August 29, 2019

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Haley Jakobson

Everything You Need To Know About: Religious Trauma

Religious trauma is real and pervasive, leaving many people feeling paralyzed and full of shame, and it is important that our community know that there are tools to begin to unpack it and wonderful therapists who are able to support that process.

I wasn’t raised religious. But, when I was 20, I found yoga, and for the first time began to consider myself a spiritual person. I took bits and pieces of the yoga sutras that I loved, explored prayer, and felt connected to my own version of a higher power. And then I went to yoga teacher training.

My Spiritual Trauma

It’s a long story, but the jist of what happened is this: I was made to believe that I could be saved if I committed fully and solely to an eastern spiritual practice and give up everything I had known before. Within that, there were judgements of traditions I loved, personality traits I had previously championed in myself, and an expectation that I should “give up” my identity. I had never felt so lonely and lost.

It wasn’t the books or the practice that was telling me these things, but a specific teacher who was taking advantage of my youth and my passion for yoga, and who was using spirituality as a tool to manipulate me.

For the first time in my life, I was having a spiritual crisis. In the months that followed, I spiraled into a deep depressive episode. It took nearly a year of therapy to even admit what had happened in that training, and much effort to dissolve the layers of shame around it before I could finally dive into all the reasons why this experience was so painful to me. Without therapy, I might still be in that place of intense shame and crisis, and I am so grateful for the help that I got in the wake of that trauma.

Religious trauma is real and pervasive, leaving many people feeling paralyzed and full of shame, and it is important that our community know that there are tools to begin to unpack it and wonderful therapists who are able to support that process.

We gathered your burning (lol, topical) questions on Instagram and got answers from three of our MyWellbeing therapists who all specialize in religious and spiritual trauma.

When looking for your therapy match, it’s important that you feel your therapist can help you unpack your particular upbringing and experiences - and religion and spirituality can be a big part of that! If you’re in NYC and any of the therapists in this article resonate with you, you can tap on their names at any point and check out their profile. Who knows, they might be your perfect match! And if you’ve been thinking about starting therapy and want our team to do the matchmaking for you, head over to our questionnaire and begin the process for free!

I spoke with MWB therapist Shimmy Feintuch, who has many patients that come to unpack their experiences with religion and spirituality. Shimmy and I noted that, while a lot of the questions we received referenced Christianity and Catholicism, these can apply to many kinds of faith.

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1. What is religious trauma and spiritual trauma?

“I think about trauma as a loss of safety or security. That can come from something horrific happening, but it can also come from anything that impacts someone’s ability to feel safe or secure. If someone grows up with the idea that if you do X,Y, and Z, you’re going to hell, for some people there is a real loss of the sense that they are okay. Not everyone has that.” - Shimmy Feintuch

Shimmy went on to talk a bit about “trauma resilience,” which is a study that revealed that not everyone is impacted by the same trauma in the same way.

I also spoke with therapist Sheri Heller who specializes in treating complex trauma, addictive disorders, survivors of narcissistic abuse in addition to religious and spiritual trauma.

“Religious or spiritual trauma is a form of psychological abuse and brainwashing that inculcates the shameful message that we are sinful and must live in a constant state of penance and atonement to escape the ravages of hell and God’s punishment. This kind of fall-redemption theology uses fear to ensure dominance and control. Essentially it sets up Stockholm syndrome with the spiritual/religious leader and with one’s idea of God.” - Sheri Heller

Therapist Estee Hirsch, who often works with LGBTQ+ folks and individuals who are struggling after leaving insular communities, also weighed in on this question:

“The isolation one experiences as a result of not fitting in and not being accepted/respected by those around them is one of the deepest religious/spiritual traumas for people to navigate and work through. Many of my patients talk about the pain and suffering they experience, or have experienced, as a result of living a secret life, feeling they could not be honest about who they are with the people closest to them.” - Estee Hirsch

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2. Is it better to find a non-Christian therapist as someone who is still Christian but has religious trauma?

