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The spectrum: From spiritual exploration to spiritual abuse &  religious trauma

Have you grown up in a religious household or community, and as a result found it challenging to untangle your own beliefs from those of your church or religious community? While growing up in a religious household can have many benefits in terms of providing support, community, a relationship with something beyond one’s self, it can also sometimes lead to significant mental and emotional anguish as well as cognitive dissonance between what you have been taught and an emerging difference in what you believe now.

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You may find it difficult to work out whether to trust your own experiencing and thoughts due to them not fitting with religious doctrines. Shame and guilt may play a big part as a result of feeling like you are betraying what is expected of you in your religious community. As a result of my own lived experience and training in this area, I am equipped to help you untangle and find your authentic self underneath religious or spiritual beliefs that you may have taken on in your life.  

Spiritual abuse

You may think that spiritual abuse only happens in cults or religious environments with a faith leader who has manipulative intent, but it is important to note that spiritual abuse can hide in plain sight even in normal looking every-day churches and religious communities. Please get in touch with me if you would like to explore issues that may have happened in your community that have affected you.

 

Below, is additional information which defines spiritual abuse. It is written within the context of the Christian faith but can be applied to other religious/spiritual groups. You may find this useful to help reflect on whether the definitions and examples apply to your situation.

The material below has been sourced from the very helpful CofE Safeguarding E-Manual Section 4.2 Spiritual Abuse and the work of Professor Lisa Oakley.

WHAT IS SPIRITUAL ABUSE?

Spiritual abuse, whilst a relatively new term, is a form of emotional and psychological abuse characterised by a systematic pattern of coercive and controlling behaviour in a religious context.

It is important to recognise that spiritual abuse can be experienced by anyone irrespective of position. It can be perpetrated by someone in a leadership position to a member of a congregation, but also from the congregation to someone in a leadership position as well as by people in equal positions of power.

Spiritual abuse can lead to severe and lasting damage, which can often seriously impact our ability to trust our relationships with others. This betrayal of trust can lead to feel fearful and unsafe and the depth of its impact should not be underestimated.

The Church has a duty of responsibility to guard against the dangers of spiritual abuse and the harm it can bring to individuals and communities.

Spiritual abuse may occur on its own, or alongside other forms of abuse, such as physical, sexual or domestic abuse. It may be used to ‘legitimise’ or facilitate other forms of abuse. It is often an integral element of other experiences of abuse within the Christian Church and other faith contexts and it is important that when investigating disclosures of other forms of abuse, spiritual abuse is also considered.

HOW TO RECOGNISE SPIRITUAL ABUSE?

Spiritual abuse shares some of the hallmarks of bullying and harassment, including intimidation, manipulation and inducing fear. However, what makes spiritual abuse distinct are the elements associated with religious belief including; coercion through religious position; membership of the religious community; scripture; biblical discourse and spiritual threats.

The key aspect of spiritual abuse is the religious context in which the abuse occurs and the ways in which people are controlled through the misuse of scripture, divine position, spiritual threats and fear of spiritual consequences and the suggestion of God as complicit. All or some of these features can be used to control or coerce.

A spectrum of behaviour (Oakley, L: 2021)

 

It is important to situate spiritual abuse in the spectrum of behaviour we experience within Christian contexts. The diagram above may be helpful in understanding this spectrum.

  • At one end there is good, healthy, nurturing behaviour in which people flourish and grow, and there are many examples of this across church communities.

  • Then, as we move along the spectrum, we reach unhelpful behaviour. This is where someone’s reaction or behaviour is not harmful, but not helpful and we all behave in this way at times.

  • If we continue along the spectrum and if, in the context of spiritual abuse, we start to see a consistent pattern of behaviour that is negative; where we check ourselves before approaching that person; where they are not open to question etc., it starts to become unhealthy and much of the behaviour that concerns us sits here. This type of behaviour should always be challenged and addressed at this stage.

  • If it becomes a persistent pattern of coercive controlling behaviour that reflects the definition of psychological abuse with a religious rationale, there is a strong likelihood that it has crossed the threshold into spiritual abuse.

 

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