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

 

Still Recovering from Toxic Religion: Pass That Buick in Love

It’s OK to keep evolving.

Here’s a story about being inspired and suppressing it.

This morning I got behind a slow-moving Buick on a major thoroughfare. I encountered the same dark green Buick, ten minutes before, when I was crossing a downtown street. On foot, I got up close and looked inside at three senior women – all probably in their eighties, peering out the car windows as if thoroughly lost and overwhelmed by the traffic. Now, as I now rode behind them, they slowed and stopped at every side street.

I felt bad for them – they seemed lost and confused and I’ve been there myself many times. But I also chomped at the bit – just because the sun was shining and I wanted to sail down the street, unfettered, toward Mama Jean’s Famous Tuna Salad. I thought about passing, but then got a stab of guilt. Why? What’s wrong with blowing by the Buick with a smile and a wave?

This felt familiar: feeling inspired to race ahead into a sunny adventure whilst holding back, tucked behind someone who isn’t ready to race ahead. Then I thought . . .

Why do I still do this? Hold back, feeling guilt for wanting to pass someone or say ‘no-thank-you’ to an unwanted offer or avoid a conversation I know will drag me down . . . ?

I was raised to think other people’s feelings were more important than mine . . .

 . . . that I was selfish and arrogant if I needed to be my age or to just get the hell out of someplace that didn’t feel good.

I learned in my family, my church, my Church of Christ school, that if someone is upset by your behavior, that must mean you’re doing something wrong . . . and if someone feels inferior in relation to you, you should always modify yourself, so as not to offend.

While I’d love it if everyone felt warm and fuzzy, I just can’t make that happen and stay sane.

(Yes, I used to try.) Sometimes, we just want to drive a little faster. We get inspired and seek to create or take care of ourselves instead of prioritize someone else’s perceived needs. Be a selfish ten-year-old or a teenager with her own opinions. Grow into an actor or poet when our original life script says, “blend in and be quiet.”

Being inspired doesn’t make us arrogant.

It’s creativity . . . the Divine spark . . . at work in our lives, pressing us forward into growth.

It amazes me how lifelong is this process of getting free from toxic religion. I need a special 12-step group for this. But the Buick represents yet another layer to shed. A very co-dependent layer. My stifling won’t help anybody live better . . . or help them be inspired.

Pema Chodron says when she sees someone on TV who is suffering, she takes a breath, gives a nod of respect and love in their direction . . . a kind of brief meditation for their well-being. And then she resumes her day. If I apply this to my friends in the Buick, I can pass them with love.

Move far away to follow your dreams. Love someone  your parents don’t want you to love. End a relationship that drains your life force. Start a business, take a risk, or make a mistake. Surging forward into sunshine makes us evolve.

It’s okay to shed the guilt and go.

Contact Deborah

 

Affirmations for Healing Spiritual Abuse

 

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Spiritual abuse includes any kind of religious teaching or practice that diminishes your human rights, isolates you from the wider world, or systematically places you in positions of low power. I modeled these affirmations for healing spiritual abuse on those found in Jessica and Nick Ortner’s The Tapping Solution courses. Say them aloud or read them silently as you tap your body, gently, in a left-right-left-right motion: on the outsides of your knees, the outer edge of your eyes, your temples, your collarbone, and under your arms. You can also watch a tapping demo here.