“What matters is finding a therapist who can assist with teasing out the traumatic religious indoctrination from what resonates for you spiritually. This might be a clinician from a similar religious background, a person who specializes in cult abuse, a complex trauma therapist, or a therapist versed in various religious and spiritual traditions.” - Sheri Heller

“This is a great question! I believe the answer is a matter of personal preference. I have had people I work with say that they could not imagine having a therapist who doesn’t understand the nuances of their religious experiences while other people have spoken about feeling safer with someone who isn’t connected to their religion.” - Estee Hirsch

“In my opinion, it’s not as important to have a therapist who has gone through the same thing as you, as it is someone who can understand you. Trust your gut.” - Shimmy Feintuch

3. How do you find a therapist who will actually do a good job with spiritual/religious trauma? I worry they won’t understand my spiritual experiences let alone the issues I underwent because of faith + sexuality.

“Spiritual/religious trauma impacts one’s world view. It is important to work with a therapist who can hold a space for your beliefs (spiritual and secular) and who understands the machinations of mind control and cult indoctrination. It’s also critical to work with a therapist who can differentiate religious/spiritual abuse from the life affirming drive to explore one’s connection to Spirit.” - Sheri Heller

“I think it is best to have an initial consultation with any therapist you are thinking about working with because there is so much that goes into what will make someone a good fit for you. I believe the feeling of safety is most important in one’s treatment and that an initial consultation will allow you to ascertain if you will feel comfortable working with the therapist you are meeting.” - Estee Hirsch

4. How do you release deep feelings of shame/guilt regarding sex and desire from a Catholic upbringing?

“Undoing a religious indoctrination that designates you a sinner due to sexual orientation and/or desire requires you to challenge the basic theological teachings and to critically examine signs of hypocrisy and even malevolence. Dismantling a belief system is a fundamental step in arriving at what is real (ie- the sexual abuse scandal in the catholic church and its history of protecting pedophiles of the cloth reveals hypocrisy and moral depravity) and what you personally hold as true and moral. Although there may be much to shed and heal from, there may be some dogma and/or rituals that hold personal meaning for you. Discerning what supports your personal relationship with God is essential to your healing, once you work through the rage and grief.” - Sheri Heller

“This is a difficult question to answer and something that comes up very often with the people I work with. There is so much shame and guilt surrounding sex, not only in religion but also in our society. This shame and guilt must be processed in a safe and non-judgmental environment before any internal feelings can shift.  While this process can be done with someone in your life whom you feel close with, oftentimes therapy is the only place people feel comfortable enough to talk through the difficult thoughts and emotions surrounding their sexuality.” - Estee Hirsch

“I think a lot of it is about education, and learning that desires are normal. We’re human beings - we have desires for sex, and love, for money, for food, you fill in the blank. Talking about it in group therapy can help, sometimes just reading other people’s writing on the subject can help normalize it. Asking yourself “why are there so many movies about sex if no one wants to have sex?” But when there is deeper shame and guilt, then that is something that needs to be a part of therapy. Shame is related to self-esteem, so if I feel that I am “bad” because I desire sex, then that tells me there is something in me that is in need of fixing.” - Shimmy Feintuch

5. Why can’t some people have confidence in not having a faith or spirituality?

“For many religious people faith and spirituality is the foundational bedrock of their lives. Religion is something people believe strongly in and it provides community, meaning and purpose to their lives.” - Estee Hirsch

6. How do I heal when I don’t know the exact cause of my religious trauma?

“A therapist can help you explore the source of your pain by doing a thorough psycho-social assessment. Uncovering patterns from your past and how they may be converging with present circumstances will lend itself to mapping out a cohesive narrative. Also, a therapist skilled in religious/spiritual abuse will be able to identify gaslighting and other ambient/covert forms of abuse such as virtue-signaling. Cognitive dissonance is a common response to ongoing psychological abuse, especially when perpetrated in a large group context.” - Sheri Heller

