Spiritual abuse may be defined as injury to or mistreatment of the soul, of the deepest and most intimate aspects of a person’s being.
Spiritual abuse often results when a human being sets himself or herself up as a kind of selfish “god” in another person’s life, treating that person as an object that must be manipulated to serve the “god’s” needs, agendas, and goals.
Deception lies at the heart of all forms of spiritual abuse. Therefore, spiritually abused individuals often do not identify themselves as such. Instead, they tend to blame themselves. They may, for example, view themselves as “failures” or “abandoned by God.”
- Determining who is trustworthy and who is not.
- Learning how to safely open up to those who are trustworthy.
- Learning how to assertively set limits on others, particularly those who may not be trustworthy.
Principle One: Each dimension of trustworthiness exists on a continuum.
Principle Two: Don’t expect everybody to be trustworthy on all dimensions.
- People to talk with. Those who have been injured in their souls often need to vent. They need to talk about betrayal, exploitation, injustice, anger, fear, depression. They may need advice and help. But often what they first need is a sympathetic ear.
- Companionship. Abused persons also need to simply relax and enjoy the company of others. ICSA, which began SSHN, has run workshops for former members of cultic groups for more than 20 years. A vital part of the workshop is the socializing and fun that occurs during meals and in the evening, when participants let go of “heavy” talk and have fun with others who understand the special situation of the spiritually abused.
- Information. Frequently, people who were abused need to understand how something or someone that at first seemed so wonderful turned out to be so horrible. They need to understand how to respond constructively to the painful memories that sometimes innocuous experiences can trigger. They may also need information on practical concerns, such as getting housing assistance.
- Hope. Abusers gain power over their victims by making them feel dependent and inadequate. An ethical psychotherapist tries to help clients get to a point where they no longer need the therapist’s help. A manipulative abuser, on the other hand, tries to induce a permanent dependency, often in the name of “love.” Abusers claim to define the identity of those they seek to control. When individuals leave abusive situations, their self-confidence is often at rock bottom. They need hope that they can make their futures much better than their presents, that they, rather than someone else, can answer the question, “Who am I?” Family and friends can be vital in building hope. Ethical, competent counselors can also be extremely useful.
Principle Three: People who lack the maturity that is part of trustworthiness tend not to respect boundaries and may take offense or resort to “guilt trips” if a person wants some “space.” When somebody tells you that you “ought” to trust (implying that there is something wrong with you if you don’t), be wary. Trustworthy people will let you have your space, will respect your need to hold back, and will not take offense at your hesitancy.
Principle Four. Trust is assessed through the observation of actions over time. Trustworthy people realize this and do not take offense if you respectfully keep a bit of emotional distance.
Since evaluating a person’s trustworthiness takes time, it is easiest to assess the trustworthiness of people you have known a long time: family and friends. Keep Principle Two in mind, however. If you have come out of an abusive situation and have needs as described above, you may have to turn to different friends and family members for different kinds of support. One person might be a patient listener when you need to vent. Another one might help you collect and analyze information. Still another might have an infectious optimism that strengthens your hope.
Whether your challenge is to open up or to set limits, you must communicate with people.
The fundamental principal of human communication is:
The message intended is not necessarily the message received.
An intended message can become distorted when:
- The sender does not accurately articulate what he/she wants to say. (“That isn’t what I meant to say.”)
- The recipient has certain expectations or prejudices that predispose him/her to hear only those portions of a message that are expected or anticipated (“He only hears what he wants to hear.”)
- The recipient does not interpret the message’s words in the same way as the sender. “So you’re saying X.” “No, I’m not!”)
Principal One: When there is conflict in a communication, consider carefully the possibility that the communicating parties may not be receiving the messages that are intended.Principal Two: Treat your interpretations of messages sent to you as hypotheses, not facts. Find out if your interpretation corresponds to the intent of the message by paraphrasing the message or asking for clarification or confirmation, e.g., “Am I correct in thinking that you are saying xxx?”Principal Three: It is easier to open up to somebody you understand than to somebody you don’t understand. Therefore, try to understand what others are intending to say. And don’t be afraid or embarrassed to ask others to paraphrase what you say to make sure that they understand what you intended to say.
Principal Four: Build relationships on what you have in common, and accept your differences. And remember that everybody differs in some way.
For some the wall is high and thick; for others it is low and thin. Ironically, the former often have only one wall, whereas the latter have multiple walls, each forming a kind of ring around the innermost self.
The one-wall person has two levels of trust: Another person is either “out” or “in,” not trustworthy or trustworthy.
Individuals with smaller, but numerous concentric walls, on the other hand, have many levels of trust. They use concentric walls to control how close others are allowed to come. Such persons clearly distinguish, for example, between casual contact, friendliness, friendship, close friendship, and intimacy. People have to gradually EARN their way to such a person’s inner self.
When abused persons realize what has happened to them, they tend to feel betrayed. When they leave the abusive situation, it is natural for them to build a high, thick wall around themselves.
If abused persons understand how they were manipulated and exploited (see the point above about gaining self-trust through education), they will realize that they need to differentiate their self-boundaries, that is, to have many levels of trust: for example, “intimate, close friend, friend, friendly, casual.” Having such self-differentiation implies two additional principals.
Principal Five: Let other people get close to you by demonstrating their trustworthiness through a series of gradual steps.Principal Six: Be wary of people who try to get too close too soon. Mature individuals understand and respect the concept of personal boundaries; they do not expect to become “good friends” quickly.
Self-assertion is NOT aggression or belligerence. Self-assertion is NOT domination of another person. Self-assertion IS the affirmation of oneself.
Self-assertion is the honest expression of what one believes or feels, done in a way that respects the other person’s right to agree or disagree, accept or reject.
Self-assertion does NOT require that one justify one’s actions, merely that one expresses one’s choice.
Manipulators always have hope so long as they can keep a conversation going. Practice with telemarketers. If you answer their questions (“Don’t you want to save money?”), you’ll find that they are encouraged to continue asking questions designed to get you to say what they want you to say (usually some form of “I’ll buy it”!). However, next time a telemarketer calls, say simply, “I’m not interested.” When he/she comes back with something such as, “Do you want to spend money that you don’t have to,” say once again, “I’m not interested.” Continue saying “I’m not interested,” and within a few sentences, the telemarketer will hang up (if not, you can hang up). You don’t have to be rude, belligerent, or aggressive. Merely calmly state and re-state your position, namely, that you’re not interested, without feeling obligated to justify your choice. By refusing to engage in a conversation, you deny manipulators “angles’ that they can exploit to move you in the direction that serves their needs and goals, rather than yours.
Principal Seven: You do not have to justify your choices, especially to people who do not seem trustworthy!
Cialdini, Robert. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.
Alberti, Robert & Emmons, Michael. Your Perfect Right: Assertiveness and Equality in Your Life and Relationships.
If you have been spiritually abused, these books will give you conceptual tools that will help you defend yourself against manipulators.
The Spiritual Safe Haven Project seeks to help churches and other organizations be “safe havens” for the spiritually abused. However, even people with the best of intentions can sometimes have personal “issues” that cause them to behave inappropriately.
No environment will ever be 100% safe for those who have been spiritually abused. Therefore, prepare yourself to deal with the problems that some people present to you. Then you can benefit from the opportunities and gifts that others offer to you.
Michael D. Langone, PhD