This month, we will be doing a 3-part series on religious trauma. First, we’ll address the question of what religious trauma is, from a psychological, trauma-informed perspective. Two weeks later, we’ll dive a little deeper into the kinds of beliefs that can cause religious trauma, specifically in the context I and many of you are in: American Christianity. And two weeks after that, we’ll wrap up with a post about creating communities that DON’T create religious trauma. These might be churches or other spiritually-oriented communities. I’m excited to jump in!
As we discuss religious trauma, I would like to ground us with a solid psychological understanding of what religious trauma is.
I’d like to clear up two misconceptions that I perceive people have about religious trauma: that it is either A) a horrible event that occurred in a religious context [think abuse scandals] or B) a fluffy excuse for why embittered people (e.g., exvangelicals) are exiting the church and in no way an actual “trauma.”
Both are incorrect when I talk about religious trauma. Well, A isn’t incorrect, but it’s a particular kind of trauma that doesn’t fully explain many people’s stories. I will explain a more expansive understanding of trauma.
Shock vs. Developmental Trauma
Many folks are familiar with the kind of trauma referred to as “shock trauma.” This is when a terrible event occurred and now the individual is suffering symptoms because of what happened. We call it “shock” because it is a shock to the nervous system. It can result in classic post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): flashbacks, nightmares, avoidance of things that remind one of the event, hypervigilance, mood issues, etc.
But there is another kind of trauma known as developmental, or complex, trauma. Sadly, this kind of trauma doesn’t even have official recognition in the most modern version of the American psychological diagnostic manual (DSM-V). But therapists certainly know better! We see clients who deal with this all the time. It is complex trauma because the thing that occurred was often ongoing – no one specific event to think back on. The person has usually experienced multiple sources of trauma. And what really complicates matters is that it is often even pre-verbal: occurring before a person has language or ability to consolidate memories to recall them explicitly (with words) later on in life.
In order to understand religious trauma fully, we need recognize it often occurs as developmental, or complex, trauma: C-PTSD for short. (I make this case throughout my book). Religious trauma is more than just sexual abuse in the church, or being manipulated by a narcissistic church leader, or being beaten as a child for religious reasons. Though all of that is also religious trauma, and I would NEVER want to downplay how terrible it is.
What is Religious Trauma?
Religious trauma can occur on such a subtle level that people don’t even recognize it for what it is until they get out of the religious system. It changes the way a person feels about themselves and instills a deep sense of shame, fear, and uncertainty. It breaks a person’s sense of trust in themselves. It can contribute to depression, anxiety, relationship struggles, and more.
With “regular” developmental trauma, it is the caregivers who often have created or contributed to an environment that has somehow failed a child. (All parents fail in some way or other, but hopefully it’s generally mild). These failures, when occurring regularly or severely enough, can add up to trauma. With religious trauma, we have parallels for the parental caregivers: it might literally be your own parents, or it could be ideas about God, or it could be a church community or religious teachings. All of these send messages to people about their worth and who they are and who they should / should not be.
“Toxic shame” is the phrase we use in NARM (the trauma modality I’m training in) to describe self-hatred – conscious or unconscious – that develops as a survival strategy to protect oneself from loss of connection from loved ones (caregivers). As children, we find it unbearable to think that our parents / caregivers are untrustworthy, not loving enough, or somehow failing us. So instead, we frequently internalize those failures when we are children and blame ourselves for the lack of love we received.
In religious systems, we often internalize those same failures: blaming ourselves for what may actually be an environmental problem. How many times have I heard people berate themselves for not being [pure enough, kind enough, moral enough, abstinent enough, happy enough, straight enough, submissive enough, etc] and I just want to say: What if you don’t have to be that way?? People feel crushing guilt that they don’t “feel” close enough to God. But meanwhile, in many systems, God is a semi-trustworthy being who will willingly send you to hell if you don’t have the right beliefs. What if the smartest thing to do was not trust that God? What if you weren’t the one to blame at all?
Religious trauma occurs when instead of offering you an environment of support, love, and unconditional acceptance of your personhood, it tells you loving you is conditional upon certain behaviors and beliefs – even by using bait and switch tactics. “Everyone welcome!” until you start attending and discover you need to change to really be welcome.
Religious trauma occurs when shame and guilt are used as behavioral motivators, and you are told it is because God wants you to be a certain way.
Religious trauma occurs when instead of you discovering your own voice and path in the world, you are given a religious mold to follow and outcast if you don’t agree to conform to the mold.
And religious trauma occurs when you are told that your punishment for not believing or behaving the right way is to be eternally punished and separated from your divine Parent.
Religious trauma can begin to release its shackles when people are able to step back from the beliefs they always thought were The Only Right Way, and consider whether such beliefs actually contribute to their well-being. But that’s only the beginning of the healing process.
I can’t wait to begin diving into some of the specific beliefs in the context of American Christianity that often contribute to people’s religious trauma. I’ll see you back here in two weeks!