“A large part of healing happens on a relational level between the therapist and patient. Many people heal from their developmental trauma without addressing a specific moment or trauma in their past. This level of healing often happens through people feeling deeply understood and heard by another.”- Estee Hirsch

“I tell my clients that I view myself as a guide, but that they are the experts on themselves. I may say “hey, why don’t we do some digging over here,” but you’re going to be the one who says “oh, this is actually what resonates with me, not that.” - Shimmy Feintuch

7. I was raised super religious and have never been able to climax. Is this mental or physical?

“The body and the mind work together. When sexual arousal is deemed abhorrent to God, the mind and the body might reject receiving pleasure. If sexual abuse occurred either by clergy or by family members, the abused child is susceptible to believing that it is his/her inherent defect/sin that was responsible for the abuse.” - Sheri Heller

“It is important to go to a doctor to rule out anything physical. That being said, for many of my patients who come from religious backgrounds the inability to climax stems from a deep feeling of guilt and shame that has been internalized through the values placed on them during their upbringing.” - Estee Hirsch

8. It is normal to have issues with repressing your sexuality because of religion?

“Religion unto itself is not sexually repressive. There are thousands of theological paths. Any form of extremist ideology or rigidity will promulgate depraved behavior, as what is contemptuously denied and repressed will be acted out in destructive ways.” - Sheri Heller

“Yes! Oh my! In most religious schools there is almost no sex education. If you’ve had no sex education, how are you supposed to develop any kind of healthy sensuality? It’s like if I gave you a very complicated toy and told you to figure it out without an instruction manual. And if the church is saying that sex is bad, masturbation is bad pre-marital sex is bad, desire is bad, people are just going to tell themselves that they are bad.

I then followed up with Shimmy and asked him how that he would talk to a queer patient with this question:

“Well then we talk about compacting shame. If sex is bad, and wanting to have sex with someone with the same gender is bad, which the bible calls an abomination, how could someone who is gay not internalize that? Without really good coaching and strong boundaries and resilience, it’s impossible for someone to grow up in that environment and feel okay with themselves.” - Shimmy Feintuch

Shimmy and I also talked about going to the root of things, and how he would love the opportunity to educate religious readers about religious trauma. He then added: “They need to ask themselves how their words are being received.”

9. How do I regain faith in life and its order if I have been repeatedly disillusioned by many spiritual traditions?

“Perhaps becoming a solitary practitioner is a safer path if one’s disillusionment is rooted in disturbing community dynamics. If the teachings themselves don’t align with what feels right for you, then ascribe to what does afford you meaning. Perhaps life affirming pursuits such as music, fine arts, science, nature, etc. are restorative and can offer healing and vitality.” - Sheri Heller

10. How do you navigate resentfulness towards your parents being indoctrinated?

“Self-protection is key to untangling resentments. If you are caught up in feeling threatened by your parents religious indoctrination then establishing healthy limits and boundaries is warranted. If they are unable to abide by your conditions then you may need to explore limited contact.” - Sheri Heller

“Resentment one feels towards others often stems from a wish to change the other. In this instance the resentment you feel may be a result of anger felt towards your parents for not being the parental figures you wanted for yourself. To work through this in treatment people have to allow themselves to mourn the ideal parents they never had while also working on accepting the parents they have along with their imperfections.”  - Estee Hirsch

11. What are tools you can use to recognize what are your morals vs the ones your religion taught?

“Take the time and space you need to think about your personal values independently of what you were told was right and wrong by others. This will allow you to begin to create your own moral compass, one that feels authentic for you.” - Estee Hirsch

“Establishing personal ethics necessitates dismantling the blind obedience that abusive religions demand. While you are in the throes of working through traumatic wounds, reading literature that pertains to ethics and morality can be very helpful. Identifying thought leaders and historical figures that inspire ethical and moral conduct is also helpful with recognizing what speaks to your humanity.” - Sheri Heller

