Spiritual trauma is more common than many people realize and tends to happen subtly over time in ways that are designed to make you doubt your worth, sanity and faith. Unhealthy spirituality seeks to control, manipulate and isolate in order to get you to feel a sense of misplaced guilt or shame, lower your self-worth, introduce an unhealthy element of self-questioning, and bring you to a place of lacking self agency and feeling powerless.
Someone who is abusing you spiritually will often claim to have a stronger faith than others, a more in-depth truth that others don’t understand, or to have a special understanding of scripture that others are simply missing. It is common to feel special in the beginning, as these new insights can seem to be the magic pill you have been hoping for. The special individual attention can feel especially good to someone with unprocessed trauma and oozing wounds of hurt from the past. Your vulnerability is your very human and healthy need to be loved and they are exploiting it. This experience and process is not unlike the love bombing that occurs when someone is involved with a narcissist or other personality disordered individual. The difference is that when it is an entire community of faith, the love bombing can feel even more intense because it is an entire people group who is engaging in the behavior.
Not long after the love bombing phase of spiritual abuse, fear kicks in. If you do not believe or see the way they do, you will not attain the same rewards or be loved. You might be pressured or feel emotionally manipulated into cutting off contact with your family members and friends, unless you can get them to see and believe the way this person or group does. It is common to look up one day and realize that a particular spiritual group or guru are your only real social connections. Around this time, you might begin to recognize behaviors and views that feel uncomfortable or wrong to you, but might rationalize that you are the problem and not them, or feel too disconnected from the rest of the world to stick up for yourself. Some people even find themselves feeling completely hopeless, helpless or suicidal.
Spiritual abuse and trauma tend to follow cycles like other kinds of trauma and abuse. There are high-highs followed by low-lows that you endure because you are anticipating another high-high moment of feeling loved, connected and special. You think if you do just the right thing or say just the right thing, it won’t happen again or things will be different next time. This experience can feel a lot like love to you, especially if you have a history of other past trauma. This is not by accident and it is actually what they call a trauma bond- your brain keeps pushing the proverbial button in hopes of feeling the wonderful feelings of love bombing once again and is unlikely to stop pushing the button because you do get periodic rewards.
Following a time of feeling extremely good after a special conversation, conference, group meeting or worship session, you are likely to feel better than good. Then, something happens and the bottom drops out from under you. While you are feeling wonderful and your guards are down, someone says things to shame you or imply that you need to keep working on yourself because you are never good enough. They claim to have special answers. They talk in fear based imagery and with a sense of urgency. Or, they withdraw and go silent, waiting for you to get desperate before they respond to you again and swoop in to act like a savior.
If you begin to think for yourself or question what is happening during your spiritual abuse, things tend to intensify. There is intensified shaming for seeing something differently (often through prayer or other manipulative tactics), or more frequent withdrawal from you, perhaps even shunning. Periodically, another round of love bombing swoops in and you might find yourself questioning your perceptions and wondering if things are really as bad as you think they are with the particular religious guru or group. When you choose to cut off ties, you are often scapegoated or seen as “lost,” and often receive manipulative messages that they are praying for you or even assuming that you don’t really know God at all and never did.
If you have experienced any of these things or cycles in a spiritual setting that has sought to control, manipulate and/or isolate you, you are not alone. Recognizing the pattern and the problem is the first step toward stepping out into something new and healthier. No matter what lies the abuse has tried to tell you, you are not at fault, you are worthy of love, it is okay to connect the dots and speak the truth, and you have incredible power to say no, leave and find something healthier.
If you need support, feel free to message me or even join our Tuesday support groups, where people who have been there can offer understanding and a safe place to process.