  • Even though I have hurt places inside; and even though this old hurt causes me pain today; I love and accept myself.
  • Even though I still carry old hurt from my childhood; and even though I still feel this old hurt in my anxiety, my depression, my shame, my difficulty with relationships; I love and accept myself.
  • Even though old teaching made me feel I wasn’t good enough, I see goodness in me and I know I am enough.
  • Even though that old teaching made me feel shameful and unlovable, I now know I am good and lovable.
  • Even though the old message taught me not to make myself a priority, I now realize I need to first be aware of my feelings and my needs – so that I can care for myself. I now realize I must care for myself first.
  • Even though the old message made me feel insignificant, I now see that I matter.
  • Even though the old message taught me that I wasn’t inherently lovable, I now know that I am lovable. I deserve to be loved and nurtured.
  • And even though I still sometimes feel ashamed of my needs, ashamed of my feelings; I know that my need for love, touch, validation, rest, emotional expression, and understanding are an essential part of being alive.
  • I don’t always know what to do about the part of me that still hurts; I worry I will always have this pain; I wish I could be the person I’ve always wanted to be, but the fear and anxiety keep me stuck in old ways of seeing myself, stuck in old ways of feeling and moving about in the world.
  • Maybe I can let go of the fear.
  • Maybe I can trust my inner wisdom.
  • Maybe I already have the solution to all that old pain inside me.
  • I now open my awareness to Divine wisdom and love.
  • I open my awareness to who I really am.
  • Even though I’ve been so busy trying to be someone else’s version of me; I start to recognize my true self now.
  • My true inner self loves unconditionally.
  • My true inner self knows everything about me, and still loves me.
  • My true inner self knows what I’ve been through and understands my pain.
  • My true inner self helps me grow.
  • My true inner self connects me with Divine love, wisdom, and creation.
  • I accept my true inner self and I allow it to become more and more familiar to me.
  • Even though I haven’t always been in touch with this part of me, my true inner self keeps me company and nudges me toward higher consciousness and calm.
  • My true inner self helps me move toward greater awareness and creativity.
  • My true inner self understands me completely and knows the wisdom of every part of my life and being.

My novel, Wife Material, tells the story of one girl who exits spiritual abuse and says yes to her true inner self . . . which changes everything.

Read Wife Material

 

Abusive Religion or Political Party? Toxic Faith: Part II

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Toxic Faith & Political Abuse

Spiritual practice should calm and ground you – so you feel hopeful, refreshed, more generous, and more compassionate. Religion and philosophy should promote ever-increasing access to your wise mind or Higher Self. But some movements block connection with your inner wisdom by hammering a terrified, guilty, censoring, or rejecting message. This is spiritual abuse.

As I watched this year’s presidential conventions, I saw how toxic faith gets used by political groups. I realized that any movement, ideology, political campaign, or faith tradition that makes you afraid of the world, afraid of what lies ahead, afraid of change – of losing things as they are, is manipulating your good heart. This is political abuse.

Think about the ideas you’re being asked to support. Watch closely the interpersonal behavior of those at the helm. Allow yourself to notice: Who benefits most from this notion? If you were physically, sexually, or emotionally abused as a child, you become more vulnerable to being lured into abusive political or religious doctrines as an adult.

Here’s another short list of signs you’re in an abusive church or religion or campaign.

  1. You (or someone else) are physically hurt or threatened by a person in a power position.
  2. You (or someone else) are sexually approached by a person in a power position.
  3. Your intimate relationships are not respected by those in authority.
  4. You’re encouraged to only socialize or converse with those whose beliefs are the same as the group.
  5. You’re discouraged from consulting other sources (e.g., news venues, literature, holy scriptures) not endorsed by the group.
  6. You feel you can’t trust your own reason to help you discern truth.
  7. You feel you can’t make art – or you’re discouraged from trying art forms (e.g., dance, writing, sculpture).
  8. Meditation is not encouraged. Neither is solitude or quiet reflection.
  9. Your inner exploration stays invisible or unheard.
  10. You notice in-groups and out-groups that are not discussed openly.
  11. You’re afraid of what the elders say about you (or would, if they really knew you).
  12. You feel alienated from your higher power.

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The main reason I wrote Wife Material was to resist the tyranny of a church that tried to lay claim to my mind. I wanted it back. I desperately needed to mute the dogma in my head, so I could listen to my higher self.

Exercise for Re-establishing Contact with your Higher Self

Get out your notebook and a pen. Get comfortable. Write for five minutes on the following.

What makes me slightly uncomfortable about my church (or faith group or political party) is . . .

Set down your journal and do something else for a while. Later today, tell someone else what you wrote – anyone who will listen and not shame you.

