One key way to demystify working with spiritual abuse and religious trauma is to psycho-educate therapists on the potential impact of such experiences on the self. The thoughts shared in this article are based on my personal formative experiences and my work with clients and supervisees over many years. The findings of my doctoral research project, in which seven experienced therapists shared their stories as part of a qualitative reflexive, relational collaborative, narrative inquiry, are also central to this writing. This research study is detailed in my thesis 'Both sides of the coin: Counsellors' stories of the influence of a fundamentalist religious upbringing on mental health and wellbeing in adulthood'.1 As the title suggests, the focus was on the advantages and disadvantages because the extant literature only focuses on the latter.
The examination of such experiences in the developmental years, and the potential effect into adulthood, is a much-neglected topic. Focus on this aspect is essential, given that most identity formation tends to happen in the teenage years. Spiritual and religious abuse traumatises at the soul level, with the detrimental impact sometimes lasting a lifetime.
Given the innate human need for belonging, it is significant that writers have commented on the polarised positions of inhabiting insider and outsider positions that young people need to navigate. Frisk explains it in this way:
Young people growing up within strict religion can occupy both insider and outsider positions having a robust ‘ingroup identity’ within their religious community, but being separate and different in the outside world.2
One of my co-researchers also described it:
We were elite, proper Christians. People who didn’t have the right values were dismissed as we were meant to be peculiar people. It’s biblical because you are not of the world. [Francesca Alexandra]1
Other authors3,4 also comment that children growing up with religious fundamentalism will often be kept separate from society, as was experienced by Eva who grew up in the Jehovah’s Witnesses: You were taken from the world, you were different. A bit like the Israelites who used to have a blue fringe at the bottom of their clothes. [Eva]1 Being forced to dress differently from peers, or not being allowed to participate in some school activities, can have an impact on identity formation.
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Hierarchical and patriarchal in nature
Co-researchers and clients have talked about the hierarchical and patriarchal structures of the religious environments they have been in. For example, imams within Islam are male and there are far more male rabbis within Judaism, although a few female rabbis do now exist. This is also true of unorthodox Christianity, with the top of the Jehovah’s Witnesses hierarchical pyramid being male. There are often far more opportunities available to male members of a religious group than for female members.
People who experienced spiritual abuse as children found that they ranked lowest in terms of importance; with the divine being at the top, followed by religious leaders, then parents. Some of the literature also backs up this belief in the hierarchical nature of fundamentalist religion.2 The power and authority held by leaders and parents over young people is undoubtedly impactful on identity formation.
Legalistic teaching creating fear
Co-researchers and clients have shared the fear that they felt as children, triggered by legalistic teaching. Hell; eternal damnation; being 'left behind'; jinns or demons; the consequences of sin; anxiety about the rapture; the imminence of the end times; the second coming of Christ; and Armageddon, have all been mentioned. One participant said:
Hell wasn’t a metaphor. There wasn’t a plan B … that was part of the fear … You were entirely lost or entirely precious … These were the two polarities growing up and there wasn’t even purgatory (the middle ground). [Anna]1
She also spoke about the feeling that she was being watched all the time, fed by the concept of God’s omnipresence, and the use of emotive language like 'washing your sins in the blood of the Lamb'. In her words:
Being constantly scared was unhelpful to fitting in at school and I felt on the outside looking in although I wanted to belong. [Anna]
Imposed rules and punishments
Several of the co-researchers picked up on the many rigid rules that were imposed on them, stating that there were:
A plethora of should, oughts, and musts in place. [Anna]1
The literature also highlights the profusion of rules that typically exist in strict religious environments. For example, Mathis-Rimes states that ‘religion contains moralistic rules without heart created by humans.’5 Similarly, Berger asserts that life within ultra-orthodox Judaism is controlled by a mass of rigid rules.6
Co-researcher Maya spoke in detail about this taking place within her Muslim upbringing:
You can’t see your friends. Friends are bad. You should never have friends. We are the only people that you need. God is the only person that you need. You should be praying five times a day. You should be going to the mosque, reading the Qur’an. Why don’t you do those things? You can’t go to an after-school club. You can’t be in the school play. You need to be going to the mosque and you should be praying, and you should be doing what you’re supposed to be doing, which is being a good Muslim. [Maya]1
Francesca Alexandra experienced equally strict rules:
We were not allowed to listen to non-Christian music, watch television or read books that were seen as 'wordly'. No make-up, going to the cinema or wearing trousers, with credit cards and alcohol being strongly disapproved of. Some school activities were regarded as sinful and therefore not allowed, so the end-of-term discos were banned. [Francesca Alexandra]1
One co-researcher spoke about the punishment she received for non-compliance:
I was often vocal and standing up for myself and others, saying: 'No, I’m not doing this. No, I’m not going to wear a scarf. No, I’m not going to the mosque. No, it’s not OK to treat others like that.' I was always met with a lot of extreme violence and backlash for that. [Maya]1
Another participant shared that she was punished by being forced to repeat scripture passages by rote, which she was unable to do because her cognition went offline when being disciplined in this way.
