Religious Trauma: An Interview with Dr. Bethany Rothamel

Religious Trauma: An Interview with Dr. Bethany Rothamel

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!

So Let’s Talk About The Bachelorette

So Let’s Talk About The Bachelorette

Maybe you’re fascinated by The Bachelorette.  Maybe you love the drama.  Maybe you have never watched.  I fall into the fascinated category.  The more seasons I have seen, the more I anticipate manipulations behind the scenes and understand the ability for editing to alter narratives.  Even outside of the Bachelorette, I am fascinated by how media can have us rooting for relationships and actions that we might not root for in real life.  How quickly someone can change from a hero to a villain!  This show could write books on that alone.  Actually, a previous contestant, Sharleen Joynt (Flare and All The Pretty Pandas blog), does wonders breaking down some of these issues on blogs each week.

So why am I writing my first blog post on this?  Well, this season showed something different than ever before.  It demonstrated how incredibly effective manipulation and gaslighting can be in a relationship.  It showed that despite someone noticing red flags, the “crazy-making” that comes with gaslighting can still work.

Moreover, it showed how spirituality can be another weapon or tool that makes it harder to leave controlling or manipulative relationships. If you watch the show, you probably already know who I’m talking about.

I think this is a conversation worth having, because I think what happened on screens across America happens in relationships across America.

The Rundown

Full disclosure: The Bachelorette is a heavily-edited reality TV show where one person starts dating a group of 25 to 30 men to find a husband.  This show films for around 6 weeks.  Contestants have no access to the outside world or their support systems. The men are fully stocked with alcohol. Conversations (with leading questions) focus primarily on the person they are there to fall in love with, the bachelorette.  The drama pot is constantly stirred.  If you don’t actually see someone saying a sentence on screen, that could mean that sentence was not said in that context it was shown. The words may have been spliced together to make a sentence they never actually said.  Thus, I am not here to diagnose anyone. Rather, I am here to talk about what the clips showed and what happened next.

Let’s begin this journey!

Luke P. introduces himself to the Bachelor world through an introduction video noting the importance of his faith and desire to meet Hannah.  They had an immediate connection.  In fact, she gave him the First Impression Rose. Of all the men she met, she had an instant connection with him.  We find out later that their spiritual connection is what bonded them so quickly in the beginning.

We see Hannah and Luke click in their first conversations and sparks of instant physical attraction fly.  She wants men to be bold and he boldly professes he is falling in love with her on their first group date.  Hannah shares “he is saying everything [her] heart needs him to say.”  This doesn’t last long though.  By the next week, Hannah communicates she is picking up on some things that are making her uncomfortable with Luke. She voices, “I’m either falling in love with Luke or Luke is making me go crazy.”

Let’s talk about red flags

Red flags are not in and of themselves necessarily bad or negative, but when they are present it is often time to get more information to ensure it is a healthy, supportive, and empowering relationship.  The more the red flags, the more likely the relationship is not healthy and power is not distributed equitably.  Luke’s red flag rundown includes quick involvement/seriousness to a relationship, jealousy, controlling behavior, blaming other’s for one’s problems or feelings, rigid gender roles, being disrespectful to others, and not respecting boundaries.

Though Luke P. quickly professes he is falling in love, we come to learn that love is contingent on whether she complies with his expectations and wants in a relationship.  It’s not really about her, it’s more about the idea of her.  He displays physical aggression with the other men.  Any time he begins a conflict, he finds a way to shift the focus to someone else.  He regularly blames the other person involved, comes to Hannah before anyone else, and lies about what occurred.  This season shows back to back footage of Luke saying something then taking it back, then saying he never said that in the first place, and ultimately landing on being “misunderstood.”


His confidence and assuredness in statements such as, “I would never lie to you,” “I will never control you,” and “I would never condemn or judge you” can make it hard to realize that it is exactly what he is doing in the moment.  It is utterly confusing and has someone questioning themselves and their reality when their partner displays this behavior.

Among all the drama and conversation around Hannah and Luke, there is an additional missing piece that I see people attempting to name, call out, or identify in this season; it is spiritual abuse.  Spiritual abuse is simply using spirituality or religion to control or manipulate someone.

Diving Deeper into Spiritual Abuse

Spirituality and religion are shown on this season more than ever before.  Viewers see numerous conversations with Luke discussing his past of “chasing sex” and sin to ultimately finding God.  In true Bachelorette fashion, he is filmed sharing his bad-boy to changed-man testimony while taking a hot steamy shower and displaying his muscular, un-clothed body.  Beyond that intro video, Luke shares his testimony with Hannah, takes her to his Bible study, and both are prayed over by the group.  His beliefs are clearly important to him and a large part of his life.

