Understanding Spiritual Abuse

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Cynthia Mullen Kunsman, RN, BSN, MMin, ND is the voice behind www.UnderMuchGrace.com which is dedicated to discussing the phenomenon of Spiritual Abuse in Evangelical Churches.

Cynthia’s personal outreach to people who are healing from spiritually abusive situations is the saving grace that may set many free from the bondage of condemnation.

In this profile, Cynthia explains several facets of spiritual abuse, its methods, affects and methods for healing. Cynthia frequently offers counseling for individuals dealing with spiritual abuse.


My Savvy Sisters: What is spiritual abuse?

People seek out religion to help them find joy and purpose in life, an experience that should benefit them. Spiritual abuse describes the process by which a religious leader or a group itself misuses authority, power, and the trust that their followers give to them. Rather than serving the greater purpose of the religion, followers are exploited in some way that generally benefits the group’s leaders or the ideology which ends up taking on a life of it’s own. The virtuous end serves to justify the questionable and exploitative means used to achieve the goals of the group.

David Henke has framed out these characteristicsand criteria of Spiritually Abusive groups on his Spiritual Abuse Profile:

Authoritarian: The most distinctive characteristic of a spiritually abusive religious system, or leader, is the over-emphasis on authority. Because a group claims to have been established by God Himself the leaders in this system claim the right to command their followers.

Image Conscious: The abusive religious system is scrupulous to maintain an image of righteousness. The organization’s history is often misrepresented in the effort to demonstrate the organization’s special relationship to God. . . Their failure to live up to these standards is a constant reminder of the follower’s inferiority to his leaders, and the necessity of submission to them. Abusive religion is, at heart, legalism.

Suppresses Criticism: Because the religious system is not based on the truth it cannot allow questions, dissent, or open discussions about issues. The person who dissents becomes the problem rather than the issue he raised. The truth about any issue is settled and handed down from the top of the hierarchy. Questioning anything is considered a challenge to authority.

Perfectionistic: [I]n abusive religions all blessings come through performance of spiritual requirements. Failure is strongly condemned so there is only one alternative, perfection. . . Those who fail in their efforts are labeled as apostates, weak, or some other such term so that they can be discarded by the system.

Unbalanced: Abusive religions must distinguish themselves from all other religions so they can claim to be distinctive and therefore special to God. This is usually done by majoring on minor issues such as prophecy, carrying biblical law to extremes, or using strange methods of biblical interpretation. The imbalanced spiritual hobby-horse thus produced represents unique knowledge or practices which seem to validate the group’s claim to special status with God.

In aberrant Christianity, I tend to refer to the last characteristic as “Majoring on minor doctrines” at the expense of the central message of the Gospel, the message of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Johnson and VanVonderan’s The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse
is one of the best resources which explores these problems within Christian settings. Though this book is my favorite, others tell me that they like Healing Spiritual Abuse;”> by Ken Blue just as much or more. Churches That Abuse“>, Toxic Faith, and I Can’t Hear God Anymore are other popular titles.


My Savvy Sisters: How do spiritual leaders benefit from being abusive?

Interesting question! The benefits vary from group to group, and leader to leader. It depends on the end goal of the group and the leaders themselves. Some groups are driven by money, and others by power. Some religious groups also exploit sex as well. Other groups serve to meet the psychological needs of the leader.

The primary group leader of a group generally fits a typical narcissistic profile, what some have termed the Machiavellian Personality after the famed Prince Machiavelli. With only casual contact with such an individual, one would never suspect that they had anything less than the highest moral character, but this is just on the surface. In addition to being very charismatic, charming and keenly shrewd, they never show humility, they believe that ethics apply only to the weak (so they are exempt from moral standards which serves their exaggerated sense of entitlement), and they prefer to be feared (prefer an authoritarian style of control). Despite their capacity for arrogance, they can feign compassion and humility impeccably when it suits their objectives, yet they have a very limited capacity for showing true empathy to others. Those who tend toward this profile demand a great deal of attention and praise, and they thrive on the power others surrender to them.

