Recognizing Spiritual Abuse

Spiritual abuse can be understood as abuse done to another person's spirit. This can take many forms - It can mimic emotional abuse if you feel another is intentionally attempting to "break your spirit". It can be found in large religious organizations or in small cult gatherings. It can be seen in parent-child relationships, romantic relationships, siblings relationships, and friendships.

Spiritual abuse is fairly insidious and hard to recognize, so let me share some examples. I once sat in a religious service where I experienced doubt about what was being preached. I began to critically think about what was being taught: "Hmm, well I disagree with that. I think it's more like this. Actually, maybe I don't believe in that at all..." A few seconds into my thoughts, the speaker said, "And to those who have doubts about this truth, that is due to evilness in this world". Oh my word, he was speaking directly to me. Did he hear my thoughts?! Immediately I drowned out my own voice that was helping me think critically and thought, "Oh, no wonder I am doubting... it's because I am being manipulated by something evil". Now, in this situation I was not intentionally being abused by another person - but I did feel oppressed by this. Let me breakdown why this was problematic for me:

  1. I lost my own voice in exchange for listening to something that I didn't agree with in the first place. 
  2. I unintentionally labeled my own thoughts as "evil".
  3. I gave up my ability to critically think, something I am generally proud of.
  4. I relinquished power and my own understanding of "the truth" and lent power to somebody I have never personally met.

Looking back into my younger years, I see many ways in which I followed blindly. In fact, those four problems I listed were more like a way of life. I lost all of my personal agency, and my ability to critically and creatively think. I was shamed for my emotions and how I expressed them. I was inappropriately confronted about my clothing choices. I was once publicly shamed for being in a relationship (and by publicly I mean in front of 200+ people). In all, I was made to feel that if I did not fit into a certain role then I was not good enough.

But don't get me wrong - I made many friends, studied intensely, and tried my hardest to live a moral life. These are not bad things in and of themselves. I am proud of many of the choices that I had the power to make and I believe that I carried many wonderful bits of wisdom into my adult life. In fact, I think this is a good point to draw a line between what is spiritual abuse and what is spiritual health. (Spiritual health refers to your own choice to join a religious or spiritual affiliation, or engage in a relationship where both adhere to a certain spirituality, and when that is a positive and honoring experience).

Spiritual Abuse: Shames or shuns you for thinking differently.
Spiritual Health: Meets you with patience and acceptance for thinking differently.

Spiritual Abuse: Tells you that a part of your identity is less or more valuable than someone else (i.e. gender, ethnicity), and forces you into a certain role.
Spiritual Health: Accepts you for all parts of your identity and encourages your freedom to choose your role.

Spiritual Abuse: Uses exclusive language (we are good, they are bad)
Spiritual Health: Uses inclusive language (we all make mistakes, we accept everyone)

Spiritual Abuse: Denies failure or error that may have affected you and is unwilling to change (especially in leadership).
Spiritual Health: Admits failure or error that may have affected you and commits to change (especially in leadership).

Spiritual Abuse: Makes you feel voiceless to the extent that you are embarrassed or fearful to share your needs or opinions.
Spiritual Health: Empowers your voice even though you are embarrassed or fearful to share your needs or opinions.

Spiritual Abuse: Is okay with humiliating you to prove a point, to teach others, or to teach you a lesson.
Spiritual Health: Teaches lessons without humiliating others and seeks to protect others in the process of teaching.

Spiritual Abuse: Informs you that there are a few chosen people to interpret religious texts or messages (this looks more like vertical leadership and power at the top for the chosen few).
Spiritual Health: Informs you that all people play a role in interpreting religious texts or messages (this looks more like horizontal leadership and power dispersed among all).

I wanted to lay out some differences here to demonstrate that this is not a cynical review of religion and spirituality; that there are ways to be a part of a religious/spiritual experience without having to be forced to conform. With these examples, it is easy to see this play out in religious organizations and cults, right? But these differences are also true for interpersonal relationships as well.

Let me share another example. Years ago I was in a relationship in which my partner told me that I had to "submit" because that is what our religious text said. When I attempted to disagree, he would respond with, "Submit, submit, submit..." until I stopped speaking. Again, I had lost my voice in this situation. I was taught that I did not have equal power, that my voice was less valuable, and I was not encouraged to have differing opinions than "the truth". 

For some, spiritual abuse can be much more severe - being forced to look or dress a certain way, being told what to say (or not say), be coerced into relationships with certain people, etc. Maybe it is being forced to attend a religious gathering that you prefer not to be a part of.

A good question to ask yourself is this: Am I powerless, and can I make my own decisions? If the answer is no, then it might be a good time to start digging deep for the ways in which you feel powerless. And let me tell you - this is a difficult journey. There are many ways to gain support, and here are some steps you can take if you recognize that spiritual abuse is a reality for you:

  1. Do you have a close friend or family member you can confide in? Somebody who accepts you, is patient with you, and loves you? Perhaps somebody removed from the situation.
  2. Contact a counselor or therapist who has experience in this area.
  3. Keep record of your own voice. By this I mean you can journal your thoughts, explore your identity, look deep into your own beliefs, and find a way to keep your voice alive. What might work for you to find value and importance in your own voice and thoughts?
  4. If you are in a violent relationship where this is happening, please contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or visit their website at .

