We’ve all head of physical abuse, sexual abuse, verbal abuse, psychological abuse, and emotional abuse. Those terms tend to conjure up images in our minds: “battered women’s shelters,” the #metoo movement, self-defense classes, etc.

If we haven’t survived one (or more) of them ourselves, we all know someone or know someone who knows someone who is an abuse survivor. Our heart goes out to the victims as we can imagine how painful it must be to have survived such horrible life experiences. We’ve heard of the statistic that it takes seven attempts to leave an abusive relationship. We’ve read the stories so poignantly shared on social media. We are moved as a culture to not be a bystander, but to speak up, to use our voices, to empower the disempowered.

However, when it comes to spiritual abuse, I often get a head tilt with a confused-eyed stare. “Spiritual abuse?” I can feel them asking. Wheels are spinning, but they haven’t quite found their track.

In short, spiritual abuse occurs when religion or spirituality is used in a way that is harmful to another person or group. Like other kinds of abuse, it can happen on a continuum. Although there is no perfect definition for such a broad and nuanced concept, here are some definitions offered by other authors that put a finger on the pulse of spiritual abuse.

“The mistreatment of a person who is in need of help, support, or greater spiritual empowerment, with the result of weakening, undermining, or decreasing that person’s spiritual empowerment (Johnson & Van Vonderen, 1991)

“Denying other’s spiritual freedom through claiming that only one’s way to God is valid” (Linn, Linn & Linn, 1994)

“Spiritually abused individuals have received the message that their spirituality is defective as if there is something wrong with them” (Bhaktavatsala, 2001).

“Spiritual abuse, sometimes called religious abuse, results when individuals are deceived and or otherwise manipulated in ways that cause detrimental changes to core elements of the self, including one’s relationship to God, religious/philosophical beliefs, self-determination, and the capacity to think independently. Though often associated with cultic groups, spiritual abuse may also occur in mainstream denominations when pastors or others misuse their authority or when individuals violate the ethical boundaries of proselytizing or other kinds of influence situations.” (www.spiritualabuseresources.com)

These definitions are all antidotal – astute observations made by people with intimate knowledge of spiritual abuse. None are perfect and yet all capture an aspect of the experience.

In future posts, we will share more thoughts, research, and insights on spiritual abuse. We will explore characteristics of spiritual abuse, how to know if you have been spiritually abused, and ways to heal from spiritual abuse.

In the meantime, consider this: how would you define spiritual abuse?


Are you looking for a counselor for spiritual abuse in Dallas, TX? Check out our speciatly page on spiritual abuse counseling to see if one of our therapists might be a good fit for you!

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