Educational Resources on Religious Trauma, Narcissistic Abuse, & Cult Involvement

Religious Trauma

For many individuals, religion and spirituality has offered guidance, support and community around shared beliefs. It has been a way to connect with something or someone sacred and eternal. Some religious beliefs and spiritual practices have been passed down the family line as an anchor for the generations to come.  But for many others, religion and even spirituality, has been used as a weapon to dominate, control and use others. Religious leaders, beliefs and the very system itself, has caused many to experience something called religious trauma.

What is Religious Trauma?

 

Religious Trauma is the deeply distressing experience of coping with the effects of religious abuse and its indoctrination. In otherwards, religious trauma is often the by-product of someone who has experienced religious abuse.

Religious abuse (often referred to as spiritual abuse) is where religious leaders misuse their position of power to  coerce, manipulate, and gaslight, in order to manipulate the people, within the community, to submit and perform acts to meet the personal desires of the abuser. In this form of abuse, religious texts and expressions of faith are twisted  and interpersonal relationships within the community are exploited. Religious abuse is also the abuse and wounding of the human spirit by religious and spiritual leaders and systems.

 

Because religious trauma is a result of religious abuse, I think it’s important to list what are some signs of religious abuse within a community:

  • The religious leaders use fear tactics, twisting of sacred texts, manipulation and spiritual bypassing techniques (using spiritual and religious rhetoric to deflect from reality or unresolved issues) to control and manipulate the people to serve the leaders.

  • Religious leaders use the language that they “have been given divine authority from God” to lead and guide the community in the abusive way that they have. According to them, not taking heed to their leadership, is likened to not obeying God’s leadership.

  • An unspoken hierarchical structure is established within the community.Those who obey the leaders are publicly praised and positioned in close proximity to leadership. But those who don’t obey and aren’t considered “good enough”, are publicly shamed and positioned far away from leadership and lose opportunities to advance in the hierarchical structure.

  • There is no place for critique, doubts, concerns or questioning authority. They establish an environment that equates questioning and critiquing authority as questioning and critiquing God.

  • There are no checks and balances; accountability by leadership, to those within the community, is often non-existent.

  • Leaders will use continuous shame, fear, guilt and gaslighting to keep you from seeing their abusive ways, and to also keep you within their community to use and exploit you.

  • The act of forgiveness is taught in a corrupt way within the community, and leaders expect victims to overlook and forgive them regarding offenses and even abuses.

 

Religious abuse not only occurs within communities and systems, but also within romantic relationships, parent-child relationships and families, and even within religious counseling dynamics.​

Signs you may have Religious Trauma

  • Feeling disconnected from God or higher power, self and others

  • Overwhelming sense of guilt and shame especially when it comes to anything centered around your faith, your faith community and your relationship with God or higher power.

  • Nightmares and flashbacks of abusive experiences

  • Sense of isolation and not belonging

  • Difficulty with decision making and critical thinking

  • Fears of examining faith and beliefs after experiencing religious abuse

  • Anxiety, depression, or other mental health disorders are present

  • Fears of the afterlife and anything to do with the spiritual realm

  • Difficulty with interpersonal relationships during and after religious abuse

  • Anger with the system, leaders, the religion and even God or high power associated with that religion.

What is Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS)?

 

Religious Trauma Syndrome is the condition experienced by people who are struggling with leaving an authoritarian, dogmatic religion and coping with the damage of indoctrination. They may be going through the shattering of a personally meaningful faith and /or breaking away from a controlling community and lifestyle. RTS is a function of both the chronic abuses of harmful religion and the impact of severing one’s connection with one’s faith. It can be compared to a combination of PTSD and Complex PTSD (C-PTSD)”. - Dr. Marlene Winell

 

Religious Trauma Syndrome is not an official diagnosis nor is it included in the Diagnostic and  Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM 5). However, RTS is a common experience shared by many who have exited spiritual and religious communities, high demand groups and cults. As more research is being done on how prevalent and devastating RTS can be for the survivor, more mental health professionals are becoming religious trauma informed as well as religious trauma responsive, to serve clients with various healing modalities and recovery tools.

 

In addition to the signs of religious trauma, some other signs of RTS include:

 

  • Deep and often complex grief from all of the losses (relationships, faith, beliefs)

  • Hypervigilance and a sense of never feeling safe (internally and externally)

  • Frequent panic attacks, insomnia, and possible memory loss

  • Constant dissociating and dealing with lots of cognitive dissonance

  • Difficulty with embracing hope, joy and pleasure

  • Difficulty with re-acclimating into mainstream society and secular world as you are rebuilding your faith, or chosen to have none at all.

