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Healing Spiritual Wounds Part 2: Religious Trauma

Religious settings can be powerful places to connect & share in the Great Mystery with Curiosity, Awe & Wonder. My hope is that by acknowledging the shadow side of these communal spaces, we can begin to collectively heal and envision more Humble and Generous ways to hold space together as we explore our place in the Cosmos

Your Experience Matters


"Trauma” is derived from an ancient Greek word meaning “Wound “or “Damage.” With ongoing debates around how to define trauma, I gravitate toward Gabor Mate's interpretation: Trauma is what happens inside you as a result of what happened to you.


Religious & other Spiritual communities (e.g., New Age, Psychedelic, Self-Help circles) are places to engage our Sacred Questions with fellowship. Shared customs, beliefs, rituals & traditions can connect us (Religion = latin Religare “to Re-Bind”) to a larger whole.

Sometimes the binding is beautiful, other times it can feel like bondage. A doctrine, practice or belief that enlivens & inspires one might injure & oppress another.

Religious Trauma (RT) -- what happens inside you

“The physical emotional or psychological response to religious beliefs, practices, or structures that is experienced as overwhelming or disruptive and has lasting adverse effects on a person’s physical, mental, social, emotional or spiritual well-being.”

-Religious Trauma Insitute

Examples include:

  • difficulty trusting one's own judgement 

  • chronic shame & low self-worth

  • perfectionism

  • Intense fear / terror / distrust re God / Existence

  • moral / spiritual distress

  • obsessive behavior and thinking 

  • chronic anxiety / depression / hopelessness

  • boundary struggles

  • sexual dysfunction

  • excessive substance / pornography use + intense shame / hiding 

  • social / relationship challenges

  • complex PTSD symptoms 

  • avoiding spiritual topics / groups / spaces (please note this is not an exhaustive list)

Adverse Religious Experiences (AREs) -- what happens to you

Religious beliefs, practices or structures that are experienced as harmful are called

Adverse Religious Experiences (AREs). Not everyone who experiences an ARE will experience them as traumatic. For some individuals, however, there are lasting effects on their mental, emotional, spiritual and social well-being.

Examples include:

  • emotional / verbal / physical / sexual abuse or coercion by group member or leader

  • being blamed or silenced when reporting abusive speech or behavior

  • being dissuaded from seeking mental health / medical providers outside the group

    • treating natural human emotions (e.g., grief, depression, anxiety) or physical conditions as demonic / evil

  • being pressured to stay in a toxic / abusive relationship while the harm is ongoing

  • being shunned / shamed / humiliated or excommunicated for questions or dissent

  • conversion therapy for sexual orientation or gender identity

  • negative experiences connected to doctrines / practices teaching:

    • exclusion or limited participation based on gender / sexual orientation / race / marital status

    • to distrust yourself if it conflicts with doctrine or religious authority

    • eternal conscious torment for "wrong" belief or behavior

    • female submission / oppression

    • you are inherently bad / sinful / unworthy

    • shame-based sexual purity

    • violence (including spanking / hitting children or partner) (please note this is not an exhaustive list)

This area is still developing as more researchers and clinicians get involved to create resources. I have located a specific measure for Christian-context spiritual harm and complex PTSD, Though, I am still on the search for other specific religious-based measures that represent diversity of experiences.

Please know that Religious Trauma can happen in any religious group where faith-based beliefs or communal practices are shared.

In Religious spaces our Sacred Questions are often answered by doctrines of faith. Faith implies a process of trust that does not rely on proof. Faith can bring immense Meaning, Hope & Joy to one's life when the context allows Freedom of Thought & Choice.
Because religious doctrines & practices point to something we cannot "prove" or "disprove" there is also inherent risk of manipulation, coercion & control in the name of a Supreme Power.
Fear, shame & intimidation strategies can be intensified in communal settings where questions or critiques of the system can yield isolation, ridicule & ostracization from the group claiming to represent ultimate spiritual authority.

Healing religious harm can feel lonely & isolating -- it therefore takes great courage & requires layers of support. It can be helpful to find assistance from supporters who can help you through your experience with openness and non-judgmental guidance. This process can yield a more authentic and nourishing spirituality when held in the proper container.

A Way Forward

Just as any relationship, one’s spiritual community can be a complicated mix of both Help and Harm. Finding your way through this delicate terrain requires great care and skill, and sometimes requires enlisting a professional.

Internal Family Systems (IFS) is a method that allows you to reconnect with your inner pilot light by bringing curiosity, unconditional love & compassionate witnessing to your religious / spiritual wounds & related struggles. The intended result is more connection, peace & trust in your inner world so you can make clear, aligned decisions in your outer world. If there are religious or spiritual beliefs or practices that you would like to incorporate into your therapy, this model allows space for you to do so regardless of the therapist's spiritual beliefs.

The most important quality for an IFS therapist is to remain in open-hearted Curiosity and Compassion to guide the process back toward your own Inner Wisdom

Clients often ask me: "But what do YOU believe?!" I'm open to being transparent about my spiritual journey and ethics while also balancing the impact that sharing personal beliefs / values / morals might have on a person learning to trust themselves. My hope is to point each person to the answers within themselves, allowing that wisdom to inform their journey of faith and spirituality.

Whatever support you enlist, may it bring light to the dark as your unique spiritual path unfolds.

Upcoming Blogs:

  • Religious Disorientation Growth Syndrome (it's a mouthful! Learn about common shared experiences of Deconstructing and Reconstructing Faith)

  • Spiritual Trauma in non-religious groups (e.g., New Age, Psychedelic, Self-Help) (yes it happens there too!)

  • Finding Religious / Spiritual Community aligned with your Inner Compass



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