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  • Religious Trauma, Spiritual Abuse, and Adverse Religious Experiences

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    If you are a survivor of religious trauma or spiritual abuse, the first thing I want to share with you is this: there is healthy, rewarding life after these experiences. You can find happiness, peace, integrity, and success.

    Being a survivor of religious trauma, spiritual abuse, or adverse religious experiences is a huge burden to carry. Being victimized, exploited, or betrayed by people who promised to support you, lead you, protect you, and inspire you creates psychological wounds. Recovering from the harm done within a religious/spiritual/faith community is not easy, but it is possible. You deserve sensitive and qualified help to recover from the effects of such a devastating experience. 

    Although it’s not a new phenomenon, religious trauma isn’t well-studied yet. We are really only beginning to investigate this significant area of human experience. “Trauma” has become a household word, like “religion” already was. But what is religious trauma?

    I find this definition, from the Global Center for Religious Research, to be helpful:

    “Religious trauma results from an event, series of events, relationships, or circumstances within or connected to religious beliefs, practices, or structures that is experienced by an individual as overwhelming or disruptive and has lasting adverse effects on a person’s physical, mental, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”

    The fact is that any kind of abuse you can think of—emotional, financial, mental, physical, sexual, and/or spiritual—can occur within a religious context or setting. These include families, schools, and workplaces, as well as houses of worship and religious communities.

    What comes to mind for many people when they think of religious trauma and abuse are notorious examples such as the widespread incidence of sexual abuse in the Catholic church, or cults such as the Children of God/The Family International. But we are starting to recognize that experiences of religious trauma and spiritual abuse are far more extensive than that. People from every religious community and tradition can be survivors and it is certainly not limited to Christianity. It can happen to anyone. And it’s important to know that adverse religious experiences are not limited to predatory or high-control extremes; many other religious experiences can still leave us feeling damaged, compromised, or abandoned.

    Religious trauma and spiritual abuse have many possible effects, which may include:

    • feeling lonely and isolated; 
    • difficulty in trusting yourself or others; 
    • trying to cope with significant fear, anxiety, depression, shame, guilt, and anger; 
    • cognitive symptoms such as feeling confused; struggling with critical thinking or decision-making; overthinking; intrusive thoughts;
    • a loss of identity and/or feelings of stigma;
    • physical symptoms such as nightmares and other sleep disturbances, hypervigilance, chronic illness; 
    • struggles with sexuality and pleasure, or trauma from “purity culture;”
    • social and cultural challenges. 

    If you are looking for therapy for religious trauma, you may be newly recognizing the experiences you’ve had as abusive. You may have been wrestling with your history for a long period of time. You may have been involved in the process called faith deconstruction. You may be questioning almost everything. 

    No two survivors are exactly alike, and you deserve personal and particular attention to heal. My approach is to individualize your therapy as much as possible. I will work with you to identify and customize the interventions that will be most helpful to you. We will work collaboratively to heal your trauma and rebuild your capacity to thrive and enjoy your life. 

    My focus is to create a strong therapeutic relationship in which you feel safe sharing your story and your suffering. We can explore what’s happened to you at whatever pace feels safe. We will name the harms and the losses, and process the emotions you are coping with. We will also identify your strengths, your values, your skills, and your goals, and use all of those to support your recovery.

    There are some things you should know about my relationship to religion and spirituality. My background includes lived experiences of multiple religions and extensive education in religious studies and theology of numerous religions. I don’t see religion as an inherent good or an inherent evil. We speak of “religion” as if it has a mind of its own, but religion is whatever people make it. I hold people responsible for the harms they do. There is great power in coming to understand exactly who is responsible for your suffering. It isn’t a building that caused your trauma. It’s not even a book full of words. It’s people. It’s their beliefs and actions, their choices and interpretations, that perpetuate harm. This is a big part of what we reckon with in therapy.

    If it’s part of your healing to stay on a religious path (old or new), I will support you in that; but if you are done with religion altogether, I will support that, too. You are the one who decides what your recovery will look like. I will help you consider and understand your options, but I cannot and will not decide for you. My goal is to help you take control of your own life, body, changes, and choices. I will be honest and straightforward with you. You’ve had enough false promises and you won’t get any from me. One of my greatest strengths is creating and holding space for questions, uncertainty, and investigation.  

    If you are struggling to function because of any kind of adverse religious experiences, I can provide the compassionate, professional, trauma-informed help you deserve. If this information about religious trauma resonates for you, I would like to help you. Please contact me today for a free, confidential 20-minute video or phone consultation. 

    I will not tell you to get over it. I will help you get through it.

    Copyright 2022 Deborah Birkett

    “She could never go back and make some of the details pretty. All she could do was move forward and make the whole beautiful.” ― Terri St. Cloud