized was the right thing to do. So I did, again at a very young age. It didn’t take long to realize the fast decline everything in life would take if I ever came out. It was a very difficult childhood. Now that I am out I am so much happier, but I was a completely different person as a Witness, an untrue person. I can never get back those years. I was a person with a mask that only helped me survive and not really live.” -Dylan P. New York, U.S.
“When you put people in a position that they are given, these self made/given titles -the respect comes in the form of dictatorship and fear. Which adds on another mask at some point. The elders hide behind the mask and allow the demise of the members right in front of their presence. There are so many masks that are present and worn that if you ever decided to remove them it would leave that scar; and for those who continue to layer the mask it gets so much harder. This arrangement with the elders almost costed me my family.”
Relief, you deserve relief. Living a life you are not happy or content with is extremely difficult. It can cause a long line of mental health problem’s that will show physically, mentally, and the emotional strains it causes. Masking too much can cause pain and crisis. Eventually the more you work on it, the mask will start shedding off so that you can breathe. You deserve togetherness, efficiency and balance. Think about the masks you wear and commit to taking them off, eventually- when you are ready. Knowing what is going on so that you are aware though helps tremendously. Know that no, you are not alone in hiding your feelings for an amount of time to keep your heart, or your family safe. Many especially in a highly controlled religion mask themselves. The time can come where you will hold your gifts out to the world—no apology, no shame, no regrets.
“I realized I shouldn’t have let anybody tell me how to feel. I shouldn’t have let anyone convince me that my story was not true. When I tell my story today, I tell victims who are healing from their own scars that they should not be scared of the outcome or set expectations on how this will unfold.”
“My true epiphany was my awakening from the religion when I was faced with the challenge of having to shun my daughter. She had started a relationship and decided to leave the Organization, the elders were aware. We were required to shun her, act as if she was dead. One night she looked at her father and I and broke into tears “So are you not going to talk to me like the elders told you to now? This shouldn’t even be something you have to think about!” This is my child, my everything. Her father went to hold her and said “I would always choose you.” I looked deep into her eyes, and just like that it snapped. The mask was shaken loose. I broke down. How can I do this to my daughter? So we all left the Organization. As A Jehovah’s Witness I had that old mask on to hide. I poured every ounce of myself into others. It was hard to look into the mirror and acknowledge what’s happened too, and that is why I had the mask on for so long. I became everything to everyone (but myself) of efforts to hide my abuse. Now, I am supported by my family- who are all out of the organization with me. I found strength and courage in them. I broke away from the cage of guilt that I was in. My daughter was the catalyst of my awakening. I recently saw her go down the aisle, Something I wouldn’t have been able to attend as a Witness. I take part of protests to hopefully help others see the truth, and to take of their mask off as well. I still have scars of course, but when I left the organization I became stronger- I had removed my mask for the last time.”
We were not born with these masks, even being raised as a Jehovah’s Witness. We put them on, and We can take them off.