Spiritual Abuse: Yes, it’s a Real Thing.

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Disclaimer: This article is not meant to demonize my parents—they did the best they could with what they had and believed, per their faith, that they were doing what was best for me.

As you will discover, such motivation is a common component of spiritual abuse and important to this conversation. I can look back on my childhood now with gratitude for what it taught me about recovery and my own spiritual identity…

Although I hail from the notoriously crime-ridden city of Youngstown, Ohio I was never directly impacted by the social injustices, corruptions and devastations that earned the city of my birth nicknames like, Bombtown U.S.A.

The war zone in my house was not one that you see in movies about the All-American dysfunctional home: whiskey bottles emptying at a steady rate, mortgage payments getting eaten up by the loan shark or the innocent being thrown up against walls or otherwise maimed by flying household objects. There was a much different war that raged on in the battleground of my home and the desired prize was the capture and conquest of my soul.

When I was born in 1979, my parents were both Roman Catholic. When I was a toddler, my father converted to a very conservative, charismatic Evangelical denomination and he eventually left the Catholic Church. All of a sudden, Catholics and everyone other than Evangelical Christians became the enemy.

I echoed the words of prayer my father went over with me to “get saved,” although at the time it was just something I did to keep him happy. Yet everything I did to keep my father happy, on some level, made my mother (still a devout Catholic) miserable. This back-and-forth went on for over a decade.

As the oldest child, I bore the brunt of their dinnertime disagreements over religion, the most memorable being when I was eight. The two of them, who managed to stay married for many years after his conversion, bickered incessantly about the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. During this particular dinnertime battle they both asked me to weigh in with my opinion.

It was another moment of knowing that if I sided with one, the other would take offense. Punishment would ensue, or at very least a couple of days of resentful scorn. When I was eight, both of my parents held a God-like presence in my life. They provided me with the food, water and shelter I needed to survive.

The battle continued like this throughout my childhood, and both parents often fretted, “I’m going to lose you yet.”

When I decided not to get confirmed into the Catholic Church in high school and began attending my father’s church full-time, my mother took it personally and my father saw it as a victory. Honestly, although I appeared to be a poster child Evangelical Christian for a couple of years, my main motivation for doing it was to get out of having to go to both churches every Sunday (which was my standard routine for about a decade).

One day, after some argument in which the “I’m gonna lose you yet,” weapon was drawn by one or both parents, I retreated to my bedroom in tears. I must have been about 16 years-old. As I lay there sobbing, I said to myself, “Spiritual abuse has to be a real thing. Like sexual abuse. Or physical abuse. Or verbal abuse. What I’m feeling now has to be what spiritual abuse feels like.”

At that tender age I had not yet taken my first psychology class but I knew what I was encountering.

Fast-forward about eight years. As a 24-year-old graduate student in counseling psychology, two years into my own recovery from alcoholism and continuing to try on a few different spiritual paths for size, I remembered that tearful moment in my bedroom. I searched the term spiritual abuse in a psychology database and found out that others published on the topic of spiritual abuse. Just seeing that was one of the most validating experiences of my life.

I procured every book and article that I could find on the topic. Even though most of what existed was written from a Christian pastoral perspective (e.g., helping survivors of abusive pastors or church systems recover), I resonated strongly with the idea that when God is used as the weapon of power and control, spiritual abuse can occur.

These sources affirmed that the consequences of spiritual abuse can be just as powerful as the other types of abuse (e.g., physical, emotional, verbal, sexual) that are more readily identified in psychology. Consequences may include high levels of shame, self-loathing, addictive patterns of behavior, self-mutilating and self-injurious behaviors, and many of the symptoms that we normally associate with post-traumatic stress.

In my career as a clinical counselor, I’ve freely used the term spiritual abuse with clients and with colleagues I train in principles of trauma-informed care. The most common response I get is, “Spiritual abuse, is that a real thing?” When I give clients what has become my standard working definition—the use of God, religion, or other spiritual concepts as tools to gain power and control by the abuser—most people begin to see what I mean.

