This post contains discussions about mental health that may be upsetting or triggering for trauma survivors. If you are at risk for serious depression, anxiety, emotional instability, or self-harm, consider reading this post in the company of a trusted, trauma-informed supporter.
This is our fourth and final segment of the four-part series titled It’s Not Personal. In this series, we are exploring the nature of abuse so that we can begin to assign accountability where it truly belongs. In this post we will discuss spiritual abuse.
Spiritual abuse is a lesser discussed, and therefore often a lesser understood violation of personal autonomy. Acts of violence are not just an act against the body. They are also an act against the human spirit.
Many in the Redefining Love Community have asked me about spiritual abuse. This is a minefield that I’ve stepped away from for a long time, because I don’t want to push away anyone who could benefit from the principles of boundaries, accountability, and grace. But the more I see how deeply members of our community are suffering the effects of spiritual abuse, the more I realize that by avoiding this discussion, I am doing a disservice to our members.
The best of intentions
When people push their own religious beliefs onto others, they are convinced it is coming from a place of love and concern for the other person (this is your path to enlightenment, it’s about your soul’s eternal damnation, etc.). But in reality, it proves a lack of confidence in their own enlightenment, salvation, or mortality… Their own survival.
People who are truly confident – truly convinced of their own goodness, their own worthiness, their own salvation – don’t feel compelled to force others to their point of view. Doubt of others is rooted in an individual’s own sense of self-doubt.
Just to be clear, it isn’t a person’s faith (or lack of faith) in a higher power that drives them to emotionally abuse others. It is their lack of faith in themselves. Like all forms of abuse, insecurity and a sense of powerlessness are at the center.
The best example I can think of is parenting. We might be pretty good at letting other people be, even if that’s different from ourselves, except when it comes to our kids. Yikes, that’s a whole other ballgame, right?! Why?
Because our children are literally a part of us. So, if we don’t wholeheartedly believe in our own worthiness, how can we possibly wholeheartedly believe in our children’s, or vice versa?
How does this show up in our relationship with our children? It’s actually pretty simple:
It might be fine for our neighbor to go to a different church, or to not go to church at all. We can still barrow their leaf blower and give them a cup of sugar now and then. But if our children go to a different church or refuse to go to church at all, this is a part of ourselves who is questioning our values and beliefs. And that makes us feel insecure.
We build a life and a system of values and morality around a certain belief system, and then try to force our children to accept this belief system because on a subconscious level, they are us and we are them.
Of course, this doesn’t just apply to religion. It applies to the way we dress, the way we style our hair, the piercings and tattoos we get (or don’t get), the pets we own, the cars we drive, the houses we live in, the substances we use, the people we marry, the schools we attend… This is the foundational insecurity present in every single generational shame cycle that has ever existed.
Suddenly, there’s all this emotion wrapped up in those differences in opinion. And because our culture has not taught us to approach emotion with intention and curiosity, we are left to spin into an endless generational shame cycle until someone courageously stops it with… you guessed it… intention and curiosity.
Religion runs deep
Shame cycles show up so clearly in religion because our spirituality – our relationship with our soul, spirit, or internal knowing – is a deep reflection of our sense of self.
A confident person’s worthiness is not reflected in how many people see the world like they do. They aren’t afraid to be wrong, because they rest in the comfort of knowing that they are inherently worthy. They don’t require external validation in order to feel a sense of self-worth.
This is where it gets tricky…
This next part might be uncomfortable for some people. But I don’t believe that parents who force their children into certain religious beliefs are actually concerned about the state of their child’s soul. At least not on a subconscious level.
They are concerned about how their child’s religious beliefs reflect back on themselves. How does this make them look as a parent? How does it make them look as a disciple for their chosen faith?
Are they terrified about their child’s eternal damnation, or their own? If their child believes something different – and their child is a part of themselves (which they are) – then on a subconscious level, this person feels deeply conflicted. Could they be wrong?
Depending on the belief system they subscribe to, uncertainty can feel untenable. A friend recently quoted therapist Adam Young: “Dogmatism soothes a fragmented mind,” and it is so true.
Certain belief systems are built on the foundation of individual insecurity. If a religious belief requires you to be insecure in who you are without the belief, it’s pretty likely that the entire belief system relies on its adherents’ sense of worthlessness (even if that is not the message that is outwardly expressed).
Do these individuals worry that they won’t get to spend eternity with their loved ones? On a conscious level, perhaps they do. But let’s explore that more deeply…
It seems that, if other people’s salvation is dependent on believers to spread the word, the burden of salvation is placed on human adherents, rather than a higher power. So who do they believe has the power, then? Not God, but themselves! And that feels really empowering to an insecure or immature ego.
