My Journey Out of Cognitive Dissonance

Base photo: Gerd Altmann;, Creative Commons License

Undoing Watchtower programming – An often painful process…

“What was it that made you leave Jehovah’s Witnesses?”

That is a question often asked by individuals who have just left the organization. At the time of my departure my answer would have included a laundry list of supposed reasons – absolutely none relating to the religion to which I was enslaved: marriage, my in-laws, work, too much pressure, and illness.

That was my programmed mind making up reasons that would reconcile with what I thought was “the truth.” I thought I must have been a “bad person,” someone “spiritually weak,” in order to have any of those things affect me to the point of experiencing an emotional breakdown.

Looking back, I now understand that I was unable to face the truth that my life was a lie every single day. When I finally couldn’t do it anymore I broke inside.

How Cognitive Dissonance really makes us do what we hate and know is wrong…

At my first meeting with a counselor I was determined to not let her get inside my head. I actually believed that if I allowed her in that demons would also get inside my brain! That’s what I had been taught and I struggled mightily with that concept. But my counselor was quite familiar with cults and she kept prodding me and poking at my intellect. She found ways to whip up my dissonance like eggs with a beater.

I would cry. I would yell. I’d stare into nothingness. She just kept prodding deeper into my mind.

One day during that tumultuous time, I walked to a canal and considered drowning myself. I figured that if my family was going to treat me like I was dead anyway – no one would even miss me. And then something happened…

A little voice in my head said, “If they already think you’re dead, then what have you got to lose by living?”  At that very moment my “authentic self” began to overtake my “programmed self.” My critical thinking skills began to kick in.

Slowly, but surely, I climbed out of my emotional abyss.

Don’t get me wrong – it was not like a lightning bolt that suddenly “fixed” me.  It took years of introspection and self-reflection – reading, talking, and most importantly exploring the world around me. I had a good counselor early on, and highly recommend counseling as a first step.

As an extremely empathetic person, I found it a bit overwhelming to be tossed into the big world after having lived in a cocoon all of my life. Jehovah’s Witnesses are constantly told that “the world is ruled by Satan” and that they have to remain separate – so it was a frightening place to me! However, once my “authentic self” began to emerge, I finally felt connected to the rest of the world from which I had always been separated. I began to understand how my actions affected others – both positively and negatively. I also understood that I had a responsibility to my fellow man that went far beyond knocking on doors and studying “Bible-based literature” with them. I discovered that the world was not so scary after all.

Like most JW “born-ins,” I was ill-prepared for life outside the confines of the Watch Tower Society. I stumbled through relationships, making a lot of mistakes as an adult that average people typically make while still in their teens. In spite of that, I kept at it – and still do 22 years later.

My unsolicited advice is this: Your “authentic self” is worth fighting for. The angst, anger, and nerves you will face are merely symptoms of your “real self” battling your “programmed self.” Keep at it and don’t give up even when things seem their bleakest. Eventually, those old “tapes” will play less often, and when they do you’ll recognize them for what they are – garbage. And what do we do with garbage? We toss it out – it’s of no use to us any longer.

If you would like to talk with folks who understand where you’ve been or where you are now, you might want to check out the AAWA forum. You will find a topic for just about anything you can think of relating to recovering from life as a Jehovah’s Witness.

Keep up the good fight. I can assure you that someday you’ll be glad you did!


Posted on by October 29, 2013

About Steph Le Gardener

I'm a former 4th generation JW who's been out since 1992, re-creating my world and family of the heart. I keep busy with my work for a not-for-profit organization which specializes in education for senior leadership in healthcare, as well as my many hobbies, including: gardening, crafting, nature photography, reading, and writing. For nearly eight years, I've been an active voice in the ex-JW community, supporting those who have found their way out of cult life, and now I add my voice with others as an active volunteer for Advocates of Awareness of Watchtower Abuses (AAWA). I can be reached at


My Journey Out of Cognitive Dissonance — 11 Comments

  1. Thank you so much, Steph and John Hoyle, for teaming up to create this timeless post. And Steph, your confession, your story, should help thousands of people understand why it takes so long to see “the truth” when you are trapped in a mind-control religion.

  2. Thank you so much. “Cognitive Dissonance” The GB say “Memorial partakers […] is the number of baptized individuals who partake of the emblems at the Memorial worldwide. […] A number of factors—including past religious beliefs or even mental or emotional imbalance—might cause some to assume mistakenly that they have the heavenly calling.” (w11 8/15 p. 22)!

    Mental disorders are in all classes of JWs, the “SHEEP” and “OTHER SHEEP”!!

  3. Thanks, Richard and Merice! I think it’s very important that the general public understands how difficult it can be to de-program from cultures of high control. We become co-dependent with our abuser–in this case a religious group. It can be difficult to break that cycle, but it’s well worth it. I applaud all of those who have broken away and now can raise free-thinking families.

  4. Cognitive Dissonance is what makes it hard to be in the present moment.Years after leaving the Watchtower I’ll still zone out and the juices in my head start going like butterflies making it hard to concentrate.I feel It’s my unconscious mind rebelling against my dicisions that are not inline with JW conditioning.This really is something I’m determined to overcome.

  5. Appreciate the revealing look at the psychology of a person influenced by a cult religion. I used to think I was alone in wanting to die. At the very least how many others have had mental breakdowns? I know I did. Only something corrupt and evil can make a normal person feel like that. So glad that you got help, and you was able to escape from your cocoon to return to the beautiful human you are!

  6. I have been exactly where you have traveled in your journey out of the Watchtower organization. It is difficult to break out of mind control. But we have left behind man-made doctrines and are free to experience the universe. We have learned valuable lessons, and no more will we allow ourselves to be devoured by an organization. Thank you for sharing your story. It will help many.

  7. So good to read your experience Steph, I can totally relate to your words. It is emotionally excruciating to get the thought training out of our heads and reclaim a sense of who we are. After 30 years a jw it is an ongoing journey for me.

    • I agree, Pat. It was agonizing at times as my mind went through the process of sorting out fact from fiction. My reality was fabricated by an organization, and it took a lot of effort to undo that.

  8. After 30 plus years in Wt with four now grown children (three still in-one returned after 20 plus years disfellowshipped to join the other t two). She associated with me until reinstated-then she just wanted to make a duty call to see how I was but NO spiritual talk. I right or wrong but good for me quit contact and read spiritual materials and wrote to family or members of congregation, all which helped me learn the above and unlearn false brainwashed ideas. Now happily sharing with others my enlightened understanding (shared by many writers of years back and especially lately) of God, Spirit, our potential to live a happy life counting God’s blessings every moment in association with Truth Free fom partiality, negative judgements and Love God, neighbor as Self. Blessings flow in the good life.

  9. Thank you for sharing your story, so many ways similar to mine. I was born into the religion and stayed for 36 years, driving myself to a breakdown with just such self-imposed cognitive dissonance. I always followed every rule and principle to the nth degree, knowing it was never enough, feeling the huge burden of guilt for not being perfect, frightened and anxious all the time–never good enough. I haven’t attended a meeting in 8 years and am slowing able to sleep and be free from the debilitating guilt and anxiety that ruled and ruined my life. Thanks again for sharing.

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