Primary Author: Sabrina Hossain | Secondary Author: Molly Christenson NP Psychiatry
What is spiritual abuse? WebMD defines spiritual abuse as “any attempt to exert power and control over someone using religion, faith, or beliefs.” Meaning anyone from any belief system can use their teachings to abuse others. Spiritual abuse can occur from spiritual/religious leaders, parents, teachers, spouses, and adult children. Unfortunately, spiritual abuse is difficult to prove, and there are limited legal ramifications for abusers in the U.S. Due to these obstacles, we believe it is important for everyone to be aware and educated on this topic.
What does spiritual abuse look like in practice? Here are a few examples:
- A religious leader using scripture to coerce members into staying in an unhealthy marriage.
- Parents overemphasize the value of obeying them and their elders but never teach kids about their rights as children.
- Encourages you to “be patient” with your abusive spouse/partner.
- Using scripture to coerce the spouse to engage in physical intimacy.
There are many more examples of how abuse is manifested. Still, these actions cause victims to experience severe trauma and potential detachment from their religion or spiritual beliefs. In addition, many cult leaders will use religion and spiritual movements to control the masses.
Institutions of religion often perpetuate misogyny and misogynistic behavior. A study done by the American Sociological Association reveals that the disproportionate number of men in leadership positions contribute to a high degree of structural sexism. Not all leaders are interested in using their power and authority for good.
In many cases, narcissists become pastors, rabbis, imams, or other leadership positions to get their narcissistic supply from their members. Religious authority allows narcissists to exercise their grandiosity and abuse their power. They can use religion as a scapegoat for their bad behavior by using the power of religious authority. This can lead to a decline in mental health among members.
The trauma endured by victims of spiritual abuse can take many years to recover from. It is unfortunate because many people use religion and spirituality to heal. Abusers can easily continue harming their members because of an overall lack of accountability within the institution of religion. Narcissistic and abusive leaders can lead their members to develop a fundamentalist approach to religion. This mindset can lead to brain damage, low cognitive flexibility, gullibility to conspiracies/propaganda, low self-esteem and narcissism, persecutory delusions, and unhealthy perfectionism.
If you or someone you know is struggling with religious/spiritual trauma, please know that you are not alone. There are resources available to help you recover. The first step is to acknowledge the hurt you have endured during the abuse. The following steps are to then:
Explore Your Personal Beliefs
Differentiate between the religious ideology versus your own. Integrate the aspects of a religion that resonate with you. Leave behind the beliefs that no longer serve you.
It is possible that you have not learned to set healthy boundaries due to a toxic environment created by a faith-based/spiritual community. Exploring and setting boundaries within yourself and others will get you on the path to recovery. If you want more information on boundaries, follow Nedra Tawwab on Instagram. She is a licensed therapist, and her content is filled with information on boundary setting and relationship management.
Seek Help From a Qualified Therapist
Not all therapists are trauma-informed, so make sure the one you go to specializes in trauma, Complex PTSD, and narcissistic abuse. EMDR and somatic therapy are great options as well, depending on your individual experience.
Spiritual trauma and abuse are hard to heal, but it is possible. It is okay to leave if you are part of a religious/spiritual community rife with fundamentalism and rigidity. Deciding to continue following the religion/belief system is also a valid choice.
One of the best ways to heal from spiritual trauma is to seek a trauma-informed therapist. They may be able to help you make sense of your experience. A trauma-informed therapist can also come up with a treatment plan providing you with necessary coping skills. Other resources available are books and other content by licensed therapists who discuss the topic of abuse. “Healing from Hidden Abuse” by Shannon Thomas is a resource for those struggling with abuse from psychopaths and narcissists in religious communities.
For those who have decided to leave and need support, you can call this number 1-800-273-8255 to seek support. If you are in crisis, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “NAMI” TO 741741. Unfortunately, this type of abuse is fairly common, but there is help available.