Become a part of the revolution.
Initially, I was researching the concept of mudslinging and bullying in the church, as it had been my experience, and the experience of a pastor friend of mine (and his family) who was harassed online by leadership in the church. I started reading about others’ experiences, and noted that there was so much more than just that. It wasn’t just congregants, or lay people in the church. Leadership was being beaten up as well. It was a free-for-all in terms of manipulation, gossip, slander, victim-shaming, shunning, name-smearing, scrambling for spiritual dominance, humility contests, calling people out VERY publicly to repent, among other things. When we started talking about our collective experiences, there was so much “me too!” going on, that I knew that I had to address this, using my own personal experience of it, and my training in psychotherapy and trauma.
I stumbled upon a couple of articles by Edward Kruk, PhD. He is a social work professor at University of British Columbia. There are links to his work at the end of this post, if you would like to read them. Basically, he defines spiritual trauma as “essentially an experience of violation of the spiritual or ‘sacred’ core in human beings, harm at the innermost level, by an external ‘social’ source.” He further notes that “social problems often induce spiritual trauma.”
Within this definition, one would need to define “spiritual” or “sacred” core. He states that “most agree that the child-like yet profound expectation that good and not harm will come to us is located at the core of human existence.” He goes on to quote Simone Weil (1952a), “There is a reality outside the world, outside space and time, outside man's mental universe, outside any sphere whatsoever that is accessible to human faculties.”
His further explanation of this kind of trauma also has within it the idea that once this core has been violated (hence “spiritual trauma”), there is really no recompense for it. No lawsuit, settlement or any manner of “rights enforcement” has a satisfactory effect. A person who has been raped cannot be “un-raped.” A person who has had his or her reputation smeared (especially online) because of a wrongdoing cannot get the reputation back, as people’s minds are usually made up on a given matter, and when this is re-hashed over and over online, it can solidify people’s ideas. Furthermore, in certain religious traditions, to seek litigation regarding anything like this is violating its own code. This sets up the situation for bullying, not unlike the kid who is held down and beaten up and then is shamed for not fighting back, and then is shamed for trying to get some kind of resolution.
Spiritual trauma within the confines of a religious tradition is often seen in “my spiritual life/practice is better than yours” and a call to point that out, often publicly, to the whole of the group. Usually, this is done in reverse, meaning that “your spiritual life/practice is inferior.” Some traditions refer to this as “Matthew Eighteening,” a reference to Matthew 18, wherein Jesus is said to have stated that one is supposed to call out others’ sin in order to have them repent publicly.
Here are the articles of Edward Kruk, PhD:
as well as a whole list of his peer-reviewed publications here:
For those who may have interest, there is a link to My Story in the footer of this page. It is a bit long, and in all honesty, it took a fair bit out of me. I was kind of scared to put it OUT THERE, and yet, I knew that there were a number of people who had been spiritually abused and/or traumatized. I had been inundated with the message(s) of “you’re just bitter with the church,” “you’re making it up,” “it couldn’t have been THAT bad,” among other things. I gave up talking about it, although I was pretty grieved with the whole thing. I sought out counselors (sadly, some of the counselors said those messages), and some helped more than others. Now that I am in the field of psychotherapy, and have been for a while, I have developed a stronger discernment as to which counselors are good and which are not so good.
Because the topic is taboo to discuss, even now, there are few, if any professionals trained in this. There are probably fewer of those who have actually experienced this. When I was healing, I had to assemble a bunch of different treatments, as I felt comfortable, and find what worked (and for how long) for myself. As I began to work with others, and heard a lot of “I failed recovery” or work with some people who had experienced a form of spiritual trauma (heavy on the shunning and manipulation if one didn’t toe the line on “truth”), we worked together on finding ways to build trust back in themselves (many times I heard, and still do, that people who have been spiritually traumatized feel like they were duped, and they should have known better), building trust in others, in churches or like institutions, and sometimes even God, if these were issues which they wanted to consider. We also worked on controlling anxiety or rage surrounding having to encounter church, religion or spirituality with family members or friends who enforced a “superior spirituality” and were manipulative or just unpleasant to be around. There is a lot of grief and loss of family, friends and just a sense of community, as well as a sense of identity.
There is usually a lot of talk around reconciliation and forgiveness. I am of the opinion that it isn’t always necessary to forgive, and one can forgive some parts and not others, and not completely implode. Reconciliation is a whole different concept, and not as interrelated as one would imagine.
I make every effort not to broad-brush a group of people who hold a given set of beliefs, as I was on the other end of a broad-brush myself. I know some wonderful, kind, compassionate and loving people who hold a set of beliefs that I just can’t wrap my head or heart around. I know some people who are just awful, and they share my belief system entirely. And, as the old adage goes, it isn’t what you say, it really is how you say it, and how someone says something usually carries more weight than the verbiage alone. Actions do speak louder than words.
Because we are complex beings, regardless of whether we have experienced spiritual trauma, there is no decided cache of signs or symptoms. There are many signs/symptoms. Inasmuch as no one “does depression” the same way, as has been stated by Bill O’Hanlon, in his book Out of the Blue, those of us who have been spiritually traumatized manifest this experience differently.
The signs/symptoms may have some similarities to PTSD, depression, anxiety, among other diagnoses. I have heard and worked with these (and many others), as well as experiencing some of these myself.
For a long time, I had this weird mutual dissonance with music. I liked my “secular” music, and felt guilt and shame for liking it, and then anger for feeling guilt and shame, and then guilt over the anger, and then, well, you can imagine where that all went. Or didn’t go. I hated “spiritual” music because I placed it collectively with the whole experience that I’d had, and yet, some of it I liked, and hated that I still liked it, and that whole mess.
I say “have problems” because I am finding, as some researchers have, that the term “boundaries” is used as an excuse to not help, not care, and not demonstrate empathy. In that vein, I can’t reduce people to a set of symptoms to treat, because in my experience, that places a “band-aid” on the issue, as well as objectifies and marginalizes people. I want to work on their sense of self-trust, if the fellow survivor is willing.
Healing from spiritual trauma looks differently for everyone. I know that this looks like I am trying to weasel out of this. It has been my experience that what I say is healing for me, may not be healing from another’s perspective. I want to know what you envision healing to be for you. From this, we can do some “reality testing” to see how it can hold up in your environment. To have the expectation that your experience will NEVER affect you is unrealistic. You can live with the effects, and in many ways, this can help you have greater understanding and compassion for those who have been through this. As you heal, you can help others through their spiritual trauma, because you know how different this is from other traumas, and how frequently others who have not been through this DO NOT understand it, like you do.
For me, my healing still has a remnant of the experiences I went through. Certain songs will get me, phrases hit me in the gut, and it still takes a measure of courage for me to even walk into certain bookstores. In many ways, it helps me remember that there are people out there who still need connection and healing, and to remember what it was like to not be believed or understood helps me to move forward to help others. I don’t want to attack “them” anymore, although I did for a long time. I thought that ALL OF THEM were the enemy, much like they communicated that “people like me” were the enemy. I don’t know if it is about forgiveness as much as it is taking care to not personally behave and/or become like the behaviors and attitudes I don’t like.
I think one of the key components of spiritual trauma is behaving as though one’s actions and morals are superior to another’s, and enforcing this on others, in a variety of ways. And it’s ok for me to choose to not be around that.
So, to answer this question, I need to know what you want for yourself in terms of healing. From this, we can get there.