Abuse isn’t always visible. Especially spiritual abuse.
Here’s a question: Is being controlled the same as being abused?
I cartoon and write a lot about spiritual abuse. Most of the members of my online community “The Lasting Supper: Help Yourself!” are survivors of spiritual abuse. They are helping themselves heal… with the incredible help of others. Please join us. I know you’ll love it!
Spiritual abuse is defined as “psychological manipulation and harm inflicted on a person by using the teachings of their religion. This is perpetrated by members of the same or similar faith, and includes the use of a position of authority within the religion.” (Wiki)
I’m often asked if I was spiritually abused.
Yes, I have.
But I’ll be even more transparent here: I’ve inflicted it! So, I know how it works.
In my opinion, spiritual abuse does not have to be the outrageous, cult-like, psychological and emotional trauma inflicted on people that we see in books and documentaries. You know… stories that make us react with, “That’s messed up! How can normal people get caught up in that craziness?”
No. I believe spiritual abuse is most often expressed in the manipulation, coercion, and control of people. It’s far more subtle and sinister than most are willing to admit or detect.
I have experienced the outrageous kind of abuse. But mostly I’ve experienced the more subtle kind of abuse: control.
The difficult part for me to accept is my complicity in it. I submitted myself to charismatic but autocratic leaders who took the wheel of my life to encourage me to think and do things that I wouldn’t normally think and do as my healthiest self.
I talk with a lot of wives who wonder if they’re being abused in their marriages. They’re not being beaten or raped or locked in their homes. Physically. But emotionally and psychologically they live under such tight control under their husbands that they are not free and they are not themselves. The locks and chains are metaphorical. They have to do this and they can’t do that. They live under constant fear of rage and retaliation. They are quiet prisoners of their husbands in their own homes. They know it, wish they could escape, but despair of ever being able to do so safely.
But it didn’t start this way. For many of them, it started by them falling in love and willingly, even excitedly, submitting themselves to their husbands as they thought they should. Eventually, though, it degraded to the point where it became apparent that their husbands were terribly insecure, obsessively jealous, and easily angered. Their agreement to make the relationship work quickly translated into the loss of their freedom, their rights, and ultimately themselves.
It takes a lot of courage for these women to reach out for advice, advocacy, and assistance.
It’s the same with religion. At first we are willing submit ourselves to this exciting new life. But it soon turns into manipulation which quickly turns into complete control. Sometimes it takes us years to realize we’ve surrendered our own liberty and that we’ve completely lost touch with who we are. It can take us years to get to the desperate place of realizing we are in trouble and need to get out. For many of us, it takes years of intentional self-care and often therapy to recover from this religious trauma.
I’ve been in this situation more than once. This may say as much about me as it does the leaders I served.
One time I confronted one my leaders to his face. I was shaking when I did it. But I finally told him. After he demanded to know what my problem was with him, I said, “I find you very controlling!” He suddenly flared up, poked his finger into my chest several times, and shouted, “You’re a sick man. You need therapy!” A light came on. He crossed the line a long time ago, but when he touched me, he demonstrated it physically. I knew it was time to separate.
So, is control abuse? I guess it depends on the intensity of it, but yes, control can be abuse. If your true self is beaten down, disrespected, disregarded, and dismissed, if you’ve lost your ability to think for yourself and be self-determining, if you live in constant and paralyzing fear of reprisals and rejection, and if you despair of the thought of ever being free again, it is very possible you are living in a spiritually abusive situation.
It’s time to get out.