My intention on generating a discussion about spiritual abuse is not to bash any one religious group.

I cannot be more clear in stating that the presence of spiritual abuse is ubiquitous—I see it happen in countries, churches, synagogues, temples, mosques, blindly devout homes, ashrams, yoga studios, in meditation groups and in metaphysical communities. Wherever there is a power differential between leaders and followers, parents and children, the devout and those still seeking, the potential for using spirituality as a weapon exists.

It is clear from looking at the state of current events in the world today that politics, religion and their intermingling are battlegrounds. As a clinical counselor my role, more often than not, is to deal with the scars that people endure from being caught in the middle of these battles. Thus, my mission has been to get my clients, and those I teach to look at these battles through the lens of abuse.

The causality dynamics are similar; the recovery implications are similar. Spiritual abuse is a real issue  and deserves to be named in the same list as physical, emotional, verbal and sexual issues.  We need to start having this conversation on a more regular basis, for only then can some substantive healing take place. A first step in productive conversation is recognition.

My hope is that in reading this article, I will be able to validate spiritual abuse as something real that you may have experienced, in the same way as a graduate student I found validation looking up the term spiritual abuse in books and articles in the school’s database.


The Difference between Religion & Spirituality


Author:  Jamie Marich

Apprentice Editor: Renee Jahnke/Editor: Travis May

Image: Pavel P/Flickr

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Jamie Marich

 Jamie Marich’s friends and colleagues describe her as a renaissance woman. A dancer, musician, performer, writer, recovery ambassador, and clinical counselor, Marich unites these elements of her experience to achieve an ultimate mission: bringing the art and joy of healing to others. Marich travels internationally speaking on topics related to EMDR, trauma, addiction, and mindfulness while maintaining a private practice (Mindful Ohio) in her home base of Warren, OH. She is the developer of the Dancing Mindfulness practice and regularly trains facilitators to take this unique practice into both clinical and community settings. Jamie Marich is the author of EMDR Made Simple: 4 Approaches for Using EMDR with Every Client (2011), Trauma and the Twelve Steps: A Complete Guide for Recovery Enhancement (2012), and Trauma Made Simple: Competencies in Assessment, Treatment, and Working with Survivors. Her new book, Dancing Mindfulness: A Creative Path to Living in the Moment is scheduled for release in 2015 with Skylight Paths Press. Marich is also a certified rational living hypnotherapist and completed the Street Yoga trauma-informed yoga teacher training program.

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anonymous Mar 24, 2016 12:25am

Thank you for your article. I have been a victim of Spiritual abuse also. I became involved with a cult when I was 17. I was involved with them for about 15 years. 7 years active, and the rest trying to leave. There doctrine is full of shame and guilt. I had nightmares for years after I left. I thought God was going to kill me because I left. They told me I would die or go crazy if I left. I think I was crazy for many years because of what I went through with them. To this day, It is really hard to go to any church. I want my daughter to know God, we have gone to a few non-denominational churches over the years. But I always find a reason to stop going. I could write a book about all the psychological abuse that goes on in those walls of this particular cult. I know I suffer from PTSD still. Working the 12 steps has helped me to find a HP of my understanding, but It is still very difficult for me.

anonymous Feb 24, 2016 1:11pm

Thank you for this article. I was in a Christian cult for 14 years and got PTSD as a result. After leaving, I was in counseling for two years to recover, during which time I read as much as I could find about cults and about spiritual abuse. The book which actually helped me the most was one written for/about people with PTSD called "Trauma and Recovery." It put cult membership in the category of "captivity," along with prisoners of war and domestic abuse situations.

Spiritual abuse can be just as devastating as other forms of trauma. In participating on forums with other ex-members of this group, I spoke with several who also had gotten PTSD. Two in particular stood out to me: one was a veteran who had fought in the front lines and said that he was more negatively impacted by the cult than by the war. And another had been raped and said the same of the rape vs. the cult membership.

