Is it Spiritual Abuse? Check yes or no.
A Series on Spiritual Abuse // PART TWO
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 abusive, it means you were injured, wounded, and might need help to process what has happened. Find a person outside of the culture to help you do that. (It seems unlikely that someone inside the same space would be able to navigate that conversation with clarity.)
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 (Oakley, 2019):
“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 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, or 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?
IMPORTANT NOTE: 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.
On the other hand, 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 is tension with labels like spiritual abuse. Abuse is a big word. 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 something we’re ready for, so we resist the label.
Not to mention the tension that comes if you start to try on words like spiritual abuse outloud. 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.
But, words matter to your brain. The downside of not labeling spiritually abusive is that your brain only has one other tag for it: spiritual. Your brain concludes that what you experience is 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 “spiritually unhealthy” or a “misuse of spirtiuality” can help your brain grasp that whatever you experienced isn’t what you believe God calls ‘good.’ Your experience is not what spirituality truly is. It’s a distortion of those things, a misuse or an abuse of those things.
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