12. How can you spot where your personality ends and your indoctrination begins?

“Returning to one’s essence requires tremendous excavation so that the grief and rage from the psychological abuse and brainwashing can be discharged and assimilated into your personality. Dismantling programming is a critical part of reclaiming one’s authenticity. One must let go of what was ‘false’ in order to discover the truth of who one is. This will require a courageous process of taking risks with discovering what and who inspires you.” - Sheri Heller

13. How can you heal from parents who hate your gayness based on religion and who keep you away from your sister because of it?

“Being banished and abandoned by your family for simply being who you are is a terrible betrayal and it results in deep core traumatic wounds. Ruptures in trust, abandonment fears, traumatic loneliness, and alienation are part and parcel to the plight of the adult child who is 'ousted from the fold’. Healing will require a lengthy process of working through complex trauma issues with a trusted clinician and rebuilding one’s life outside of the family system.” - Estee Hirsch

14. Can you ever really heal your religious trauma or spiritual trauma?

“Yes, but there is no set formula as to how long that can take and it is not necessarily a linear process. Nor are all things reparative. There are so many variables to consider, such as chronicity of abuse, age of onset, severity of abuse and one’s constitution.” - Sheri Heller

“Your history will always be a part of you and it will inform the person you are today; but by working through your trauma you can create space within yourself for more empathy and understanding.” - Estee Hirsch

15. How do I let go of resenting religious people because a few religious people hurt me?

“It’s important to not become what we hate. The process of healing necessitates differentiating the past from the present and cultivating acceptance and perspective. This process will assist with not succumbing to generalities about all people who in some way resemble your abuser(s).” -

16. How do I understand and cope with a spiritual void/identity crisis after unexplainable tragedy?

“Our basic humanity makes us doubt our faith. Trauma incites suffering and survival fears which challenge our belief in a benign orderly cosmos. Our whole world, and hence who we are may feel shattered. Spiritually this ‘dark night of the soul’ may be an excruciating descent into darkness that will eventually lead to transformation. Creating meaning out of this pain is a necessary part of rebuilding self and faith.” - Sheri Heller

17. Most of my anxiety comes from questions no humans can answer. I was raised by conflicting ideologies so I just immerse myself in my ambition and ignore the big questions. Is this not good?

“The big questions have to be grappled with. The mystery of life and what exists beyond life as we know it is integral to our very existence. We have to learn to live in the unknown and to also define our relationship to the esoteric. That begins with knowing the self. Throwing the ‘baby out with the bath water’ because you were hurt and confused by an abusive ideology, denies you the right to formulate answers that enhance your understanding of who you are and your relationship to life and beyond.” - Sheri Heller

I try to stay away from categorizing a person’s way of being in the world as “good” or “not good.” As a therapist I would be curious about the deeper reasons you stay away from questions that don’t have clear answers. I think something valuable to wonder about in this instance is your anxiety that stems from ambiguity. - Estee Hirsch

18. What is a good way to decline church invites and calm the trauma responses they cause?

“If you are activated then your body is alerting you to danger…perceived or real. If a church invitation is triggering you then you have not yet fully individuated from the source of abuse. Your fight/flight reaction suggests you fear that the threat will usurp your agency. Use grounding tools to return to a safe space. Once your limbic system is settled craft a cordial decline to send out through email or snail mail.” - Sheri Heller

19. How do I get rid of Catholic guilt?

“We’re talking about an extensive indoctrination that requires you to developmentally rebel in order to separate and individuate. Unhealthy systems don’t allow for autonomy. Taking back your right to be autonomous is the foundation to establishing what you choose and choose not to believe.”  - Sheri Heller

