Healing Spiritual Abuse & Church Hurt
Since my first article on spiritual abuse, I have been surprised and saddened by just how many people have contacted me who have experienced forms of spiritual abuse and church hurt. Yet, it is an issue that many still deny as being real in our church and faith communities; awareness is only beginning to dawn. And, as that level of awareness about spiritual abuse continues to grow, there will be increasing numbers of people who recognise themselves as being affected.
In this article, and others to come, I will start to explore ways of working to bring healing to those suffering from the effects of spiritual abuse.
But first, if you are someone who is struggling with this difficult issue, then I want to say to you that I am sorry that those places and people in your life that should have shown you the ultimate expression of love, brought you such hurt. I do suggest you seek out the support of either a competent spiritual director in this area, and/or counsellor/ therapist who has some experience in working with this issue. Such dark and hard places of brokenness can feel like places of death in our lives. However, I want to offer you hope. In the Christian tradition, we understand something of the death and resurrection cycle inherent in life itself. It is through the death of something in us that we are reborn. These spiritual wounds can soften to become places of our very transformation, if we can find the support and resources to open to our healing journey to wholeness. As Rumi, the 13th century Sufi poet, says: 'The wound is where the light gets in.'
In my earlier article, I describe some of the common characteristics and forms of spiritual abuse.
To begin here, I want to re-cap on, and recognise, the impact spiritual abuse can have in a person's life.
Sufferers talk of a range of experiences from a bruising to a violation of the very deepest part of their self; sometimes a losing of the self, involving their most deeply held values, integrity, beliefs and sense of direction and purpose. It has been said, 'Precisely because spirituality is at the heart of how people understand themselves in the world, an attack on someone's spirituality... is an attack on the heart of the person, their integrity, their wholeness.'*
As the abuser often holds notions of divine authority for the sufferer, the abuser and the divine can become entangled with each other somewhere deep inside the person's abused psyche, and the person's spirituality become contaminated with the abusive experience. Such critically ruptured trust can result in deep, toxic wounds.
As the seeker is wounded spiritually, this often damages the person's relationship with God or with sacred practice, as well as their inner psychic capacity for such a relationship. The deepest consequence is that the seeker is traumatised with regard to the most central relationship of his or her life - with God or whatever is considered to be most sacred. The trust bond between the human heart and the divine is severely damaged.
The distrust that is generated often runs very deep, is long-lasting and damaging, profoundly infecting and distorting a victim's faith in God and other people: 'I'm very cynical. I see a different side to people. I don't trust people. I just don't trust anyone anymore.'
This distrust can also affect one's notions of self and self-esteem: 'I felt isolated and couldn't trust myself, my intellect, my instincts;' 'The longer term damage is that we are reluctant to get involved with anyone or anything, we keep ourselves to ourselves.'
Some individuals, unable to separate their sacred beliefs from their abusive experience, may now also entirely distrust God or their spiritual path, and may not feel able to attend any other form of spiritual community. Indeed, some people who experience spiritual abuse or church hurt never again engage with organisations or individuals who are associated with spirituality or religion. Some may turn their back on following any form of religious container for their spiritual path, dissociating their spirituality from religion, others may abandon their spiritual journey entirely. Victims can talk of a 'theft' of their belief system that hurts them to the core.
I see a number of people in my work in spiritual accompaniment who, unable to now trust any organised group form of spiritual gathering yet wanting to go on following their faith path, now prefer to bring their spiritual journey to a trusted and understanding 1:1 setting where there is an explicit framework, and acknowledged culture, of not imposing any beliefs or practices on another, but rather of helping the person explore and deepen their own sense of the sacred in an open way.
Spiritual accompaniment should be a place where such individuals can feel at ease, safe and secure within a space that they can begin to trust, construct meaning about their life experience and find inner peace, as they reconnect to themselves, the sacred and others. It is a healing space where the accompanier should be specifically aware of the potential for power abuse, and trained to work consciously and constructively with these dynamics to avoid any further hurt and damage to the individual. The whole goal of the process is to gently empower the individual in their relationship with God or the sacred.
Talking through your experience with someone offering this safe, compassionate and understanding space, who is not afraid of the pain you feel, or the difficult religious questions it raises, can be a major step on the road to recovery. Finding that person is key, and I have written an article on offering ways of finding spiritual accompaniment support in the UK. Equally, some counsellors and psycho-therapists also now have training in working with spirituality. I have written earlier on the differences of approach each brings. People's experience and training in this field does vary, so do check this out at any initial meetings.