Your question also speaks to a dynamic found within spiritually abusive groups themselves. The sub-status of a type of “middle management leader” that is bestowed on followers within spiritually abusive groups provides “true believers” with status, prestige, and the rewards of approval and worth. Groups promote an external basis of worth, discouraging individuals to derive confidence and well-being from within themselves. The profoundly powerful sense of reward comes with these positions in middle management within the system, and members lust after them because it offsets the discomfort of the shame-oriented control measures used in such groups to control members.

My Savvy Sisters: What kind of person is attracted to spiritually abusive relationships?

All people are vulnerable to spiritually abusive relationships. Spiritual abuse involves covert and surreptitious manipulation of individuals, preventing them from making informed decisions about the nature of the group and their belief system. During recruitment, the less popular ideas of the group are concealed, all while the individual’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors are subtly manipulated. The group also shares misleading information with the new recruit (another element of concealing the true nature of the group’s belief system). We all have some degree of desire to be part of something bigger than ourselves, and spiritually abusive groups manipulate this idealism. We also all have emotions, thoughts, and behaviors, and we all rely upon information, and all of these factors are manipulated in spiritually abusive groups. In that sense, all people are vulnerable.

Most people report that their recruitment occurred when under a great deal of stress, particularly following a major life change. After the death of a family member, relocation, a new job, going off to college, or while recovering from some other traumatic experience, a person does not have access to all of their support systems and internal resources. They are a bit off-balance in this sense, and this is generally when people are more vulnerable to cultic manipulation. They are emotionally weary and have other types of needs, and in sweeps the cultic group or influence, offering a ready made solution which promises solves all of their problems. They’re given both purpose and community in the process.


My Savvy Sisters: How do most people recognize that they are in a bad situation and need to leave?

Though some groups reject and shun some ex-members, most group members walk away from groups because of their dissatisfaction with the group. Because of the idealistic nature of the group goal, most people don’t recognize the problems until they suffer some punishment for non-compliance, or they witness the “damage control” or punishment techniques used against another member. So many people report that they would never have believed anything negative about the group nor would have believed the negative reports of others until they suffered negative consequences themselves, experiences that are usually beyond their ability to fathom.

Spiritually abusive groups prohibit criticism, and most people suppress their own internal doubts about things in order to feel more comfortable, really, in order to survive in the group. The group demands that critical thought be relinquished to group leadership, making decisions and discernment the responsibility of someone else. Critical thinking and any remote voicing of dissent will be punished. On the other hand, leadership rewards compliance and model citizens with many benefits and higher status. Groups never declare this rule about compliance to members, but all come to understand this unspoken standard through the behaviors of the group.

When the individual can find a safe place or a relationship with someone outside of the group that tolerates and encourages their doubts and their own critical thinking, the member begins to gain some healthy perspective about the gradual changes that have culminated into a new way of thinking for them. Reconnecting with their life before the group can be very helpful. A break in that person’s regular routine in a different environment can provide a respite from the demands of the group, and it can often be something like a weekend out of town with loved ones. It creates the opportunity for their own thinking and suppressed doubts about the group to come to the surface without fear of punishment.

Though the stereotypical deprogramming which was popularized in the seventies is no longer practiced, it essentially forced the break in the person’s routine and provided the member an opportunity to break free of the mental oppression of the group. Exit counseling replaces deprogramming wherein members are taught about the manipulative nature of high demand groups, and in a safe and supportive environment, the member’s own critical thinking ability that was suppressed and punished by the group emerges again.


My Savvy Sisters: What affect does spiritual abuse have on the mind & life of the victim?

Spiritual is a process that takes place over time that does not readily seem like a manipulative situation initially. The process shuts down the critical thinking skills of the individual and gradually lulls them into a state wherein they are dependent on their group and the leaders for their sense of worth and being. The stress of the experience distorts perception and judgment which deepens over time produces both depression and anxiety. Members are taught to fear the outside world and to view it as dangerous, creating great fear. People within spiritually abusive groups experience these effects to varying degrees, and the severity also varies between groups as well.

For those who leave spiritual abuse:

Because the group becomes such a large part of a person’s life, people feel depression and grieving over the sense of loss. The person may need to completely reconstruct their entire belief system, in addition to the stress of leaving the group. There is also a loss of purpose, because the group provided this for the member. Many feel guilt and disappointment in themselves for becoming involved or for the things that they may have done while a member. People who leave spiritually abusive groups are shunned, and this can be devastating. One loses all social contacts and close friends from within the group, and sometimes this involves family members, too. Many struggle with anger over what has been done to them, and it can be a challenge to recall or learn how to feel appropriate anger, and that can induce a great deal of fear.

