As one who has awakened from spiritual abuse, I feel the great need to share my story in order that others may have the space and the place to voice their experiences and begin to heal. My hope in sharing these signs of spiritual abuse is that we may be able to uncover and recover from the misuse of religion and church and transform religion and church into a vehicle by which hurt and pain are healed not inflicted.
To that end, here are some signs of spiritual abuse that may help you as you are ministering to those who have experienced spiritual abuse or as you yourself heal from spiritual abuse:
Guilt and Shame: In a culture of spiritual abuse, guilt and shame are used as motivators of allegiance. Individuals who question or challenge the belief system are shamed by religious leaders so that their voices are not heard. With this shame comes guilt. With this guilt comes low self-esteem and the feeling of not being good enough, faithful enough, or devout enough. These are all tools used to maintain power in the hands of those in religious authority.
Anxiety: In a culture of spiritual abuse, there is always someone watching, at least this is what spiritual leaders and authorities tell individuals in that belief system. This ever-present watchful eye produces anxiety for the individual who is constantly trying to make “the right decision,” in order to be considered good and faithful. This anxiety often leads to extreme indecision because the individual is always looking to the religious leader or authority for “the right answer.”
Pride: In a culture of spiritual abuse, the religious leader or authority has an answer for every situation and every circumstance. The religious leader or authority then teaches these answers and response to his community of faith. Knowing “the right answer” brings pride to the community, but sharing “the right answer” with those who don’t know brings even more pride, so that conversions and re-dedications to “the right answer” are celebrated, counted, and exploited.
Exclusion: In a culture of spiritual abuse, there is a us vs. them subtext that runs through all teaching and preaching. Most often this takes the form of the unbeliever and the believer. Sometimes this takes the form of “the world” and us. These strict dichotomies are dangerous because they do not allow for the individual to be unique. Group normative faith expressions are celebrated and individual expressions of faith are guilted and shamed.