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 Must be a Bad Person: Recovering from Religious Abuse

Something tells me I’m a very bad person.



Under the bridge…..beneath, “It’s my fault,” lives a more troubling idea…It hides in us like a troll under a bridge. Anyone who’s survived religious abuse knows the old thought-training dies hard.

Jim teaches art to high-schoolers. He lives with his wife of thirty years – the wife who mothered their four children. He never admits being gay, but he says he once had a “sexual problem involving other men.”

Jim was raised Church of Christ. When he tells me this, I feel a rush of heat and emotion because I, too, was raised Church of Christ. I know what this means. Religious abuse trains our own thoughts to condemn us for growing up. Religious abuse teaches us to fear our own bodies, thoughts, feelings, and needs.

We meet because of Jim’s panic attacks, which have resurfaced after 20 years of dormancy. He has them at the oddest times: once, on the highway in his Toyota, another dozen times at home, doing nothing in particular.

Jim tells me his father hit him with a belt for, “saying my thoughts out loud.” Sex was completely ignored in his fundamentalist family and his parents led a Bible study group on the evils of homosexuality.

I call this spiritual/religious abuse. I call this sadistic parenting. I call this major childhood trauma. I suggest Jim has PTSD. We start EMDR therapy. I ask Jim about his worst memories. He says, “My father barging in on me in the bathroom and beating me in the shower with his belt.”

I say, “Let’s go with that.”

Through the EMDR process, Jim shares a series of negative beliefs that come with the memory.

  • It’s my fault.
  • I’m a bad person.
  • My body is shameful/bad.

EMDR allows Jim to integrate the old guilt and reflexive, automatic, child-brain thoughts with newer, adult-brain information.

  • I am basically good.
  • I do the best I can.
  • My body is normal/okay.
  • My kids love me.
  • I’m a good teacher.

Jim releases a flood of boyhood tears. His body relaxes. This takes about four sessions. I see his face change. I see his posture change. He gets taller. He tells me he’s painting again. After another four weeks, he is clear of panic symptoms.

“I’m freer now. I can simply be angry and sad about my past.” Jim no longer has to throw a tarp over his true feelings just because they are unsightly to his family.

He still has some emotional work ahead of him. Jim has to grapple with the fact that he has never been free to be truly himself – that he’s pretended to be hetero to protect himself from his father, their church, the elders, the larger culture that surrounded it all. Jim and his wife will need couples counseling to cut through the invisible fence of secrets that has stood between them and mystified them both. Who knows where this will lead….?

But at least the secrets can be unpacked and he knows they’re not his fault. Free of this blame, Jim has emotional options that didn’t exist last year. As he talks honestly with his wife, his depression lifts. Many tears are shed, but windows of possibility open to the sky. There is life after truth-telling: life after PTSD and loneliness and despair.

I ask him what he believes about himself. He says, “I’m loved.” He says, “I’m okay.” He says, “I’m growing.”

My novel, Wife Material, is also a story about religious/spiritual abuse. Call me if you’d like to talk about this kind of trauma or learn about how EMDR therapy can help you heal from it.

Contact Deborah


Nonviolent Parenting: 10 Reasons to Avoid Corporal Punishment

Okay, I need to talk about something that really pisses me off.

“I got spanked and I turned out just fine.”

People who say this, in defense of old school parenting advice, usually prove my point, cluelessly. They hold a tight little view of the world. They stay unaware of their deeper emotions. They resent people who seem to have an easier life. They never address the humiliation or fear that was caused by their own punishment as children. So, they must defend the practices of their parents or risk feeling all the devastation they actually experienced so long ago.

We know more than ever before about how children develop and what they need. If you follow my blog, you probably have more mindful parenting methods than to hit or slap or shove. You probably already know how damaging it is to a child’s sense of self to be humiliated and made to feel pain by you.

At any rate, I hope you’ll keep this list handy to give to friends or family who may not yet understand the dynamics of child abuse or child corporal punishment (CP).

Good Reasons to Avoid CP

  1. Your child won’t learn to be afraid of you. (So, you won’t have to sense their dread when you enter a room or come home from work.) This protects the parent-child relationship.
  2. They won’t learn their body can or should be made to feel pain by someone who is also supposed to love them. (This pays off in their later selection of a mate who does not try to dominate them with physical bullying.)
  3. They can learn to solve problems in other ways besides aggression. (…..Such as, talking it through, mutual understanding, etc.)
  4. They can learn to trust you and be close to you without tension or hypervigilance. (This will come in handy someday when you are old and they need to care for you.)
  5. They will learn creative discipline from you – and pass this along to their children. (And you will watch the next generation evolve into more loving, more creative beings.)
  6. They are less likely to be depressed or anxious as adults.
  7. They will have greater cognitive freedom and flexibility.
  8. They won’t have to associate pain with love. (Have you ever wondered where sadomasochism comes from?)
  9. Their sexuality will be protected. (Remember, the buttocks are an erogenous zone. Remember, corporal punishment can be a form of sexual abuse, whether or not the child’s clothing is removed.)
  10. They will get to see you, their parent, struggling with your own frustration, demonstrating the sometimes difficult process of expressing it verbally, and arriving at more productive ways to set limits. They will get to see you as a real human person – accessible to them, imperfect, yet loving and aware of the impact you have on them.

Pretty good deal, huh? I think so too. It doesn’t work anyway.

Contact Deborah