20. Are there healthy ways to remain friendly with people that still are in the institution that caused me so much pain?

“Bargaining or negotiating with abuse is not conducive to healing or well-being. If folks are entrenched in a cultish system that encourages hate and judgment, they may not be safe for you to engage with. If you must have contact keep it succinct, civil and shallow.” - Sheri Heller

“There’s an exercise that I do: put your left hand a few inches in front of your gut, floating, palm facing towards you. Then put your right hand straight out in front of you, palm facing out, as if you’re telling someone to stop. These are boundaries. The left hand is how much we share with people, and we can choose when we open that up to have them share with us. Imagine swinging that left palm open. And with the right hand, you can rotate it upward, accepting their words, or we can let it bounce off our hand and tell them to stop. It’s about learning how to draw a line between our emotions and thoughts and feelings and other people’s emotions and thoughts and feelings. Learning how to say “no” in our minds to the words that people are saying.” - Shimmy Feintuch

21. What are the warning signs that someone on the spiritual path is showing signs of narcissism?

“Spiritual narcissists virtue signal (do seemingly altruistic acts to acquire supply), grandstand and offer unsolicited advice and support. They are grandiose in their overtures about their ’specialness’ and their ’special’ connection to God. Look out for the conspicuous assertion of moral values and philanthropic activities. This type of grandstanding is designed to ensure a (false) sense of security and glean admiration and trust.” - Sheri Heller

22. I confronted a friend in the yoga/spiritual world whose behavior was bothering me, and she responded by saying I was affected because a part of me hasn’t been healed yet. How do I respond to this?

“You respond based on what you know to be true and not true. Only you can determine what the basis for your feelings are. It is manipulative for someone to dictate your reality by suggesting you were bothered by their behavior because you’re unhealed. Not a very compassionate or spiritual response!” - Sheri Heller

23. What is spiritual bypassing?

“The spiritual bypass involves the reliance on sanctifying rituals and beliefs so as to avoid being accountable for one’s actions and for feeling ones pain. Focusing on the ‘light’ to the exclusion of ‘darkness’ is a fundamentalist New Age tenet that feeds an egomaniacal belief that we have God-like powers. It suggests we can bypass human suffering and human fallibility and latch onto sacred bliss and fantasies of unlimited abundance. Spiritual bypassing contends that one can reach ‘enlightenment’ by denouncing human fallibility and struggle.” - Sheri Heller

We hope this article was helpful for y’all to read, and answered some of your own questions on religious trauma.  No matter what you’re unpacking, My Wellbeing wants you to know that you deserve the support you need to feel grounded, safe, and present in your life.

In the years since my experience of spiritual trauma my therapist has helped me find my own definition of spirituality and what it looks like for me. I no longer subscribe to the doctrines of “gurus” in the mindfulness world, but instead have created an individual practice that feels good to me. I have also met many people who, after going through their own healing, still partake in religious traditions that feel comfy for them. Faith can be a profoundly beautiful and healing thing, and our team at MWB celebrates and honors religion and spirituality in all walks of life.

A huge thank you to our My Wellbeing practitioners for their thoughtful answers: Sheri Heller, Estee Hirsch, and Shimmy Feintuch. Interested in contacting one of these therapists? Simply click their name to check out their MWB profile!

If you’d like to submit an idea for our “Everything You Need To Know” series, or ask questions for upcoming articles, follow us on @findmywellbeing and be on the look-out for our Q+A series in our stories. You can also DM us with article ideas!

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About the author

Haley Jakobson is a writer of plays, poetry, and creative non-fiction. In her writing Haley explores mental health and wellness, sex and trauma, queerness, and bodies. When she isn’t scribbling on the subway, she is hanging out with the MWB team as their Digital Content Manager, and acting as the Artistic Director and co-founder of Brunch Theatre Company, an inclusive platform for emerging theatre artists to join the conversation. A poet in the millennial era, Haley reaches an audience of 11k+ readers on her instagram page. Haley lives in Brooklyn and is a gemini.

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