Julie was a dedicated member of her conservative, Christian church until she turned 20 years old. While in college she met and fell in love with Omar, who identified as Muslim. Knowing her parents were still very dedicated to their religious beliefs, Julie feared that her family would reject her, or at minimum, be unsupportive of her relationship. After she and Omar had been dating for over a year, she finally told her parents about him and they were devastated. Her parents told their pastor and a few members of their church. Before long, a number of members of the congregation sent Julie emails and Facebook messages suggesting that she was “going against God” by dating a Muslim man and that they hoped she would repent of the hurt she was causing herself, her parents, and God. Julie decided to separate from the church completely. While she and Omar are now happily married, she still feels tangible pain and loss at all that transpired.
John grew up Southern Baptist and enjoyed going to church. In particular, he loved sacred music and the feelings of “family” engendered by his church “home.” When he was 9 years old he told his mom that he wanted to kiss a boy and she gave him a spanking and scolded that Jesus wouldn’t love him if he kissed boys. John was confused and hurt, and consequently tried to keep what developed as a clear attraction to men at bay for 12 more years. Finally, after graduating from college and living on his own, he told his family that he was gay at the behest of friends. His parents officially disowned him and the church he grew up in could only offer that God would forgive him if he repented. John became very depressed and felt like he was being rejected by both his family and God.
Mary was a religious studies major at a small, conservative Christian university. Her love for religious texts and public speaking made her want to become a pastor of a church and she hoped to obtain a Master of Divinity degree one day too. However, she found in her religious studies courses the men were always given more opportunities to lead than women. One day, she decided to approach her professor about her concerns and to ask why she wasn’t being offered more opportunities within her department. Much to her dismay, her professor told her that women didn’t belong in the pulpit. Mary desperately wanted to to believe that her professor was an outlier, but she felt outraged that anyone would perpetrate this sort of thing as a “Christian” position on women in ministry. Mary started to question her decisions to become a minster and felt like the rug was being pulled out from underneath her. “What if her professor was right?” she feared.
For the past 4 years, Arturo had been of a local church renowned for its outreach ministries, winsome pastor, and amazing music. That church was affiliated with a larger network of churches started at a “mega church” located on the west coast. While he initially felt warmly welcomed, Arturo had a nagging suspicion that something was amiss in how the church, apparently sanctioned by the larger mega church, chose to run itself. In particular, the pastor had an awful lot of authority he seemed to be rather abusive with, often publicly belittling staff and/or lay leaders who had differences of opinion. What’s more, the church culture at-large seemed to peddle mixed messages — on one hand, they said God loved him and exclaimed as much in sermons, but in practical, day to day community life within the church, Arturo often felt as if he was never quite good enough. When the pastor of the mega church recently resigned under scandal for abuses of authority, Arturo began to wonder if it was time to move on.
How Religious Inury or Spiritual Abuse Impacts Mental Health
Religious and spiritual communities are often where people commune not only with one other, but also with their understanding of a higher power. When one is not accepted in a religious or spiritual community or experiences overt rejection by a religious or spiritual community, it can be devastating. In fact, it can feel as though they’re not only rejected by the people of the church, but by God too. Perhaps not surprisingly, this can take a rather large toll one’s mental health, even causing people to experience depression, anxiety, loss, and isolation.
Many people find the term “abuse” to be not entirely fitting of their experience, or may think that it overstates what has really gone on within their communities of faith. This is certainly sometimes a fair objection — many people have been a part of mostly “good” communities with a set of contradictory teachings or practices, or have suffered at the hands of just a few bad apples within the group at-large.
Yet, even less extensively damaging but nonetheless negative religious or spiritual injuries ultimately have negative consequences for us. In time, they too can lead us to feeling confused, hurt, and generally at a loss as to how to pick up the pieces.
For people struggling in this way, the primary network from whom they’d ordinarily receive support consists of other church members, meaning matters are often made worse as they feel they have no one with whom they can talk who doesn’t have a vested interest in supporting the status quo.
At Change, Inc., people looking for Nashville counseling for negative spiritual experiences or religious abuse clients are able to share about their experiences within faith or religious communities with someone who is non-judgmental and supportive, with no vested interest except seeing them understand and heal from their current predicaments. Therapists at Change, Inc. don’t pressure clients to believe anything or to go to any church or spiritual community, but also won’t judge people for desiring to continue in faith communities and/or to learn how to interact better. We believe that people are on their own paths, and that if they need to re-engage their faith communities, they will do so when it is right for them.
Signs of Religious Trauma or Spiritual Abuse
There are many people walking around Nashville with spiritual wounds or religious trauma that just can’t be seen physically. It doesn’t make them any less real or painful, however. Here are some common signs that you or someone you love may have experienced a spiritual abuse or religious trauma:
- Confusion about their beliefs that causes great distress
- Feeling like it is unsafe to believe in something new
- Feeling abandoned or unloved
- Feeling disconnected or unloved by a higher power
- Disconnection from spiritual practices that were once meaningful
Related, here are signs that religious contexts that could potentially become abusive:
- Intolerance to differences be that opinions, interpretations, or beliefs
- Questions about beliefs are seen as sinful and questioning authority
- Thinking that there is only “one way,” also known as all-or-nothing thinking
- Minority groups such as women, LGBTQ persons, or people of color experience institutionalized inequality
- Use of fear and shame to “encourage” certain practices (e.g. Being labeled as suspect for failing to attend church or small groups)
- Any form of verbal, emotional, sexual, or physical abuse by leaders goes ignored
What can I do to heal from spiritual abuse and trauma?
- Be patient with yourself – If it is taking time for you to recognize or heal from religious or spiritual uncertainty, it is most likely because you’ve invested time and energy into a faith community and belief system. Just as it took time for you to learn the practices and beliefs of that community, it will also take time for you to acknowledge and heal from the pain that has been caused by abusive behavior and environments as well. With time and support, you can experience healing. Disconnecting from a community or church/religious life for a time doesn’t mean you’ll always be disconnected. Sometimes we have to let go for long enough to get focus and clarity on just what’s transpired, and when we’re ready, we can re-engage with more understanding.
- Recognize shame for what it is – Sadly, many religious and spiritual communities use shame and fear to enforce beliefs and practices. Often, they have very nuanced explanations for why they do this, but they don’t actually make these tactics any less shaming or fear-oriented. In many cases, people have internalized fear and shame from a very young age or for many years. In trying to find your way back, do your best to recognize the specific thoughts you have that are shaming you. Shame thoughts often start with “I should/shouldn’t” or “I must/must not” or “I ought/ought not.” Notice these and try to be more forgiving and kind with yourself.
- Get support – Because spiritual and religious abuse occurs in the context of relationships (within a faith community), it is important that the abuse is healed within a relational context as well. Forming a relationship with a skilled therapist that understands what it is like to go through this kind of struggle is key. Therapists can lead you through the stages of grief you are experiencing to begin and maintain recovery. At Change, Inc. our therapists will help you understand your feelings more thoroughly and supply you with the skills you need to heal your religious abuse or spiritual trauma.
Need some guidance with all of these? We can help!
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