Moving from Religious Trauma into Soul Healing, Part I

From Flowers Reborn, Deborah Cox St Clair, 2008

How do we turn religious trauma into deep emotional healing?

Religious trauma happens most often in movements that are fundamentalist in nature – or, “Strong Religion.” In my practice, I see adults who grew up scared of sinning and going to hell or disappointing God or being shunned for some infraction or bad thought. I call this early spiritual abuse and it affects every part of life . . . especially our relationships.

If you were raised in a movement that was fundamentalist or evangelical in nature, you probably experienced religious trauma . . . even if you don’t think of yourself as wounded or traumatized . . .

. . . and especially if you’re a woman.

Religious trauma occurs when a tradition, doctrine, or group . . .
  1. emphasizes the person’s inherent wrongness, sinfulness, or unworthiness
  2. focuses on controlling people’s sexuality
  3. teaches a literal hell or other kind of severe outcome that a deity will use to punish people who don’t follow particular creeds
  4. focuses on controlling people’s thoughts or emotions
  5. teaches the domination of one gender or cultural group and the subordination of another (no matter how benevolently described)
  6. teaches a person must follow a set of behavioral prescriptions or rituals in order to avoid condemnation by a higher power
  7. excommunicates, dis-fellowships, or shuns people for failure to adhere to some set of behavioral standards.

If your childhood religion did any of these things, you probably experienced some form of spiritual abuse.  Some would say that just growing up with the teaching of these ideas constitutes spiritual wounding . . . trauma to your spiritual self.

For more in-depth consideration of spiritual wounding, this article by Edward Kruk highlights earlier thoughts of Simone Weil on spiritual affliction as a form of slavery. More on this to come . . .

Replacing Old with New

This summer, let’s talk about transformation. We need real ideas for how to replace unhealthy old teachings (that got under our skin) with practices that promote healing, love, and peace . . . in other words, soul growth. Here’s a preliminary list. I’ll be back with more on each item in this list.

  1. meditation
  2. beauty
  3. diverse friendships
  4. energy work
  5. trauma therapy
  6. body work
  7. reading good fiction
  8. creating
  9. disobedience
  10. love

Again, please write with your ideas, suggestions, and stories. My novel, Wife Material, is based on my story.

Contact Deborah


“I’m not creative.” 17 Signs of Artistic Abuse

Artistic Abuse

What is artistic abuse? Creative expression heals. Everyone has an inner artist. When we nurture the inner artist, we heal. Artistic Abuse (or Neglect) is communication (direct or indirect) that discourages, shames, or minimizes a person’s creative self-expression. Artistic abuse affects us emotionally, spiritually, and physically.

Art saves lives . . . or at least makes them worth living.

But lots of us say, “I’m not creative.” We don’t get our hands into the clay because we’ve never done that. We say, “I’m tone deaf,” so we never take piano lessons. We limit ourselves to activities that can be counted or checked. Why? A long time ago, someone mistreated our inner artist and we shut it down out of self-preservation.

We Need Art Like We Need Water

We so profoundly need art that shutting it down is like smoking or eating only hot dogs. When schools eliminate  or downplay art and music, they send a message to children like, You don’t really need this . . . You can survive on hot dogs.

Julia Cameron writes extensively about how to recover from artistic wounding – and her work inspires me to think: children need their parents and teachers to feed them art. Children need their parents and teachers to value the artistic and give it a place of reverence in their lives.

So, as a parent or an adult child, allow yourself to go through the following list with an open mind. My novel, Wife Material, is all about coming to terms with artistic abuse. Only by looking at our past honestly can we revive our shut-down, wounded, inner artist.

You’ve probably been artistically abused or neglected if:

  1. Someone said, “You can’t sing (or write, or draw),” or, “You’ll never be very good.”
  2. Someone laughed at your early story-telling (not in a good way).
  3. You fear anyone seeing your paintings, reading your writing, or hearing your music.
  4. You feel intense shame about any artistic “failures.”
  5. You were told that art/music wasn’t a “real career.”
  6. You learned to view artistic expression as sinful, dangerous, or even selfish.
  7. You got punished for a disappointing performance.
  8. You got forced into artistic activities you didn’t want to do (I’m not talking about high school art class here).
  9. You felt exploited for an artistic talent (e.g., coerced to perform when you felt unsafe; used as a “show pony” to make someone else look good).
  10. Your artwork was intentionally destroyed or invaded by someone who knew (or should have known) you wanted to keep it safe and/or private.
  11. Someone ridiculed you for being artistic and suggested it made you less masculine.
  12. You learned to overvalue your business skills and mathematical ability and undervalue your poetry.
  13. You stop yourself from playing the piano because it feels like “a waste of time.”
  14. No one supported your learning a musical instrument in childhood – or your musical training was encouraged for a short time and then allowed to drop away.
  15. You were not taken to concerts or art museums. No one pointed out beautiful architecture or sound or literature.
  16. You stop yourself from reading fiction because it feels like “a waste of time.”
  17. Someone in authority ridiculed others (e.g., siblings, people on TV) who made music or expressed themselves artistically.

I’ll be back soon with steps you can take to recover from artistic abuse. For now, take a few minutes to journal about this. Then contact me if you’d like to explore further. I’d love to help you get started on your first work of art. Or read Wife Material to see if it inspires your own creative rebellion.