Ultimately, people who are truly confident in what they believe don’t feel compelled to force others to do life as they do. People who truly have faith in a higher power trust that higher power to run the show. This frees them from carrying the burden of other people’s enlightenment or salvation on their shoulders, and frees their loved ones from spiritual abuse.
A profound reassurance
I confided in a friend at church recently that one of my boys is completely disinterested in church, and the more we talk about it, the less interested he becomes. My friend, who has adult biological children as well as multiple young foster children, gave me this very wise advice:
“Let it go. Don’t worry about it. It will work itself out. He will find his way back to God. It may not be in the way you and your husband relate to God, but it will be in a way that works for him. Just give it to God.”
This was a profound moment for me. For me, she reaffirmed what I already knew in my heart. That my son is going to be just fine. All I have to do is love and accept him for exactly who he is. God, the universe, whatever you choose to call it… my faith allows me to let my higher power take care of the rest.
When our basic autonomy is attacked in the form of spiritual abuse, it feels deeply personal. But in reality, just like all other types of abuse, it isn’t about you. It is rooted in the abuser’s own insecurity and, in the case of spiritual abuse, the abuser’s own lack of faith in their own worthiness.
Grace the Redefining Love way
When we are talking about grace within the Redefining Love Framework, we are not talking about grace in a spiritual sense. That’s not to say that a higher power doesn’t exist (that’s for you to decide for yourself). Within Redefining Love, the term grace refers to the unconditional love we give to ourselves and others, regardless of our shortcomings.
Redefining Love is not a spiritual practice. It teaches us to apply the principles of boundaries, accountability, and grace both inwardly and outwardly. For this reason, the Redefining Love Framework can be applied regardless of religious preference or no religion at all.
Anger over spiritual abuse
It is normal to feel angry when we experience abuse. In fact, it’s crucial that we acknowledge anger as is arises. In order to appropriately apply grace within the context of spiritual abuse, a survivor must first determine with whom they are angry. Is it their parents? Their clergy? Others in the faith? God? Until survivors get curious about where their anger is directed, it will be difficult to process that anger through and out.
Every experience is different, so it’s important to be careful not to generalize. That being said, based on my own observations of spiritual abuse survivors, typically the anger is directed first at God, because it makes the most sense! If all this stuff you’ve learned is true, then this “god” character must be a real jerk!
But typically, as survivors begin to dig into their experiences – and realize that there are a myriad of ways of understanding and knowing God – they realize that their anger is actually at their parents, clergy, and other authority figures in their faith story. Only once anger is appropriately attributed (which is accountability) can grace begin to be applied.
Why spiritual abuse is sneaky
I have identified five main reasons that spiritual abuse is so insidious:
- Our spiritual life is one of the most intimate parts of our identity. Our spiritual self is closely linked with our morality, sense of right and wrong, and the meaning we apply to our own existence. To be betrayed at this deep level is an affront to our very being!
- It comes wrapped neatly in a care package. It is often delivered from a place of concern over the state of your soul. Whether talking about heaven and hell, karma, or other existential planes, spiritual abusers rely on fear-based methods to ensure compliance. The use of words like love, forgiveness, and grace create a smokescreen that makes it difficult to see the abuse beneath all the pretty packaging.
- Perpetrators of spiritual abuse are often the people we admire most. If we didn’t care about them and rely on them, we probably wouldn’t take their demands so seriously. It is our parents, our clergy, our systems of authority that perpetrate spiritual abuse. This makes it very challenging to step back and break free.
- It starts when we are at our most vulnerable. For those who grew up in a spiritually domineering home, the abuse began the moment they were born. When it begins in adulthood, survivors are actively seeking meaning and purpose. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have sought out spiritual connection. This seeking makes people vulnerable.
- Perpetrators of spiritual abuse are the “good guys.” One of the hallmarks of spiritual abuse is that the perpetrators are convinced that they are right, good, and holy. They consider compliance to be a part of being a good disciple, and culture has historically agreed. Terms such as “churchgoer” and “pious” have long been considered apt descriptors of “good people.” For this reason, survivors who question those in authority assume they themselves are the “bad guys,” and their abusers agree!
It’s still all about control
The common denominator of all abuse is power and control. Perpetrators of all types of abuse are coming from a place of personal insecurity and sense of worthlessness. Abusers seek compliance, adoration, and power from outside sources because they feel completely out-of-control and powerless within themselves.
Spiritual abuse can be tricky, because control is always attributed to the higher power rather than the individuals. A good litmus test for who someone actually believes is in control is whether or not they believe it is their responsibility to make sure you believe as they do. Someone with true confidence in a higher power does not feel responsible to control other people’s behavior in the name of that higher power.
