Many individuals find strength and belonging in being a member of a social community that is centred around religion or spirituality – often in the form of a faith group. They are able to share their ‘self’ and the essence of their identity with like-minded others. Stepping outside this familiar environment into therapy can feel daunting for many. It is important that we give clients the space to explore the challenges of disclosure to someone outside their chosen family, sociocultural or faith group. While we cannot be expected to understand all aspects of a client’s religious or spiritual group, it is important that as therapists we are not dismissive or judgmental – even when we might find the beliefs counter to those we personally consider to be important. 

BACP considers that therapists should respect and be sensitive to the religious or spiritual practices and experiences of their clients, or to the absence of them. As practitioners who adhere to an ethical framework, we look to ‘…appreciate the variety of human experience and culture’; and ‘…work with issues of identity in open-minded ways that respect the client’s autonomy and be sensitive to whether this is viewed as individual or relational autonomy’ (Good Practice, point 22d). 

Nevertheless, researchers have also identified potentially unhelpful aspects of religion and spirituality, which it is important to be aware of.

Consider how you may approach the following two scenarios as a counsellor, using the questions as prompts.


In Emilia’s case, we see how she was recruited into what was in fact a cult, but she did not realise this as it was presented as a bona fide yoga studio and had a false mask of professionalism and safety. We see how the group slowly changed her thinking, took over her life and hijacked and severed her attachments, so that she became dependent on and attached to the community and the leader.

When Justin first told Raja this story, Raja didn’t know whether to believe him; it all sounded rather far-fetched, and he realised he was panicking and felt out of his depth. He was looking forward to speaking with his supervisor as soon as possible. He recognised he had a dilemma, and he wondered if his own religious affiliation and disapproval of this type of new-age Western mix with Hinduism was getting in the way. Raja was also aware of feeling rage towards Emilia neglecting her children as this triggered some memories for him of his absent father.

Because Raja did not know this sort of thing could happen, he found himself wondering if there was in fact a good reason for Emilia wanting to leave Justin, and questioned to himself whether the stories of them being a strong couple was a lie. He even wondered if Justin was abusive. He found himself pulled to judge Justin to be an inadequate husband as his wife had chosen to leave him. Raja was experienced enough to listen to his feelings and allow himself to be curious about them, letting them inform his work with Justin, but he struggled to make sense of what he was hearing.

As Raja listened carefully and reflected on Justin’s story, and as he compared what Justin was telling him with genuine Hinduism, he realised that this was probably a case of spiritual abuse. He knew that genuine Hinduism and yoga practice would not make such demands on an individual, or split families up – in fact, it values family very highly.

To help himself make sense of the situation, Raja looked on the internet for the name of the group. He discovered, firstly, that some were calling it a ‘cult’, and secondly, that there were a great number of resources about cults. This word was new to him in the context of religion and spirituality – he thought of a cult TV series etc, but not a cult in the sense of an abusive group. Once he found the word, this gave him access to several self-help resources, which he was able to point out to Justin. Raja also had a consultation session with someone experienced in working with coercive and radical cultic groups because his supervisor knew nothing about these issues either.

Raja read up on cults and was able to offer a listening ear and to empathise with Justin as he processed his and the children’s traumatic loss – and they continued in therapy for a few months. Raja was not in a position, as a therapist, to help Justin extract his wife from the group. Justin consulted an expert in ‘exit-counselling’, which is ‘…a voluntary, intensive, time-limited, contractual educational process that emphasizes the respectful sharing of information with members of exploitatively manipulative groups, commonly called cults’,1 in order to try to reach his wife and bring her home.


  • Are there parallels with Sean’s and Justin’s stories even though the context and the religion/spirituality are different?
  • Is this a case of spiritual abuse or cult?
  • What differences might there be between spiritual abuse and cult?


This is a clear case of spiritual abuse in a mainstream setting. Sarah was initially tempted to assume there was something wrong with Sean, but because she had some experience and training in working with spiritual abuse, she was able to hold her counter-transferential pull to ‘blame the victim’ and caught herself in time. Instead, Sarah explored in more detail what was happening and what this meant to Sean. By doing this, Sarah was able to come alongside Sean, bear witness to his abuse, and help him find a voice.

This exploration supported and empowered Sean to make his own decision as to what to do next, and he decided to approach the church leader, who had a reputation for fairness and kindness. When he approached her, he found her to be open and non-defensive. This conversation started a discussion and dialogue, which resulted in the church creating a strategy to tackle spiritual abuse and bullying throughout the whole church as well as in the home groups, without shaming or blaming Sean or anyone else. As a result, the church also taught about spiritual abuse and changed its bullying policies. Sean’s depression and sadness lifted, and he was able to continue attending the home group happily and safely.

Sean’s situation is a clear-cut case of  spiritual abuse, which is often hidden and can be extremely harmful. It is hard for outsiders to believe that such abuse could occur in a church or a setting that society generally assumes is safe, even if they are not members of that religion/spirituality.

Sean’s situation highlights how it is important not to pathologise the individual. Being spiritual and idealistic can point to inner strength and be a resilience factor, but if the religious/spiritual community or relationship masks its true intent or hides abusive practices, which is surprisingly common, the idealism may look like or result in vulnerability.

Vulnerability factors

Everyone is influenced and subjected to persuasion daily, in various ways (for example, TV advertising), but an individual’s vulnerability to influence varies. No one type of person is prone to becoming involved in unhealthy spirituality, and individual vulnerability factors and circumstances matter more than personality type.2 The ability to fend off persuaders is reduced when one is:

  • Rushed
  • Stressed
  • Uncertain
  • Lonely
  • Indifferent
  • Uninformed
  • Distracted
  • Fatigued.

And/or when one:

  • Assumes no personal vulnerability (‘I would never be recruited into a cult’)
  • Is in the wrong place at the wrong time
  • Has just left home – for example, for college or a gap year/travelling
  • Thinks they are joining a safe religious or spiritual community
  • Is idealistic – and the religion and spirituality promise fulfilment of those idealistic dreams
  • Has broken up with a boy/girlfriend or is going through a divorce
  • May not have learned to think critically and therefore turns a blind eye
  • Is anxious about the future
  • The group promises a sense of community, acceptance or increased skills
  • Is suffering a loss or fear of loss
  • Joins as a way of dealing with chronic depression or character disorders
  • Is spiritually hungry.

The status and power of the authority figure, who holds more power in the relationship, also affects the level of vulnerability; for example, this may be a relationship between:

  • therapist/client
  • member of congregation/leader.

Look out for the Thresholds podcast linked to this series, at Thresholds online.


1 Giambalvo C. Exit counselling: a family intervention. Bonita Springs: American Family Foundation; 1995.
2 Langone M. Recovery from cults: help for victims of psychological and spiritual abuse. London: WW Norton and Company; 1993.