  • Difficulty finding purpose and a new path in life

  • Difficulty with unlearning black and white thinking and embracing ‘living in the gray” type thinking,

  • Needing to develop skills in establishing boundaries and living an autonomous life

  • Disconnection from one’s own sexuality due to indoctrination with religious ideologies such as Purity Culture. Some may suffer from various forms of sexual dysfunction such as (erectile dysfunction, vaginismus, dyspareuia)and performance anxiety.

 

Recovering from Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS)

 

Recovering from such a complex trauma as RTS often takes several months and sometimes years. As a survivor of RTS, I can attest, though it may take some time, recovery is possible. Connecting with a mental health professional who is  religious trauma informed and also a survivor of religious abuse and RTS, can help expedite your recovery process. 

 

Here are some recovery tips!

 

  1. Recognition of the religious abuse and trauma that you have experienced and its effects on your life. Recognition and acceptance of our  experiences without denying them or dismissing them, help us to heal and recover from a place of honesty and vulnerability. 

  2. Understanding that the recovery process is a process. You have experienced some horrific and unjust things, all in the name of religion or spirituality. Being patient with yourself and giving yourself time to heal and evolve at the pace your being allows is key.

  3. Perhaps pausing on attempts to return to the abusive community or finding another religious community to attend. Taking time to understand the abuse and trauma you previously experienced will be helpful so that you can avoid being traumatized again. Knowledge, in and of itself is not full recovery, but it is a big component to protecting ourselves from future religious abuse experiences.

  4. Understand that recovering from religious abuse is more about dealing with the trauma and traumatic memories within your body, than it is applying various religious practices and techniques. Most individuals that are coping from RTS have to learn to reconnect with their bodies and learn somatic practices to release trauma from the body.

  5. Be open to the “unlearn and relearning” process with many things regarding religion, faith, spirituality, self, and interpersonal relationships. Though it can feel scary at times to begin sifting through what you believe versus what your religion or religious leaders have taught, ultimately the process is filled with so much beauty and loads of opportunities for self discovery. Your connection with self becomes stronger when you embrace this part of recovering!

  6. Build and connect with a personal support team, who have shared experiences, even if that’s a couple of people at first. After experiencing religious trauma and abuse, many survivors’ supportive friends and community dissipates. It is important to connect with people who can honor you, believe in you, and empower you as you continue to recover. Joining support groups for survivors of religious trauma can often be beneficial and you have an opportunity to meet new people.

  7. Seek support to assist you with your recovery process with religious trauma informed  and trauma responsive mental health professionals. Feel free to check out my services and how I can be of assistance on your recovery path.

Narcissistic Abuse


 

What is Narcissism?

 

Is a psychological condition characterized by self-preoccupied lack of empathy and unconscious deficits in self-esteem. It is the extreme self-involvement to the degree that it makes a person ignore the needs of others.

 

We all possess some form of narcissism. There is healthy narcissism, which is adaptive, and where individuals have a positive sense of self and are comfortably confident. The individual is aware of their personal strengths as well as their personal flaws and refuses to operate in society from a sense of entitlement. They get their needs met through healthy means without stepping on others in the process. Then there is unhealthy narcissism, which is maladaptive, and is associated with entitlement, exploitativeness, lack of empathy, lack of self-esteem and lack of positive sense of self.

 

Narcissistic Abuse

 

Is a type of emotional and psychological abuse perpetrated repeatedly by a person who exhibits narcissistic tendencies or narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). They avoid any form of accountability for their actions and abusive ways.

Narcissism and the severity of abuse exists on a spectrum.  It may range from an individual always needing to be the center of attention and being on top, or someone withholding love and communication, being manipulative  as well as outburst of violent rage and aggression. Basically, the more components of the disorder an individual has, the more emotionally and psychologically abusive they can be.

 

Signs you might be experiencing some form of narcissistic abuse in your relationships:

 

  • You have been experiencing a lot of gaslighting, manipulation and control

  • You find yourself questioning your reality a lot and are unsure of yourself

  • You hear statements like, “You’re too sensitive” or “It’s because of your trauma that you feel this way”, “You’re too emotional to understand”.

  • You’ve experienced them flattering and love bombing you in the beginning, then they switched to excessive criticizing, demeaning, and distorting reality.

