Spiritual Abuse - When Seeking the Divine Hurts Your Soul
***Trigger Warnings - cult involvement, sexual abuse mentioned, power dynamics, feelings of powerlessness
This post is the first in a series of posts in which I describe various types of abuse. I am not a licensed counselor or therapist so these posts are not intended to be offered as medical advice - they are simply insights into my experiences and what has helped me along the way.
In terms of spiritual abuse, my experiences I will describe here took place mostly in “Christian” environments and so my examples and experiences will come from that perspective. I have had discussions with both clients and friends from other spiritual traditions who have related very similar experiences.
***I also want to note that what I am referring to as spiritual abuse is unrelated to ritual abuse - which is a very specific and horrific type of abuse which I have not personally experienced.
In my experience, the hallmark of spiritual abuse is the exploitation of a power differential within a spiritual community. Spiritual communities need to be particularly cautious, since those in power within them not only hold traditional roles of authority (teacher, parent, boss, ec) but also hold the ability to cast judgement and dispersion upon the very souls of those under their authority. Misusing this power can lead to deep-seated and difficult to shake feelings of shame, guilt and pent-up anger.
I grew up in the 70s and 80s in the Lutheran church. In that tradition, the congregation is led by a pastor and a church council. At the church my family attended, that council was led by a couple who held a great amount of power over the pastor. The power was so out of balance that any important decisions generally needed to be approved by this couple, with the pastor serving mostly as their mouthpiece.
This power went unchecked for many years and so was able to grow so large that, rather than confront this couple and restore a healthy balance, several families began to leave the church. Those who stayed remained in a confusing situation where decisions were made not by spiritual discernment, but by the blunt force of two individuals consistently demanding their own way. This left the others in the congregation wrestling with feelings typical of emotional or psychological abuse:
Feeling unheard and unseen
Feelings of invalidation
Anger and frustration that a greater vision of love and charity could never seem to be carried out
Confusion and guilt over the feelings of anger and frustration related to love and charity (this is where it gets really twisty)
Constantly feeling belittled or made less than
Made to feel as if you are the crazy one for disagreeing with those in power
Because this occurred in a church whose main mission was understood to be the spiritual development of the attendees toward a Christian ethic, other feelings came into play as well:
Spiritual confusion without a strong spiritual leader to guide
Lack of charitable feelings toward those in “power” which can quickly spiral into guilt and shame
Scriptural understanding based in either reinforcing the controlling power dynamic, or in “proving” the dynamic wrong - which is then passed through families and ingrained in the next generation
In this particular situation - as is not uncommon - these abuses and lack of checks on those in power led to sexual abuse as well. I was regularly used as a scratching post for the sexual desires of the man in this couple. Since he held all the power, however, any chance I took to point out my discomfort with the situation was quickly shut down. This unhealthy power dynamic had flung the door wide open for myriad other types of abuses to surface and be sustained in secrecy.
The creation of a culture of secrecy paired with unchecked power in leadership within faith communities, makes it a convenient hiding spot for further abuses. This has become a widespread problem, finally starting to get the attention it needs.
In the situation I just described, the power dynamic essentially secularized the spiritual environment. The basic rules of engagement set by the couple in power were those of running a business rather than a spiritual endeavor. In this type of spiritual abuse, sensitive expressions of spirituality were shut down entirely.
As another example of this, during our time in the Roman Catholic church, I was a youth pastor under a particularly controlling and angry priest who persistently undermined me whenever the youth gathered. His abuse of me was so flagrant that I was immediately removed from that position by the diocesan officials as soon as I reported it. That experience definitely resonates all these years later more as narcissistic abuse than as specifically spiritual abuse - he, also, had secularized his spiritual power with the added caveat that he acted out of the role of “Father”. Fortunately the leadership in this case responded quickly and effectively.
