Building a Self

This Building a Self section is organized as follows:

  • Finding your self in your childhood memories
  • Values that my childhood memories reflect
  • Hard-wired for ethics
  • The universality of the Golden Rule
  • Human values


So here you sit. You are transitioning out of fundamentalism, or at least questioning. Maybe you feel totally lost and don’t know how to find your way. Or, you might be like I was – lost but oblivious to the fact that I was lost. That’s probably more dangerous than feeling lost, so if you feel lost, pat yourself on the back. Now you have the question, and “light will come from many sources.”

Let’s start with basics. Our identity was so wrapped up in fundamentalism that when we leave, we well may have little or no sense of who we are anymore, if we ever did. Our “self” was put in deep storage as we tried to take on the “mind of Christ,” to be obedient to what our church said were biblical teachings, and to be a victorious Christian. Now we have to go rummaging around and try to resurrect that self, or reconstruct it if it never had a chance to develop in the first place. But what do we look for? How do you find a “self”?

What is your “self”?

What is a self? Did you have a self in fundamentalism? How do you begin to think about your “self”? Is a self something that you develop on your own? How do you recognize when you have a self? How do you go about building a self as you recover from fundamentalism?

In a sense, these questions somehow seem to be on the wrong track. You can’t package up a “self.” You can’t see it, smell it, or feel that you’ve “arrived” in constructing a self.

A self is an evolving entity. A self is reflected by an organism’s inner values, expression of life and interaction with life and with other people, as well as holistically with the body. You have a right to a self because you are a person and you were born with a self. That self may have been repressed and put down, but it’s still there. You can’t lose your self, nor can you have it taken from you, but it can be buried and undeveloped under fundamentalist dogma.

The natural growth and development of your self can be damaged. Other people can tell you that what feels right to you is really wrong. They can tell you that you should feel this way and not that way. They can tell you that to listen to your inner impulses and to ask the questions you are asking is really listening to the devil. You can buy into that for a time. Many buy into it for their entire lives.

But now we need to roll back the clock, either to the time before we were in a fundamentalist group or, for many of us, to how we were as children even if in the fundamentalist group, before the heavy-handed indoctrination really set in, before we were at the age of accountability, before we could understand the tenets of our brand of fundamentalism. We need to start again with the little baby that was you or me and see what would happen if that little baby grew naturally without having the fundamentalist agenda imposed on it.

You are not an infant, though. So how can you roll back the clock to early childhood and start over? In one sense, you can’t, and the impact of curtailed development is a fact that has to be recognized, accepted, and addressed.

But in another sense, you CAN turn back the clock, because you likely have memories from childhood, and you can build on those memories. You can reconnect with the self that was evidenced by those memories.

Science has established that humans are hard-wired (born) with certain characteristics. By definition, you have these characteristics. You had, for example, the ability to learn a complex language as a child.

In addition to being able to learn a complex language – and this is of such importance to us as recovering fundamentalists, especially those of us born into the fundamentalist mindset – science also informs us that we are hard-wired for ethics, for an inborn sense of what is right and wrong.

That means to me that even when we were in fundamentalism, even when our selves were being repressed, shaped, and programmed, we still existed. Our inner self was still present. Through it all, our often beaten and battered inner selves were still alive. I see that as a tremendous expression of hope for reconstructing a life.

Think of this. If you can connect up with that early self – before the indoctrination – you will connect up with the human value system that we are all hard-wired for. You will connect up with what a person is, with who you are as a person, and with how a healthy person relates to other people and to community.


Think back to your early memories. Do you have any recollection of emotional discrepancies between what you were being taught and what you felt within you? Make your list. You will probably find, as I did, that more and more memories keep coming back as you write. When I started this page, I thought I might be repeating a few examples previously given… but you can see below that the list just kept growing and then growing some more.

In fact, you might find, as I did, that as a child you had virtually everything you needed to live a good life. If you had it back then, you have it now. You just have to rediscover it.

I find that insight just overwhelming as I sit writing. What a thought!! You already have what you need – I already have what I need – to be a self, to be a real person. No longer do we need to feel invisible. We just need to reconnect with our inner selves, our inner child.

