Spiritual abuse is abuse of another human being’s spirit—the deeper essential Me-ness of me—sometimes referred to as the soul or the authentic Self. Spiritual abuse can happen at home, at the hands of parents, who are our first gods. It can happen in school, perpetrated by teachers or other authority figures. And it can happen in churches, temples, mosques and synagogues—also perpetrated by authority figures, who seem to represent the divine. It happens more frequently in homes and places of worship, ritual and prayer. But it happens anywhere where we are vulnerable to the influence of another person, who might misuse that influence either consciously or unconsciously, to define us.
Therapists have, in the past steered clear of such terminology, as we were originally taught to refer spiritual or religious issues to clergy. But since 1994, when the DSM-IV allowed for a V-code for a “Religious or Spiritual Problem,” therapists have become more and more interested in the spiritual element of therapy. There are a few good books by clinicians about this issue. But there needs to be a lot more research.
Therapists see clients on a daily basis who have been spiritually abused, and therefore, carry a spiritual wound. But often they do not know this because they don’t assess for this type of woundedness, nor do they know how to speak to this issue in an appropriate manner. That’s why in my home state, I’m teaching workshops to mental health clinicians on how to assess for spiritual problems and how to treat spiritual woundedness due to spiritual abuse. But I also want to encourage clients to be willing to bring this issue into therapy—thus this blog.
A person may know that she has been spiritually abused when she has been taught, either covertly or overtly, to negate her own original thoughts, emotions, beliefs and body sensations because she has been convinced in some way that to operate out of these would be a betrayal of a sacred contract with either the divine, the divine’s representative or a parent.
Parents are commonly perceived as gods when children are infants, toddlers and preschoolers. Parents are the ultimate power in a child’s life and children of those early ages are looking to define themselves, to find out who they are. So they seek out these powerful sources of authority and love to give them a mirror by which they can define themselves. Parents very commonly give children a faulty mirror, based in their own projections, needs or unresolved issues. Ergo they are teaching the child to define himself separate from his own original thoughts, emotions, beliefs and body sensations. Rather the child is defined as what the parents need or believe the child to be. The child goes along because he so desperately needs these parents and fears that to do other than that would be to be abandoned by the parents, who seem to base their love on the child’s accommodation for the parental need.
It is also not so uncommon, particularly in the West, for spiritual leaders to tell children, adolescents, young adults and even adults, what is true, and what must be believed in order to avoid consequence. Whether the consequence is the punishment of eternal damnation or the consequence is an unhappy life there are many who are directing people to live, think and feel only in certain ways lest they experience hell fire, the rejection of family and friends, or the experience of so-called “negative” circumstances. For example, there are many spiritual-but-not-religious people who have been taught that they must think only so-called “positive” thoughts and feel only “positive” feelings in order to attract only “positive” life experiences. These people often work very hard to repress all “negative” thoughts and emotions in the name of attracting money, houses, cars and relationships. This repression means the Self is being negated to accept someone else’s version of life and the person’s identity is thereby being altered to accommodate this new belief.
Of course, we have those more obvious cases of spiritual abuse that we call up with names like Jim Jones and Jonestown. More recently, James Arthur Ray was convicted of negligent homicide because he continued to insist that it was lack of courage for people to leave an overheated sweat lodge. We also have the long storied history of sexual abuse perpetrated on children by priests. And these are, indeed, more extreme versions of spiritual abuse. We may think that those are the only cases of spiritual abuse, but the reality is that it is happening every day in a variety of ways.
The wound of spiritual abuse is the inability to access and appreciate the Self. People who are so wounded often have a great deal of difficulty asserting boundaries without feeling enormous guilt. They carry huge burdens of care for others in the name of being good—frequently enabling others not only to do things that are harmful to themselves, but to do things that are also harmful to the person carrying the burden. They go to guilt first as a primary motivator—“I have to do that because if I don’t I’m going to feel so bad.” Accessing Self, the soul, is tantamount to a betrayal of someone or something else.
Those who carry this kind of woundedness can be deeply conflicted about what is doing the “right” thing when any decision needs to be made. Or they can be very confident that they always know what is the right thing to do, because they have never dared ask themselves what they think, feel or believe—some very significant other has already told them what to think, feel and believe. They have no clue where they stop and someone else begins. They seek external approval, rather than internal peace. In other words, they have been taught to belief that Self is unimportant, while the external leadership or rules for living are everything. The spirit, the soul, the authentic Self is left out of the experience of life entirely, while the person lives out of an identity that pleases the church, the faith, the parents, the party who holds divine-like authority over the abused.
If you suffer from such difficulties please consider bringing this to the attention of your therapist and ask him or her to help you get in touch again with your own deepest essence.