Religious Trauma: Some Resources
"Seven things I wish I knew when I was experiencing abuse and spiritual harm"
I wanted to share this really smart list written by Webworm reader Fionnaigh.
She’s a parent, an auntie, and a social worker. The bio on her excellent blog reads: “I am a queer, Christian, feminist, greenie, mad, survivor, juggling parenting and social work and dropping many balls.”
She works in mental health, and wanted to make a list of tips and resources to help those experiencing the things I’ve been writing about over the last few weeks.
Fionnaigh jokes she became a Christian as a teenager “because it was the only thing that would shock her parents.” She was deeply involved in the Evangelical and Pentecostal movements. She isn’t anymore.
She says some of the stories shared on Webworm resonated with her experiences as a young person. She remembered how confused and alone she felt at that time, and wanted to share some things she has learned since.
So she’s responded to some of the stories in my piece, with some nuggets of advice.
I hope this helps.
PS: Because Arise Church is in New Zealand, many of the resources below are kiwi-related. But the general advice fits no matter where you are.
Seven things I wish I knew when I was experiencing abuse and spiritual harm
Here are a few things I wish I knew when I was a teenager leaving the church (for a while), confused and hurting and feeling alone.
1. It’s not your fault.
Britney talked about how she is “still mentally impacted by the guilt and shame of my actions.”
Abusers want you to carry their guilt. They will twist things to make you feel like you are to blame, so you are less likely to tell people what is happening. They will make you dependent on them, so that it is hard for you to get out of the situation.
Abuse is about power and control; it is about the abuser using their power for their benefit. It was their choice to abuse you, and all the guilt and shame belongs with them.
When people are mistreated by someone they trust, the betrayal can lead to feelings of shame, as well as anxiety and depression. This betrayal can be by a person or an institution that is meant to support you. You can find out more about betrayal trauma here, and in relation to institutions here.
2. Your experience is valid
Isabella talked about how her life group leader “said she was unsure if she believed me because an event like that was really traumatic, and I didn’t sound that traumatised.”
Survivors sometimes end up feeling like their reaction is out of proportion, or their experience wasn’t “bad enough” to get support. Trauma is a subjective experience. Your feelings and your reactions are valid, and you are worthy of receiving the support you need to recover.
I’ve read some extracts from this book and it seems like a helpful resource for understanding trauma, including in spiritual communities.
3. Fight, flight, freeze and fawn are normal responses to a threatening situation
Rachel says “To this day I feel myself kick into fight or flight mode just at the thought of seeing him.”
When you experience emotional, physical, sexual or spiritual abuse or severe stress, your body’s instinctive survival responses kick in. You do what you can to survive in that moment.
If someone is in a position of power over you, and you can’t escape, your reaction might be to freeze, or to do whatever it takes to keep the person happy. Those responses got you through in that moment, but sometimes the same reactions continue even after you leave the situation, and it’s no longer helpful.
Your brain’s number one job is to keep you safe, and so it keeps scanning for danger. If you watch a video of someone walking down to the beach with a soundtrack of classical music, you will feel relaxed, but if the soundtrack changes to the Jaws theme, you will tense up and start to scan the waves for fins.
Sometimes we end up with internal “shark music” playing even when a situation is safe. It may be the way someone talks to you, or hearing a particular song, and suddenly those survival responses kick in again.
Grounding techniques can be helpful to calm your system down. Therapy can also help you to process the trauma so that you do not keep having the same responses.
There are some suggestions about grounding strategies here.
4. You don’t have to be happy all the time to be a good Christian
Zoe says she was “made to feel I wasn’t enough after I was diagnosed.”
Some churches push an emotional prosperity doctrine. If you have enough faith, if you pray the right way, God will make you happy and fill your life with good things.
This is a lie, and it’s not even backed up by scripture. Lamentation, a prayer for help coming out of pain, is very common in the Bible. The psalms are full of people who are pouring out their heartache and despair. Jesus wept, and cried out to God to relieve him of suffering. It’s okay to express distress.
It’s also okay to reach out for help.
Most Christians will go to a doctor for a physical illness or injury — why would a mental illness or emotional injury be any different?
You can find out more about lament here.
5. Keep trying until you get the support you need
There are many different kinds of therapy, and the “fit” with a therapist is important as well. It can help to have a friend or family member advocate for you. It can be really hard to find a therapist, as they may have long waiting lists or not even keep a list. Keep trying.
Therapists move town, or come back from parental leave, or change jobs, and spaces open up. Your GP may be able to refer you to a free or low cost service in your area, or the Citizens Advice Bureau may have information about local services. The mental health foundation has information about finding support.
If you have experienced sexual abuse or assault you can call Safe To Talk any time of day or night for support relating to sexual harm. You are can also access support through ACC, including counselling. You can also get a few sessions for a family member, and other supports such as social work.
If the abuse has had a severe impact on your ability to do everyday things, or to work full time, you may be entitled to financial support as well. ACC may not tell you about what you are entitled to but Wayfinders can help you navigate the system, as can people who have been through this themselves.
6. There is a place for you in the Church
If you want to stay, or you want to come back to a faith community, there are supportive churches out there. The Christian faith has many pathways, and there are many ways of understanding God, the bible, the important stuff in life.
There are amazing, compassionate, ethical ministers and pastors serving their communities with integrity.
If you are questioning a lot of things about church and faith, you may want to explore things like Progressive Christianity, which is a great starting place to learn about theology which is very different from what you’d find at Arise. Soulforce, a queer organisation working to end spiritual violence, have some fantastic resources.
If you want to find a church that is not going to try to “pray the gay away,” you can find some safe faith spaces on the Diverse Church website. Be aware that some of these churches have widened the circle so that LGBTIQ people can be inside, but may not have questioned the existence of the boundaries.
For example, people may still think sex outside marriage is not OK, but now LGBTIQ people can marry too! In Wellington you can also connect with others in Faith Communities United in Love and we have occasional events.
It’s also okay if you never want to come back. The church you have been part of may have been teaching you that you need them, and nothing else will be good enough, but they have been harming you, not meeting your needs.
In your church you may have been exposed to some dichotomies about good versus evil, the church versus the world, us versus them. You may have been told that the world is full of bad influences, trying to lead you astray.
The world is complicated. It’s a rainbow, not black and white. You can explore. You can ask questions. You may find another place where you belong.
7. You are not alone
Even if the people close to you don’t seem to get it, there will be someone out there who understands.
You matter. Recovery is possible. Just take it a day at a time.
If that’s too hard, just focus on this moment, and then the one after that.
Think about a friend, family member or pet that you care about and want the best for: Now try and hold onto that feeling of kindness and compassion, and direct it towards yourself.
You are worthy of kindness.
Reach out and connect with people. Make space for things that you enjoy. Do things that you care about. Have a rest when you need to. You can do this. There are others who have walked this path.
Know that we are cheering you on.
David here again.
A huge thanks to Fionnaigh for letting me share that. You can read more of her writing at her blog, Kōtukutuku in Spring.
You can read my other coverage of megachurch culture here.
Feel free to share this advice far and wide.