When we do that, we have our values, because they are the values we had as children. This is not to say that we humans aren’t a sorry lot, too – with our greed and selfishness, our violent history, etc. The bad side we have to learn how to deal with, and we have to learn how to make good choices. But talking about the down side of human nature is not the subject of this page. In fundamentalism we heard more than our share about the down side. Here, we’ll be focusing on the good side.

The writer Herman Hesse wrote that the journey through life is to leave the Garden of Eden, travel around the world, and re-enter the Garden of Eden, this time with all the insights of the world journey. Is that not a lovely concept? We are traveling around the world and re-entering Eden, and this time there is no temptation by the serpent, because we are full and need nothing from it.


Here’s the list I made of early values, coming to consciousness out of my memories. Why not make your own list of early values, too? May I suggest that when you do that, you end each memory or concept with the words “I smile at that.”


As a child, I was conscious of justice issues when teachings about prophecy conflicted with my concern for the Palestinians. Even though I became a blank slate in my teen years about issues of justice and had to re-learn that subject, I started out with a sense of justice as a child. I smile at that.

Human love

As a child, I could understand the difference between loyalty to “God’s rules” and loyalty to human love. The man who left the woman he was living with when he got “saved” did not love her. Early on I knew that the man cared more about his own skin than he cared about the woman.

I later became a blank slate and turned into an evangelical steamroller of human beings, but there was something good in me starting out, and I smile at that.

Love of the earth

As a child, I loved nature in and for itself, without referring everything good to a deity. I later superimposed that deity on just about everything in the world – but early on, a child-loves-violets period was present. I smile at my inner self for that.

The destructive nature of anger

As a child, I knew that impetuous anger from adults had bad results. I smile at myself for that.

Disrespect for losing personal control 

As a child, I knew that alcohol could make nice people into silly people that I didn’t respect. I smile at myself for that.

Unwillingness to give up my self to unworthiness 

As a child, I knew that people get silly when they lose who they are, and I liked people better when they weren’t silly. I never was tempted to try marijuana or any mind-altering drug. I smile at myself for that.

Aversion to tobacco

As a child, I knew that burning leaves hurt my lungs and that tobacco smoke made me carsick. I never was tempted to try smoking and could never understand how anyone would want to breathe in smoke. I smile at myself for that.

I knew what I wanted and stood up to efforts to control. 

As a child, I could pick up on efforts to control me. I knew what coat I wanted, and I didn’t give in to my frustrated mother. I smile at myself for that.

I had common sense. 

As a child, I had common sense, which I didn’t realize until I wrote this list. I smile at myself for that common sense.

Had a sense of my self

As a child, I had a sense of my self. I smile at myself for that. I remember declining membership in the group of popular girls in my grade school. I didn’t want to fit in with them. Even under 10 years of age, I was able to march to my own drummer, and I smile at myself for that. (Of course, there may have been other motivations, too – a sense of unworthiness, isolation, intimidation…who knows.)

Understood loneliness and isolation

As a child, I knew I was lonely and that there was no one who was interested in who I was, no adults who sat down and asked what I was thinking or feeling, how I was doing. I didn’t have the words for it until much later, but I felt isolated as a child, behind bars. I knew loneliness, and I smile at myself for that.

I wanted to be with others.

As a young 4-year-old, I cried when my mischievous little cousin threatened to leave me. I had that early sense of wanting and needing a friend. I smile at myself for that.

I had a sense of nutritious food. 

As a child, white bread sandwiches turned my stomach. Already I knew there was good food and yucky food. I was to do damage to my body later on with poor food choices, but I smile at myself that my child-self knew the difference. Looking back, I didn’t get much nutritious food in those days, not as I understand it now.

I recoiled from materialism.

As a child, the mountain of Christmas presents made me feel embarrassed. I smile at myself that I knew the difference then between whatever possessed my parents to over-give at Christmas and a meaningful time together (which didn’t much happen). I’ve never been overly interested in material things.

I recoiled from being acknowledged for “doing” rather than “being.” 

As I child, I knew the difference between being praised for what I did rather than for who I was. I smile at myself for that.

I was able to turn from greediness. 

As an older child, I knew that the drive for greed could be really strong in me. I was a stamp collector and was trading stamps with a young friend. At one point, there was a stamp I really wanted, and I recognized that the strength of that want was stronger than my wish for fair dealing with my friend. That was the moment when I stopped collecting stamps. I smile at myself for that early moral decision on behalf of good when I didn’t like what I saw in myself.

I turned from physical punishment

As a child, I was hit three times, impulsively, and I knew I wanted never to hit a child. I remember each time as if it were yesterday. I knew that there were better ways to make a point. I smile at myself for that.

I was careful about who touched me. 

As a child in a church play, I was forced to endure the kiss of an adult man that I didn’t like. I knew early on that touch for me was special. If another person didn’t “fill me up,” (as a friend says about friendship), I didn’t want to be touched by that person. I smile at myself for that.

I knew I had more sense in a particular instance than an adult.

As an older child, I bought a pair of black slacks and expected affirmation from my parents about my choice. Instead, my father got angry, stating that only tough girls wore black pants and making me return the pants (as if any tough girls would have been interested in me). The collision between something good that my self wanted and someone else’s strong disagreement with that made a strong imprint. I concluded that adults could be crazy and unpredictable. I smile at myself for that.

I learned (learning) to get my brain in gear before speaking.

As an older child, I went blank when given a current events topic to talk about in a school class. (Newspapers were not part of my fundamentalist world.) Instead of stepping back and taking myself out of the equation and telling the teacher that unfortunately I knew nothing about that topic, I panicked and made up something stupid and used baby talk. I still remember the embarrassment. The lesson was hard and not entirely clear, but I guess it would be to think before speaking, to reconnect with my rational self and not to lose it when threatened by authority figures. That lesson I think isn’t 100% learned, but life no doubt will bring more chances to practice. I smile at myself for that.

I was able to recognize guidance from caring adults.

As an older child, I was impressed in class by a few statements of guidance from teachers – such as these, “If you don’t keep learning, your mind will turn into a swamp,” and, “Don’t believe everything you read.” I smile at myself that I was able to recognize these words of wisdom and to incorporate them into my life – though it was years before I figured out how to question what I read.

Now make your own list up. Who were you as a child? What were your values? What were the emotional discrepancies that you felt? What do you smile at yourself for? You may find, as I did, that you like the child you were.

Your self existed when you were a child. Your inner self had inner knowing that is built into to every child in the cradle. Think back and find those inner threads of feeling. Pat yourself on the back for them. Reconnect with them now.


Do you understand what this exercise can do for you? The benefits can be huge. They can give you a sense of a right to exist. That right to exist was robbed from us in fundamentalism when we were taught that we were sinners, that there was nothing good in us except what came from God. No, my dear friend, when you were an infant, there was everything right in you that you would need for maturing. You ARE saved. Don’t blow it.

Here’s what this exercise can do for you:

  • You can reconnect with your early self.
  • You can be assured that you started out with a self and that that self has been with you all along, maybe just submerged and put upon.
  • You can know and be proud that you had an inner sense of justice, of love, of human loyalty and human connection. You can know that you started out as a good person and that that goodness is still in you. You ARE a good person.
  • You can know that your inner self knew when things weren’t right for you – when you were lonely, feeling abandoned, when someone was trying to control you, when people were acting silly because of alcohol or drugs, when there was something unhealthy in the environment such as tobacco smoke, when food was yucky and not nourishing, when an authority figure was unpredictable or irrational.
  • You can know that you had choices and that you were capable of making constructive choices and that you did make constructive choices.

Spend time with your list. Sit with each example from your list. Take it in. Connect it up with similar examples from other times in your life. Let your affirmations sink in deeply. “I smile at this.” “I take it in, and I smile at it.”

In fact, you might put each affirmation on an index card. Spend time with each affirmation, perhaps one a day. Get reacquainted with your self. Update the affirmation to the present day. Enjoy your self. Love your self.

