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.