In my childhood church, however, serious spiritual discussion became a sort of “underground” occupation for those still trying to fight for a spiritually based church experience. At our church there was a cohort of Sunday School teachers who used their classes to subtly undermine the power dynamics at play. Consequently the lessons I learned in Sunday School were:
Experience expressions of your faith but don't talk about them openly
Deep expressions of faith are unusual and suspect
Church leadership cannot be trusted with your spirituality, guard it well
Even well-reasoned and compassionate adults must obey tyrants
At one end of the spiritual abuse spectrum is this secularized power play, at the other end of the spectrum lies the use of spirituality as a hammer to beat the followers into submission. In this case, the power dynamic is deeply spiritualized and is used as the measuring rod of one’s personal spiritual worth in the eyes of God.
My adult family experienced this spiritualized abuse when my husband and I were involved in a “Christian” cult for 12 years of our married lives. Within that time, my husband went to the cult-sponsored seminary (which turned out to have the healthiest, most authentic leaders in the church), was ordained a deacon, and then a priest. Seven of our children were baptized there. We were deeply entrenched in the community and its leadership.
The dysfunctional power dynamic pervaded every level of (male only) leadership in this church. The fact that these men hold the souls of their followers in their misguided hands makes this type of abuse particularly insidious. It’s like being parented by a malignant narcissist with a spiritual vendetta.
In contrast, some fallout from this type of spiritual abuse which we experienced in that cult with several tiers of spiritual abusers:
“Father” confusion - use of the title “Father” by men who abused their power in that role made it difficult and confusing to relate to both earthly and Heavenly Fathers.
Spiritual gaslighting - being told that our spiritual understanding was not correct if it was contrary to that of the leadership, we were frequently told that what we “heard from God” was clearly wrong if it negated or even slightly opposed the leaderships’ “words from the Lord”
Being given leadership responsibilities according to our level of “spiritual maturity” which was always lower than theirs - this caused deep feelings of confusion, resentment, anger and shame when constantly passed over for even very minor leadership roles based on our perceived spiritual maturity
A constant feeling of shame and guilt as accusations built up of how we were living our lives in an “ungodly” way - everything was fair game for criticism - from shaving my legs, to disciplining our children, to our sex life, and even word choices in our sentences
An inability to pray or express our spirituality in any way - since every effort was criticized, we began to shut down all expressions that didn’t follow a strict ritualized expression
All of this was compounded since this was a church that believed in the charismatic expression of faith - we were expected to “pray in tongues”, “prophecy” and “lay on hands”. All of these expressions, however, were tightly controlled with rules that changed according to the leaders’ whims and created fear, confusion, shame and a feeling of deep dread
As an intuitive empath I was deeply keyed into the spiritual realm and was able to share genuine insights. However, the leadership began to demand when and where I would share and even what I was to say. This felt like spiritual rape and eventually, in direct disobedience, I refused to use my “gifts” at all, I shut down this part of myself for several years after we exited that church
One of our adopted children frequently had their attachment trauma “exorcised” through dramatic laying on of hands and rebuking of “demons”. Their faith was completely shattered by this experience
Active "Fawn" response - a trauma response that seeks to please others with words or actions in order to "stay out of trouble"
The last category I want to address is spiritual neglect. Like neglect in any situation, the repercussions for this are difficult to see and pin down. In this situation, the believer has deep spiritual concerns that leadership is ill equipped to handle. They may not have had the training to handle more in-depth questions, they may not have the personal experience to give informed answers, they may be in the latter years of their vocation and experiencing vocational fatigue, or they may simply have a personality that avoids what feels like conflict.
Whatever the reason, this may leave a person feeling:
Stuck in indecision
Confused and embarrassed, even ashamed of their beliefs or deep questions
Confused about right and wrong
As with any abuse, the same questions apply that always seem to arise for victims. The easiest question to ask seems to be why did we stay in that cult for 12 years, exposing ourselves and our children to such damaging leadership?
I could ask the same of my parents about my childhood church experience.
