This post is a part of a series on spiritual abuse. You can see other posts in the series here (as they are published.) A lot of this content is from the research of Dr. Lisa Oakley from Chester University. I highly recommend her book** with Justin Humphrys if you want to learn more about this!
So, is it spiritual abuse?
When we’re wondering if something is spiritually abusive, we prefer to think in binary terms: check yes or no. But abuse is more of a spectrum than a checkbox. If you are exposed to a culture with behavior outside the range of ‘spiritually healthy’, that culture includes elements of misuse of spirituality or abuse of spirituality. The intensity or pervasiveness of that misuse or abuse of spirituality can vary dramatically.
Here are some things to think through as you’re evaluating your past experiences:
First of all – validate your experience. If you’re even asking the question of whether or not something was abuse, it means you’re injured, wounded, and might need help to process what has happened. Find a person outside of the culture to help you do that. It’s kind of an improbable expectation that someone inside the same space would be able to navigate that conversation without bias.
Second, the question is not: was it abusive or not. Instead, evaluate the elements of misuse of spirituality on a spectrum.
Remember our working definition of spiritual abuse:
“any form of abuse that is characterized by a pattern of coercive and controlling behavior in a religious context.”**
1. How controlling/coercive was the behavior?
What kinds of things were controlled? A good way to evaluate this is is to ask yourself (1) what kinds of things had consequences, and (2) how intense were those consequences. (e.g. if you didn’t agree – would someone roll their eyes? would your family lose a paycheck?)
You can even divide those into two categories – (1) perceived consequences – (meaning consequences you feared and felt) vs. explicit consequences – (ones that were stated as rules or that you saw enforced.).
2. Evaluate the extent of the pattern.
How pervasive was the controlling behavior? What kinds of things did it impact? What areas of your life were controlled and to what extent? How long did the behavior go on? How long were you exposed to it? How frequently did you encounter it? How deeply immersed were you in the culture?
The answers to those questions do NOT determine the damage you experienced.
How extensive the controlling behavior was doesn’t determine the damage or degree of your injury. I know people who have been torn apart by events that may not have been a part of a pattern or even explicitly coercive. And I know people who have existed in patterns of intense abuse for years and have yet to feel wounded. Things can be experienced as abusive or not to us because of past cultures we’ve experienced or the intersection of other oppressive environments we are in because of our race or gender or sexuality.
These questions are not checkboxes to validate or invalidate someone’s experience.
The answers to those questions can be helpful to determine how to proceed.
How extensive or controlling something is can help you figure out what healing might look like or how you want to engage with that culture moving forward.
If a culture has a pervasive pattern of controlling behavior, that’s an indicator that it might be tough for almost anyone involved. It may indicate that removing one person in power might not solve the problem. On the other hand, if we experienced an extremely controlling one-off incident, but didn’t see a pattern, that might make sense of the crazy-making feeling that happens when you talk to someone else who had an entirely different experience in that same culture.
It can be helpful to help you name things.
There’s a tension with labels like spiritual abuse. These are big words. We feel like – if we name an experience as spiritually abusive – we have to leave that culture forever, we have to burn it down, we have to abandon everyone in it. And that might not be what we want to do.
Not to mention the tension that comes if you start to try on words like spiritual abuse. No one wants you to use those words to describe anything in their culture. They can hear those words as a threat to their own experiences, as an accusation that they are crazy for still participating. To try to navigate the dissonance in our brains, we prefer to avoid labels like spiritual abuse.
But, words matter to your brain. Even though abuse isn’t binary, brains prefer to think in categories and black and white. The downside of not labeling spiritually abusive things ‘spiritually abusive’ is that your brain only has one other tag for it: spiritual. Your brain concludes it’s what church is like or Jesus is like or spirituality is like. And boy. howdy. That’s the worst.
Even if you’re not ready or sure about words like abuse – letting yourself use words like ‘misuse’ helps set you free to know that whatever happened wasn’t what God calls good. Your experience is not what spirituality truly is. It’s not what church is. It’s a distortion of those things, a misuse or an abuse of those things.