I often receive many questions when I share with others that I help people to process and heal “Harmful Religious Experiences”. What does that mean, exactly?
Harmful Religious Experiences (or Religious Trauma Syndrome, as coined by Dr. Marlene Winell) usually happen(s) within the context of a highly controlling or authoritarian religious congregation and/or with a charismatic mentor. Within these settings, the person being harmed is taught to distrust their own inner insights or gut instincts, to “lean not on their own understanding” and to receive all direction from a higher power as interpreted through those in leadership. There is often a fear of eternal punishment or “hell”-like consequences for making mistakes or being sinful. More often than not, one raised in this situation struggles with shame, the sense of not being good enough, perfectionism, and, at times, high anxiety. Black and white thinking leaves those in the grey areas either deeply conflicted or deeply shamed, as they have been denied information and resources that might help them to effectively cope with the challenges in the world around them. Fear, guilt, and shame within spirituality are indicators of religious harm.
Sometimes harmful religious experiences occur within an otherwise supportive church setting, and are more subtle. These can include wounds inflicted by racisim, sexism, or homophobia, whether covert or overt. These can also be a painful narratives to hold, especially if maintaining membership within the congregation feels otherwise life affirming and important.
Much of the “harm” arises when people decide to leave their authoritarian religion or mentor. Perhaps it doesn’t quite fit with their emerging sense of the world, they feel worn down by not being able to be themselves, they no longer agree ideologically with the set of rigid rules set forth before them, they have been physically or sexually abused (a subset), or it just no longer fits with what they know/feel to be true. At this point, they may be leaving the only community they know, and they lose the support of those around them. Close family members and friends may wage a campaign to bring them back into the “fold” and/or disown them for leaving. Suddenly they are in the wider world without the black and white rules for living and have not developed the skills nor have been exposed to the resources needed to make their way. Anxiety or Depression surges. People don’t trust their own instincts, having been taught from a young age that they are wrong or sinful. Real fear of spiritual punishment can bring nightmares and panic attacks. Sometimes there is a powerful grief that emerges for the loss of not only the ties to their families, but also the familiar and comforting rituals of the place in which they were raised. There can exist a sheer terror as they face life without a frame of reference.
If this resonates with you, then you may also resonate with a hesitancy to reach out for help. Psychology may be something you have been taught to condemn or least of all steer clear. Reaching out for help takes courage, as does all that you have been through up to this point. Having personally experienced and left a group such as this in the past, I understand what you are going through. Together, we will help you to regain a sense of equilibrium, to grieve what you have lost, to counter the shame and the guilt with which you may be struggling, and to move forward with a greater sense of trust in yourself and a hope for the future. I will help you to tell your story, all of it, and we can work together to write the next chapter.
I am not anti-religion or anti-God. I do believe that there are healthy expressions of spirituality AND religion, and I welcome those exploring where (or if) they fit within these expressions, as well as those who have decided that religion/spirituality no longer fits.
You don’t have to struggle with this on your own. There is hope. Healing is possible. It would be an honor to work with you during this time.
Drama Therapy! For some of you those words conjure excitement or sheer terror or both! Often misunderstood to be a medium limited to actors, extroverts, or playful children, drama therapy can, in fact, be a transformative tool in individual and collective healing. Currently being used worldwide with adults, children, couples, and groups in: businesses, hospitals, prisons, military bases, schools, nursing homes, intercultural conflicts (see: Healing the Wounds of History), theater companies, and in the weekly private practice therapy session, drama therapy can provide you with a new angle on something with which you may be struggling.
Anxiety? Drama therapy can help! Depression? Drama therapy can help! Past trauma? Drama therapy can help! Addiction? Yes, it can help with that too! Questions about life transitions? Come and do some drama therapy! Recurring arguments with your partner? All sorts of drama therapy possibilities! And best of all? You do not have to be an actor/an extrovert/ or a “creative” type to benefit. (I’m speaking as an introverted drama therapist!)
So, if that bold introduction didn’t convince you to try out drama therapy immediately, let me present you with FIVE reasons you should consider doing work with a drama therapist.
1) PRACTICE-- We’ve all heard the old adage that practice makes perfect. This makes sense when playing the clarinet, figuring out formulas on that Excel spreadsheet, or finding the perfect consistency for those scones (work fast--the butter has to be cold!). But how does this work in therapy? Through drama therapy you have an opportunity to practice new behaviors. You have the chance to rehearse and refine difficult conversations and/or potential confrontations. You have the potential to try and strengthen a new reaction or new inner dialogue when something triggers that thing that makes you react in ways that you regret. You can move beyond the talking and the intellectual knowing and actually DO it, in your body!