We don't get out for a variety of reasons:
We don’t understand that it is abusive, we need someone to show us - often repeatedly over a long period of time
Abusers control by giving the appearance of power greater than they have, it takes time to see this clearly and recognize our own power to escape
Our spirituality is at stake - these can seem like the highest possible stakes since it involves or immortal soul
Spiritual communities are often a mixed bag - it is possible - even in abusive communities - to find a well of support and meaning
We can “fix” it - continually feeling like if we just work harder, pray harder, do better, wait it out, we can surely fix it
We have too much invested - we may have given large amounts of time, money, heart, and energy into the "ministry" and have trouble accepting that loss if we should leave and move on
It’s not “God’s will” - sincere believers still need to know that they are ok with God. If they are being sent a message that leaving breaks their relationship with God, it may be a risk they aren't willing to take
The shame cycle - spiritual abuse causes deep-seated feelings of shame which spirals in on itself. Thinking of leaving causes deeper shame and a cycle of “repentance”, “forgiveness”, “doing better” and then back to disillusionment and attempting to leave, which only begins the cycle all over again
If you find yourself in a spiritually abusive church or under abusive leadership, my heart is that you will find your way out. It isn't easy. Be kind to yourself and know that the world is a much different place from the outside looking in.
If you’ve found your way out and are still struggling with the fallout, here are some things that may help you on your recovery journey:
Talk with a friend who also found their way out - relating to someone who understands what you’ve been through can be incredibly therapeutic
Seek therapy - abuse causes trauma and trauma takes up a particular type of space in your body. Be sure to find a practitioner who knows how to effectively address trauma and is sensitive to your spirituality
Find Grounding exercises that work for you
Express yourself in art - write, dance, cook, draw, sing, create poetry, act in a play
Even as I write this, I am dealing with the all-too-familiar feeling of shame in my gut. A situation recently has triggered these past experiences and brought up old feelings. I am fortunate to have a deep well of resources at my disposal and this will pass soon for me. It occurred to me If you have experienced spiritual abuse it may be helpful to see a list of potential triggers.
Some situations that may trigger old feelings from spiritual abuse:
Any uncomfortable situation caused by one person or group wielding power over another
Being asked to participate in an unfamiliar - or all too familiar - spiritual practice
Situations which feel hypocritical
Situations which feel like leadership is controlling or manipulative, especially if people are not being permitted to share their genuine feelings/thoughts/ideas
Gaslighting of any sort - being told that your opinion or ideas are invalid
Seeing past abusers or people who remind you of past abusers or community members (I once hid behind a pillar on the sidewalk while out to lunch with some friends to avoid being seen by a past abuser)
Family or public events where prayer or spiritual practices are part of the event
Being in a situation where someone is “evangelizing” you
Being asked about your spiritual path - this may be triggering if it feels manipulative, or it may feel freeing to share with a genuinely interested person
Making life decisions that may have once been controlled by spiritual leadership - this may feel confusing or disorienting or even bring up feelings of fear of making the wrong choice or rage
I share our experiences here not to shock or re-traumatize - but in hopes that if you find something all too familiar in this post, you will be able to use my experience to name your own abuses and set out on a path to recovery. I am happy to collaborate with anyone who finds me to be a safe haven.
There are more subtle abuses I could talk about here as well - such as the power dynamics at play in evangelical traditions that see non-believers as inherently less than, the shutdown of communication about - and shaming of those - with a differing sense of sexuality, politics, or spirituality, the glossing over of blatant abuses to avoid confrontation, the hypocrisy of churches that harbor sexual predators, toxic beliefs about masculine and feminine roles in families, and the shaming that happens in regards to dress and behavior of young girls and women. If you are interested in hearing more about any of these topics, leave me a comment below and I’ll give it some thought and maybe another post!
Because I have personally experienced so many types of abuse, I work with clients from our shared experience base. I come to client collaborations with a deep understanding of how these traumatic experiences affect us in our everyday living. My hope is to help those who have experienced abuse to make sense out of how their bodies are reacting and then to offer some resources and insights that lead to a greater sense of contentment and optimism. Go here to get in touch with me and let's talk about it!