To move on to your second question – “How do you handle yourself and deal with how you feel so that you can make better decisions for your life?” Again, I repeat my first bit of advice to you – it is imperative that you figure out that your sexuality really is a wonderful gift from God. Then you move on to figure out how God wants you to use this gift he has given you – what are the boundaries that He wants you to place around it to help you enjoy this gift to it’s fullest.
Masturbation is a tricky subject in the LDS church. I personally see it as a grey area – something that one should be careful with, but is not always wrong. Many LDS members see it as a black and white area – that it is always wrong. You have to figure out what YOUR own beliefs are concerning this subject.
I personally do not believe that what you did as a child was sinful. I believe it was simple curiosity and a natural occurrence for you as a part of your growing up process – the process of learning about and exploring your own body. I think it happens to many children. Those who are taught and accept it as the natural occurrence it is, those who are not made to feel bad or evil for doing it – seem to be more sexually well adjusted adults. Those who are made to feel guilty and dirty for doing it, often have problems with sex as adults. That says a lot to me. What does that tell you?
I also personally do not believe that your current masturbation to relieve your “stress” now and then is evil and sinful either. I believe it CAN be a problem IF it becomes an obsession and a habit that you can not control and channel and IF it keeps you from living a happy productive life and/or keeps you from doing other things you want to do. For someone who is not married, masturbation can possibly be a problem if it keeps their sexual feelings and desires fueled so much so that it is hard to control themselves when they are tempted to be with others sexually. You say “Sometimes I stress relieve and I don’t feel bad. I don’t feel the spirit any less around me.” So if these issues are not the case for you with masturbation, then I personally would say move on to working on something that IS causing a REAL problem in your life. However, this is MY opinion and is based on MY beliefs of what God’s boundaries are. You need to figure out for yourself what YOU believe is God’s boundaries for YOU.
The best place to seek guidance about the amazing gift of sexuality is from our Creator, Himself – the one who gave us this gift in the first place – through sincere prayer. We can and should also seek to learn from the wise counsel and experiences of others we trust and know have our best interest at heart, so that we can avoid some of life’s painful lessons ourselves. But even with those we trust – we need to be careful to weed out any faulty thinking patterns concerning sex that they may passing on to us!
My advice to you is to study and pray to figure out for yourself what God’s boundaries are concerning sex – or in other words what he has commanded us concerning sexual activity. Read what the prophets have taught – (be sure to keep what they say in context – asking yourself who they are speaking to and why). Read what the current prophet teaches. Can what they teach also be found in the scriptures? Read what the scriptures teach. Identify what God has specifically commanded in regard to sex and sexual activity and then focus on following those commandments. In my opinion, there are many additional limitations on sexual behavior that have been/are taught in the church which suggest stricter and more narrow boundaries for our sexual behavior than the commandments. Some of these teachings have even been addressed with church policy in the past – in what I believe is a lofty effort to help us better live God’s commandments from God. The bottom line for me though – is that we are accountable to God on how we follow and live His commandments – so it His commandments that we should most carefully follow. If other, stricter teachings and limitations are a help in one’s lives – great, use them. But if not – then go back to concentrating on the actual commandments instead.
During your research – Ask yourself questions like – What is the boundary that is being suggested? Does that boundary make sense to me? Does it serve a real purpose to help me in some way? Does the boundary contribute to keeping the actual commandments from God concerning sex? Will I be happier if I implement that boundary? What does my heart tell me is right and wrong (be careful to weed out the false messages you have accumulated before answering this particular question). Then take your conclusions to God and ask Him if your conclusions are right and in line with His will for your life. If you get a feeling they are not – start the process over again.
Once you have a strong conviction on what you truly believe is right and wrong and you believe God has confirmed your beliefs, then live your life with moral integrity by choosing to stay within those boundaries. Not out of fear or guilt – but instead choose to implement those boundaries in your life because YOU know in YOUR heart it is the right thing for you to do or not do and is what will help you to be a happier and more productive person, while still embracing the gift God has given you. If/when you slip up – repent – and move forward. Don’t beat yourself up – it serves no purpose. We Mormons have perfected the practice of holding on to guilt and beating ourselves up over and over. This practice needs to be eradicated in my opinion.
I believe it is also important for you to read about God’s gift of sex and seek knowledge about your body. There are many good books and other media available to you. The above book mentioned – “Women’s Anatomy of Arousal” by Sheri Winston – is a good one to learn about the amazing creation of God that your body truly is – but be careful with some “anything goes” thinking that sometimes crops up in it. Take a look at my resource section. I especially recommend that you get Dr. Laura Brotherson’s book – “And they were not ashamed” if you don’t already have it. Dr.Jennifer Finlayson-Fife has written some excellent articles and podcasts addressing Mormon issues with sex . There are also many excellent Christian books about sex on the market. I believe that the more you understand your body and how everything works – the more you know about your sexuality – the easier it is to figure out how to control and channel your sexual feelings and desires – and to keep them within the appropriate bounds.
Along with studying and learning about your sexuality and your body – continue to also work on your spiritual side. Study and learn about God – and Jesus Christ. At this time, I think it is extremely important for you to work hard on seeing yourself as They see you – love yourself as They love you. Forgive yourself because They forgive you. Make changes in your life when necessary. Accept the beautiful daughter of God that you are! Remember, God wants you to be happy and to have joy! Stop beating yourself up and try to embrace the happiness you are meant to have.
Life is a process of learning. Learning is a life long process full of making mistakes. Mistakes can be good experiences, if we learn from them and make appropriate changes so we don’t make the same mistakes again. Understanding ourselves, understanding and learning about our sexuality is all a part of the life long process. WE can choose to make it a joyful process. I know – simple in theory, hard in application – but, I promise you – it is doable. Just keep trying! I am here if you ever want or need to talk more.