Identifying and Dealing with Spiritual Abuse

Finding Your Way Out of the Fog

Image of a distant church in the mist Have you felt pressured to comply to rigid rules in order to remain a member in good standing with a faith-based group? Have you been hurt by a spiritual community or leader? Have you been told not to question “authority”? Have you wondered why questions aren’t welcomed?  Do you at times feel uneasy or cautious when interacting with a faith-based group or leader?

If you have answered yes to any of these questions, you may have witnessed or experienced spiritual abuse. This may have left you confused, questioning yourself, others, even your faith. What was once clear is no longer that way. You may feel like you are trying to find your way out of a thick fog.

Spiritual abuse is about the misuse of power by a faith-based group or leader to try to manipulate, dominate, or control others. It can be intentional or unintentional. Compliance to rules of the group is motivated by fear of negative consequences. Approval is gained by following these rules—if this is possible.

I first used the phrase, “spiritual abuse” almost 20 years ago. To the best of my knowledge, I was not previously familiar with it. I heard about a situation involving a woman being told that if she did not comply with the rules of her specific religious group or if she tried to leave the group for another related group, her eternal destiny would be in danger. My immediate instinctual response was, “That is spiritual abuse.”  It is important to recognize and name these damaging situations.

Red flags that can help to warn us that spiritual abuse may be taking place include:

  • Authority — of specific people or positions — is overstated
  • Legalism — compliance to rules — is emphasized
  • Secrecy — a lack of transparency — is known to exist

The impact of spiritual abuse can be far reaching in the damage caused. It can include:

  • Individual choice not being not honored
  • One’s voice not being heard
  • Inability to meet rigid behavioral standards resulting in a sense of unworthiness, a sense of not being enough, low self-esteem, diminished self-confidence
  • Identification of self as “the problem”
  • Increased anxiety and/or depression
  • Disapproval or shunning, even ostracism from the group
  • Sense of shame and humiliation
  • Grief related to loss of community, loss of a sense of belonging and/or safety
  • Loss of joy and spontaneity in life
  • Disillusionment with faith

Compassionate conversations that begin to expose spiritual abuse are necessary and beneficial for the individual and for the group. Injustices and misuses of power that are not tolerated outside of faith communities should not be tolerated within them. As individuals, it is important to listen to our intuition when something does not seem right. If something doesn’t ring true, trust yourself and talk with someone you respect outside of your immediate faith community to gain perspective.  Faith communities can give much richness and meaning to our lives. However, we need to keep our wits about us as spiritual abuse can come in subtle forms, wreaking havoc before we even realize it is in play.

Situations involving spiritual abuse are never acceptable and are potentially very damaging. If you or someone you know has had hurtful experiences in a faith community, do not delay in seeking help. Please contact me. Together we can explore ways to work toward resolution, healing, and finding a way out of the fog.