First off, let’s acknowledge that a pithy social media quote and a blog post are not going to heal anyone from their trauma. Inner work is a long and complex journey, and I would never pretend that a self-help book and an online article will get you where you need to go. But I would like to offer some thoughts and direction for healing from such trauma.
If you’re even reading this post, you likely know what religious trauma is (especially if you’ve been keeping up with my previous posts), and likely experienced it yourself or at least care about someone who has.
Religious trauma shows up in a bunch of ways that might not even seem connected to religion on first glance. The panic attack upon entering a church, the intrusive memories of a manipulative, controlling pastor: those are understandable as religious trauma. But other symptoms, like consistent feelings of being a bad person, inability to relax and have fun without feelings of guilt, castigating oneself for feelings and behaviors you deem “selfish:” these can also be manifestations of religious trauma. [I’ll share a personal anecdote in a couple posts that will bring these nuances to life and perhaps resonate with many of you].
The following are my therapeutically-oriented suggestions for beginning to process and heal from religious trauma. They build on each other, and you might find you stay in one stage for quite some time before feeling ready to transition to a new stage. Or you might experience them all at once! No process is right or wrong, and none look the same.
Allow yourself to acknowledge what has happened / is happening. You’ve probably experienced a lot of gaslighting, which makes people doubt their experience. You’re not crazy for feeling how you do.
High-control religion such that many of us grew up in creates communities where the only safety is perceived to be within the community. The church community were the ones who were good, trustworthy, who had the right answers, who didn’t have hidden motivations to lead you astray and fall away from God. The outsiders were bad and dangerous, or at best, not to be mixed with (unless for the purpose of conversion, of course).
So when our secret doubts cause us to question, it threatens us with outsider status: land of the bad, dangerous, and surely doomed.
Especially for those who are just starting to step outside the fold, it can be terrifying to question some of the things you had always been taught. Not only might we be made outsiders, but God Himself* might kick us out of the fold. But guess what? That fear is itself a symptom of trauma. The fear, as you will eventually find out, is a contrived fear – occurring because they told you to be afraid, not because there was anything to be afraid of.
It’s completely normal, as you begin to question, to have an equal and opposite reaction against your own questions. You might experience a vigorous, opposing fear that you are doing something wrong and that you are actually the bad person for questioning the system. This in no way means you are doing something wrong. I know it is impossible to really believe that until you can experience there is safety outside the system. But a lot of us have walked this road already and promise there is more liberation out here than you ever dreamed of.
*I use capitalized male pronouns for God deliberately when talking about religious trauma systems, because they exclusively use male pronouns for God. It’s not because I believe God is male!
Set boundaries needed to protect your mental and emotional health.
If you haven’t turned tail and run from this healing process yet, you will soon discover the need for setting boundaries with people who are still part of the system that you are questioning.
Evangelicals are great for the “let’s grab coffee … and talk about your walk with Jesus!” bait and switch just when you’re starting to question (or went all the way down the questioning road but don’t want them to know). It’s consistent with the name: evangelicals are still eager to evangelize, even when the recipient knows just as much about the life of faith as they do. They just didn’t find evangelical answers satisfactory anymore.
Enter…boundaries. Guess what? You don’t have to entertain every line of questioning that comes your way, or agree to every (or any) coffee dates that you suspect will be more of a reconversion effort. You don’t have to comment on the Facebook post or share things before you’re ready. You owe no one your time or your answers, especially when you know it will leave you feeling frustrated, drained, or betrayed.
Boundaries with family or other close loved ones are often also part of this journey. Often our family raised us in the system and will be shocked or heartbroken we ever left. We may feel that their beliefs, as we continue down the path, are toxic or things we don’t want our children (if applicable) exposed to. You are allowed to protect yourself and your children (again, if applicable) from beliefs that you now find harmful and potentially retraumatizing!
Boundaries will look different for every person. Some people will feel totally fine engaging in the communities they are leaving behind and having open dialogues. Others will need much firmer boundaries put up to protect their mental well-being. Different cultures have different views on boundaries, also, and I acknowledge I’m speaking from an individualistic Westernized cultural lens.
Become aware of and respect your own needs, and know that at different phases of your life, they are likely to change.
Allow yourself to grieve the losses.
This is important. The religious worlds we occupied often were full of good things, real relationships, a sense of purpose, and a place in a community. They just happened to hold a lot of trauma as well. It is okay to feel a lot of grief and sadness over the enormous losses you experience. This could be anything from a church home, a sense of belonging in your family, a belief in God that felt unchangeable, a sense of knowing your purpose and eternal destiny, or a feeling of security that someone was looking out for you and knew your future.
I think it’s essential to hold both sides in balance: the freedom you can now experience along with the grief of what you are losing. I would never want to go back to the system I came from, but there were a lot of tears shed along the way as I struggled with losing a sense of purpose, community, and feelings of connection with God.
Don’t get stuck in the trap of continual anger and resentment. It’s interesting and provocative, but is it truly what you need?
First, I want to acknowledge that I totally get how weirdly satisfying it can feel to get into the angry, resentful headspace where THEY (in this case, the religious community that wronged me) are bad, hurtful, ridiculous, dumb, conspiratorial…add in your own negative adjective here. I’m not saying you shouldn’t be angry. Anger can serve a very protective function of letting us know something wrong is being done to us. We need to listen to and respond to our anger signals.
But what I want to suggest is that staying in that headspace is not what is ultimately going to help you heal. It feels good to be mad sometimes for sure. However, I think what truly helps us is not defining ourselves by what we’re not, but by what we are. What are you truly looking for? Do you want to experience peace and freedom, or be defined more by anger and bitterness? Don’t give the old system such power over your life that even once you’ve left it, you’re shaped more by being an ex-member than you being a new thing that you’ve discovered actually DOES give you meaning and life.
In NARM (the trauma treatment modality), we start each session off by exploring what the person most wants for themselves. It can be quite a difficult thing to identify. We’re used to saying what we DON’T want (e.g., to feel anxious, depressed, codependent). The NARM question goes beyond behaviors as well (not just “I want to get along better with my spouse” “I want to reduce my drinking”). It is trying to get at a person’s deepest, truest longings for themselves. I will end by posing the same question to you. When you think about your relationship to spirituality (questions of ultimate meaning and purpose), what do you want, if there were no barriers to accessing it? What do you most want for yourself?