Fear is another very difficult problem. Groups focus and maintain members by continually stressing how much better they are than everyone else, and that they have a special relationship to God because they are unique. Leaving that mindset means leaving that sense of special connection which can be quite fear inducing because they might be leaving God. People may also believe that their group leader has an extraordinary ability to see into their hearts and will know that they’ve abandoned the group. But there is another feature at play: most spiritually abusive groups shun and curse those who wish to leave. I was told personally that some great calamity would befall me or someone close to me as a direct result of my leaving the group (cancer, loss of a job, death of children). Others have been told that they would be visited by the “Three Ds: death, disease, and divorce.” Given the depleted emotional and psychological state that one is in upon leaving, this can be a very fearful experience on top of the idea that one has lost a connection to God or their eternal soul itself. There is a belief that“God will get them” for leaving.

A sense of purposelessness can overlap with the sense of being disconnected from everything in general. Researchers who have had the experience themselves and entered into this work as a ministry have described feeling ill. Some believe that the “brain fog” they experienced was the new onset of allergies and sought testing. There is a sense of derealization, and the way one experiences life becomes dreamlike. Others who exit groups that practice extended sessions of meditation may have even greater difficulty with a pronounced feeling of disconnect, something that has been termed “floating,” a type of dissociation which becomes harder to manage.

Other psychological challenges can arise as well including “thinking outside of the box” that the spiritually abusive system created for them. Watching a news show may be something that was sinful while in a group, or accepting information from a source that the group demonized can be a stressful experience. Spiritual abuse survives on authoritative “black and white” thinking, wherein all things are defined as matters of extremes. It takes time to learn that there are many shades of color in the world and that many things do not reduce to extremes. Everything becomes spiritualized within groups, and the tendency to see all things through what becomes a sense of magical thinking will diminish as the person works on their own recovery.

Decision making can be another practical problem that a person must work at because of the effects of the dynamics of the group. Some can struggle with symptoms of severe stress or even Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and this adds to the feeling of isolation that all former members tend to feel. Feeling isolated is feature of PTSD and the process that it has within the brain itself. The experience can be very embarrassing to discuss with others which also adds to the sense of isolation, as does a general reluctance among most people to discuss spiritual abuse itself.


My Savvy Sisters: What can the abused person do to get help?

The abused person benefits the most by learning about what group manipulation and spiritual abuse are and how these techniques were used in their own specific group. People need to understand the way the process works and that the residual effects of the process will not last. People who have exited spiritual abuse have actually had a normal response to an abnormal situation, and their difficulties are actually signs of their own health, a realization that is empowering. After the initial phase of understanding what happened to them, the person must also sort through the rubble of what they experienced, reclaiming and recovering themselves as well as the good aspects of the experience. This is a process of integration, because there are many good things that they will want to embrace, despite the hardships. It is a part of making peace with the experience as they walk through it, transforming the pain into something that actually enriches their lives and their character.

Of course, gathering with other former members, especially ex-members from their own group also helps people overcome the isolation and the shame of feeling duped. They were not the only ones who were deceived in this way, and connecting with other members to talk about their experiences is profoundly helpful. The International Cultic Studies Association holds annual conventions with workshops for former members, and they also hold a workshop for children or adults who grew up in spiritually abusive groups, addressing those specific needs. They can also often arrange for counselors to meet with small groups when larger numbers of people make an exodus. Personal counseling is also always an option.

I believe that journaling one’s experiences and thoughts is essential to recovery because of the healing effects of writing down one’s thoughts and feelings. Its beneficial effects have been studied and documented, and it also provides some daily structure which reinforces commitment to recovery. Soul Repair: Rebuilding Your Spiritual Life by VanVonderan and the Ryans can help provoke thoughts and give a person ideas about their own recovery, helping them to journal about their experience. My favorite book for help with practical issues as opposed to spiritual ones is“>Take Back Your Life by Janja Lalich, and it can be used as a guide to get started in journaling, too. The book describes the experience of spiritual abuse but also has lists of questions which help to prompt a person’s review of their experience. I also like Who’s Pulling Your Strings;”> by Harriet Braiker for the more personal aspects of recovery, picking up where Take Back Your Life concludes. As a jumping off point for those who have not journaled before, answering the thoughtful questions in the book that are geared towards recovery can be a great start.


