Healing from Spiritual Abuse

The day after Thanksgiving can be difficult for many LGBT people. Holidays can bring up a flood of memories, good and bad. Reflecting on one’s year to identify places where one feels grateful can also lead to recalling some particularly painful moments. This year, we’ve been acutely aware of our own relationship with our church especially as it has developed while we’ve navigated various challenges around Sarah’s Meniere’s disease. We’ve dealt with a cascade of memories from previous pastors and churches where we’ve felt cast aside by Christians who have found us too inconvenient in one way or another. Many people of all sexual orientations and gender identities have experienced waves of sadness, despair, and despondency on the heels of spiritual mistreatment from members of their churches and/or members of their families. Because most people are off work and many are with family members who are not part of their daily lives, the day after Thanksgiving sometimes becomes a day of thinking through issues of spiritual abuse.

Let’s begin by acknowledging that spiritual abuse is a difficult topic for many. Every person’s experience is unique, both in kind and in degree. A defining feature of spiritual abuse is that a trusted spiritual guide conducts himself or herself in a way to control, coerce, and manipulate others. Depending on one’s spirituality, these guides can be formal leaders of churches, parents, older family members, or charismatic personalities. Mary DeMuth has an older post detailing 10 ways to spot spiritual abuse, and we think that her observations that purveyors of spiritual abuse distort views of respect and create a culture of fear and shame are especially on point. In today’s post, we’d like to talk about some specific ways we’ve been able to find some healing from spiritual abuse, recognizing that integrating our faith and our sexualities as LGBT Christians has been a significant part of our journeys.

Trusting our spiritual sensibilities. Spiritual abuse can be so dangerous because it’s all too easy for an abuser to cause a person to doubt his or her perceptions of the world. We’ve had to learn that despite what abusive people have told us, our spiritual sensibilities are reasonably accurate. When we find ourselves in places of wondering if something is abusive, there’s likely something to that wondering that needs further exploration.

Giving ourselves permission to take space away from abusive conversations, people, and environments. We’ve learned the importance of acknowledging toxicity. Taking some space allows us to get perspective on events, and we’ve cultivated a range of space-taking strategies. Some of our preferred space-taking strategies include changing the subject, talking with different people after services, visiting a different church within our Christian tradition, attending informal (or formal) retreats with people we trust, or choosing to stay home. Using space-taking strategies can help us get to the point where we can consider specific spiritual counsel against the broader teachings of our Christian tradition. Noticing places of contradiction and asking further questions can be a great way to deepen our own understanding of our Christian tradition while also countering possibly abusive counsel when we’re ready to reengage particular conversations.

Remembering that we have supportive friends in our communities. So many spiritually abusive people try to control situations through manipulating information and preventing people from checking in with one another. During seasons where we’ve felt as though we have been in communities that actively try to prevent friendship, we’ve learned to flee. Sometimes it’s better to end up seemingly alone for a bit than it is to continue in a place where every relationship is monitored. After feeling safe enough to lift up our heads, we’ve realized that we still have friends around us. During seasons when we feel spiritually isolated, we are so grateful to learn that we still have good friends who are willing to let us know when they are concerned about one or both of us spiritually, to talk with us about spiritual questions, and to offer counsel after we’ve asked for advice. We especially appreciate friends who can help us separate the wheat from the chaff in any given situation.

Finding therapists who respect our religious beliefs and tradition. We recognize that there’s a difference between what we can talk about with our friends and what we are better off discussing with a therapist. There’s no shame in saying, “I can’t get any perspective whatsoever in this situation, and I don’t know what to do next.” Awesome therapists are awesome because they understand the complex dynamics of abuse, guilt and shame and can help people see through the fog. When we look for therapists, we look for people who are knowledgable about our specific concerns and have capacity for building solid therapeutic relationships with us. We’ve found it more helpful to be upfront that we want therapists who respect our Christian tradition rather than seeking therapists who are part of our tradition.

Slowly relearning vulnerability. In all honesty, relearning vulnerability has been one of the hardest things to do. Spiritually abusive people seem to exploit vulnerability in just about every way possible. So many spiritually abusive environments mandate a “Tell all” approach that constantly causes people to cast pearls before swine. We’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on vulnerability and how vulnerability can draw us into relationships with others. It’s been important for both of us to take time to practice identifying our own needs and be selective with strategies to meet those needs. As we seek spiritual direction, we work actively to build relationships with potential spiritual directors where we feel confident that they understand a bit about why we feel called to our particular vocations and that they are willing to learn with us along the way.

Becoming aware that we have a role in educating others about our specific vocations. For us, a huge part of healing from spiritual abuse has involved appreciating how our experiences as LGBT Christians influence our vocational pathways. There are times when we feel strong enough and grounded enough to make a concerted effort to educate others about the relational lives of celibate LGBT Christians. We’ve accepted that many people don’t know much, if anything, about either celibate vocations or the process of discerning celibacy. We’ve also accepted that many straight Christians frequently do not know other LGBT people, even though that’s been changing rapidly. We found that reflecting regularly on celibacy and celibate partnership helps us answer questions that our spiritual directors might have about our vocations. Because of our own experience with spiritual abuse, we try hard to avoid educating other people about other vocations but we’re happy to share about our own vocations in a supportive environment.

Healing from spiritual abuse is a long-haul process. We’re still working through a number of concerns in our own lives that are both past and present. As always, we welcome any respectful discussion in our comment box!

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