PRACTICING IT IN THE IMAGINARY WORLD OF DRAMA THERAPY CHANGES THINGS IN REAL LIFE! There is a famous sports psychology study about basketball players that was done some years back. There were three groups: one practiced shooting free throws for 20 days in a row. One just VISUALIZED shooting free throws for 20 days without actually touching a ball. The third did neither. BOTH of those first two groups improved?! Why? Partly because our brain has difficulty telling reality from imagination and new neuro pathways can form even if we imagine doing certain things. Think then, what would happen if we not only imagine but practice those things that you want to change within the drama therapy session or group. Practicing these things in an imaginary setting has REAL LIFE IMPACT.
2) PERMISSION--yes, permission! It is at this point that I’m reminded of Renee Emunah, the program director of the drama therapy program at California Institute of Integral Studies who often quotes Oscar Wilde, “Give a man a mask, and he will tell you the truth”. An improv instructor I once had said, “The stage gives you permission!” There are times in drama therapy in which we can play things out in a purely fictional realm. Through characters, story-telling, scene work, improvisation and imagination, we have the permission to play all the parts of ourselves—the shadow and the light, the fear and the courage, the inner critic and the inner protector. We can hug our inner child. We can fire our inner tormentor.
You have permission, within the structure of the session, to follow your impulses and play them out using your imagination in a safe space and without judgment. Whether they be impulses to laugh or dance or kill or fight or juggle babies or jump of off cliffs. At the end of the session everyone is still alive, and you bravely offered yourself through the safety of fiction.
3) PHYSICALITY- More and more we are seeing the research about how the body plays a role in our memory and in our cognition. Our very thoughts and emotions are heavily influenced by and connected to the body’s intuition and wisdom. Our body can also give us clues about ways in which things have gone awry. (Ever have a horrible stress headache?) For those of us who have experienced early trauma or loss, sometimes this very experience is stored primarily in the body as it may have happened even before we had language. How then, can we work through those events solely through the use of language? If we “embody” a role and act out something from our lives, our bodies can enter into an “as-if” mode, believing that we are there. We can then shift the outcomes: go back and rescue ourselves, fight the bad things that happened to us, or get through a scenario with new strength. By doing this we are creating new neuropathways in our brains. New memories form!
Your body may also give you clues to questions that you have that are unresolved. For example, you may do an exercise in which you have imagined making a tough decision. Your body may feel great relief or it may feel great panic. Such valuable information! Your body wants to participate in therapy as much as your heart and your mind!
4) PARTICIPATION- Some of us go to therapists because we long for them to wave a magic wand, be an expert, and tell us what to do. Most therapists (if we are good at our jobs) can’t/won’t do that. Like most therapy, drama therapy is co-created. In drama therapy, however, you and your therapist can create a “surplus reality” –a place where anything is possible. Participating together, you construct the narrative, the story, the situation, the place and time in which the work is done TOGETHER. And you, dear client, have control in this creation! In the whole process you get to decide what feels safe, what feels helpful, whether to slow things down, or whether you want to step out for a minute and talk about it. In fact, your expertise about your own situation and emotional reactions is a key part of the process.
With new information on cells in our brains called mirror neurons, participation may even take the form of watching someone else do some work, as in a drama therapy group. Have you ever watched a movie or a play and strongly felt the emotions that the characters were portraying? Those are your mirror neurons at work. When someone in a drama therapy group does a significant piece of work and we are honored enough to witness that work, we benefit. Our mirror neurons light up as we feel their feelings, and process our own experiences with the theme presented.
5) PLAY—Have you been to a playground lately? Spent any time with children? Most children have an inherent ability to play. Their imaginations are big and their inhibitions have not yet been developed. In fact, in a radio story I heard recently on NPR, kids were able to solve a complicated “engineering” type of problem that the adults couldn’t solve. Why? They hadn’t yet learned the expected rules. They used their creativity and their playfulness to problem solve. The adults kept getting stuck on the “should-s” and the “have to-s”.
Play in adults has been shown to increase flexibility and spontaneity, lower stress, foster connection with others, help us to problem solve creatively, boost brain power, and increase our overall enjoyment of LIFE! Somehow, in the course of growing up, we often lose access or have to shut down that playful side of ourselves. Drama therapy acknowledges the strength and healing inherent in playfulness and invites it back into your life. So come and check it out: in an introductory workshop, an ongoing group, couple’s or individual therapy, and see how drama therapy can transform your life today.
To schedule an appointment in San Mateo with Sarah: 415-820-9696 x19
To schedule an appointment with a therapist at the Living Arts Counseling Center: 510-595-5500
Sarah Harkness, M.A. is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist at the Living Arts Counseling Center. She has extensive experience using both talk and drama therapy with individuals, couples, children, and groups. Sarah especially enjoys working with addiction, religious trauma, and relationships.