My Savvy Sisters: What does your organization offer? Who can receive this help?

I’m actually not an organization but a private individual who has been through the process of spiritual abuse and recovery myself. I set out to explain and describe the true nature of the dynamics at work within some specific Christian groups (the quiverfull and patriarchy movements). I hoped to educate others about the ways in which spiritually abusive groups operate, and much of the best information I offer can be found on the sidebar of my website UnderMuchGrace.com.

People often write to me for specific help and often just to share their story. There is a great power in telling others who understand your experience, and I do quite a lot of listening and encouraging via email. I sometimes refer people to other resources like the International Cultic Studies Association for more specific concerns. I offer some helpful ideas about what to read and have collected lots of online material including audio and video helps that people can add to their own study of spiritual abuse. Reading and learning about spiritual abuse, cultic behavior, and how manipulation works is THE BEST way to recover from the experience.

Anyone can write to me for more help or more information about a specific issue, whether it concerns aberrant Christianity or some other manipulative group. My focus in this area is unique because of my interest in the techniques used by spiritual abusers. Chances are that if a related concern is not addressed on my website, I likely know someone else to whom I can refer others who does deal with the matters that I do not. I’m also asked to address certain specific issues concerning spiritual abuse, so I will often write specifically about particular problems on my website.


My Savvy Sisters: Why is it important to get help?

The experience of spiritual abuse can be devastating, and there is help available. One of the most helpful and healing aspects of finding help for me was learning that I was not alone in my experience.

It is also important to learn about the tactics and spiritual abuse and manipulation in general, especially after the experience. Within Christianity, many people leave the heartbreak that they experienced at one church, and without learning about the dynamics of how groups operate, they often get involved with another group that is no different than the one they left. People will believe that it was just the leadership of the first church, never realizing the process and the hallmark signs of spiritual abuse itself. Because we are attracted to the familiar and because we human beings tend to seek out situations that replay our unresolved traumas, we are very likely to get involved in another spiritually abusive situation instead of recognizing the dynamics and walking away.


My Savvy Sisters: How can this help change the victim’s life?

Spiritual abuse is merely manipulation on a larger scale, focusing on groups of people rather than just individuals. A person can use the experience to strengthen their own sense of self and their own beliefs, making good use of the experience as a learning experience.

In terms of spiritual things, the experience gives a person to develop their belief system, something they many not have done before, relying on others to do it for them. It is a wonderful process of personal growth to do a personal moral inventory and choose one’s own course, a very enriching and positive experience. It can become a great opportunity to reclaim one’s own heart and soul in a new way, reconnecting with faith without coercion and in a positive way.

Harriet Braiker does a great job of walking a person through this process of “becoming a hard target” for all manipulators and manipulation in general in her book Who’s Pulling Your Strings. She talks about “clearing out the bugs in your mental computer” (pg 207), a process of recognizing areas of vulnerability in your own life that manipulators tend to abuse. She presents tools for overcoming “people-pleasing habits and mindsets, approval addiction, fear of anger/conflict/confrontation, lack of assertiveness/inability to say no, a blurry sense of identity, low self-reliance, and an external locus of control” (pp 205-235). Exploring these topics can yield a remarkable gain in every area of a person’s life. Addressing the unfinished business of our lives encourages us to move through the past and into a bright future.

Manipulation of any type takes a heavy toll on overall well-being, emotional health, psychological health, physical health as well as a person’s relationships. The process of recovery can help people find their innate sense of courage and strength, and it will manifest in ways that they could never imagine. Along the way, people realize that they had these abilities all along but lacked the skills and knowledge about how to use them. People learn again or for the first time how how they can trust themselves, a truly wonderful gift.

Read More Spiritual Abuse Survivor: Erika’s Story

Read More Recovering From Spiritual Abuse

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Comments (4)

  1. Hillary March 28, 2011
  2. frogla March 31, 2011
  3. frogla March 31, 2011
  4. David Anderson March 31, 2011

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