Religious groups and relationships are not inherently bad if you have the freedom to make decisions for yourself. It becomes more abusive and oppressive when you are stripped of your rights to be exactly who you want to be. Considering yourself religious or spiritual has several benefits according to emerging psychology studies. In fact, "many groups dealing with major life stressors such as natural disasters, illness, loss of loved ones, divorce and serious mental illness show that religion and spirituality are generally helpful to people in coping, especially people with the fewest resources facing the most uncontrollable of problems" (Source). The purpose of this post is not to bash on religious organizations or relationships that follow a set of religious instructions. The purpose of this post is to help you recognize spiritual abuse, and offer practical next steps to seek support.

If you are in the Seattle area and would like to discuss this with a counselor, please feel free to contact me by phone at 206.929.2738 or email at To learn more information, please fill out the form here.

...And a Happ[ier] New Year!


It's right around the corner, 2017 is coming up fast and I think many of us are ready for it! I've seen many posts on social media about how challenging 2016 was for some, and I think on several levels we can all relate. For some 2016 was full of heartbreak, travel, losses, new family members, new friends, anxiety, depression, parenthood, fears, solutions, problems, etc. Let's just say it was a wild year. On a collective level, I think we all hope for a better 2017.


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New Years Resolutions are often the way in which many seek to start something over that they feel they failed on in the previous year - exercise, drinking more water, making more friends, waking up early... The intentions are great, the execution of the resolution... not so much. Perhaps it is time we start reframing what a "resolution" is.

As I reflected on the word "resolution", I naturally came to the word "resolve" and then I though what a funny idea... "What problem will I resolve in the New Year?" And then I felt a huge burden - Wow. Where do I start?! We enter into a new year with the intention to fix something that is broken, and the reality is that we may have many broken things in our lives. In another blog I wrote, I discussed the idea of reframing how we view the problems we face. So what if we try to reframe this idea of a New Years Resolution? What if we focus on New Years Gratitude? New Years Attitude? New Years Addition? New Years Freedom? Might this help us actually keep our "resolutions" if we could just reframe them? I don't know about you, but the pressure to fix my problems from 2016 seems exhausting! I would much rather attempt something new, free myself of something old, or simply practice thankfulness for what I already have in life. Restoration Counseling's newsletter will focus on 12 tips for a happier new year over the next few months. It will offer fresh ideas backed with scientific information about why these ideas may actually enhance your New Year. Some of the ideas may naturally "fix" your 2016 problems, and some may not - but if it's something new, it's worth a shot right? If you're interested, sign up for the mailing list to receive your first free tip on a Happ[ier] New Year and we'll embark on this journey together!

Problems Within, Problems Without

Sometimes problems move into our lives like obnoxious family members. They burst through the door, raid your fridge, and make themselves right at home on your couch. As you sit there and witness this happen, you might be wondering to yourself, "Why in the world did I even open the door?"

You drop subtle hints, "So... How long will you be staying with us?"; followed by an ambiguous answer indicating that it has no intention of leaving on it's own accord.


This is one way of thinking about the variety of problems that we interact with on a daily basis. Anxiety as an overbearing and needy mother-in-law, setting expectations for you that you cannot reach and spitting messages of inadequacy at you. Depression as that friend of yours who always wants to stay inside and dwell on "the good old days", one of those friends who sucks the energy out of you with their ideas about life. Stress as a demanding older sibling reminding you of all of the things you're obligated to do, all the while making you feel like you can never live up to their expectations. Maybe it's not the case that you experience with specific relatives or friends like this, but I'm sure if you're familiar with anxiety, depression, or stress you can at least picture this person in your mind.

The reality is that these intrusive guests are often unwelcome and difficult to get rid of. Often we feel powerless as we watch them sit on our couch and consume all of our food and energy. We think of things to say to it, "Have you looked for an apartment yet?", "Do you plan on leaving any time soon..." but we choke on the words. We don't want to offend them! After all, didn't anxiety remind you that it might not be such a good idea to get close to the edge of that cliff on the hike you went on recently? That was kind of a nice gesture. 

So the question is, how do you gain enough power in this situation to tell these problems that they are no longer welcomed in your home? It takes courage to do this, and it is often not something you can do without support. This is how I hope to support those who come to therapy. I seek to be a witness to the process of gaining power over these problems and help you understand how they operate in your life.

Often we view problems as inherently ours. We've somehow created this problem-monster and it lives inside of us like a parasite. We cannot let it go because we are fused with it, and it has completely consumed us. We feel guilty to have let something so sinister take over our life. And now guilt has found a way to fuse to us too, and the spiral never ends. When we think of problems as "our own problems", we can lose the ability to confront them. When we assume our problems are our own fault, we lose the voice to tell them to leave us alone because after all, they are here because of us.

The truth is, you have more power than you think you do. You have more voice than you ever could have known. These problems don't come out of nowhere! We can track their path, and learn exactly where they came from. Maybe you feel that you are not a good enough friend or partner - is that because you really are not and it's something wrong with you? Or is it because you are having troubles fitting into society's understanding of what friend or partner is? This is the difference between a "problem within" and a "problem without".

The "problem within" continuously convinces us that we are the problem, it's in our DNA, and we must learn to manage this. If we cannot manage this, we are the failure.

The "problem without" is different. It is something we interact with, that we can learn to track where it came from, and understand what it is communicating to you. By separating you from your problem, you can find ways to gain power over it and discover your voice. Then the question boils down to this: Do you want to write your own story, or do you want the problem to write your story?