  • They have a difficulty with accepting responsibility and being accountable, instead they prefer to blame you and cause you to doubt who you are and who is responsible in situations with harm and abuse.

  • They use “withholding” as a way of keeping you under their control and dependent on them. They will withhold love, communication, money and sex just to name a few.

  • They can present themselves as very humble and caring in public, but behind closed doors they can be very toxic, demeaning and abusive.

  • They will twist the truth for their benefit while simultaneously making you feel like you are the problem and you are the one who needs help.

  • There is usually a lot of chaos and confusion in the midst of the relationship. Narcissists feed on chaos and confusion.

  • You often feel confused and doubt your intuition regularly.

  • You don’t feel good enough and feel that you don’t measure up while in their presence.

  • You don’t feel like yourself anymore and feel your core identity is taking a hit; even your loved ones are concerned for you.

 

Types of Narcissists

 

  1. Overt Narcissists - also referred to as Grandiose Narcissists and are often associated with those who have narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) and are  on the more extreme end of the narcissism spectrum.Some of their behaviors consist of arrogance, brashness, being overbearing and difficult to be around, very competitive, jealous and exploitative. They have a constant need for continual praise and admiration.

  2. Covert Narcissists - also referred to as Vulnerable Narcissists and are quite the opposite from overt narcissists. Covert narcissists are more cunning, quiet, appearing humble and caring. Some of their traits are: they love to play the victim, very insecure, low self-esteem and self -loathing. They will do whatever, to avoid criticism and accountability, even if that means projecting their issues on you. Others feel like they have to walk on eggshells in their presence or handle them with kid gloves otherwise their dark side might come out.

  3. Communal Narcissists - also associated with Grandiose Narcissism, love to exaggerate their knowledge, expertise and communal skills. They use their desire for recognition, praise and admiration through their communal goals and so called ability to empathize and connect with others. They are what I call the great pretenders. People believe that they are the most helpful, supportive and committed individuals on the planet. From others' perspective they think they could do no wrong  because they are heavily involved in community events, causes and helping to expose injustices in our society. However, those who work very closely to them know that’s the furthest thing from the truth. Behind closed doors, they are cold, manipulative, competitive, arrogant, demeaning and controlling.Those who experience abuse from these kinds of narcissists have a hard time finding people who believe their experiences. The communal narcissists performances seem to be too real for others to believe anything different.

  4. Spiritual Narcissists - Is very similar to a Communal Narcissist, where they are involved with groups, and communities, but they use spirituality to gather their audience. Spiritual narcissists use their spirituality, enlightenment, wisdom, and experiences to increase their self-importance and draw others to them. Their intentions are not to help uplift and educate others, but to use, manipulate and control them instead. They also present themselves as superior and more spiritual than others. They believe that they alone have all the wisdom, spiritual enlightenment and truths that humanity needs to be saved. They gravitate to those who are looking for spiritual elevation and knowledge in their lives. The spiritual narcissists will then use their spirituality to attach to others and create codependent bonds and individuals feel like they need the narcissist for wisdom and guidance in their lives. Spiritual narcissists also use spiritual bypassing techniques to deflect and escape reality and accountability for their abusive ways.

 

Various Narcissistic Relationships

 

Narcissistic relationships can exist far beyond just romantic partnerships. There are other types of relationships where narcissists can emerge. Some of those relationships are:

 

  1. Narcissistic Parents & Family 

  2. Narcissistic Adult Children

  3. Narcissistic Friendships

  4. Narcissistic Managers, Co-workers, Employers, Business Partners

  5. Narcissistic Religious & Spiritual Leaders

  6. Narcissistic Community Leaders

  7. Narcissistic Counselors, Therapists, & Coaches

 

Recovering from Narcissistic Abuse

 

  1. Understanding, recognizing, and acknowledging you have experienced Narcissistic Abuse. This is sometimes the most challenging part to start the recovery process. Narcissistic abuse signs are sometimes very hard to detect, and even when it’s realized, acknowledging the reality of the abuse that was experienced can feel devastating. Though it may feel overwhelming to acknowledge the abuse, legitimizing your experience is a big step towards your healing and recovery.​​

  2. Reducing contact or completely cutting off contact with the narcissist. Depending on the type of narcissistic relationship you might be involved in, it will vary on what your detachment approach will be. Detaching from the abuser and getting to safety is top priority to begin recovering. Connecting with loved ones and trusted friends who can support you during your transitioning and assist with a safety plan, can help expedite the healing process.