There is nothing wrong with Luke having his own set of beliefs and wanting a partner to have the same or similar beliefs.  However, when someone imposes their beliefs on others or uses those beliefs as a way to manipuluate or judge someone’s behaviors, the motive changes from “let’s find out if we’re a match” to one of control. Luke actively uses techniques of gaslighting and manipulation and uses them under the guise of spirituality and spiritual connection.

Luke tells Hannah directly that he disapproves of her choices around her sexuality using Christian scripture and language.  He appears to somewhat mock other past Bachelors/Bachelorettes talking about exploring their physical intimacy with someone while identifying as Christian.  He gives an ultimatum saying if she has had sex with any other contestants that he would want to leave immediately.  At this point, I will remind you, we are talking about a reality dating show filled with sexual innuendos around overnight dates.

Luke proceeds to disregard Hannah’s feelings, thoughts, and boundaries in the name of his faith and heart.  This is a tactic that some employ intentionally and some unintentionally. Although we don’t know his motives here, what the viewer sees is that Hannah’s feelings and wishes are consistently disregarded. He demonstrates that his beliefs are more important than hers. His strong spiritual beliefs entitle him to disregard her boundaries and words.  For example, he tells her he loves her flaws while acknowledging he is not aware of any of his own.  He tells her he will be there for her “boneheaded” mistakes or “slip-ups,” but never takes responsibility for the harm he causes others.  When she tells him she does not want to marry him, he insists she is wrong.  She asks him to leave; he refuses.  When he finally does leave, he pivots and asks to pray for her before he goes, only to come back again, showing more disregard for her wishes. He then professes she acted “out of character.”

Subtle and not-so-subtle manipulations 

Using “shoulds” and ignoring boundaries matters.  If I said you should not _fill in the blank_, it is safe to assume judgment will come if I have violated the stated expectation.  People’s word choice, tone, and inflection matter. Luke’s hometown date was telling in a subtle way.  When asked about if Hannah is worth all of it by his Dad, Luke shares that Hannah is “worth it,” and how he has seen more sides of her than others because of their spiritual connection. His Dad goes on to say if she is “worth it” then she is “worthy of him.”  Worth comes from having the same spiritual beliefs and views.  What happens wiht those who differ from his beliefs?

Let’s look at what happens after the show.  Luke has apologized, but not for his actions.  He says he would not change anything.  He made a Twitter account the night the episode aired and he confronts Hannah on his expectations around her sexuality.  He then tweets directly at her about how they view faith differently, with a presumption that one view is more correct than the other.

Look at how he has switched the narrative! He is shifting the conversation away from his lies, harsh words, and behaviors to focusing the story on their differing beliefs. Unfortunately, he continues to shame Hannah around her faith not matching or conforming to his expectations of what faith should look like.  Luke presents himself as a martyr for righteousness, a victim of the network or producer’s edits.

This is not a conversation about whether it is okay to have one’s own beliefs… it’s a conversation about how people can abuse or hurt others with their beliefs, intentionally or not. Many are rallying around him and his right to believe what he believes and expect the same from a partner.  Here is the thing though, expectations are set together in relationships through open communication and exploration.  Often what was depicted on the show were expectations being set by one party, judgment when those expectations weren’t met, and then denial that any hurtful things were ever said.  As Hannah told Luke directly, the words he chose to communicate his expectations were “not okay.”  And Hannah gets it!  She sees it for what it is, but it took her time to get there and there was understandably confusion along the way.

Prioritizing one person’s wants, desires and expectations in a relationship over another’s creates a power differential that can be incredibly harmful and regularly leads to abuse or intimate partner violence.  Mingling this kind of control with spiritual/religious expectations can be harmful in a nuanced way, impacting one’s sense of their spiritual identity or connection.  Let’s name what we are seeing as spiritual abuse and focus the conversation on what it needs to focus on – calling out harm and promoting health.

Hannah mentioned she ignored or put aside red flags for her feelings.  Ultimately she listened to her intuition, made the decision to eliminate Luke P from the runnings.  I am hopeful that she will continue to listen to her intuition and express her faith in the way she chooses.

For more information on spiritual abuse in relationships:

The National Domestic Violence Hotline: Spiritual Abuse

Genesis Women’s Shelter Blog: 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!

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!