Exploring religious trauma in therapy
Spiritual abuse and trauma is a growing area of study as we begin to take a critical look at the ways in which our relationship to organized religion and doctrinal faith impact our mental health. At Dallas Therapy Collective, we specialize in identifying and treating trauma, and we actively seek practitioners that already have a specialty in spiritual trauma or have a desire to learn.
Bethan Rothamel is one such practitioner.
Bethany came to DTC for her postdoc fellowship in 2020 (what a year, right), and has been a valuable asset to the collective as she studies and works under Dr. Keller. We had the opportunity and privilege to sit down with her to discuss her experience treating survivors of spiritual abuse, and we’d love to share what she had to say:
How did you get connected with Dr. Keller for your post doc?
I knew Kathryn from our graduate program and had a chance to work more closely with her at the UT Dallas student counseling center where we both trained.
I felt connected to Kathryn’s shared relational approach to therapy and supervision and remembered her talking about her dissertation research on spiritual abuse at that time. It blew me away how similar facets of spiritual trauma were to dynamics of interpersonal violence (e.g., physical, emotional, and sexual abuse), my initial clinical area of interest and training.
When it was time for me to find a postdoc position, I wanted to land somewhere with colleagues who also approached their work from a trauma-informed lens, so I immediately thought of Kathryn and Dallas Therapy Collective. Working with survivors of spiritual abuse sounded appealing in that I could bring my background in trauma to the forefront of my clinical work, while also deepening my understanding of elements specific to spiritual trauma through consultation with Kathryn.
Were religious abuse survivors a population you were already interested in working with? If so, what attracted you to that work?
Yes! Although I hadn’t necessarily sought out working with this population specifically, I found myself diving into meaningful conversations with clients about the role spirituality played (or didn’t play) in their upbringing, values development, and relationships.
Some shared about how spirituality enriched their lives and provided a source of community or coping, while others identified various pressures or values clashes that arose as they navigated their personal and spiritual lives.
Some of my clients would come to therapy wanting to work on anxiety concerns, leading to shared surprise when we uncovered how deeply entrenched their anxiety was in spiritual trauma.
Clients who were taught to prioritize others above themselves through their faith shared how difficult it was to seek out therapy, let alone spend an hour focusing on their needs!
Others explored deep shame about their sexual health due to spoken or unspoken messages about sex being a taboo topic.
My work with gender expansive and queer folx fostered painful conversations about being ostracized from the church for being their authentic selves—the most palpable form of rejection.
Some clients wanted to reclaim their faith identities but had no idea where to start—the hurt had to be expressed and validated before true healing and spiritual reconnection could occur.
Once I realized that spirituality played a role in many of my clients’ experiences of trauma, it became even more crucial to engage my clients in discussions about their spiritual histories.
What were some hesitations or uncertainties you had about working with survivors?
One of my initial concerns was that I wanted to make survivors of spiritual abuse feel emotionally comfortable to talk about their pain without invalidating their desire to maintain a religious identity (or not). I pride myself on being relationally collaborative with clients, so I tend to express curiosity about their interests as it relates to spiritual deconstruction and/or reconstruction.
What are some things you’ve learned about religious abuse and working with religious abuse survivors?
As aforementioned, it struck me how many similarities there are between spiritual abuse and interpersonal violence. Here’s one example. Survivors of abuse are often well acquainted with the term (and the experience of) gaslighting, which I translate to “crazy-making” or “sowing seeds of doubt.” For instance, if you claim with confidence that the ocean is blue, but a room full of people insists it’s red, you’ll likely begin to question yourself: “Am I the one who’s wrong here?” Often, survivors of trauma are told their experiences of abuse didn’t happen that way—or, even worse—at all. In some spiritual communities, gaslighting is a tactic used to downplay the impact of religious trauma, which protects the image of the community at the expense of the survivor’s well-being.
One of the biggest themes that tends to emerge in my work with survivors of spiritual abuse is having an underdeveloped sense of self. An emphasis upon serving others or a higher being(s) is not inherently bad—many communities thrive through shared collectivistic values and it can feel fulfilling to support others. At the same time, it’s really hard to pour from an empty cup. If we’re constantly serving others at the expense of ourselves, we develop a new normal in which our basic needs don’t need to be met, our emotions seem selfish or unknown, and we sacrifice our own identity development.
Finally, we all hold morals and values regardless of our affiliation or lack thereof with a spiritual community or faith.
What has been the most impactful part of this journey for you?
For me, the most impactful part of any trauma work is bearing witness to clients regaining a sense of self and ability to trust after their emotional or physical safety has been violated. For survivors of spiritual trauma, this may look like being able to identify their needs, enter a spiritual space again, trust authority figures, or live according to their authentic values.
Is there anything you want to say to someone who may be reading this and wondering if they’ve experienced religious abuse?
Trust your experience. Our brains and bodies are wired to alert us when we encounter actual or potential harm. If you’re not sure if what you’ve experienced or are currently experiencing constitutes spiritual abuse, try to approach your experience with gentle curiosity rather than criticism or self-doubt.
Acknowledging that spiritual abuse is happening does not mean you cannot have a healthy relationship with your faith if desired. Therapy can help you determine which spiritual values fit for you and which ones do not. It’s also okay to decide to move away from a faith identity.
Are you looking for a therapist in Dallas, TX to explore issues related to spiritual abuse or religious trauma? We have specialitsts who work with this issue. Check out our specialty page to learn more about what we offer and to see if one of our therapists might be a good fit for you!