  3. Establishing and implementing boundaries between you and the narcissist. Based on what type of narcissistic relationship you are exiting from, certain boundaries can be implemented to protect yourself from further abuse. Methods such as “Grey-rocking”, blocking social media and phone communication have been beneficial for survivors to continue in their recovery.

  4. Educating yourself about what you just experienced. During the height of the abuse, your reality has been distorted and you were programmed to believe everything was your fault and something is wrong with you. You were left confused and second guessing yourself and your intentions. Educating yourself about narcissistic abuse via books, podcasts, Youtube videos, workshops and courses etc, will be extremely helpful to begin to understand the abuse you experienced and how the trauma from the abuse has impacted you now. Educating yourself will also help you to know how to identify narcissistic behaviors to prevent entering new narcissistic relationships.

  5. Finding Community. Connecting with others, particularly those who share similar experiences with narcissistic people, is such an important part of the recovery process. Online support groups, meetup groups, etc, that are geared towards supporting others who have experienced narcissistic abuse, are great ways to experience validation, resources, and assistance. These components help the survivor to experience healthy relationships and foster optimism during the recovery process. 

  6. Connecting with a Mental Health Professional. Experiencing narcissistic abuse can be devastating. There is a lot of complex trauma to unpack. The good news is, you don’t have to walk through your recovery alone! Connecting with a mental health professional such as a therapist or a certified trauma recovery coach who is both trauma-informed, and trauma-responsive, is important. You will especially want a professional who has personal experience and expertise working with narcissistic abuse survivors, and can help you feel validated and understand mental health challenges that come from narcissistic abuse. Feel free to check out my services and how I can be of assistance on your recovery path!

 
 

Cult Involvement


 

There are a lot of misconceptions and  myths around Cults. Many people think those who were  a part of cults are uneducated, have a lot of psychological issues, or because of their naïveté, chose to join a cult. They also think that cult members should have been able to discern what they were a part of is indeed a cult. 

 

The reality is, no one just joins a cult, but what they do is respond to the allure of connection, the possibility of receiving love, being understood, and belonging to a community of shared beliefs. This is what individuals believe they are becoming a part of. However, the early stages of entering a cult is just like an individual who begins dating someone based on their attractive qualities, as time progresses, they experience that partner’s dark side and eventually realize things aren’t what they seemed.

 

What is a Cult?

 

A cult is an organized group or system that is held together by an extreme devotion usually to a very charismatic leader or extreme ideology. The cult leader or group’s hidden purpose is to control, through psychological and emotional manipulation, and serve the needs of the leaders and/or the system.

 

Another definition deriving from the International Cultic Studies Association is:

 

“A group or a movement exhibiting great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing. It employs unethical manipulative or coercive techniques or persuasion and control (ex. isolation from former friends and family, debilitation, use of special methods to heighten suggestibility and subservience, powerful group pressures, information management, suspension of individuality or critical judgment, promotion of total dependency on the group and fear of leaving it), It’s original purpose and intent is to advance the goals of the leader and system, to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community”. - Excerpted from Cultic Studies Journal, 3 (1986): 119-120


Signs you maybe in a Cult

  • The leader presents themselves as one of the most charismatic enlightened people you would ever meet. They believe the wisdom, knowledge, and life experiences that they have had are so great and needed in the world. However, they use their wisdom and charisma to draw people to themselves to admire and follow them. It's a god-like savior complex that they possess. Most cult leaders have extreme narcissistic qualities and perhaps the disorder itself.

  • The leadership dictates how members should live, think, act, and feel. They often demand members to get permission to make major changes in their lives such as career changes, choice of romantic partners, child rearing topics, where they should live and with whom, etc.

  • The leader uses gaslighting, brain-washing, guilt, shame, fear and mind-controlling techniques to keep followers subservient and remaining in the group

  • The leader and group promotes black and white thinking as well as us vs them mentality.

  • The leader and group promotes safety, wisdom and community within the group only, and simultaneously teaches members that outside of the group exists an evil and unsafe world, and bad parts of society.

  • The leader and group demands unpaid labor for various needs and causes both in and outside of the group. Members often lived exhausted lives trying to keep up with their personal needs and the group's high-demands.

  • There is no accountability from the cult leader or any of their leadership. The leader will use spiritual-bypassing techniques to escape responsibility.

  • There are many unspoken rules and a code of silence is expected regarding abusive behaviors that occur within the group.

  • You have distanced yourself from your close family and friends and because of the cult's involvement, you perhaps see them as an enemy.

