As a child raised by two pastor kids, I’ve always said that I was raised free-spirited. Meaning that yes, I was encouraged to never limit my soul, but also that I was raised free from the constraints, contradictions, and oppression of organized religion. But what does it actually mean to be free-spirited and why do I credit it for keeping me safe from religious trauma? What does religious trauma or spiritual abuse even mean? Let’s explore together!
Start the Exploration
My first exposure to the terms religious trauma and spiritual abuse started right here at The We Spot Podcast. In episode 112: Finding Your Pleasure with Rachel Overvoll, which is a must-listen for all humans, but I especially recommend it for parents of daughters, I started to unravel how my own religious upbringing impacted me.
I considered myself lucky to have had a generation between the religious leaders in my family. My father’s father was a Lutheran Minister and my mother’s father was a Nazarene Pastor. Both Christian, but I would say practice their faith very differently and have very different rules when it comes to what behavior is considered righteous. Growing up with a religious extended family definitely made an impact on how I viewed myself and my own self-worth that I learned to overcome as I started to grow my own family, but I do not credit any of the hurdles I needed to jump to how I was parented.
When I got to episode 114: Deconstruction Restructuring with Black Sheep Bios, I got really curious. How can we as a community, as a society collectively heal from religious trauma and spiritual abuse? How can we raise the next generation to be free-spirited in a time where false security is being sold to us more than ever? It feels like faith has divided us all into trenches so deep that we’ll never dig out.
Whenever I get stuck with these big questions, I eventually always come back to the same answer: Be the change you want to see. I believe that my parents were that change for me and that has empowered me to be the change even more for my own children.
So, now you know how I got curious about this topic. Let’s dig into what religious trauma and spiritual abuse are. Because I believe that being the change includes talking about uncomfortable things so that we can better understand them.
Define and Understand
What is Religious Trauma?
Spiritual abuse births religious trauma. Spiritual abuse uses religious beliefs to control or exploit another person. It uses your own faith to exert power over you and can look like verbal, emotional, or physical violence. It can be difficult, if not impossible to recognize as abuse when it is happening. Cruelty defines abuse and we typically do not link our spiritual paths with a bad purpose. I would argue that the majority of spiritual seekers practice faith to be good, without mal intent. Spiritual abuse might look like being encouraged to insult other beliefs and then being publicly shamed if you do not. There is a variety of ways spiritual abuse is used and shows up in faith-based communities. This may make it difficult to define, but even more important to talk about.
Have You Experienced Spirtual Abuse?
Think back. Was there ever a time when your choices were controlled by a religious text? It may seem harmless, but the more we are taught to distrust ourselves, the easier we become to oppress. And the more we experience oppression the more it becomes linked with security. What is familiar becomes safe even when it is violent treatment.
Religious trauma is the impact spiritual abuse has on the way we see ourselves and the world. If you ever left a space where you didn’t feel safe and then still believed that you are inherently bad, you have experienced religious trauma.
A Free-Spirited Childhood
My life has not been free of religious trauma. I did battle with how I perceived my own body. I believed that it was sinful and not worthy outside of what worth others gave it. When I was young I do have memories of crying at night in my bed. Heartbroken that so much of the world was doomed to hell. However, I do not credit any of this to how I was raised.
The Religious Early Years
Exposure to controlling beliefs and exclusive practices would have been impossible to avoid as a small child with Religious leaders in my family. I spent all major holidays and most summers participating in religious worship and practices. But I always had a safe space at home where my inherit worth was validated.
Sunday church wasn’t a commitment in my household growing up until one day I asked if we could start going. I was old enough to start having sleepovers with friends and I was curious why my friends went to Sunday School in the morning and if this was something I could do too. My mom immediately put herself on the search for a church home for our family.
Later I learned that her criteria were if it was a welcoming, safe environment and if there were women in leadership. Two key choices my parents made that saved me from religious trauma.
First, waiting until I was old enough to be curious about spiritual practices myself and at an age to understand them. Allowing me to choose when I was ready to participate in religious practices.
And second, guiding me to a religious organization that would not treat me less than because of my sex. An organization where I could see that women play an important role in learning, teaching, and leading. A place where women were not just trusted but encouraged to create a loving, safe, service-minded environment where members could grow on their personal spiritual path.
The Religious Teen Years
My first boyfriend was a big deal. He was a rule breaker and rebel and also he had very strict religious parents. One way we could spend more time together was by participating in church activities. One summer I attended church camp with him. It was an experience that changed me in a lot of ways.
The Altar Call
Have you ever experienced an altar call? I have many times in my life. The Pastor or church leader calls you to an area of the church, usually the front where the altar is, so you can pray in public to be saved. It has always made my tummy turn. I cannot fully explain why, there is just something about this practice that makes me feel sick to my stomach.
At this church camp, we attended there was a church service every day. The Pastor called anyone that was feeling lost to come behind the curtains and pray with the spiritual leaders there for guidance to follow and know Jesus Christ better. This sat easier in my tummy and I told myself to be brave. I did feel lost. This could be my opportunity to find a path.
I stood up, left my boyfriend at the pew, and walked up to the stage and then behind the curtains. I found a chair and I sat. Alone. There was another boy that had been brave a moment or two before me. I remember seeing all of the leaders surrounding him and praying over him. Hands-on his head, saying softly out loud their requests to God to save him.
I sat and waited until it was too awkward to stay. My goal was to find a path and the outcome was that not only did I still feel lost, but also unworthy.
The A’Ha Moment
Each cabin at the camp had a young adult counselor that was in charge. I clung to mine. All the girls in the cabin knew each other. I only knew my boyfriend, who of course was in a boys’ cabin on the other side of the campus. She would have one-on-one meetings with each girl in the cabin throughout the week. I’ll never forget our meeting.
We sat under a tree on a hill. I can’t recall all the questions she asked, but there was one answer that she gave me that changed me forever. I explained how I was feeling – lost. She asked about my boyfriend and I’s relationship. I didn’t tell her the dirty details. Like how I had seen him abused by his dad and had experienced abuse from him myself. Yet looking back now, I think she might have put the pieces together because the advice she gave was this:
“Think about yourself standing on a chair and your boyfriend is on the ground. It is easier for him to pull you down than for you to lift him up.”
I had found my path, my direction. And it came without prayer, just conversation. For many years after I struggled with the word “prayer.” I had lost my faith in it during this experience. I am happy to say that today I have made my peace with the word. A spiritual leader in my adulthood said, “prayer is whatever it needs to be for you.” And it was with this definition of prayer that I was able to see that I had been practicing prayer all my life. That the conversations I have are my prayer.
Free From Religious Trauma
I honestly don’t think that one can live in the United States and be free from religious trauma their whole lives. Our country’s roots are deep in how religion can control its people.
I do believe that we can heal from our religious trauma and that healing starts by talking about it. I also believe that it is our calling to heal so that we do not boost the inheritance of spiritual abuse.
What does it mean to be raised free-spirited? It means to raise the next generation to trust their intuition. A process of accepting and owning the inherit worth of yourself as the example to follow. It is to be bold in feeling your feelings while grounding in the balance of life. A free spirit is in all of us when we are able to soften to the truth that we are worthy of love without endeavor.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the writer and do not necessarily represent those of The We Spot, its employees, sponsors, or affiliates.