Four Characteristics of Spiritual Abuse

Four Characteristics of Spiritual Abuse


In a previous post, we explored some definitions of spiritual abuse. My own research upon writing my doctoral dissertation yielded the following conceptual characteristics of spiritual abuse:

1) Abuse of Power

Abuse of power is when someone (or “someones” – could be family members, religious leaders, teachers, etc.) in a position of power or authority over another person inappropriately uses their power in a detrimental or exploitative way. The person being powered-over may or may not be aware of the abuse of power. In fact, often the abuse of power is so engrained in the culture of the group that it’s viewed as acceptable, encouraged, or even holy. Here are some examples of abuses of power:

  • A religious leader might use their position to lay guilt on someone for not donating money or tithing to the causes, church, or group
  • A leader might position themselves to grant permission or forbid certain life choices regarding career, marriage, or education
  • A parent might force a child to adhere to strict religious rules or practices that are unhealthy for the child
  • When someone claims they know what God wants someone else to do and uses manipulation or persuasion to control another person

2) Suppression of Expression

Think about how you feel when you’ve disagreed with someone, but couldn’t say or do anything about it. You know that feeling you get in your stomach when you know something isn’t quite right, but speaking out feels like it costs more than not? This is suppression of expression. It happens when our thoughts, feelings, reactions, and doubts are unwelcomed at the least or dangerous at most and we do everything we possibly can to keep them inside. Keeping these thoughts and feelings trapped inside will often manifest as bodily sensations. Some people experience headaches, stomach or GI issues, or other aches or tension as a result of suppressing their thoughts and feelings. Over time, this suppression can become extremely confusing, particularly when we remain in an environment in which expressing our true thoughts and feelings is unwelcome. Here are some examples of suppression of expression:

  • Disagreeing with a religious leader or doctrine (women in leadership, full inclusion and affirmation for LGBTQ+ people, beliefs about abortion, hell, etc.) and not being free to share or dialogue about it
  • Not wanting to do something, but doing it anyway (childcare duties, volunteering, etc.)
  • Feeling called to a certain profession, leadership role, or other life choice and not doing it because it goes against the practices of your church or ministry

3) Conditionality

Conditionality can be thought of as a strings-attached transaction. It often flies in opposition to the unconditional love that many groups, churches, and families endorse. It can be particularly confusing when this is the case because of the hypocrisy inherent in a system that preaches unconditional love and yet places conditional demands on members. Conditional relationships with others, including with God, can result in a significant sense of unworthiness and shame. Here are some examples of conditionality:

  • Feeling like one has to give money or tithe in order to be a good person, go to heaven, or be accepted in the group
  • When someone is rejected or shunned from the group because they disagree with a doctrine or practice; the message is that they can belong only if they conform
  • When people feel the need to engage in religious practices (even if they don’t want to) such as tithing, fasting, daily devotionals, etc. and if they don’t the church – or even God – will disapprove of them

4) Spiritual Injury

Spiritual injury is the traumatic response to the characteristics involved in perpetrating spiritual abuse. Being a victim of a power abuses, being forced to suppress your thoughts and feelings, and being made to engage with conditional relationships for an extended period of time can negatively impact one’s spiritual connection. Often times it’s challenging to untangle the people perpetrating the abuse from the god that they claim to represent. Spiritual injury involves a lack of ability to connect with one’s spirituality because of the impact that the unhealthy/abusive person, people, or environment has had. Examples of spiritual injury include:

  • Being suspicious or mistrusting of any kind of church, religious leader, or spiritual group
  • Feeling scared to enter into a space of worship
  • Being triggered by songs, phrases, and language used by the unhealthy/abusive group
  • Feeling like you can’t trust yourself to identify safe/healthy spiritual people or environments because you have been hurt

Of course, these four characteristics often travel together…it can be difficult to know where one ends and another begins. For example, abuse of power meets conditionality when a highly esteemed leader in the church asks you to volunteer for something and then makes you feel like you are valuable only if you comply.

Spiritual abuse can happen on a continuum. Much like emotional and psychological abuse, it can be subtle or it can be overt. If you think you have experienced spiritual abuse, take some time to put words to what you have been through. You can journal about it, talk with a trusted friend about it, or seek counseling. If you are sensing this may be the case, listen to what your “gut” might be telling you about this.

If you determine you have been through spiritual abuse, please know that you can recover if you choose to. People can recover from spiritual and religious abuse and reclaim their life, even their spiritual life, if they choose to seek healing. It’s not often easy or simple. It quite often involves a great deal of grief, exploring and re-constructing your identity, re-examining all you have known and believed in and revered as sacred. And in this grief and pain there can be a cleansing, a freedom, a release.


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!

Spiritual Abuse is Abuse

Spiritual Abuse is Abuse


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.” (

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!