Spirituality or religious belief can be a deeply intimate, vulnerable sphere of a person’s life. It might be your framework for how to navigate the world, or the way you make meaning of life and its purpose.
Unfortunately, because spirituality touches us so personally and powerfully, it is also something that can be misused to perpetuate negative ideas and enact harm. Hijacking spirituality for these purposes is referred to as spiritual abuse.
Spiritual abuse can be inflicted by a teacher or community leader, or by a fellow believer (often a family member). Sometimes the person involved in doing this knows that they are being harmful to others – for example, a religious leader who tells their community that if they don’t donate money to the leader God will punish them may know they are being financially exploitative.
Other times, the person causing harm may have good intentions – for example, if you share with a friend that you are struggling with serious mental health problems and they urge you to just pray so that the problems will go away.
Gaslighting and humiliation
Spiritual abuse can involve using spiritual concepts or religious authority to invalidate, shame, or blame others. Religious traditions with patriarchal structures may discount the ideas and experiences of women and nonbinary people by upholding the male gender as supposedly superior, or decree that there is something lesser or wrong about being female, feminine, or otherwise different from cismasculine.
Calling non-heterosexual experiences of sexuality and sexual orientation “a phase” is a form of spiritual abuse, as it ignores the lived experiences and spiritual wisdom of LGBTQ people who know that their sexualities are positive and integral parts of their being.
Victim blaming and refusal to accept accountability are common in environments with spiritual abuse. For example, a victim of sexual violence might be admonished for tempting the perpetrator to sin, instead of confronting and addressing the person who caused harm and supporting the victim’s healing.
Power and control
Spiritual abuse can be used to exert power over and control a person or group of people. This is usually done by claiming the leadership of a certain person cannot be questioned or challenged because they have been given a special role by God, and therefore it’s their prerogative to create what is ultimately a culture of authoritarianism and toxicity.
Once this dynamic is in place, it is very easy for that person’s behavior to go unchecked. For example, that person might coerce sex from others by threatening spiritual consequences if they disobey. Sexual abuse might be tacitly accepted in that community – either because it’s unthinkable that the leader could actually be doing something wrong, or because the community believes if the leader is doing it then it must not really be that bad.
Intimate partner violence and child abuse/neglect sometimes include a component of spiritual abuse. The abuser may twist religious texts to make their victim think they must always obey their spouse or parent no matter what, or cause psychological damage by preventing their victim from engaging meaningfully with their spiritual practices.
Consequences of spiritual abuse
Spiritual abuse can have significant impacts on mental health and psychological functioning both in the short and long term. These could include:
- Anxiety and depression
- Black and white thinking
- Mistrust or fear of outsiders
- Difficulty identifying or understanding your own thoughts and feelings
- Difficulty being assertive, setting boundaries
- In extreme cases – paranoia, post traumatic stress, dissociative disorders
If you are experiencing spiritual abuse, it is not your fault, you did not do anything to deserve this. Therapy can help you cope with what you’re going through, and support you in exploring how (or whether) to connect with spirituality in a positive way. Click the button below to set up a free consultation – I’m ready to learn more about the challenges you’ve been facing and share how we may be able to work toward healing together.
If you are being harmed by your spouse or partner or are afraid of your spouse or partner, consider calling the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE.