Religious Trauma/Spiritual Abuse
Dallas Therapy Collective
You feel stuck when it comes to religion and spirituality
You’re plagued by the questions, “What do I really believe? Am I allowed to doubt?” You can’t help but fear that your doubts mean you’re betraying God. And yet you also can’t reconcile so many mixed messages in your mind. “If God were so loving then why….?” You may even hold cherished memories of your religious experiences and yet you can’t help but notice something has changed. Is it me? Is it God? What is it?
You’re starting to realize you’ve been pretending for a while. At first it was subtle, even excusable. You told yourself, “This is just how it is. This is how it’s done. There’s no harm in playing the part.” But the mask is growing increasingly heavy and awkward to keep wearing. Something is nagging at you – you just can’t put your finger on it. Your feelings and thoughts are starting to drift from the certainty you’ve clung to for so long. In fact, the longer this goes on, the less of a sense you have of yourself, of God, of everything. You wonder, “Have I ‘sold out?’ Is God testing me?” And yet somehow you sense it’s more complicated than that.
You’re beginning to notice feelings of resentment. Why am I rolling my eyes during the teachings/sermons? I’ve become hyper-critical of everything! Why does it feel painful to see people freely worshiping? Why can’t I get into the songs that used to be so moving? And yet, you can’t help but notice something has changed.
You’re also noticing increasingly uncomfortable feelings of fear or dread at the pit of your stomach. What would it mean to leave, or even take a break? You’re nervous about the implications. Will they judge me?
You can’t help but wonder about the leadership. You’re noticing that certain topics are off the table – untouchable. Certain questions aren’t allowed to be asked. The more you pay attention, the more you notice a hierarchy…some people are esteemed as more spiritual or closer to God than others, and these people seem to carry more influence over others. You’re not sure what to make of it.
Your first instinct is to take responsibility for all these confusing feelings and observations – “Maybe my faith is too small? Maybe I’m not praying enough? Maybe it’s spiritual warfare? Or my time in the desert?”
You fondly recall earlier powerful moments in the church or group that you were a part of. Life-changing moments that motivated you and gave you a purpose. You acknowledge the tight-knit community with a single-minded vision and recall how committed you felt to the cause, to them, to the leadership. You were inspired and it was your mission to inspire others!
However, as time went on, you started realizing that you lost a little bit of yourself. It’s hard to know where you end and the group begins. The powerful moments and miraculous breakthroughs started becoming increasingly difficult to sustain. You’ve prayed, you’ve fasted, you’ve sacrificed. And it’s not working like it used to.
Sometimes spiritual or religious experience can be so powerfully positive. Life changing, even! However, sometimes things take a turn. It can be so incredibly confusing because lots of people think of religion as a safe place – a healing place. And yet there are religious leaders, environments, and families that can contaminate that safe place and even cause harm. Sometimes it’s obvious and other times it’s subtle. At times, the subtlety of it is what gets to us. It’s easy to excuse, overlook, or even rationalize. It can be isolating and even painful to start to acknowledge your doubts and to come to terms with your feelings and experiences. It may even feel like a betrayal – of God, of your family, of your community, or even of yourself. It can feel incredibly isolating and confusing.
There is such a thing as
Spiritual abuse and religious abuse
People are drawn to religious groups and churches for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes they’re raised in that culture; sometimes they find a meaningful spiritual community as an adult. Often, religious communities can be tight-knit. They help you when you need to move, bring you casseroles when you’re sick, and give you an automatic support system. They provide meaning, structure, and friendships.
However, sometimes these groups start to shift and they consume more and more of your time, resources, and energy. All of a sudden, you realize there are norms and expectations that you didn’t realize you had signed up for. They often pin these rules to the values, doctrines, or scriptures that they follow…creating a sense of shame when people don’t comply. At times, the shift is so subtle, that there’s no time to notice it…until you find yourself noticing a pang of inner conflict that you’re not sure how to make sense of.
