Choose freedom and love even if you have been living in fear and stress due to spiritual abuse.
A spiritual path or religious tradition should provide us with a sense of strength, community and healthy belonging. Unfortunately, it does not always work out that way.
Many former Fundamentalist Christians, Recovering Catholics and people leaving Strict Alternative Spirituality Paths feel that their time seeking the Divine has actually been an abusive experience.
Sometimes the spiritual communities we have been immersed in are unhealthy and leave us feeling trapped, desperate and confused.
It shouldn’t be that way.
You don’t have to feel like God hates you. And, you don’t have to give up sharing your authentic self with the world just to be accepted by your family or a religious community.
You certainly feel pressure to give up sharing your authentic self with the world just to be accepted by your family or a religious community.
A healthier relationship with God, and with yourself is possible.
You can have a joyful, peaceful life even if you’re questioning your spiritual roots. You don’t have to feel like you are bad, alone or like God hates you.
A vibrant future is possible.
We begin to build that new future by examining our past experiences with religion and spirituality, our current perceptions about faith, and our needs for both community and autonomy.
Our healing starts with coming to understand the nature of spiritual abuse we may have experienced and begin imagining a new path forward.
But understanding spiritual abuse can be tricky.
How do we recognize Spiritual Abuse for what it is?
In some extreme cases it may be clear. But in many cases, the abuse itself leaves us with murky and confused feelings and a tendency to blame ourselves for the pain we are in.
Many of us were raised with messages that God is punishing and angry. We were raised with messages chalk-full of shame and control. We were taught to feel shame about sexuality, shame about our bodies, shame about our creativity and curiosity, and shame about what it means to be human.
Even more destructively, we may have been taught they we inherently sinful, bad or wrong and our only worth is in being useful to or used by others.
Learning to recognize these beliefs and patterns can help us to distinguish from toxic spirituality that keeps us from growing and thriving, and healthy spirituality which can push us to be a better version of ourselves.
Healthy spiritual and religious traditions can give us an enormous sense of strength, resiliency and power. They support us to express our unique gifts and contribute to our communities in balanced ways.
Toxic spirituality teaches us to repress what makes us unique and be utterly consumed by the needs and opinions of others.
Some key indicators that a religious authority or community are toxic include:
- Teaching that some people are inherently more “Godly” or worthy than others because of inborn traits such as gender, sexuality, race, etc.
- Teaching that doubting, critical thinking or confusion are signs of evil or disobedience, rather than a normal aspect of human experience and human growth.
- Insisting followers give up their own agency and decision making and instead follow blindly the instructions of faith leaders.
- Using humiliation as a tool to prove a point, or as a “teaching tool” to control followers’ behavior.
- Labeling followers’ innate and instinctual sense of right and wrong as evil when they cause a follower to question the group teachings or leaders.
- Teaching followers to live perpetually in a state of self-hate by focusing on how they are innately bad or sinful or wrong and preaching that the only remedy for these inherent flaws is to follow blindly the direction of others.
- Discouraging spontaneity and humor and tightly monitored for what is an “acceptable” way of experiencing or expressing joy.
Spiritual Abuse Does More Harm Than We May Realize
In some cases, such as acknowledged sexual abuse, it is clear that a terrible thing has happened and we need to begin a deep healing process. But, in many cases it is easy to recognize that spiritual toxicity may have occurred and brush it off as “not that bad” and to minimize its impact because it was supposedly done by well-intentioned people.
But the lasting impact of spiritual abuse can be significant.
Lovability worth and the Love of God become things to be earned through constant effort, self-denial and the struggle to attain an impossible standard of perfection as it is defined by the religion.
Many people with this background struggle with a core belief that they are inherently sinful, bad or wrong and their only worth is in being useful to or used by others.
People struggling to free themselves from a difficult or unhealthy spiritual background may experience:
- Feelings of isolation
- Trouble connecting with their own opinions and desires
- Difficulty making decisions
- Chronic depression and anxiety brought on by deep shame
- Overwhelming fear of divine punishment
- Difficulties expressing healthy sexuality
- A pattern of sacrificing their own needs in order to maintain peace in relationships
- A pattern of experiencing future victimization and abuse
These are not the only issues that can arise when individuals have spent significant time or are raised in a toxic religious community. They are merely common indicators of a deep and complex problem that can happen in any spiritual or religious framework when the leadership itself is not healthy.
These sorts of toxic patterns are not just reserved for the organizations we typically think of as cults. Many more seemingly mainstream religious organizations fall prey to toxic spirituality.
Some religious organizations can be beautiful, healing and uplifting. And unfortunately, the truth is that even some well-respected religious communities can be unsupportive, unhealthy or downright abusive.
Many Recovering Catholics, Former Fundamentalists, and Religious Refugees have lived lives steeped in shame and abuse.
It is important that you know these things, so that you do not blame yourself if you are struggling.
If You Have Experienced Abuse in A Spiritual Community, You Are Not Alone
While there is little hard data concerning spiritual abuse, or other forms of abuse by clergy and religious leaders, there is plenty evidence that it is not as uncommon as it should be.
- The Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence, estimates that up to 15 percent of clergy members in all religious groups have engaged in some inappropriate conduct (source).
- In 2014 the Vatican ambassador to the United Nations reported to the committee on human rights that more than 3,420 credible abuse accusations against clergy by minors had been reported (source).
- According to research done by the Barna group 37% of Americans said they avoid churches because of negative past experiences in churches or with church people (source).
None of this is to say that you should avoid church or religious communities if they are helpful to you. And it does not negate the positive impact that a healthful spiritual or religious practice can have.
What it does point out, is that if you are struggling you are not alone.
And, if you are struggling it is important to understand that addressing the spiritual and religious component of your experience is important.
Religious Abuse Is Different than Other Forms of Neglect or Abuse
These experiences can be especially damaging because when we are abused by a religious figure, we have a feeling that their power is unlimited and divinely blessed.
We are taught that the punishment will be eternal, and it come as response to who are ARE and not as a result of something we have done. We come to believe that our natural human responses are always rooted in sin. And seeking the approval of others is the only way we can be safe and saved.
Fitting in and being part of the community is 100 percent conditional and it is based on our not engaging in critical thinking or expressing individuality. Questioning the ideas and leadership of the religion results in punishment or banishment. As a result, we never fully have the opportunity to explore our own ideas and develop a strong sense of personal identity.
And without that identity we can never be our true selves. We cut ourselves off from creativity, curiosity and ultimately from community. We come to believe that we can never belong and never be loved.
Victims can believe that escape is utterly impossible.
The truth is that the Divine is on your team.
And we can help you find your OWN path to health, peace and spiritual fulfillment.
Frequently Asked Questions About Spiritual Abuse Counselling
with Erica Bonham.
Please visit our getting started page to arrange a consultation and begin your healing journey today.