As you write your affirmations, instead of writing, “My child self recognized love,” use the word “I,” and the present tense. “I recognize love.” “I love nature.” “I have a sense of justice.” Your self survives, from birth to death. You are just updating your consciousness of it. Today, you are naming its wonderful characteristics.


A friend points out that we not only are hard-wired for morality but there is “cross-cultural agreement about many moral issues, including the Golden Rule. Almost all religions believe in the duty to not harm others, a moral principle that you don’t need religion to derive. Most people fear that without religion, sin and crime will run rampant but most moral principles are actually stronger if derived from the principles derived from the logic of doing no harm.

Compare these universal teachings on the Golden Rule. This list is from the United Religions Initiative (URI), Africa office. You can find it by searching for “golden rule poster + URI.”

Christianity – In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you, for this is the law and the prophets. Jesus, Matthew 7:12

Islam – Not one of you truly believes until you wish for others what you wish for yourself. The Prophet Muhammad, Hadith

Judaism – What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour. This is the whole Torah: all the rest is commentary. – Hillel, Talmud, Shabbat 31a

Baha’i faith – Lay not on any soul a load that you would not want to be laid upon you, and desire not for anyone the things you would not desire for yourself. – Baha’ullahah, Gleanings

Buddhism – Treat not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful. The Buddha, Udana-Varga, 5.18

Hinduism – This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you. – Mahabharata 5:1517

Jainism – One should treat all creatures in the world as one would like to be treated. – Mahavira, Sutrakitanga

Sikhism – I am a stranger to no one, and no one is a stranger to me. Indeed, I am a friend to all. – Guru Granth Sahib, pg. 1299

Unitarianism – We affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. – Unitarian principle

Taoism – Respect your neighbor’s gain as your own gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss. T’al Shank Kan Ying Plen, 213-218 (citation hard to read)

Confucianism – One word which sums up the basis of all good conduct… Loving kindness. Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself. – Confucius, Analects 15.23

Zoroastrianism – Do not do unto others whatever is injurious to yourself. – Shayast-na-Shayast 13.29. (citation hard to read)

Native spirituality – We are as much alive as we keep the earth alive. – Chief Dan George

As an aside, in trying to find the sources so that I could correct citation mistakes, I came across a reference to Nancy Eastman’s “Parenting Today With Respect and Responsibility; How to Teach Your Children to Live By the Golden Rule.” Looks good, no?


Let’s close this section with a look at two anecdotes that go to the heart of human values. Do you recognize core values here? How do these anecdotes compare with the heart of the fundamentalism in your experience?

Anecdote #1: The meaning of friendship

A man and his dog had died and were walking down the road. They came to a gate with the sign “Heaven” over it. The man asked the doorkeeper if he could have a drink of water for his dog. The gatekeeper said, No, that they didn’t allow dogs in heaven.

The man and his dog kept walking down the road. Soon they came to a farm, and the man asked the farmer if he could have some water from the well for his dog. The farmer was happy to give him the water.

The man said to the farmer that he had just come from the gate of heaven, where he was refused water for his dog. The farmer responded, “That was hell, with a false sign on the gate. This is heaven here. We’re glad to have them weed out those who would leave their best friends behind.”

I was thinking about this story in relation to fundamentalists looking forward to the “Second Coming” of Jesus, and Armageddon. That series of events of course means that the unsaved will be killed. As stated before, I couldn’t understand why anyone with human sensibility would look forward to the Second Coming, if it meant the extreme suffering and death of so many others, including innocent children. To me, the humane response would be thanks, but no thanks: “Lord, I look forward to meeting you, but I can wait if the price is suffering and death to my fellow humans. Please hold off on the trip.”

Why do I sound more humane than “the god” in the book of Revelation?

Anecdote #2: The meaning of love

In hell, stiff-armed people were sitting around a banquet table starving, because they couldn’t bend their arms to feed themselves.

In heaven, stiff-armed people were sitting around a banquet table, but they were feeding each other.

On earth, each of us has the choice of starving or feeding each other.

Let’s move on now to the next steps for re-starting a life, that is, connecting with your inner voice.