  • You have changed drastically and don’t feel like your authentic self anymore.


 

Some vulnerabilities to being drawn to cults 

 

  1. People don’t realize what they are becoming a part of.  In the early stages, cults and high-demand groups present to newcomers an illusion of a healthy, loving, family-oriented community , authority figures who are caring and intentional about connecting with you and helping you evolve. The longer one remains in this environment, they will be able to see the dark side.

  2. Recent losses, rejections, and abandonments by others.  When there is sudden loss of loved ones, jobs, relationships, pets, loss of faith and hope in humanity, etc. we are very vulnerable. Cult leaders prey on those who fall into this category, with offers of friendships, prayer, a shoulder to cry on, etc.

  3. Youth and Young Adults  Young people are usually full of zeal, hope and desire to make an impact on the world for the better. They are individuating and finding their purpose on the planet. Cult leaders especially love obtaining members from this age group, because of their zeal, commitment, and passion on speaking out on the evils of the world. 

  4. Dealing with personal and current traumas and insecurities. Those currently struggling with their self-worth and low self-esteem, doubts and are looking for acceptance and someone to validate them are especially vulnerable to cults and cult leaders.

  5. Being enamored and seduced by the leader’s charisma. Most, if not all cult leaders have an alluring form of charisma. They use flattery, compliments, prophetic words, dreams vision, aspects about you that is not obvious to the naked eye, to basically love-bomb you and woo you in.

 

Some Post-Cult effects

 

  • Conflicting emotions and thoughts

  • Depression, Suicidal ideation, constant panic attacks

  • Dreams, Nightmares, Flashbacks, Insomnia

  • Inability to connect with authentic self

  • Various debilitating fears such as; fears of  having to reacclimate into society, fears of never belonging again, fears of failing God and loss of salvation, fears of eternal punishment (hell), etc.

  • Life feels shattered, hopeless, and dark

  • Uncertainty about reconnecting with family and friends.

  • Dealing with pervasive shame that seems to never lessen

  • Confusion of what is right or wrong, reality vs illusion

  • Vacillating between a myriad of emotions (anger/disbelief/grief/shock)

  • Constant reassessing the choice to leave or why you were excommunicated from the group

  • Stockholm Syndrome and wanting to defend and justify the group and returning back to them

  • Great potential for Cult-hopping 

  • Complex PTSD 

  • Complex Grief and loss - loss of faith, loss of community, loss of authentic self, loss of identity, loss of hope, sometimes a loss of a will to heal

 

Some Post-Cult Recovery Tips

 

  1. Awareness, and Acknowledgement of Cult Involvement. Most cult survivors aren’t even aware that they were in a cult until they leave it. It’s almost like a spell starts to dissipate and for the first time they are able to acknowledge that they were in an abusive environment. Once they acknowledge and accept this reality, then they can start to deal with the trauma and healing modalities.

  2. Understanding that the recovery process is a process. You have experienced some horrific and unjust things in the cult you were in. Therefore, it will take time to navigate through the shattered pieces left from abuse, and work towards healing, recovery, and becoming your authentic self.  Being patient with yourself is key! This is so important for cult survivors. There will be an overwhelming desire to want to hurry up and get over it (the abuse) or spiritually bypass what you’ve been through and just start a new life. You may even have loved ones who utter those same words, but understand that this recovery process takes time. Healing and recovery isn’t instantaneous, nor is a quick moment in time; it’s an evolution. Set your intentions to heal and evolve day by day, and months from now, you will be able to see a difference.

  3. When you are ready, start to educate yourself about cults and coercive control. Understanding what you have experienced is not to induce shameful feelings, but to help you to cognitively understand that something happened to you, and not that something is wrong with you. Understanding how intentional and pre-mediatitive the cult leader and group was, will be helpful in the long run towards your healing and recovery.

  4. Connecting with a Mental Health Professional. Experiencing cult involvement can be devastating. There is a lot of complex trauma to unpack. The good news is, you don’t have to walk through your recovery alone! Connecting with a mental health professional such as a therapist or a certified trauma recovery coach who is both trauma-informed, and trauma-responsive, is important. You will especially want a professional who has experience and expertise working with cults, high-demand groups, and is skilled at helping cult survivors navigate through the complexities of cult involvement. It’s even better if you can connect with mental health professionals who are also ex cult survivors. They can help you feel validated and understand the mental health challenges that come from cult involvement. Feel free to check out my services and how I can be of assistance on your recovery path!