Developmental spiritual abuse and identity formation
The effect of developmental abuse is evident in the literature. Duffell and Bassett assert that trauma during the developmental years is stressful, and impoverishes 'relational brain tissue'.7 Herman maintains that recurrent childhood trauma deforms the young personality,8 especially when repeated chronically over time.7 This was also acknowledged by other authors. For example, some comment on the injurious effects of toxic stress, and the body’s release of damaging hormones in the growing-up years.9,10 Others point out that the constant activation of the autonomic nervous system disrupts many of the bodily systems during the sensitive developmental period.11
Jenkinson writes persuasively about the development of a pseudo-cult personality being like a layer of tarmac that overlays the authentic personality of the person who suffers such control.12 Consequently, it is not surprising that many of the study participants became compliant, passive, and appeasing 'echoists' who were unable to critically evaluate, and were naïve in the outside world, becoming 'edge dwellers’' Not fitting in was a common experience with shame, guilt, and confusion as constant companions. One participant described her personal experience:
I was feeling so different. I was confused by the world because I wasn’t prepared for it and rather naïve. I didn’t know how to protect myself, and I didn’t belong so it just meant I could have been eaten alive by the world… I wasn’t prepared, yes, poor autonomy, naïvety, poor skills in autonomous thinking, feeling like an alien in the world with no idea how the world worked, or how to defend myself within it, how to relate to it, to people in it. [Francesca Alexandra]1
1 Harvey G. Both sides of the coin: counsellors’ stories of the influence of a fundamentalist religious upbringing on mental health and wellbeing in adulthood [Dissertation]. Middlesex: Middlesex University Repository; 2022.
2 Frisk L. Growing up in controversial minority religions: constructions of childhood. In Frisk L, Nilsson S, Akerback P (eds). Children in minority religions: growing up in controversial religious groups. Sheffield: Equinox; 2018 (pp64–94).
3 Lam VL, Cohen T. Attitudes toward and inferred beliefs for religious ingroup/outgroup members: Muslim children of Pakistani heritage in the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia. Mental Health, Religion and Culture 2020; 23(1): 38–53.
4 Moritz S, Lasfar I, Reininger KM, Ohis I. Fostering mutual understanding among Muslims and non-Muslims through counterstereotypical information: an educational verse metacognitive approach. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 2018; 28: 103–120.
5 Mathis-Rimes C. Cruel sanctuary: a young woman’s battle to escape from a fanatical religious sect. United Kingdom: self-published; 2018.
6 Berger R. Challenges and coping strategies in leavening an ultra-Orthodox community. Qualitative Social Work 2015; 14(5): 670–86.
7 Duffell N, Basset T. Trauma, abandonment and privilege. Abingdon: Routledge; 2016.
8 Herman J. Trauma and recovery: the aftermath of violence from domestic abuse to political terror. New York: Basic Books; 2015.
9 Blitz LV, Anderson EM, Saastamoinen M. Assessing perceptions of culture and trauma in an elementary school: informing a model for culturally response trauma-informed schools. The Urban Review 2016; 48(4): 520–42.
10 Shonkoff J, Garner A. The committee on psychosocial aspects of child and family health, committee on early childhood adoption and dependent care, and section on developmental and behavioral pediatrics. Pediatrics 2012; 129(1): 232–46.
11 Waite R, Ryan RA. Adverse childhood experiences: what students and health professionals need to know. Abingdon: Routledge; 2020.
12 Jenkinson G. An investigation into cult pseudo-personality: what is it and how does it form? Cultic Studies Review 2008; 7(3): 199–224.
13 Association of Christian Counsellors. The Churchill Framework. [online.] https://www.acc-uk.org/public/docs/