Songs For Breaking Free – A Playlist for Once You Go In: A Memoir of Radical Faith

Abusive relationships come in many forms. They can be found in romantic relationships, parental relationships, friendships, the workplace, and for many of us, church. Breaking free is hard work and should be done with therapy and a solid support system. Also, the right playlist can be your best friend. This playlist, “Songs for Breaking Free,” includes songs that have empowered me in my journey to freedom.

1. Best Imitation of Myself, Ben Folds

This song is a fantastic anthem for anyone who has ever changed themselves for someone else (so basically, all of us). Specifically, it’s a song for those of us who have withheld parts of ourselves to belong. How many times have you made yourself smaller for someone else’s sake? Even though I’m strictly from California, I am Folds when his voice cracks with acerbity: Do you think I should take a class/to lose my Southern accent? No Ben Folds, you definitely should not. You be you.

2. Shake it Out, Florence and the Machine

Have you ever tried to dance with a devil on your back? It’s hard to be free when we are weighed down by the shame of our pasts, even after we’ve physically removed ourselves. This song is catchy and repetitive and invites us to truly leave the past in the past. You can’t help but dance when this song is blasting. Florence and the Machine remind us that it won’t be easy or simple, but that there is hope for the future—“It’s always darkest before the dawn.” So shake it off.

3. Quiet, MILCK

MILCK’s “Quiet” went viral in 2017 and became the official ballad of the #metoo movement, and for good reason. It’s all about a woman who finally won’t keep quiet. Part of leaving an abusive situation is this unspoken expectation that we won’t talk about our stories. It’s not nice to malign someone’s reputation, is the message we receive. Well you know what? We are done being nice. We are being loud about the things we have endured for too long. Turn this song up loud when you need some extra motivation to speak your truth.

4. I Try, Macy Gray

One of my first brushes with fundamentalism was the summer I was 13 and gleefully singing this now classic R&B song in the back of a church minivan. (Yes, this was back in 2000.) My youth pastor chastised me for singing a “secular song” and told me to stop singing. I had no idea what “secular” meant but I didn’t question the rules. I wish I had the gumption then to keep singing. No regrets though—I make up for it now by belting out this song with all I have. This song is for anyone who has struggled to leave a person or a group of people that has been all wrong for them.

5. Silver Springs, Fleetwood Mac

I basically became a woman to this song, sitting alone in a fogged up car the day after Christmas at age 16, waiting to meet up with the boy who would soon break my heart. I was knee-deep in fundamentalism and had nearly forgotten who I was underneath all the shame and repression and rules. This song is the perfect “get out of a rut” song because it begins sweet and warbling—just like the sweet and warbling mask women are expected to wear—and slowly builds to this angry crescendo, inviting listeners to right every wrong we’ve ever politely endured. By end of the song, Nicks unleashes the strong, fierce woman that is inside all of us. The boy she’s so sad about at the beginning of the song? By the end, she’s literally going to haunt him forever. If you are out of touch with that inner witch, put this one repeat.

6. Watching the Wheels, John Lennon

I’d be remiss to not include John Lennon, as the Beatles were probably the most crucial band for me in finding freedom from toxic religion. This song especially. I spent my teen years in fear of a metaphorical slippery slope. I was taught that all these bad things would happen to me if I no longer lived my life according to evangelicalism’s value set. Looking back, this was all about control—the mark of an abusive relationship. When I began to make choices that went against their grain, they came at me their prescribed advice and warnings—“to save me from ruin.” This line speaks to anyone leaving an abusive system: When I say that I’m OK, well they look at me kind of strange/Surely you’re not happy now, you no longer play the game?

I steal my response from Lennon: I just had to let it go.

7. One Wild Life, Gungor

It’s not always easy to break free from a toxic system or person. Once you leave, your work has only begun. Often the deluge of feelings can be overwhelming. After all, you’ve repressed them for so long—they’ve had all that time to build up. Sometimes the feelings can be so powerful they may leave you weak and willing to return to the abuse you worked so hard to leave. I love this song because it embraces the spectrum of human feelings as beautiful. Feelings are not to be feared, even the hard ones. With a frothy electronic background, Gungor asks: What will you do with your one wild life? Brave the rise and fall/Go on and feel it all/Love the rise and fall/I want to feel it all.

8. Holy War, Alicia Keys

When I was leaving fundamentalism, I listened to Alicia Keys nonstop because she cut through it all to speak to my soul in the way I needed. With a voice like medicine, Keys imagines a world where we put down our walls and live a life without fear. It’s easier and “safer” to build borders than it is to keep ourselves open, but the consequences of that life is being locked in. Locked in is exactly how I felt all those years, and breaking free was the hardest and best thing I’ve ever done. Sing along—Forgiveness is the only real revenge.

9. Break Free, Ariana Grande

At first listen you might think this is just a tune for getting everyone on the dance floor (because it does exactly that), but it’s so much more. This is an empowering song for anyone who is finally getting out. Ariana Grande sings with grit in only the way a woman who has had enough can. The chorus is unbelievably catchy: This is the part when I say I don’t want ya/I’m stronger than I’ve been before/This is the part when I break free/Cuz I can’t resist it no more. It’s important to listen to upbeat songs when breaking free—not just all sad ballads, though there is a place for those too—because we need reminders of how much better our lives are now.

10. Don’t Play That Song (You Lied), Aretha Franklin

A force for the women’s movement and civil rights movement in the 1960s and 70s, Aretha sings for anyone who needs R-E-S-P-E-C-T. I love this lesser-known song in particular because of the conflicting emotions it captures. Sometimes we have to walk away from someone we still love. Leaving may not stop us from loving them right away, and the voices that want to draw us back might continue for some time. In this song, the “voices” are literal background singers who follow up with Aretha’s cry “You lied!” with “Darling, I love you.” We can’t shut those voices up right away, but we can shout at the metaphorical DJ to not play the song that reminds us of our pain. In time, it will hurt less. Until then, sing along with Aretha because she gets it.

11. Teen for God, Dar Williams

I had never heard this song until I had a radio interview with a lovely local public radio host who told me that she had this song on repeat as she read my book. She played it for me in the studio that day and I felt it so hard. Since then, I’ve had it on repeat myself. Teen for God is about an adolescent girl at summer camp, desperately trying to fit in and tame her wild heart and follow all the rules. If you’ve ever been there, sing along with the rest of us.

There are just a few examples from “Songs for Breaking Free” playlist. Check out Spotify for the full song list. Do you have a song that has helped you break free? Tag @carlygelsinger on Instagram or Twitter to join in and get your “breaking free” song featured.