Spiritual Abuse: when faith becomes a weapon
Spirituality & Mental Health
What Freud saw as neuroses and Ellis claimed represented institutionalized irrationality, Jung and Allport viewed to be a source of meaning and stability in an uncertain world (Hackney & Sanders, 2003) – I’m talking about RELIGION.
Psychological literature continues to be mixed on the issue decades later. And for good reason.
As with everything, it depends on what your definition is (insert Clinton joke here).
…but when things DO go south, you can bet there’s always someone else involved and not just their God.
When Faith Hurts
One of my specialties as a therapist is working with those who have been hurt and sometimes even traumatized by their church or other outlet for spiritual practice.
Most often, this abuse takes place at the hands of the person or group he or she has “submitted to” or hangs out with as a conduit to the Divine/Source Energy/ Creator (e.g., pastor, priest, rabbi, imam, church, denomination, congregation, elders).
I felt like I was put out to pasture, like an orphan, unwanted, and unloved. No one but me knew the deep scars that I had inside. Even now, almost nine years later, I am still sensing great emotional scars that I thought were long gone.
These are the words of a woman who was rejected and abused, not by a boyfriend or a husband, but by a church. She still is not fully rid of the emotional and spiritual residue left from years of exposure to a church environment that was controlling, legalistic, guilt-inducing, and highly manipulative. “It’s still hard for me to expose my wounds, to admit to other Christians that I have been hurt spiritually and that my emotions have been damaged. I thought I was able to put it all behind me, but I guess the memories will always be there.”
(Excerpt from “Recovery From Churches That Abuse” by Dr. Ronald Enroth)
Spiritual abuse is very real and it is devastating.
I’ve already admitted that it can be hard to define in technical terms…but it’s like porn; you just know when you see it. A common explanation for what causes spiritual abuse is a nasty mix of complete “authoritarianism coupled with toxic theology which is received and reinforced at church, school and home.”
Juanita and Dale Ryan qualify it as “the kind that damages the central core of who we are.” And that’s certainly consistent with everything I’ve seen in my office.
Spiritual abuse causes the victim to question everything he or she ever thought they knew about their identity and existence in general.
If your thoughts, emotions, behaviors, preferences, sexual desires, lifestyle…you name it…doesn’t completely align with what you’ve been told God says, you’re f@$%.
And there’s just not much coming back from that is there??
It can take many forms.
Author Mary Demuth describes her experience with abusive spiritual leaders:
- A leader above me telling me that even though I was burned out and losing my health, I had to stay in the ministry because if I didn’t I would lose all my gifting to do future ministry.
- A church that repeatedly told us they basically had the corner on the market of Jesus and that if we had to go elsewhere, we would miss God’s highest.
- A leader who found ministry to be a vehicle for his great gain, lying and manipulating donors to earn more and more money.
- A ministry that shamed me into throwing away all my evil music (including Lionel Ritchie and Duran Duran…oh the evil!)
- A leader who cornered me, threatened me, and yelled because I brought up a concern that others saw. This led to panic attacks.
Guilt and shame are common denominators.
Some of my clients have been told their illnesses are their fault, their poverty is their fault, their loved one’s death is their fault, their domestic violence is their fault…it’s always THEIR FAULT.
I’ve also worked with women who have been taught their bodies are not their own; whatever their husbands want from them in bed is free reign. But then sometimes, the reverse is apparently true as well. That their husband’s requests could be inappropriate (e.g., oral sex and anal sex are considered “homosexual acts” by certain denominations) and if these wives submit as they’ve been taught, they are now sinning.
So…which is worse? Sinning by refusing the man or sinning by submitting to the man?
In this case patriarchy becomes spiritual abuse and either way, it’s once again the victim’s fault.
While I don’t have the stats to prove it, it has been my clinical experience as one who specializes in sexual issues, that women who grew up with rigid dogma are much more likely to present with dyspareunia or vaginismus than their non-religious peers.
And if you do happen to be LGBTQ+ or divorced or anything else typically religious men have had problems with, you are definitely at a much higher risk for being abused by those tasked with speaking for the Divine.
Other forms of spiritual abuse I have personally witnessed include being told:
- Who you can and cannot marry, at least if you want God’s blessing
- You shouldn’t need medical or psychological assistance from professionals outside the church.
- Any meditative practices outside sacred texts or that denomination’s version of prayer could open you up to demonic possession.
- Illnesses or even infidelity are signs of demonic possession.
- Developmentally normal childhood behavior (e.g., delay in obedience to a request/ command, questioning reasoning behind authority figure’s request/ command) is sinful, perhaps even same thing as witchcraft.
- Developmentally normal sexual desire/ arousal in teens is sinful.
- A girl’s virginity is her father’s to protect until it is given to her husband; her body is a trophy/ gift attached to her self-worth and should be covered and kept under lock and key.
- You should forgive no matter what and forgiveness may include letting this person, perhaps even another abuser continue to be around you.
- Guilt and shame are healthy things and signs of the Divine trying to get your attention.
Psychologist, author and survivor of spiritual abuse herself, Dr. Marlene Winell coined the term Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS) to describe these symptoms therapists such as myself are attempting to help heal. She believes it can be compared to a combination of PTSD and Complex PTSD (C-PTSD).
Many of my clients who chose to walk away now tell me about things like:
- Fear of losing their eternal soul
- Feeling like they’ve been kicked out of the cool kids club and the only true social support they’ve ever known
- Not knowing what to do with feelings of anger, anxiety, fear, and depression “because God wouldn’t want them to feel that way”
- Struggle to express sexual desire or enjoy sex
- Unreasonably high expectations/ perfectionism
- Fear of being too “proud” or “selfish” and thus drawn to self-deprecation as a result of what I call “wretch theology” (e.g., “Good things are always due to God and failures are always mine.”)
- Struggle to be loved for who they are and not what they do for others
- Difficulty making decisions on their own
- Contemplating suicide
…and much more.
Spiritual abuse is often misdiagnosed.
Clinicians who aren’t trained to look for issues related to spiritual health may easily mistake this form of abuse for other “disorders” like bipolar disorder, OCD, borderline personality disorder, mood disorders, and more common eating disorders etc.
Road to Recovery
The good news is that like any form of abuse, there are things survivors can do to stop the trauma cycle and recover. Seeking professional assistance from a counselor who understands the ins and outs of this particular flavor of toxicity is always a good first step.
In her book, “Leaving the Fold,” Dr. Winell describes 5 phases of recovery: separation, confusion, avoidance, feeling, and rebuilding. Sometimes part of my work with clients includes finding a healthier spiritual outlet within the same type of faith system, so please hear me – I am NOT saying Christianity or any other religion is harmful. Like anything else in life, it is HOW something is used that is up for examination.
Many times however, the clinical work becomes more about a reintegration of psyche and soul that now chooses a different outlet.
Regardless of the direction a healing path may take, survivors need to know he or she is safe, truly accepted and understood, and completely free to find WHOLENESS outside the shackles of abusive faith.
Leaving the Fold by Dr. Marlene Winell
My Interviews with Dr. Lourdes Viado of Women in Depth
Meet Tamara Powell
Tamara Powell, LMHC is the owner of Arya Therapy Services, a Pensacola counseling and coaching practice. Born into a fundamentalist family system whose dogma she later re-evaluated for a spiritual framework that felt more consistent to her personal values, Tamara now works with others hurt by the Church/Religion globally. She has degrees not only in psychology but also specialized training in religiosity, comparative religions and shamanic/ earth based worldviews. If you’re interested in learning more about her and her services, she would love to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org.