Why I work with Clients Who Have Had Distressing Religious Experiences

Why I work with Clients Who Have Had Distressing Religious Experiences

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.

This post uses the terms spiritual abuse and religious trauma. If you are not familiar with those terms, visit this page for explanation and definitions.

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.

therapy for upsetting church experience deconstruction

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.

Not all trauma is “big T” trauma

In the mental health community, we talk about “big T” and “little t” trauma. These are concepts and phrases that are not mentioned much outside of the mental health community. “Big T” trauma are the things that everyone agrees and acknowledges are traumatic: fighting in a war; witnessing a death or terrorist attack; experiencing a serious accident or terrorist attack; sexual assault; and severe physical abuse are a few examples. Most anyone will affirm that those experiences are traumatic. These are events or experiences where our life is threatened.

“Little t” traumas are smaller things that not everyone will acknowledge are traumatic. They might be verbal or emotional abuse; being the target of bullying; loss of a friendship; the death of a pet; a divorce; anything that negatively impacts us deeply might be a trauma to us, even if someone else might not consider it traumatic if it happened to them.

In the context of religion and church, examples of “Big T” traumas are exactly what people likely think of when they hear “religious trauma:” sexual abuse or assault; being forced to participate in a religion you do not believe in; or being part of a cult. There are many, many, things that might be a “little t” trauma in your spiritual practice. Here are a few examples:

  • Finding out the pastor of your church is having an extra-marital affair.
  • Overhearing religious elders gossiping about other congregation members or sharing things that should be kept confidential.
  • Finding out a religious leader has been embezzling money.
  • Being told your parent spanks you because God says they have to.
  • Having to wear a skirt or dress when you feel uncomfortable in those types of clothing.
  • Refusing to allow you to participate in parts of your religion due to your sex or gender.
  • Different standards of behavior for people based on sex or gender – girls shouldn’t wear tank tops but “boys will be boys.”
  • Teaching that what you can choose for a career or your future is limited because of God.
  • Limiting the media you are allowed to consume based on what someone else deems as appropriate or inappropriate.
  • Being told that you will literally become possessed if you play a certain game or watch a certain movie.
  • Messages, overtly or covertly, that you must stay in an unhappy marriage or God will not bless you.
  • Practicing a religion that says your sexual orientation or gender identity is a sin. (This could easily become complex or “Big T” trauma if you are subjected to bigoted messages over a long period of time.

These are just a few things that might be “little t” traumas if you experience them.

A speaker at a trauma conference I attended said (and I paraphrase) “Big T traumas are like a sword and little t traumas are like toothpicks. If I stab you with a sword, you’ll die. But if I stab you with 1,000 toothpicks, you’ll slowly bleed to death and die.” The message is that with enough “little t” traumas you will be just as impacted as one “Big T” trauma. In fact, in my professional experience I have seen people who have experienced one “Big T” trauma heal much faster than people with many small traumas over a long period of time.

There is Hope and Healing

No matter what your distressing experience in church, there is hope and healing available to you. Whether you spent years in a controlling cult or have had your faith shaken by finding out your pastor has had affairs with people in the congregation, there is no hurt too small for therapy. All hurt is valid. If an experience that you have had with religion has shaken your faith and you need a safe, confidential place to talk about it, therapy can help.

Stacey Aldridge therapist

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.


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