There’s nothing wrong with sharing your faith with others. Our faith is a part of who we are! Ideally, we’d live in a world where everyone could feel comfortable sharing who they are. There’s nothing abusive about wearing a t-shirt from your religious summer camp or having a church logo bumper sticker on your car.
The line between sharing yourself and controlling others is crossed when a person in authority reacts to those with differing views or questions with rage, superiority, intimidation, and defensiveness. An attitude that “I know what’s best for you better than you know what’s best for yourself” is a major red flag.
Recognizing spiritual abuse
Because it typically involves our closest authority relationships (such as parents), spiritual abuse can be very challenging to identify. Since questioning is one of the biggest taboos of domineering religious practice, the very act of thinking something isn’t quite right is “against the rules.” Thus, victims of spiritual abuse feel hopelessly flawed before they even voice their protest.
And so, if you find yourself wondering whether or not you’ve experienced spiritual abuse, I recommend you start there – at the first thought that perhaps the religious beliefs you’ve been taught allow room to safely ask questions.
Do you feel safe to ask questions about your religion?
If not, what are you afraid might happen if you asked? When you ask questions, how might people respond?
Here are some unsafe responses to your questions:
- Violence (throwing things, hitting you or someone else)
- Patronizing or talking down to you
- Refusing to answer
- Questioning your intelligence
- Questioning your character – “A good person wouldn’t be asking these questions.”
- “This is just the way things are.”
What emotions do you feel when you consider asking questions about your religion?
Examples of red flag feelings:
- Feeling like a “bad person”
How do you feel inside your body when you consider asking questions?
Some red flags:
- Tightness in chest, stomach, neck, shoulders, or throat
- Clenched fists and/or jaw
- Racing heartbeat
- Flushing red
- Ringing in ears
- Upset stomach
- Numbing of hands
- Weak in the knees
How does the other person talk about those from different faiths?
- Are those outside your faith dismissed as “less than?”
- Are you discouraged from friendship or romantic relationships with people of different faiths?
- Are derogatory slurs used to describe people of different faiths?
- What would happen if you attended a worship service or activity with someone of a different faith?
- Do you avoid exposing your non-faith friends to those within your faith, for fear of how they’d be treated?
- Were you raised to feel superior to others outside of your faith?
Are you taught to fear the wrath of a higher power?
- What are you afraid will happen if you choose to practice a different faith or break the “rules” of your faith? Are you terrified of dire and painful consequences, either in this life or the next if you do not comply?
- Do you believe your higher power punishes those who do not worship them?
- When you make a mistake, do you feel shame before your higher power? Or fear that you will be punished?
Do you fear the reaction of those in your faith circle?
- When you are feeling religious shame, is it towards your higher power, or towards the authority figures within the faith, such as parents, clergy, or others in the faith community?
- What do you feel might happen if you broke the religious “rules?” Would you be rejected within your faith community? Would you bring shame onto your parents and family?
- Is it the higher power you’re afraid of, or the disapproval of people within your faith community?
- Do you keep certain aspects of your life secret from those in your faith community that you comfortably share with others outside of your faith?
- If religious rules are broken, do authority figures in your life ask, “How could you do this to me?” or “How could you do this to our family?”
Does your religion maintain a strict hierarchy with powerful authority figures who follow a different set of rules?
This is a particularly touchy subject, since many religious traditions mandate a hierarchy. I will not go so far as to claim that families with historically traditional hierarchies are inherently abusive. I do realize that is a potentially explosive claim.
All I will say is this… It is entirely possible for adults within a household and community to be co-equals, while still maintaining a close, rewarding relationships with God. Egalitarian power dynamics exist within every major faith tradition.
I will also say that family and cultural hierarchies create a solid foundation for power struggles and abuse to flourish. Ultimately, it is up to every individual to decide what works best for them.
If you feel miserable and powerless within the current structure of your home or community, it might be time to explore what about that structure doesn’t sit well with you. Remember, safe religions don’t punish or shame you for asking hard questions.
What is the purpose of religion?
Religion should give you a sense of overwhelming peace. It should be reassuring during challenging times of change and loss. It should provide comfort when you are afraid, lonely, or grieving. It should be a source of hope during hard times, and a source of joy during celebratory times. It should count love as its primary value.
Religion should not be a cause of stress or anxiety. It should not create additional responsibilities to be tended during challenging times of change and loss. It should not be a source of fear, shame, or loneliness. It should not create an overwhelming sense of hopelessness, worthlessness, or guilt. Its primary values should not be order and control.
As with all aspects of Redefining Love, I encourage you to get intentional and curious about your religious beliefs. How does your faith make you feel? Does it give you hope, or make you afraid? Do you feel loved and accepted unconditionally? Or do you feel shame, regret, and condemnation?
