Spiritual Abuse & Religious Harm
Have you had experiences in the Church that left you feeling confused, gaslit, powerless, or vulnerable?
Have you ever been excommunicated (subtly or explicitly) from a faith community because you questioned or didn’t agree with the rules?
Were sacred texts ever used to try to shame you into “right” behavior?
Were you raised in a family that used the Bible to justify abusive forms of discipline?
Spiritual Abuse is uniquely different from other forms of interpersonal harm. Because we unconsciously associate spiritual authority with the divine, harm that we experience in religious context is experienced as if God is harming us.
In addition, religious beliefs and practices are oftentimes foundational to an individual’s personal development and identity, especially for those who were raised in religious contexts.
Because of this, Spiritual harm is not just interpersonal (harm experienced from one individual or group of individuals to another). It’s also not just intrapersonal (erosion of self-identity or significant developmental harm).
Spiritual abuse is uniquely existential, touching the very core of human existence in relation to the universe, a divine being, or God, eroding the sense of stability of existence.
What does it look like?
The underlying goal of Spiritual Abuse is to control victims’ beliefs and behaviors through an abuse of power. This can happen within a formal religious setting (church, mosque, synagogue), a religious family, or a non-traditional spiritual environment (yoga studio, meditation group).
Spiritual abuse can look like:
- Discrediting your perspective
- Isolating you from your family/friends outside of the group
- Silencing your questioning through criticism or shame
- Accusing you of being “too sensitive”, “too emotional”, “not in line with the Spirit” or “unbiblical” when you disagree.
- Conditionality of acceptance (you are affirmed and included only when you agree to the leader or leaders’ standard of belief or behavior)
Symptoms of Spiritual Abuse can look a lot like symptoms of PTSD and cPTSD, and may include:
- Self-Doubt (erosion of trust in yourself)
- Erosion of trust in others
- Difficulties engaging or sustaining meaningful relationships
- Constricted range of allowable feelings
- Compulsive/Addictive behaviors
- Rigid black-and-white thinking
- Limited creativity
- Limited range of divergent problem solving
- Powerlessness, vulnerability
- Avoidance of stimuli associated with the abuse (i.e. Bible or other sacred texts, Christian radio, churches or synagogues)
- Feeling out of control of your response when exposed to stimuli associated with the abuse
- Feelings of betrayal (towards the leader/s and/or the community who failed to protect)
How is it treated?
Appropriately treating Spiritual abuse and religious harm is essential to a whole-person and sustainable healing process. Many people attempt to recover from spiritual abuse through changing their beliefs (deconstruction, reading all the books, or cognitive-behavioral talk therapy). Some people just try to treat the symptoms one at a time, and end up playing whack-a-mole as new symptoms pop up. And unfortunately, many choose to throw it all away – they disconnect from faith or spirituality altogether to avoid opening old wounds or exposing themselves to more potential harm.
I prioritize Spiritual Abuse treatment in my practice because of the beautiful and powerful resource of faith and spirituality. I don’t believe that we can cut off a whole sector of our being without significant cost to ourselves and our loved ones. I’m also solidly convinced of the research supporting the power of spirituality to dramatically improve mental heath and well-being. See the compelling work of Dr. Lisa Miller if you want to know more about why I am so committed to supporting clients in re-engaging the power of faith and spirituality!
In treating Spiritual Abuse, I utilize approaches that treat the whole person – body, mind, emotions, and spirit. If you want to heal from Spiritual Abuse and re-engage the benefits of faith and spirituality without exposing yourself to more harm, reach out to me today!