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When Is It Spiritual Abuse?

It's probably not what you think.

What has been written about spiritual abuse thus far has all been relegated to what happens in the Christian church. And certainly, religious abuse does need to be discussed and dealt with appropriately.

But spiritual abuse is much larger than any one religion and happens in all populations, including the “spiritual but not religious,” the New Age, New Thought, and Human Potential Movements, all religions, and even where religion is not the issue. In fact, it happens in homes, schools, and even in workplaces all around the world.

Spiritual abuse is the abuse of the human spirit. And while many would say that the spirit cannot be wounded, it is definitely possible to split off from conscious awareness of the spirit. It is possible to live a life totally bereft of any real connection to the spirit—a term used here synonymously with soul and authentic Self. We can live so identified with a role, a mask, a costume, that we do not even allow the mind to wander into the fields, climb the mountains, swim the oceans of the human spirit. That’s what spiritual abuse does. It cuts us off from spirit so that we don’t live in it or from it.

How does that happen? Well, it can happen as a result of other kinds of abuse. When a child is physically abused, for example, that child might identify as a “bad kid” who deserves to be punished. This might mean that he will act out, expecting to get punished or try to strategize as to how to avoid it. Either way, he has not identified with his own true Self, his deepest essence, his soul, his spirit. Where does that spirit go? It goes into the unconscious, where it is only allowed out at night when this young man is dreaming. How sad, how angry, how small, how “bad” will he have to be before he can wake up to who he actually is?

But it can also happen whenever someone tries to tell you how to feel, what to think and/or what to believe so much that your own original thoughts, feelings, and beliefs are not allowed into the room.

Take, for example, a case in which someone is told by a spiritual leader that the reason she had an auto accident was that she’d been thinking negative thoughts and that she needs to control her negative thinking to keep negative things from happening to her. It has the potential to raise so much anxiety that she will try ever after that to push away (repress) any negative thoughts or feelings and to replace them with what seems to be positive thoughts and feelings. This puts her in a constant, moment-by-moment battle with her own inner world so that she cannot allow thoughts to arise and feelings to be made conscious. No, she must fight these off to make sure nothing negative ever happens to her. This is spiritual abuse because it teaches her to go to war with her own spirit.

Andrea Mathews
Traversing the Inner Terrain
Source: Andrea Mathews

Or, what about instances in which children are beaten by spiritual mentors of a certain philosophy because they cannot stand out in the snow barefoot?

They were supposed to learn "mind over body." But they could not do it, so they were beaten. This is not only physical abuse but spiritual abuse, for it teaches the child to ignore his own inner world in favor of a philosophy that may or may not work for him.

Or, what about children who are made on Halloween to walk through a so-called “haunted house” in which terrible visions of torturous hell are played out dramatically, thus terrifying the children into believing that if they don’t get “saved” right away they may go, that very night, to that terrible torturous place for all eternity?

Those children have not been challenged to decide what they believe by giving them information and allowing them to explore, question, and think original thoughts about that information. Rather, they’ve been scared into accepting a belief that may or may not work for them. Thus, they are taught not to go to their own original thinking, feeling, and believing to discover the truth. Rather, they are taught that only other people have the truth for them, and they must be very, very afraid that, if they do not accept other people’s ideas about the truth, there are terrible and very personal consequences for them.

Anytime we are split off from conscious awareness of our own inner world, we are being spiritually abused. We need to treat the inner world, the deepest essence of who we are, as sacred land—we must first get permission, and then take off our shoes to walk there.

More from Andrea Mathews LPC, NCC
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