Spiritual Abuse

  • Are you in a spiritual community but feel trapped?
  • Do you feel that you are living someone else’s life?
  • Is your gut instinct telling you that something is wrong?
  • Do you feel angry but don’t know why?

Spiritual abuse, like other forms of narcissistic control, can be hard to define. Nevertheless it is real and devastating.

If you are not sure what is going on but want to talk to someone about it, book an appointment.

To understand spiritual abuse, let’s look at its opposite.

Mature spiritual leadership looks like this:

  • leaders lead by example
  • nothing is asked of followers that the leaders have not done and would not do themselves
  • leaders are self-sacrificing seeking the betterment of others
  • leaders are genuinely interested in others finding their life path, not just conforming them to their mould
  • leaders are willing to let followers leave and continue to wish them well if they move on
  • leaders are accountable e.g. to the scriptures, to a committee of management, or to a broader organisation/movement that can remove them
  • values and rules are consistent and binding on the whole community
  • people are helped rather than condemned if they struggle to live up to the standards of the community
  • leaders provide moral guidance but do not dictate the detail of people’s lives (unless they are in a very specific type of community such as a monastery)
  • people who have genuine questions, doubts, or disagreements are engaged with respectfully and honestly
  • believers are free be friends with people of other faiths (or no faith), and to visit other faith communities
  • believers assertively address their differences and do not attempt to manipulate and control others
  • believers hold leaders accountable and visa-versa

That is pretty much how any healthy functional community works. It doesn’t have to be religious.

Without attempting a formal definition of spiritual abuse, here are some examples:

  • insisting that someone be part of a religion but preventing them from being part of religious community (e.g. we don’t have fellowship with them because we have the special revelation/real truth).
  • public shaming (within the community/family unit) for minor offenses
  • constantly changing and inconsistent rules
  • one rule for leaders and another for followers
  • constant threat of punishment by God or leaders
  • undermining and factions
  • questions, challenges and disagreements seen as a character flaw
  • thinking and questioning actively discouraged
  • believers not allowed to be genuine friends with non-believers, visit other faith communities, or explore other beliefs
  • being told that normal human desires, e.g. for sex, makes a person disgusting, less spiritual or otherwise damned
  • inordinate control of believer’s personal lives and finances e.g. dictating who they can marry, and requiring access to their financial records
  • child marriage
  • being punished for questioning leaders
  • being punished for reporting offences by leaders
  • being shunned for transgressions or for leaving the group

Consequences of spiritual abuse often include:

  • anger
  • depression
  • confusion
  • feeling of worthlessness
  • difficulty connecting with self
  • alienation from society
  • fear of being part of a spiritual community
  • existential despair
  • identity confusion
  • distrust of legitimate authority

The first rule of journeying out of spiritual abuse is be kind and gentle to yourself. It isn’t all bad out there. It’s OK to be you.

Having said that, there are a couple of things that spiritual abuse isn’t.

Every community works on the basis of shared values, agreements (often unspoken) and rules. If you are in a community and you find that you no longer share the same values or wish to live by the same rules, you need to leave as graciously as possible. It is not reasonable to expect the community to change for you, or to embrace your new revelation just because you are ‘right’.

Disagreement is not abuse. For example, you may come from a religious community that doesn’t want to fly your rainbow flag, share your views on abortion, or embrace your sexuality. That is not abuse, it is a difference of opinion. If you are seeking to impose your opinions on others, then you are probably the abuser.

Narcissistic abuse, spiritual or otherwise, narrows your world. Stand up and look around. The world is wide. There is room in it for everyone. You will find your place.

Due to work commitments Trauma Life Recovery is not able to offer one on one counselling at this time. However you will certainly benefit from our foundational Trauma Life Recovery course. We also recommend finding an experienced counsellor or psychologist with an understanding of religious experience.