I believe you can trust your deepest inner wisdom to guide your thoughts and choices.

Read Wife Material Contact Deborah

15 Signs of Religious Abuse: Toxic Faith, Part I

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How do I know if I’m in an abusive church?

Religious abuse keeps us quiet because of the beliefs that support it. In fact, if you have difficulty with your faith tradition or your church, you probably think it’s YOU with the problem – not the spiritual guidance you’re receiving.

I felt invisible, stupid, and scared as a girl in the Church of Christ.

My autobiographical novel, Wife Material, deals with the

crazy-making and gaslighting of spiritual abuse.

A person’s faith or religious community should make them calmer, wiser, and more connected (to their higher power and the people in their life). This short list of problems might help you determine if your religion could be having the opposite effect, making you sick instead of whole. The following apply just as easily to synagogue, mosque, prayer group, or drumming circle.

 

You might be experiencing religious abuse if . . .

  1. You feel worse about yourself after being at services.
  2. You have doubts or diverging opinions but feel afraid to express them.
  3. The lead clergy person ignores you – or, puts a lot of social pressure on you.
  4. The leaders criticize or guilt-trip you.
  5. You feel invaded by the practices of worship (e.g., “Reach out and hug the person next to you!”).
  6. The doctrine requires you to cut ties with family or friends and make yourself more available to the group.
  7. One gender is given privilege over another.
  8. Certain racial or cultural groups are devalued or given privilege over others.
  9. Child corporal punishment is condoned or encouraged.
  10. Certain people’s voices or views are privileged, to the exclusion of others.
  11. Your sexuality is scrutinized or labeled “deviant.”
  12. You feel voiceless, unimportant, crazy, sinful, or ashamed in relation to the group.
  13. You’re told how you should think, feel, vote, or handle your personal life.
  14. You’re continually asked to sacrifice your boundaries or self-care to further the agenda of the group.
  15. You’re pressured to share more personal information with the group than you feel comfortable sharing.

Consider writing down your reactions to this post. Also, Flora Slosson Wuellner’s book, Release, is a gentle starting guide for moving out of the dis-empowerment of religious wounding and into spiritual healing. I’ll be back soon with more signs and an exercise to clarify your basic faith from the toxic religion you’ve learned.

Read Wife Material

Dis-Fellowshipping: When People get Shunned

QUALCUNO HA PRESO IL PACCO, Luca Barberini, 2015

QUALCUNO HA PRESO IL PACCO, Luca Barberini, 2015

I have shunned and been shunned.

What leads me to turn my back? Repeated bullying or toxic behavior that takes a mental or physical toll. Abuse toward me or others, without acknowledgement of impact. It makes me sad, but out of self-preservation, I’ve sometimes hit the eject button.

On an individual level, we need to, mindfully, cut people out when they seem unwilling to stop hurting us. But what happens when a person is dis-fellowshipped or ostracized by their church? Rejected by an entire faith community? What dynamics call for excommunication? And what’s the impact?

I grew up in a fundamentalist church, the Church of Christ, that shunned or dis-fellowshipped people for a variety of perceived sins or doctrinal differences (disagreement meant heresy). The whole group refused to socialize with the person and they were officially “kicked out.” Most of the “sins” that got people thrown out of church were sexual in nature: divorce without the approval of the elders, an affair, sex outside marriage, being gay, and marrying after a divorce. The elders and deacons concerned themselves, in a big way, with our mating behavior, a big part of the story in my novel, Wife Material.

Effects of Shunning

Borders, Luca Barberini, 2016, http://lucabarberini.com/en/works/view/79/borders

Effects of Being Shunned

And the people who got dis-fellowshipped? I hope they spoke their minds to someone . . . or that they were having so much fun fornicating that they didn’t care two flips about the church. But I think most of them were deeply wounded and silenced by the experience. I know some of these people, personally. Their stories are trauma stories. They felt a kind of helpless, muted rage that had no resolution. They stopped trusting people – even themselves. They experienced condemned isolation.