As well as talking through your experience, one basic practice that some find helpful to cope with the hurt they carry, is some form of breathing meditation that helps you be with your troubled feelings and emotions as you explore these painful places. Teresa Pasquale in her recent book, 'Sacred Wounds: A path to healing from spiritual trauma' outlines a form of breathing meditation that may be helpful, but of course this entirely depends on the individual concerned and what works for them.
When born, we have a natural, easy way to breath, but as we grow, learn and hurt through life, we can begin to absorb a sort of strangulation and reversal of this breathing process, that diverts us away from our natural breath into a more constricted way. For those that have experienced severe stress and trauma, this breath reversal is more acute, and so we begin to feel breathless in much of life. Specifically, in trauma we either hold our breath or hyperventilate. To return to a relaxed place, we need begin with the baseline of the breath - the anchor of life which helps us be be more balanced and grounded. I remember being in an ashram in India once where the teacher exclaimed that all our problems would be solved if we could just breathe naturally and well! This may or may not be true, but we do know that our body, soul and mind are intricately linked. Breathing well helps calm stress in the body, then the mind, which helps us cope with our stressful and painful places. This is well recognised in both the secular and sacred worlds.
So, I outline below this breathing practice that can be used routinely and/or whenever you feel anxious or triggered by painful past memories **:
1. Sit in a comfortable chair or lie down on your back - whatever is most comfortable
2. Place your hands on either side of your belly
3. Inhale deeply and imagine that you are filling up your belly with air like a balloon
4. Feel the balloon filling as your abdomen presses into your belly
5. When your abdomen is full, pause for a moment then exhale out your nose or mouth
6. After a few breaths, move your hands to either side of your rib cage
7. Take an even deeper breath, filling your lungs as your belly expands, then your rib cage
8. After a few deep breaths, move your hands to either side of your upper chest with fingers on your collarbone
9. Take an even deeper breath, filling your lungs, belly, rib cage and chest like a wave rising until your lungs are full
10. Release all the air in a sigh through your mouth
11. Continue slowly for a few minutes, noticing what it feels like to increase the length of your inhaled and exhaled breaths
Breathing practice is the root of prayer and meditation in many faith traditions. Once you have begun to access a slow and steady breathing pattern, you can begin to wholly ground yourself, so that when painful emotions rise you can stay centred in the eye of the storm, rather than be carried away or drown in painful feeling effect. If you would like a specifically Christian form of relating breath to prayer then please see the meditation I outline for being with our emotions in the spiritual life. This meditation can be adapted to many religious understandings where the anchor is to come back to the breath to ground and centre our experience. If focusing on any sense of God is too painful, then a secularised version of this meditation can be to focus on an object of your choice that can become a grounding symbol.
Suffering spiritual abuse and/ or religious hurt can leave us with many confusing and conflicting emotions. For someone following a spiritual path, this can be compounded by the messages they have received and absorbed about not carrying and expressing negative emotions. Suppression or denial of emotions in the name of religious practice, or God, may well have been used as a tool of control in the abusive context. This can lead to a deep sense of shame for carrying anger and 'unforgiveness,' which exasperates the person's pain. I have written more on the deeper role of our emotions in our spiritual journey in my earlier articles on working with the emotions in the spiritual life. As this article explores, some of these distorted messages may need to be gently challenged, when the person is ready, and difficult emotions welcomed and understood compassionately within the safe 1:1 helping context. This opening helps the emotions start to move through the person's experience and being, so that they can start to open to healing.
So far, I have explored breathing practice as an initial means of starting to cope with the sometimes overwhelming effects of spiritual abuse and religious hurt within our body and mind. This can help us to be able to talk about and work through our pained experience in a helping 1:1 context. I have also introduced how we need to understand, and relate constructively to, whatever emotions arise within us as a result of the trauma. In further articles, I will explore more ways and helpful processes to support sufferers to work with, and move through, the pain of spiritual abuse and all the difficult realities that it can leave us with about following a religious path.
* Chris Jenkins (2011) 'Exploring Therapy, Spirituality and Healing'.
** Teresa Pasquale (2015) 'Sacred Wounds: A Path to Healing from Spiritual Trauma.'
Cartoon: consent &© David Hayward @nakedpastor.com