Fostering Faith In Yourself: Healing From Religious Trauma
Religious trauma refers to stressful, traumatic, or abusive experiences within a religious or spiritual setting. Examples might include sexual abuse at the hands of a religious leader, mistreatment of individuals within the LBGBTQIA+ community, using fear tactics to push beliefs, mistreatment of women and other marginalized folks, invalidation through spiritual bypassing, or escaping an abusive faith system or cult. Marlene Winell coined the term “Religious Trauma Syndrome” to refer to the set of symptoms experienced by individuals who are struggling with leaving a controlling, authoritarian, or abusive religion or faith community. This experience might include deconstructing their faith and finding a new way to practice their faith or severing ties with their beliefs completely.
One of our clinicians who specializes in religious trauma, Morgan Schneider, describes the experience of religious trauma as a conflict and dissonance between the beliefs you were raised with and the reality of your own experience which leads to questioning, shame, confusion, guilt, and isolation. She gives the example of hearing in scripture that we should all love one another but then seeing the mistreatment of others at the hands of the spiritual leaders and people of faith.
- Spiritual Bypassing: “Spiritual bypassing,” coined by John Welwood, refers to using spirituality as a means of suppressing, escaping, or avoiding uncomfortable experiences. It can lead to disregard for personal responsibility, feelings of invalidation, feelings of shame, emotional confusion, and putting up with intolerable and unhelpful behaviors. Some examples include the following:
- Mental health issues being viewed as a personal failure or a lack of faith
- “Everything happens for a reason.”
- “It’s a blessing disguise.”
- “Thoughts and prayers!” or “Love and light!”
- “You just need to pray about it.”
- Avoidance of uncomfortable feelings like anger, grief, sadness, or anxiety
- Overly focusing on the positive and pretending everything is okay even when it’s not
- A false sense of righteousness over individuals who are suffering or the idea that if you reach a certain place of spirituality, negativity will not be present
- Blaming negative experiences or emotions on an evil presence or “enemy” of faith
- Spiritual Abuse in Relationships: When it comes to intimate partner violence or domestic violence, we often think of physical or psychological abuse. Spiritual abuse is another form of violence used to exert power over another person. Some signs might include:
- Being punished or shamed for not following a specific rule or doctrine
- Not being allowed to voice a differing opinion or belief from your partner without being ridiculed
- Your partner using sacred texts or scripture to justify abuse (physical, emotional, sexual, or financial, etc.), oppression, or harmful behavior
- Isolating you from others with different faith and beliefs
- Power Dynamics + Authoritarianism: Many but not all religions are rooted in patriarchal, heteronormative beliefs that create power imbalance and the potential for abuse. Signs of authoritarianism include:
- Faith communities that operate under a vertical hierarchy meaning that those at the top (leaders, etc.) have more power than those at the bottom
- Men having more power and women and children being expected to submit
- Having less worth or power based on traits you can’t control (gender, race, sexuality, class, ability, etc.)
- Leaders not receiving consequences for abuse even when others in the community are aware of it happening
- Rules + Fear Tactics: Morgan remarked that the use of rules and fear tactics in religion can make God or a Higher Power seem more like a gatekeeper or a judgmental abusive figure than an all-loving presence which leads to confusion, hypervigilance, a harsh inner critic, and shame. Some examples of rules and fear tactics include:
- “If you do x, you’re going to hell…”
- The use of conversion therapy for LGBTQIA+ individuals
- “Love the sinner, hate the sin.”
- The belief that one’s religion, sect, denomination, etc. is better than others and the only way and all others will face eternal damnation
Symptoms of religious trauma are similar to those of Complex PTSD (CPTSD) such as hypervigilance, numbing through substances and unhelpful behaviors, social isolation, hopelessness, depression, anxiety, shame, insomnia, and irritability. While social support is an integral part of trauma recovery, for individuals who have left their faith community voluntarily or have been ostracized, they may experience loneliness, a loss of social support from family and friends within their community, leading to higher rates of low self-esteem and suicidal ideation.
Religious trauma can affect individuals in many facets of their life including socially, cognitively, and emotionally. Some issues you might explore in therapy may include:
- Issues in developing healthy sexual intimacy with others due to shame, purity culture, trauma from prior abuse, or internalized self-hatred due to your gender or sexual identity
- Policing your thoughts, intense fear of judgment, or having a harsh inner critic leading to social anxiety
- Feeling “out of the times” or developmentally behind due to isolation imposed by your faith community
- Existential crisis and loss of identity while deconstructing your faith
- Perfectionism, black-and-white thinking, anxiety
- Difficulty making decisions on your own
- Developing healthy boundaries
- Developing a stronger sense of self, identity, and self-compassion
- Exploring your values
- Identifying and expressing emotions in helpful ways
- Examining your relationship with faith, religion, and spirituality in a new light
MORGAN notes that the first step in helping her clients experiencing religious trauma is to provide a non-judgmental space where curiosity and questioning is welcome. Your therapist knows you’re the expert in your life and wants to hear your story, what it was like growing up, your current relationship with faith, the values you were brought up with, and the impact religion or spirituality has had in your life. Morgan also explained that a huge part of religious trauma work is identity work and values exploration, and she helps clients deconstruct the narratives and beliefs held by their current or former faith community and their actual beliefs and values.
When asked what clients should know about working through religious trauma in therapy, Morgan explained that it is not easy work and that it’s important to give yourself grace and know that it’s tough to examine and unlearn beliefs that are so ingrained. It takes time. She suggests approaching therapy with a sense of curiosity rather than judgment. Her favorite part of working with survivors of religious trauma is seeing them challenge their inner critic with self-compassion and acceptance and the freedom and relief that eventually comes when you understand and can live by your own values.
It’s also important to note that a lot of the work is grief work. You might be grieving the loss of family and friends who are no longer in your life. You might be grieving the opportunities you didn’t have or what fear held you back from. You might be grieving experiences you didn’t get to have and parts of yourself that you had to hide or ignore due to shame. Therapy is a place where all of your emotions are welcome – shame, anger, sadness, grief, confusion, and joy – and a place to grieve openly without judgment.
GETTING STARTED WITH THERAPY
If you’re ready to start unpacking religious trauma, you can use our book now page to schedule your initial call, or contact us to be connected with one of our compassionate clinicians who specialize in religious trauma. We look forward to supporting you on this journey.