For many people across the world, faith is a source of comfort. Being part of a religious or spiritual community may offer people a feeling of being connected to a higher power. Faith can often give a sense of meaning and purpose to one’s life. Religion may also serve as a guiding force, providing a moral compass by which to live. Faith can also be something to hold onto and find comfort in when one is undergoing stress or suffering. There are many positives to practicing a religion. However, it’s essential to acknowledge the harm that has also come from faith communities — this harm is often called “spiritual trauma.”
Spiritual trauma is described as being negatively impacted by religious teachings or ideologies. Trauma may stem from the broader faith system, such as various beliefs or ideologies. Spiritual trauma can also come from an individual within your local faith-based community, such as a religious leader or a small group of people. A religious leader often has a high degree of trust and connection or conduit to god within their communities. Thus, a betrayal from a spiritual leader can feel like having the ground swept underneath you. You may be left wondering what is left of the foundation of your faith and what you should believe in. However, it is possible to identify what signs of spiritual trauma are, and to start the process of healing.
6 signs of spiritual trauma
If you were raised in or part of a faith community, you might wonder how to discern if you have spiritual trauma. If you are currently part of a faith community but experienced harm in the past, it may feel like a betrayal to use the term “spiritual trauma.” Labels can feel complicated or confusing, and you may be afraid to use certain terminology that is associated with leaving your faith.
Here are six signs that you may have experienced spiritual trauma or harm:
- Feelings of guilt or shame
Many religious practices reinforce the belief that if you do not act according to the faith’s moral laws, there is something wrong with you. Additionally, some religions posit that humans are inherently sinful or fallen. When taken to an extreme or out of context, these tenets can result in feelings of low self-esteem or self-worth, guilt, or shame.
- Difficulty listening or trusting your body’s cues
If you grew up in a faith community, you might have internalized specific messages about your body, such as “Don’t trust your heart” or “Remind yourself of what you know to be true.” These statements may impact your ability to listen to your body’s cues, such as ignoring gut feelings and pushing through discomfort. You may also prioritize your mind above your body, rather than allowing your mind’s knowledge and your body’s wisdom to work together.
- Spiritual bypassing
Spiritual bypassing occurs when you use spiritual platitudes or explanations to deny the reality of your circumstances. Many people may find genuine comfort in turning to their faith in times of distress. Yet, if you have spiritual trauma, you may use spiritual bypassing to distance yourself from your actual reality rather than allowing your faith to support what you are going through. It can also be harmful when someone else uses spiritual bypassing in response to you — this can communicate a lack of care. For example, someone could use spiritual bypassing to invalidate your experience, by saying, “You should just pray more” or “If you have more faith, it will work out.”
- Purity culture
Purity culture is distinctive among Christian faith communities and refers to abstaining from sex until marriage. Many who experienced the purity culture movement struggle to engage in sex without guilt or shame. Research shows that it can potentially even lead to sexual violence or abuse. Purity culture also reinforced harmful ideas that you are “less than” if you engage in premarital sexual activities. These beliefs can be extremely damaging to one’s psyche.
- Manipulation or bullying from the faith
Sadly, some religious leaders misuse their power by manipulating or bullying. Some faith followers are forced to behave according to the leader’s wishes. Spiritual trauma in this way can also result in gaslighting, which occurs when one person causes another to question their reality or experience.
- Lack of care
Many practice religion because they value the support from a community with shared values. Therefore, if you are suffering and experience a lack of care or support from your religious community, you may feel hurt or wronged. Perhaps you reach out for support when going through a hard time, and are met with empty promises of reaching out. It can feel hurtful to feel alone in your suffering when you reach out to your faith community for help, and are not met with any encouragement or support.
You may resonate with some of what is listed above, or you may have other experiences of spiritual trauma. Whatever the case, there is hope you can find healing.
How to heal from spiritual trauma
The aftermath of spiritual trauma can leave you with a shattered sense of self. Your sense of reality has been shaken and called into question. It is difficult to know who to trust, what to believe, or what is good vs. bad. That is a lot to take in and navigate. Thankfully, therapy can be a helpful place to start picking up the pieces.
A licensed therapist can help you explore your values and worldview and work through identity issues. They will not dictate right or wrong but will help you express your values. A well-fit therapist can align with you and what you believe. So, if you value your faith, a therapist can integrate that into your therapeutic work.
Although you may prefer to work with a therapist with a similar faith background as yours, this is optional. If you prefer to work with a therapist who shares your faith, ask if you can schedule a consultation call with the therapist to see if they’d be a good fit for you. Above all, choose a licensed therapist, as this will ensure they have the proper clinical training to integrate your values and worldview.
Outside of therapy, you can also engage in journaling, meditation, or yoga. Through these practices, you can gain an awareness of your sense of self and beliefs. You can also learn to listen to your body and its wisdom by doing a body scan. Start at your head and work down to your feet. Take a moment to check in with every part of your body and notice any tension or emotions being held there. As you learn to restore your sense of self-identity, you’ll be able to determine if and how faith plays a role in your life. If you’re seeking support with your spiritual trauma, please contact us today to get started.