Contact Deborah Read Wife Material




Leap of Faith, II: Trust your Gut & Try Something New


You wake to your alarm, grab the phone to shut it off, and groan. You feel sort of depressed, sort of sick. You’d pay someone a thousand dollars if you could just stay in bed without facing consequences later. You force your body upright and swing your feet to the floor. You trudge to the bathroom. You shuffle to the kitchen, switch on the coffee pot, stand there in gloom as it starts to rattle and drip. You feel as if you’re in a straightjacket. You ache to do something opposite what you “have to do.” The obligations on your list feel like torture: meetings, paperwork, bills, deadlines, concentration, endurance . . .

When this happens, I believe it’s a signal from our higher selves (call this the subconscious, the conscience, God, your higher power, etc.) that we NEED something different. Those stirrings of discontent mean we’re trying to grow into our true selves.

Do you recall the last time you enjoyed yourself so much you forgot to eat? When you lost yourself in a project that made you ignore the phone and the email? When you woke up excited, bounded out of bed, and jumped right back in without even brushing your teeth? This is all about spirituality.

Remember art class in the second grade? When you could do anything you wanted with construction paper and glue and scissors? Some kids cut animal shapes, others made flowers, and still others made snowflakes by folding and cutting patterns. You looked at their crafts and thought to yourself, “That’s okay, but . . .” Maybe you chopped your paper into tiny bits and created a mosaic. Or perhaps you folded your paper, cut it, and glued it in just the right way to create a three-dimensional structure: a house, a barn, a skyscraper. While you worked on your project, you got a rush of adrenaline. The rest of the world faded into the background. You were at one with your art.

That part of you – the voice inside that says, “I can do better than that,” or “I have a crazy idea!” – is a sacred part. It’s a part that deserves your attention and protection. It has your best interest in mind. This sacred part of yourself calls you to listen and begs you to break out of your routine and find joy.

Here’s an exercise to help you listen to your wise inner voice and discover something that makes you giddy with excitement.

1. Find a time when you have solitude and privacy. Get out your notebook and pen. Get comfortable at a desk or in a chair. Prop your feet up if you can. Get a cup of tea or coffee.

2. At the top of an empty page, write this line: Things I Would Do Today (or This Week) if I Didn’t Have to Be Responsible.

3. Close your eyes and take several deep breaths. Notice the images that begin to flicker across your mental movie screen.

4. Now fill the page as fast as you can, without lifting your pen. Don’t worry about spelling, grammar, logic, or neatness. No one will see this but you. Keep writing . . .

5. When the page is full, read it silently. Then read it aloud.

What do you notice? What does your higher self-seem to be telling you about what you need? (Yes, NEED). To play the guitar? Learn to swing dance? Develop a web-based business? Run a marathon? Volunteer at your child’s school? Get out your paints and brushes and see what forms on the canvas? Get in your car and drive? Plant something in the backyard? Write a haiku?

Remember, these don’t have to make sense in the traditional way. These are beginning stages of alchemy. You are moving toward something good. Breaking out and finding joy . . . which sometimes leads to whole life change. Trust the process.

Life-Writing: Pain Into Art



How to Write about your Life and recover from Trauma

We all experience trauma: Big T and little t and all-points-in-between trauma. Relationships end. We fail at things. People die. We meet more people. Lessons get learned. And each life holds a unique story that could be a page-turner if mined deeply. We can write our troubles into beautiful prose if we choose.

Why bother? Some of you already love writing. It helps you take unformed thoughts and press them into beautiful sculptures of depth and meaning. Your childhood longings foreshadow your adult passions. Heartbreaks shed light on why you do what you do. Loose threads of confusing experience come together to form whole scenes with pattern and purpose.

For example, in my own Life-Writing, I discovered why the aesthetics of spirituality matter so much to me. Why I felt so drawn to the Church of England and the cathedral choir and the organ and the bells – and why I had always been such a snob about informal religious services and their repetitive songs and their rock bands and PowerPoint slides and impromptu speakers. This was not just Deborah’s shallow, judgmental side. It was me channeling my father’s complicated spirituality: both his yearning for depth and beauty – and his lifelong entrapment in fundamentalist religion.

And why not? I mean, it happened, right? The past is always going to be what it was. Not writing it serves no purpose. Not writing our lives only leaves the memories sitting in the proverbial attic gathering dust . . . when we could try on those old clothes, rifle through the trunks and scrapbooks of our earlier days and make new sense of them.

So, here’s how to start Life-Writing:

1. On notebook paper, make a list of important scenes from your life. Include the worst memories and the best. Leave space between each scene.

2. Cut your list, so that each scene is a small strip of paper.

3. Fold each scene strip several times and put all scenes together into a container with a lid. Shake the container. Set it aside. Take a nap.

4. Each morning, or each week, depending upon your writing schedule, remove a random strip from the container and write that scene as if you were writing a screenplay. Use as much sensory detail as possible.

After a few weeks, take a look at all your pages together. Do some more writing. Add scenes to your container as you think of them. Check your pages after a month.

What do you notice? Tell someone you trust – someone gentle and kind. If you have a favorite scene, allow that person to read it. Ask them to give you their honest reaction.

Set your scenes aside for a week and journal about them. Do they make you want to keep going? Do they inspire you to take a writing class, to refine your skills? Do they inspire you toward a goal? Just notice that.

And keep writing . . .