Uncommon Therapy
Uncommon Therapy

Religion Abuse

Religion is powerful, and it can be powerfully damaging. 


Religion is generally regarded in our culture as if it can only be a good thing.  Stories tell of wonderful benefits to having faith.  God and prayer are integral parts of our communal interactions, even to “In God we trust” being written on our money.


For many people religion is experienced as a wonderful thing, providing them a sense of belonging, of purpose, of how to tell what’s right and what’s wrong, of feeling loved and valuable.

But for many others religion is a monster from childhood that filled them with fear, shame and guilt. It demanded perfectionism, turned normal human mistakes or questions into sins, robbed the joy from self-achievement, or did all kinds of other damage – often leaving behind a host of symptoms and unhelpful unconscious beliefs, from anger and isolation to the feeling of being out of  touch with who one really is.  For these people and for those others who also decided that the religion they learned needed to be abandoned, they likely also found that breaking away can create its own trauma, because religion shapes so much of our self-concept and so many of our relationships.


        Our culture accepts that cults can be damaging, but any kind of religion, however mainstream, can have these consequences.


Why?  Because, like eating or sexuality, religious, spiritual, or philosophical beliefs are a fundamental part of who we are as humans.  Human beings ask the big questions.  We seek out the meaning of things  and of ourselves.  And we all have some sort of “answers” to such questions, whether vague or specific. Religion abuse affects us at a fundamental level, and it stays with us.  It’s not a thing we can just shrug off.


Where does religion abuse come from?  Sometimes from the belief system itself.  Sometimes from individuals who use religion for power or control.  Sometimes from people for whom religion has become   an addiction, protecting them from dealing with some aspect of their humanity or a previous trauma. Sometimes the abuse is intentional, sometimes it is not -- but either way it has a profound effect.  And, of course, sometimes it is more about NEGLECT than abuse – the things you needed as a human being but didn’t get, such as love not tied to actions, a feeling of safety, or the ability to feel proud or good enough.


Getting your head straight after such experiences is hard work.  I know because I’ve been through it.   In doing so I’ve found that most therapists unfortunately don’t understand this kind of trauma well  -- and can therefore miss how this can be the unifying issue behind a host of varied symptoms.  But treatment that misses the big picture and looks instead at the symptoms separately unfortunately rarely achieves better than partial success. 


If you have experienced this kind of abuse or trauma, approaching this directly in therapy may well provide the clarity and recovery you’ve been looking for. 




Symptoms of religion abuse can include any or all of the following:

  • Depression
  • Excessive or chronic feelings of shame or guilt
  • Repressed anger
  • Creation of a secret life, often involving difficulty finding a way to make sense of, or be able to connect these different views of yourself
  • Difficulty with or automatically avoiding expressing genuine feelings
  • Feelings of being an imposter or always hiding your “true” self
  • Difficulties with intimacy and close friendships
  • Difficulties regarding sex
  • Perfectionism, often with strong self-criticism or feeling “not good enough”
  • Fear of public failures, however small
  • Patterns of putting others’ needs before your own, or of chronically delaying going after what you want
  • Inappropriate complacency or timidity; great difficulty in acting assertively for yourself
  • Chronic feelings of loneliness, isolation, or not fitting in
  • Judgementalism
  • Difficulties with directly seeking money or power, or with accepting attention or praise.

Larry Moen, LPC

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