When I decided that I wanted to add religious trauma to my areas of specialty, a colleague said “You don’t want to become known as ‘that therapist that hates religion.'” I hope that is not what people hear when they hear “healing from spiritual abuse and religious trauma.” I don’t hate religion at all.
What bothers me is the way that religion has hurt so many of my clients, my friends, and even me. In working with clients on other issues, I heard from several clients that when they tried to talk about their difficult or distressing experiences in church with other therapists, the therapist became really uncomfortable. Since many people practice Christianity, many counselors are Christian themselves, even if they don’t practice “Christian” counseling. It seemed to bother the therapist to know that the clients had distressing experiences with the therapist’s religion. The clients felt they could not share their thoughts and feelings without judgment. In one case, the counselor tried to convince the client that they were in the wrong – invalidating them and causing further harm.
There are not many safe spaces where we can talk openly about things like doubts and deconstruct our religious upbringings. People misunderstand, take offense, or feel that they need to intervene to “bring you back to Christ.” Many people that are deconstructing their religion don’t want to leave it. They are seeking to understand their experience and often to understand why what feels right to them is seen as wrong in the eyes of their church. For some it is being LGBTQ+ or supporting a family member that is LGBTQ+. Others have witnessed behavior from church leaders that had made them start to question why God would choose that person as a leader. Some want a place to talk about the doubts without any push back. Many, if not most, do not want their friends or family to know that they are questioning.
Some of my clients have left their religion and have decided that atheism or agnosticism most fits with their personal belief system. I do not have any opinion one way or the other about people leaving their religion, or continuing to practice it. Each client’s experience is unique, as every client is unique. My purpose as a therapist is to provide a safe space to talk, to heal, in many cases to grieve, and whatever you decide about your future involvement in religion is of no consequence to me as long as you are following the path that resonates most with you.
You Can Trust Your Intuition
We all have a sense, an inner knowing, about what is right for us. One of the most difficult parts of trauma is that it often causes us to distrust our own instincts. Unfortunately some religions actively discourage the use of your intuition. They teach that you should not trust yourself, because humans are fundamentally bad. You cannot trust those inner instincts but instead should listen to guidance from a supernatural force (God, Allah, the Holy Spirit, Spirit guides, etc.) When you combine this teaching with trauma, it can become even more difficult to believe your intuition but it exists for a reason.
Through processing trauma and reconnecting with yourself, you can learn to listen to your intuition again. You can begin to trust when something feels right to you or when something feels like it is wrong for you. You don’t have to keep asking whether or not those instincts are coming from a bad place because our inner knowing never leads us astray. It is when we are actively encouraged to question and go against what resonates with us as good or right that we tend to regret it. Often, looking back, we know that we felt that it was not the right decision but we did it anyway.
You Can Trust Others
Similarly, trauma or abuse also makes us distrust other people. We might feel unsafe in church if that is where we were hurt, or we might feel unsafe with those that practice our religion if we were spiritually abused. Healing from trauma means that we can begin to take whether or not to trust someone on a case by case basis. It also means that you can begin to feel safe in church again, if you want to continue practicing your religion but have been struggling.
Stacey Aldridge, LCSW
Stacey is a therapist in private practice and the owner of Inspired Happiness Therapy and Wellness in Ridgeland, MS. If you are in the state of Mississippi and are interested in seeing Stacey for therapy, please visit the Appointments page.