For a while I hosted a forum called "Spiritual Recovery." Though it is no longer active, I kept it live because the start page has many links and information to help victims of spiritual abuse. Here it is, in case it might help someone reading this: http://forums.delphiforums.com/sarecovery

anonymous Feb 5, 2015 7:06pm

Growing up, my father had ingrained into my head that if I didn't believe in God, I would go to hell. As I've become my own person, I began to question, "Why should I believe in a god out of fear?" and "Why should I believe in a god who makes people believe out of fear and guilt?" I do not believe that is what a god, if there be one, would be like. Thank you for this article, I have a long way to go in realizing my own spiritual identity but I am on my way, in a positive, guilt-free manner.

    anonymous Feb 6, 2015 9:04pm

    Thank you, Ursula… I also struggle with people who operate from a fear-based spirituality… probably because I realize that as a younger person I fell into this trap too. Cheers, Jamie 🙂

anonymous Feb 5, 2015 4:22pm

Thank you Cathy, and thanks for noticing some of the differences about spiritual vs. religious….this really is a broad conversation that I think we need to be having. Cheers, and thanks for sharing! – J.

anonymous Feb 5, 2015 7:57am

Thank you for writing this important article! I grew up as part of a very devout Mormon family, and while I thankfully did not have to endure the parenting-divide, I can definitely relate to the guilt and shame techniques to keep "the masses" in line. And then the self-destructive behaviors later on after I pulled away from the church as an adult. It took many years to even truly recognize that the control and guilt are abusive, and to connect the dots between my behaviors and the need to recover from spiritual abuse. But I'm glad i did! I agree – I don't begrudge my parents any more – they did the best they could with what they had. And it still pains me that forever my mother will have a longing for me to "come back to the fold", but that's hers to own. And watching the cycle continue with most of my siblings and their children makes me cringe. But, I'm forever grateful that I took ownership over my own mental health, and am working on creating the life I want :). Thank you.

    anonymous Feb 5, 2015 4:24pm

    Thank you, thank you, thank you Michelle for sharing! I relate… I know things like this can be difficult for my parents to read or hear and on some level they are still waiting for me to come back too. Cheers, Jamie 🙂

anonymous Feb 5, 2015 7:20am

My Dad is a retired United Methodist minister and my Grandfather was a retired minister in the UMC. Both of them were incredibly loving and wonderful people. But, they weren't "fundamentalist, emphasis on the mental. Religion is the perfect place to press forward with sick assed psychosis, unfortunately. It can also be a place to love people sacrificially. The real issue, just like with ISIS or Westboro Baptist Church is mental health. Churches are magnets for crazy people.

A huge majority of people on this planet view the world through the lens of ego. Ego is about fear and drama. Religion is a conceptual reality that many of us, like it or not, buy into. It's not the fault of Jesus or Buddha that ego's screwed it up.

    anonymous Feb 5, 2015 4:23pm

    Thanks for that comment about emphasis on the "mental"… makes some sense 🙂 -Jamie 🙂

anonymous Feb 4, 2015 8:18pm

I think it is very important to bring this form of abuse into the conversation and domain of all types of abuse. As I was reading, at first I thought “religious abuse” seemed closer to what this is, but then I see what you mean about the people one encounters on a spiritual journey who so often have a sense of “greater than” just because they’ve practiced a given discipline or lived within a certain form of religion longer than the seeker, often making a person entering what they hope is a welcoming and open community feel “less than.” I grew up half-Episcopalian half-“heathen” by a wonderful grandmother who, while sending me off to Sunday school until the age of 11, didn’t mind at all when I asked to stop going. In this area I feel blessed, and reading of your experiences has made me realize how fortunate I was in this particular area of my life. (I feel as though I’ve gone to a meeting!) Thank you so much for sharing your experience, and for the counseling and teaching work you do.