Following a religion doesn’t necessarily have to be easy. It might sometimes push you outside your comfort zone. But it should not make you feel inadequate or fearful. When we encounter a fear-based faith, spiritual abuse is a likely companion.
Applying the principles
Grace for others
Culture has historically reinforced many unhealthy norms about a great deal of things, including religion. And so, it’s not surprising that fear-based religious beliefs have been passed down from generation to generation by well-meaning parents and clergy.
Of course, there are those who actively seek out religion as a means to power and control over others. But in most cases, spiritual abuse is perpetrated generationally from one unsuspecting person to the next.
Even those who have “found religion” in adulthood can be victims (and perpetrators) of generational spiritual abuse. There are very few “new” religions. Most have been passed down or adapted from the religions of previous generations. For this reason, more than any other form of abuse, we must approach spiritual abuse from a place of grace. We’re all just trying to do life as best we can.
Grace for yourself
If you grew up with a certain belief system, you will undoubtably carry some of those beliefs into your adult life, and pass them on to your children. We rely on the values and beliefs that are familiar. It’s not your fault that there are healthier values and belief systems that you didn’t even know were an option. Once you know better, do better. And forgive yourself for the time spent not knowing.
Accountability for others
It’s not okay for someone to make you or anyone else feel less-than, for any reason. It’s not okay for someone to scare you into living a life by their rules. It’s not okay for someone to yell or laugh at you, simply because you see things differently or ask questions.
Healthy people listen and communicate when faced with differing beliefs. Healthy families and churches do not use fear to get their way. If you are in a relationship or a member of a congregation where values and beliefs are mandated and enforced by emotional or physical intimidation, threats, or manipulation, it’s normal and natural to ask questions and expect honest answers.
Accountability for yourself
In order to break the generational cycle of spiritual abuse, someone has to get intentional and curious about family religious practices and beliefs. If not you, then who? It takes courage to dig in and ask hard questions. Take some time to ask yourself whether your religious practices match up with your internal sense of right and wrong. If not, it may be time to make a change.
Boundaries for others
Taking a stand against spiritual abuse may be one of the hardest type of boundaries to set. Often, entire family systems are so entrenched in religious traditions that to make a change leaves those who deviate feeling completely alone. Prior to setting boundaries with others, make sure you have a support system in place that is aware of what you’re going through, separate from your religious system. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that there’s a whole wide world beyond the strict and controlled world of spiritual abuse. But I promise, there is!
Boundaries for yourself
Work hard to disengage from toxic patterns. Seek out the help you need to process your trauma in healthy ways. It won’t do any good to remove yourself from your current circumstances if you don’t put in the internal work to form a healthier new perspective.
What is spiritual deconstruction?
Spiritual deconstruction is a term coined by French philosopher Jacques Derrida, and popularized by American cartoonist and author David Hayward. It refers to the process a person undergoes to reconsider their own spiritual beliefs and religious culture. It typically refers specifically to evangelical Christianity, but I’ve seen it applied to Catholicism and Latter Day Saints as well.
Deconstruction can be an overwhelming and lonely process, as many people who undergo spiritual deconstruction are alienated or rejected from their family and peer groups. Spiritual deconstruction goes hand-in-hand with spiritual trauma and abuse. Where abuse is identified, deconstruction will likely follow.
The Good News
The good news is, there is an ever-increasing community of safe spaces for those undergoing spiritual deconstruction. There are virtual social media support groups, as well as in-person meet-up groups in many communities. Help, support, encouragement, and a new way of doing life is just a google search away.
Keep in mind! Trauma survivors are vulnerable to being revictimized. Take your time and don’t rush into a new belief system. It can be hard feeling grounded when you’ve come to believe that you are nothing without a religion. Allow yourself to sit in the discomfort for a time, rather than replacing one belief system with another.
A healthy religion recognizes the inherent value in you, just as you are. Resist the urge stumble into something new. Find a supportive therapist, and let the healing begin. Once you have confidence in yourself, and trust that your peer group loves and accepts you just as you are, you are then ready to explore new faith traditions that are a healthier expression of your spirituality.
Help is available!
If you feel trapped in circumstances beyond your control, or feel physically unsafe, in the U.S. 911 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline: (800) 799-7233. Operators will help you find resources in your area to help you break free, once and for all.
What is Redefining Love?
The Three Pillars
The Shame Cycle
Dealing with Anger
The Family Connection
For the sake of the kids
It feels personal, but it’s not
Physical Abuse and Redefining Love
Sexual Abuse and Redefining Love
How we get trapped in toxic circumstances
Naming, blaming, and the uncluttered subconscious