Today, we know more than ever about the effects of being cut out, dis-fellowshipped, or ostracized – and they’re devastating. The effects of exclusion bear remarkable similarity to the effects of physical pain. Long-term impact of humiliation and loss of community includes hopelessness, rage, depression, inability to make decisions, loss of self-care, and even suicidal feelings. We humans need connection like we need water and air.

In their research compilation, Lowell Gaernter and Jonathan Iuzzini make the case that if a person feels extremely ostracized by a community or society, they are more at risk for violent behavior, even mass violence. Evidence suggests ostracism affects young brains by limiting cognitive ability. And even just recalling a past social shunning event creates extreme distress, affecting hormonal balance and the entire nervous system.

Think about this for a moment. I think the massive human brutality we’ve seen recently stems directly from social exclusion on a grand scale. Not just “mental health issues.” Not just “weapons in the wrong hands.” Not just religious differences or poverty or racial intolerance. Not just poor parenting or untreated PTSD. It comes from all those things. And all those things come from dis-fellowshipping, ostracism, and the shutting out of people at the margins. We can no longer afford to guard our borders as if they were real points of separation. When we reject and ignore the needs of people, send them packing if they see the world differently, we contribute to widespread despair that has no outlet, no solution, no hope.

So, here’s a challenge: LET’S PUT AN END TO DISFELLOWSHIPPING OF ALL KINDS. Are you in?

Wherever you are, consider the people in your orbit who are not well embraced by the group. What do they look like? How do they annoy or confuse? What happens to you in their presence? Can you make meaningful eye contact? Consider who they are and how they could be suffering at the edges of the community. Reach out to them. Look for areas of common interest and start there.

It matters how we treat each other.

Read Wife Material

What Does Freedom Look Like to You?

 

http://lucabarberini.com/en/works/view/56/revolution-16

Revolution 16, Luca Barberini, http://lucabarberini.com/en/works/view/56/revolution-16

We hear a lot about freedom from politicians and life coaches. But freedom seems a bit vapory to me. Freedom to, what, exactly? Last week, I started asking people, What does freedom look like to you?

Here are some of the answers people gave me.

  1. Having the ability and right to make decisions for myself.
  2. The ability to help myself and help others.
  3. Being without addictions.
  4. Being able to set boundaries with others.
  5. Listening to good music.
  6. Artistic expression.
  7. Being able to explore and change my views of the universe.

No one I asked mentioned weapons or money. They all described internal states and liberties. Freedom feels internal to me too. Truth. Beauty. Love. Things I have with me no matter where I am or who is in power. Things that cut across religious and cultural divides. I’m able to think fluidly, use my reason and intuition, my senses and hunches and emotions, to guide my behavior and beliefs. I can create loveliness with words or gum-wrappers. I can love others and feel their love coming back to me, even if we’re hundreds of miles apart. I have access to what’s inside. I’m not a slave to substances.

Writing to Get Freedom

For me, writing leads to freedom . . . especially writing about relationships, religious and spiritual oppression, bullying, domination, or abuse. As I dare to write my emotional truth, I explore the dark side of my human experience. I go through the slimy tunnel and out the other side. That’s where I find truth, beauty, and love as I experience them. One leads to the other. Writing the horror and the struggle clarifies the real questions to be answered, Who Am I? Why has this been my path? What have I learned from it? What’s my life’s curriculum?

Going through this process, I get more mentally free.

In the spirit of these questions, here’s an exercise. This might get you started on your own life-writing or social commentary. Get out your journal and pen and start writing. Give yourself five minutes on each question. Set a timer and be sure to stop when it dings.

  1. What do you absolutely have to have in your life, in order to be okay?
  2. Why do you think those are what’s necessary for you?
  3. What is your number one core belief about the universe?
  4. How did you develop that core belief?
  5. When do you feel most free?

Drop me a line. I’d love to hear from you.

