There is a type of abuse that I have encountered many times over the years; it’s unique in many ways as it touches upon some very special and personal areas. So special I believe, that it ‘wounds the soul’.
Some of us are aware of ‘cults’ in their various forms and how they can be toxic.
But while all religious cults are spiritually abusive, not all spiritual abuse is found in a cult.
Someone once said that the insidious thing about the abuse of power is its ability to camouflage itself. In other words, the misuse of power leading to abuse is very subtle and you can experience it without realising what it is. This brings me to my definition of spiritual abuse (Ward 2011):
“Spiritual abuse is a misuse of power in a spiritual context whereby spiritual authority is distorted to the detriment of those under its leadership. It influences one’s inner and outer worlds and has the potential to affect the biological, psychological, social and spiritual domains of the individual.”
The above definition came out of my research into spiritual abuse a few years ago. What struck at the time was that regardless of which group the person left, they all experienced very similar difficulties. I have met people who have left New Age groups, Christian groups, Hindu groups and occult groups. Once I met someone who left a ‘flying saucer group’ that was waiting for the aliens.
Signs of Spiritual Abuse
Regardless of the group, they all had the following elements:
The leadership represented God: Whether it was the Eastern guru who thought he was God, or the Christian Pastor who spoke on God’s behalf, the leader or leadership had very powerful symbolic authority.
A classic example is the old line that says, “don’t judge the Lord’s anointed!” which is a gross misinterpretation of what the Bible actually says, and stops people from asking healthy questions.
There was spiritual bullying: The leader or leaders manipulated the members. Essentially, they were bullies. Pure and simple.
The members were only accepted if they performed: They only way the leaders approved of you, was if you obeyed them. If not, you were ‘rebellious’ or spiritually weak. In fact, the only time they paid attention to you, was if they thought you did something wrong.
There was spiritual neglect: The leadership should have cared for those under them, but instead turned a blind eye to serious matters such as child abuse, marital break-up or mental health difficulties. They also used their authority to direct matters that they had no qualifications to comment on.
The internal stress and external pressure get worse and worse: The tension and pain between what was happening on the outside (obeying the leaders, being incredibly busy) and doubts and fears on the inside (which weren’t allowed to be discussed) gets worse and worse. It’s ‘living a lie’.
The internal stress and external pressure reach a point where you burn out: Your body starts to break down in physical sicknesses, your mind breaks down with depression and anxiety, and spiritually you break down as you develop a deep fear of anything spiritual, such as going to hell, God etc.
The above pain can be summed up in one woman’s response to me when she lamented: “How can I live “God’s way” (which I must) when “God’s way” is itself a source of so much pain?”
You see, spiritual abuse is a gross violation of boundaries; emotionally, psychologically, spiritually and sometimes even physically. For example, one lady explained to me that in her group, she had to ask the Pastor for permission to do the simplest things and was treated like a child:
“I needed permission to travel interstate. I needed permission to visit other churches which had to be within our network of course. I needed permission to visit other small groups within our Church. It was just extraordinary. I had to get permission to go to a family function instead of a church function. I had to get permission to go down to the Coast to visit my parents in law and explain every little thing, where I was, why I was there and why I didn’t go to church activities.”
Breaking Free from Spiritual Abuse
Everyone’s journey is different, once they step away from the spiritual abuse.
Some show signs of PTSD; for others, their deep sense of loss is the most painful.
Some want to rebuild their spiritual life, but are deeply fearful of God and being hurt again. Leaving a spiritually abusive Church or group can be very similar to a broken relationship, or other grief and loss situations; the sense of loss is often very deep and very broad. While one can draw comparisons between spiritual abuse and say, the loss of a partner, the loss experienced by spiritual abuse encompasses much more. Here are some key areas to consider:
To accept the reality of it all: Even though you’ve left, there can still be a sense that it hasn’t happened; it seems so ‘unreal’.
Sometimes the pain is so great that an individual goes into denial. Part of the acceptance is to come to the belief that going back is impossible. Sometimes people deny the facts of exiting ie they inform people that they are still involved. Others deny the meaning ie “I don’t miss the group” or, “I didn’t want to stay anyway”.
Work through the pain of grief and loss: To deny this important task is to ‘not feel’. People do this in a number of ways – by denying that they are in pain, or hindering the process by avoiding any painful thoughts. Others self-soothe through alcohol or drugs. Some people try a ‘geographical cure’ by moving away to a new town or state. Sooner or later however, it will catch up with the individual, sometimes in the form of anger, depression or anxiety.
To adjust to a new environment: This task means different things to different people. Going home to an empty house, waking up alone, raising children by oneself and diminished finances are all hard-hitting and can be part of adjusting to a life apart from the group.
For many, their identity was wrapped up in the church or group. They can now feel quite ‘incomplete’. They may now feel that God has abandoned them, or that they are about to suffer punishment from God for rejecting him.
To emotionally relocate and move on with life: The task here is to heal that missing piece in your emotional and spiritual life.
Probably the best description of not ‘completing’ this final stage would be not trusting. In other words, by tenaciously holding on to the past pain, it hinders forming new relationships. Perhaps it could be best summed up when you can say, “There are other people to be loved and trusted”.
Having said that, it’s extremely hard when friends or family are still back in the church or group. You also need to sift through what you believe spiritually. For example, some give up on any idea of God or a spiritual life. Others want to reconnect spiritually but don’t know how.
Are you in a Spiritual Abuse Situation?
For those still in the group, the big question is: Should I leave?
This is tricky – especially if you still have friends or family in the church/group. This article really touches on how it is for folk who have left; if you are still in the group, there are a number of things to carefully consider.
Regardless of where you are on your journey, it doesn’t have to be done alone. To be spiritually abused can be terribly traumatic and many don’t understand how deep and confusing that pain is. If you feel the time is right to rebuild what was shattered, I would love to hear from you.
Author: Dr David Ward, BSocWk, BA., Grad Dip (Couple Thpy), M.Couns., MPhil., PhD.
Dr David Ward is a psychotherapist with over 20 years’ experience, providing therapy to adults, adolescents, children, couples, and families. His areas of professional interest include the use of EMDR therapy to help with recovery from domestic violence, child abuse, PTSD, depression and anxiety; family therapy; and working with victims of spiritual and ritual abuse.
To make an appointment try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call M1 Psychology Loganholme on (07) 3067 9129 or Vision Psychology Mt Gravatt on (07) 3088 5422.
Publications by Dr David Ward on Spiritual Abuse:
- Ward, D., (2011) ‘The lived experience of spiritual abuse’. Journal of Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 14 (9) 899-915.
- MPhil Thesis (2008) University of Queensland. “Wounding the soul: the lived experience of spiritual abuse.
- Ward, D., (Winter 2009) ‘Exiting the Faith: the dynamics of spiritual abuse’, Counselling Australia.
- Ward, D., (2002) ‘Cults and the Family’. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, (23) (2) 61-68.
- Ward, D., (2000) ‘Where do I start? Assessment and Intervention with ex-cult members’ Australian Social Work, (53) (2) 37-42.
- Ward, D., (2000) ‘Domestic Violence as a Cultic System’. Cultic Studies Journal, (17) (1), 42-55.
- “Spiritual Abuse and the Family”. 29th Australian & New Zealand Family Therapy Conference, October 2008
- “Counselling ex-members of cults and other controlling groups”. National Conference of the Australian Counselling Association, October 2004