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It’s difficult to define or recognize spiritual abuse because it has so many manifestations, often overlapping with other kinds of mistreatment in a church environment.
It’s so hard to identify or find validation that spiritual abuse has occurred or is occurring. We make excuses, we see issues swept under the rug, we experience our stories of abuse being invalidated again and again.
To even begin to recognize it, either as a witness to it happening or as someone who suffers or has suffered from it, you have to cross the built in mental hurdles that prevent the association of the spiritual with abuse.
Because those two words seem worlds apart, right? The word “spiritual” being something that conjures up ideas that seem so essential, so central to what it means to be alive and seeking answers about existence. Matters of the heart, soul and mind. Then, in stark contrast, “abuse” conjures up mental images of physical pain, negativity and distress. How could this word possibly tie itself up with the spirit?
Here is my current working definition of spiritual abuse:
Spiritual Abuse verb
to treat the human soul or spirit cruelly or with violence, regularly or repeatedly.
It helps to see it for what it is, a repeated exercise designed to break down your defenses, through the proxy of being spiritual guidance or holy ordinance. These are some common signs of spiritual abuse that may help with recognizing it (and this is not an exhaustive list at all).
When scripture is used as a weapon to shame, guilt or create a sense of fear in you - it is not normal! Examples of this are being told not to speak against a religious leader. Or having your legitimate reactions to abuse censored by verses about respect that have been carefully picked and repeated to you again and again to ensure compliance. Verses like “Do not touch my anointed ones!” are rallied against any criticism, reminders not to be a “doubting Thomas” or to emulate Job who trusted in a bigger plan despite extreme hardship. Anything that makes you doubt your own mind and the integrity of your questions or observations of issues is used and weaponized.
Cherry-picking verses to control you is an abusive tactic. Just because the verse came from a holy book, does not mean the speaker of the verse has good or holy intentions.
Coercion is present in so many forms of abuse. In spiritual abuse, it is an insidious snare that makes you a party to your own mistreatment. It can be financial coercion, coercion that affects your personal life or public life. You are manipulated into a space that demands you say yes even if the reality of the situation demands you say no. This can be “donating” money that you don’t have, isolating yourself from people who are considered “bad influences” or controlling the way you dress/ behave.
You could also be used as a tool to coerce others, by avoiding people who were blacklisted by the church, toeing the line of church politics and hierarchies and encouraging others to not rock the boat out of fear for yourself and them.
No one is allowed to stand out except the abusive spiritual leader. You have to be humble to such an extreme that you downplay any achievements that may overshadow them. Your talents or abilities are labelled as a gift and never for the hard work you put into it. The word “vain” is a weapon that is regularly deployed to anyone different or special in some way.
Any personal growth or milestone is shot down as something that you must be silent about unless it brings glory to the leaders who give themselves credit for their role in it, even if that simply is not true.
The spiritual leader is often elevated to such an extreme that any threat to that cult of personality is rejected and the “same-ness” of the congregation is enforced with reminders of humility, derisive comments about being vain if you are different or marvelous in any way and, lastly, breaking your spirit down until you believe that these things are true.
If you are constantly made to feel like you are not worthy of being loved or of being part of a community- that is abuse. It’s part of the manipulation to make you conform or be coerced into things that do not benefit you.
When we feel that we are not good enough or that we don’t meet the standard of the people we seek love, affirmation and support from- we can act out in ways that harm us. The effects of not feeling good enough can manifest with the development of people pleasing behavior that can be to our detriment. We want to stay in the group so badly that we comply, we say yes in case “no” gets a negative reaction that leads to rejection.
Not feeling good enough eventually feeds into lowering your self worth and self esteem, by making you second guess your needs, your perceptions and reactions because your community assigns that low value to you.
Shame is something that is hard to confront. Our human reaction to shame, or the reasonable prospect of it is, is to cringe or feel our stomachs turn in fear or trepidation. Abusive people know this, that our instinct is to run as far from shame as possible- so they use it.
Isolation is a punishment often used by abusers, especially of a spiritual kind where they have influence over your family network, friendships in the church or your local community outside of the church.
These two signs go hand in hand. Shame as the threat and isolation as a consequence. Humans are creatures of community, we crave and love the connection with others and fear rejection and being cast out of that community. Shame and isolation are often used to reinforce control and reiterate authority.
You are shamed for anything that is “unauthorized” and isolated from anyone who can help you see the situation for what it is. This doesn’t necessarily have to be people outside the community but anyone who could help you call out or address the behavior.
As a reminder: You absolutely ARE good enough.
Seeing the signs of spiritual abuse may lead you to a crossroad, but for the first time you have the power to decide exactly where you want to go from here. Once you’ve seen the signs of spiritual abuse and recognized it, it’s the first step of your journey into healing and freedom.
It may be painful to look back at your life or look around in your present circumstances and see spiritual abuse, lingering out in the open or beneath the surface. It can be a shock that takes time to recover from when you begin to see the reality of power dynamics, relationships and situations that caused you harm.
Next steps may ideally include things that help support you in your decisions after recognizing spiritual abuse. This may take the form of therapy, lowering or eliminating contact with spiritual abusers or seeking the support of friends and family who may affirm you in your decisions.
You need to remember that it is not your fault. Fault lies with no one except the abuser and the system of enablers.
You’ve got this!
Here are a list of other blog posts I've written on Spiritual Abuse.