Contact Deborah Read Wife Material

 

 

Book Review – Wife Material

The Cover of Deborah L Cox's Book - Wife MaterialSome in the 70s missed ERA and the end of Vietnam. Among them was Elizabeth Campbell, the heroine of Wife Material: A Novel of Misbehavior and Freedom. Cocooned from the larger world of feminism and anti-government rallies, Elizabeth was well-prepared for domestic rather than political action. Growing up in a small town and attending the church-related Waltham Academy and then the college, moving to Texas and through marriage, divorce and professional development, Elizabeth finds her way in life’s journey. Although drawn from one person’s experiences in the Church of Christ, Deborah Cox’s autobiographical fiction speaks to many who came of age in conservative communities and church life.

Readers will come alive with remembrances of the familiar – or with shock at the strange. Whichever it may be, their feelings should also include gratitude that Cox has rendered an account which needed to be told, with all its unsettling surprises about family, school and church; authority, marriage and independence; curiosity, wounds and caring. In short, Wife Material is about what it means to be human and living in the midst of challenging, overbearing, and sometimes abusive relationships. Cox tells the tale with neither anger nor shame—just poignant insights. Brava!

Etta Madden, author of “Damanhur: Sustaining Changes in an Intentional Community,” in Spiritual and Visionary Communities: Out to Save the World (Ashgate 2013).

I Must be a Bad Person: Recovering from Religious Abuse

Something tells me I’m a very bad person.

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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

 

On Losing Christian Fundamentalism…and my Fundie Facebook Page

I closed my original Facebook account…the one full of cousins and college roommates……the one full of Christian fundamentalism.

Two weeks ago. I’ve never felt better.

True confession: I created a new account before closing my old one. I began populating New Facebook with people from age twenty-four and beyond, which might mean you. For a while, the two accounts sat side-by-side. (Sorry, Facebook.)

In Old Facebook, a conglomeration of past and present, I constantly ran into people from my childhood. We knew each other in a fundamentalist religious community….a system that, for all its soul-saving intentions, did some serious damage in my life. That system inspired my new book, Wife Material.

Every time I scrolled through the news feed of Old Facebook, I felt depressed and anxious. I felt like the outsider I was/am. I saw the great gulf that separated my worldview from theirs. I felt waves of revulsion and sadness but could not figure out why. (They’re being nice, right?)

In New Facebook, I find neighbors I like, people building community, announcements for concerts and art shows and wine tastings. I feel connected to something larger and more real.

I avoided Old Facebook. I rarely posted my current activities. But if I logged in, I’d get mesmerized by the scrubbed joy and sparkling perfection of “friends” – some I’d experienced as judgmental and shallow. I couldn’t tear my eyes off the screen. How happy they were at Homecoming! How proud to take their own children to Christian college! How fulfilled in the Lord!

I kept scrolling while I split into two people: one of me, devouring and choking on the confusing scraps from their shared table (the one I could never find) – the other me, tugging us both back to reality. Deborah, you don’t have to eat off the floor anymore!

The denouement to my Old Facebook took place after I shared a post on gun control. I added fuel by overlaying the rainbow flag on my profile picture (In retrospect, I was asking for it.).

I received questions and thinly-veiled threats from college mates. “I’d be careful if I were you…waving flags!” Then, a groundswell: “Guns aren’t the problem! Parents should beat their kids more!” (I suppose as a deterrent to violence?). “My parents wore out my behind and I’m grateful they did.” Someone else said, “We don’t need gun control. We need parents to use the rod like God intended! My parents did and I’m a law-abiding gun owner!”

I snapped out of my trance, lunged for the delete key, and clicked madly: YES I’M SURE. YES, I WANT TO EXPUNGE THIS ACCOUNT. YES, I’M TOTALLY SURE. I KNOW I’LL LOSE EVERYTHING – YES, PLEASE!!!! GET RID OF THIS $#*&^@ THING FOR ME!

Now, for some grieving and grappling. The cloud of childhood censorship is gone. But can a recovering fundamentalist-girl really share publicly about her faith and reason? What if people get mad?

Ah, okay. I get it. Now, I’m free to find out. Now, the real growth begins…

For more about losing my religion and healthy rebellion, visit these posts:

Contact Deborah