If someone ridicules your spiritual beliefs or uses them to make you feel inferior, you may be experiencing spiritual abuse. Understanding the signs of spiritual abuse may help you cope.
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Spirituality is your personal set of beliefs about life’s purpose, meaning, and connection. It often focuses on forces outside of yourself, such as the belief in a higher power.
Spirituality and religion are often aligned, with religion providing the group-oriented framework for spiritual practices. But you don’t have to be religious to be spiritual.
Not everyone will agree with or understand your spiritual beliefs, which may lead them to express abusive behaviors which can impact your relationship and well-being.
Using someone’s religious or spiritual beliefs as a tool to cause them harm is known as spiritual abuse. Like other forms of abuse, it’s a pattern of behavior that’s about exerting power and control over another person.
Sometimes referred to as religious abuse due to the close nature of religion and spirituality, this type of abuse can be seen in any relationship, including intimate partner settings.
Spiritual abuse can affect anyone, of any:
Steve Carleton, a licensed clinical social worker from Denver, Colorado, explains it can take many forms, and can create long-term mental health challenges that leave you questioning your beliefs and values.
Situations of spiritual abuse may include:
- a religious or spiritual leader leveraging their position of authority as a means of coercion
- insulting or ridiculing someone’s spiritual beliefs
- using spiritual beliefs to manipulate someone
- insisting children have to be raised under one partner’s religion
- rationalizing other forms of abuse through religious doctrines or teaching
- making someone perform spiritual practices against their will
- using someone’s spiritual beliefs to create guilt or shame
- preventing someone from practicing their beliefs
- denying education about bodily autonomy due to spiritual beliefs
- using spiritual beliefs to withhold necessary medical care
Sometimes spiritual abuse may appear consensual.
Dr. Raffaello Antonino, a counseling psychologist and senior lecturer at London Metropolitan University, England, explains spiritual abuse is often seen in situations of shared psychosis, such as in renowned cases like that of Charles Manson.
“This is a complex phenomenon, involving typically two individuals, one of which, the initiator, is usually overtly psychotic, often with religious and spiritual overtones,” he explains. “The other person, who ‘shares’ the first person’s psychosis, is usually vulnerable and suggestible and with a predisposition to be interested in spirituality.”
In the case of Manson, explains Antonino, he was able to control his followers through his own spiritual ideals, enticing them to commit criminal acts.
Spiritual abuse may be challenging to identify due to an overlap with other methods of control and domination.
It almost always accompanies other forms of abuse, and common signs someone is using abusive behaviors include:
- physical assault
- demeaning or insulting
- monitoring activities
- controlling finances
- blaming and using guilt
- denying basic needs like healthcare, food, or sleep
Examples of how spiritual abuse may coincide with these warning signs include unhelpful comments, such as:
- Guilt: “You’ll go to Hell for that.”
- Manipulation: “Do you think God would approve of that?”
- Shame: “This isn’t a fantasy novel. That practice is so dumb.”
- Isolation: “Your friends don’t value your spiritual beliefs. I don’t want you around them.”
- Assault: “What I did was acceptable because it says so in our founding doctrine.”
When someone uses your spiritual beliefs as a means to inflict harm, it’s abuse.
Being able to recognize abuse is often the first step in finding ways to cope. Consider the following tips:
1. Allow yourself to create boundaries
You never have to remain in a situation of spiritual abuse. Your beliefs are valid, and no one has the right to dictate how you incorporate spirituality into your life.
“If you’ve recognized that there are signs of abuse, of any form, including spiritual, it’s important to distance yourself from the abuser,” says Antonino.
This may mean changing religious networks or facilities, establishing boundaries with family or friends that show patterns of spiritual abuse, or leaving intimate partner relationships.
If you’re concerned for your safety in exiting a situation of abuse, help and resources are available any time by calling the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or texting “START” to 88788.
Immediate emergency services can be reached by dialing 911.
2. Focusing on personal growth
Long-term patterns of spiritual abuse may create a time when you question your beliefs or feel self-doubt about your religious path.
While this can make you feel lost or frustrated, Antonino says it can also be an opportunity for personal growth.
“If you feel your spirituality been put into question that can be OK; it may even be an opportunity for self-discovery, growth, and expansion of meaning,” he says. “You have your own evidence, stemming from your experiences, for your spirituality. Other people can contribute more or less to this, but it is your experience that matters the most, after all.”
Antonino adds that spirituality influences how you relate to the world and those around you, so questioning it can have a profound positive impact on your understanding of self.
3. Reconnecting with your spirituality
Spiritual abuse can isolate you from those who share your beliefs, and Carleton points out this can make a reconnection with others especially important.
“Spend time reading spiritual texts or talking to people who share your beliefs in order to reaffirm your faith,” he suggests.
This can also mean having general discussions with outside parties you trust to help you recognize spiritual abuse behaviors.
Someone using abusive patterns may skew spiritual concepts in their favor, and talking with others can help provide clarity.
4. Seeking professional guidance
Not all relationships — intimate or otherwise — are worth salvaging. If someone is utilizing spiritual abuse to control you, it may be time to end that relationship.
Guidance from a mental health professional or couples’ counselor can offer an unbiased perspective into the complexities of a relationship.
When both people are committed to improving a relationship, positive change may be possible.
If you’ve exited a relationship of spiritual abuse, a mental health professional can be the first part of a support system to overcome your experience.
Spiritual abuse is someone’s use of your religion or spirituality to gain power and control over you. It refers to patterns of behavior commonly seen in all abuse formats, like the use of guilt, shame, or manipulation.
Focusing on your personal growth and reconnecting with your spirituality may help you overcome the impact of spiritual abuse. Speaking with a mental health professional or relationship specialist can also provide insight and clarity.
It’s OK to leave situations of spiritual abuse. Help is always available. Consider visiting Psych Central’s resource page to find a mental health professional that can support you during this time.