Spiritual abuse and religious abuse can happen in various contexts. There can be spiritual abuse by parents in which parents impose unrealistic or demanding expectations on their children to conform. There can be spiritual abuse in marriage in which scriptures or doctrines are used as a means to manipulate or control one’s spouse. There can also be spiritual abuse in the church in which a toxic system is created that permeates parts or the entirety of the church family.
It is possible to face your spiritual and religious struggles and to heal from your pain. Whether the abuse stems from your family, church or religious group/ministry, your marriage, or whatever the source, healing is within reach. Healing often begins with allowing yourself to be honest with your own experiences and reactions.
Are you staring at the ceiling at night wondering if hell really exists, as you’ve been taught? Then we’ll start there. Have you been denied a position of leadership in your church because of your gender? Let’s talk about how that feels for you and how that fits with what you believe. Have you been rejected because you identify as LGBT? Let’s talk about how those shaming messages have impacted you. Do you sense your body telling you something is “off”? Let’s listen to it and see what it has to say.
Therapy for religious trauma can help you to explore what your spiritual journey has meant to you – the powerfully positive experiences you may have had as well as the painful ones. Counseling can be a process of exploring what drew you to the belief system or the community from the very beginning. We can talk about what you appreciated from the experience, how your relationship with God grew, and what was meaningful to you about being a part of that community. You will have a space to explore when your inner conflict began. What were you sensing inside? What did you feel like God was telling you about that experience? What does all this mean to you now? Therapy can help you find a spiritual connection again, even if it doesn’t look like it used to.
You might be wondering…
How can a therapist help me – don’t I need someone with religious training?
Some religious groups or churches like to take care of counseling issues “in house.” Sometimes, these services can be quite helpful. However, sometimes religious professionals, although well-meaning, lack training in addressing and treating mental health issues, including issues involving stress or trauma stemming from inappropriate power dynamics within their own group. Your therapist can help you identify the impact the group has had on you and support you as you consider next steps in your spiritual or religious journey, should that be important to you. Your therapist will not position themselves as a spiritual authority over you. Instead, they will support you by helping you connect with and make sense of your experiences.
What if acknowleging my feelings means I’m being disobedient to God?
It can be scary to open up about your painful religious experiences. Fears and doubts may surface that seem uncomfortable or even unbearable. You may even wonder if your therapist can possibly understand the complexities of what you’ve been through – both what your faith has meant for you and the ways in which you have been hurt. Many churches, religions, and faith groups perpetuate fear in their members at the idea of disobeying God. This is a very common tactic used to try to control others’ behaviors. Your therapist will provide an open and empathic space where you can sort through these fears and other feelings and identify what you really believe.
What if talking about this in therapy makes me not believe in God anymore? Will opening up Pandora’s box make me an atheist? I don’t want to lose my religion.
This is quite a common fear and can feel overwhelming. You may have spent years in your faith, church, or religious group pouring over scriptures, studies, and prayers cultivating your spiritual identity. The idea of not believing anymore can be terrifying. And yet, although some people who explore their painful religious experiences begin to shift their religious views toward agnosticism or Atheism, many others are able to seek healing from their spiritual pain and find a new way of connecting to God, their religion, or their belief system without the weight of previous baggage. The spiritual abuse recovery process can open up space for you to explore your connection with God and discern what seems genuine to you versus what may have been imposed on you by others. Either way, you get to reclaim your spiritual identity as you heal from your pain.
You can reclaim your spiritual path
After Religious Trauma
We believe that through healing from spiritual and religious abuse, you can reclaim your spiritual journey. You can get on the path you want to be on. It may look very different than it has in the past or you may align even more so with your original belief system – just in a more authentic and connected way. Either way, the process of exploring what has worked for you and what has been painful or harmful for you can empower you to clear up some of your religious baggage and move forward in the spiritual journey that you are seeking.