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.
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.