How Can Faith Communities Help Survivors of Spiritual Abuse?

ICSA Today, Volume 9, Number 2, 2018, 2-5

How Can Faith Communities Help Survivors of Spiritual Abuse?

By Michael D. Langone

People do not join groups they know will be bad for them. Initially, they usually view the group they join as “wonderful.”

Those who have grown up in these groups usually had no say about their being a part of the group. Some of these young people are kicked out of their groups; for others, the decision to leave their family home/group may have been a costly, but healthy decision.

Abusive groups or relationships (e.g., between a guru and devotee, an imam and worshipper, or a pastor and a congregant) tend to be characterized by a power differential in which the more powerful figures exploit their positions to take advantage of those with less power.

Thus, when people leave abusive groups or relationships, they tend to feel betrayed or confused because they cannot account for their pain, and often that they are failures because of their inability to live up to the demands of the abuser(s).

Those who feel betrayed will tend to be wary of relationships in which there may be a power differential (e.g., psychotherapist-client; pastor-congregant). Even though many want help or a faith community, their level of hesitation, suspicion, and sensitivity may be quite high. Those for whom confusion is dominant may benefit from education about the dynamics of spiritual abuse, although sometimes indecisiveness makes it difficult for them to pursue or persist in educational endeavors.

Those who feel that they are failures may still believe in their abuser(s) and tend to be self-blaming. This makes them vulnerable to other abusers, who may realize that “strategic kindness” can help them gain control over the self-blaming person. Self-blamers may also unwittingly communicate a desire to restore the once-rewarding dependent relationship they had with their abuser. This kind of ambivalence can be especially trying for people born or raised in their groups, some of whose abusers may even have been family members with whom they understandably seek some kind of reconciliation. Even those abuse victims who have overtly rejected their abusers may maintain some level of faith in the belief system into which they were indoctrinated.

Sorting through which aspects of a belief system an individual wants to keep, modify, or discard is a long process, which is complicated by the redefining of words that so often happens in toxic groups.

What to Expect From Spiritual Abuse Victims Who Have Recently Left an Abusive Situation

Ambivalence. They may want help or closeness, yet they may be afraid to accept help or to get close. Hence, be prepared for sometimes inexplicable “pulling away” just when you think your kindness and love is getting through. Similarly, they may want to be independent and mature, yet many years of induced dependency may incline them to seek the comfort of dependent relationships.

Indecisiveness. People who were under another person’s control or influence for a long time may, when they are free of that control, have difficulty making decisions because they are so accustomed to deferring to others regarding even sometimes trivial personal decisions (e.g., what clothes to wear).

Fear. Toxic groups induce anxiety and are often scary places to be. Fear and other emotions, such as guilt, are used to control members. Sometimes the levels of fear instilled in members may be extreme. Members are often taught that everyone outside the group, and especially anyone in another religious organization, is evil, or at least untrustworthy. Thus, even stepping foot over the threshold of another faith-based organization can be a momentous step for spiritually abused persons. It is vital not to crowd them, and to give them emotional space so that their fear level can decline as they can begin to experience the organization as a place of safety.

Emotional volatility. Abuse victims may sometimes quickly move from anger to depression to anxiety, and they may sometimes show all of those emotions at the same time. Sometimes seemingly innocuous stimuli (such as a particular verse from a religious text) can trigger anxiety associated with past experiences.

Difficulty expressing themselves. Individuals coming out of spiritually abusive situations may have been verbally stifled. Those raised in abusive groups may never have had the normal adolescent experiences of sharing secrets with friends, questioning authority, or discovering what "I" think. For this reason, there may sometimes be a noticeable gap between a person's obvious intelligence and capacity to articulate an opinion. Such intellectual hesitancy may also contribute to theological rigidity.

Theological rigidity or theological confusion. Some abuse victims retain the usually rigid belief systems of their abusers and may continue to interpret events and relationships according to that system. Others who may have begun to separate cognitively from the abuser’s belief system may be unsure of what to believe. It may sometimes take years before they can feel comfortable in a faith system.

Financial need or sensitivity. Although not all spiritually abusive groups and relationships are financially exploitative, many are, and some leave their members penniless. Therefore, expect some abuse victims to be financially needy and sometimes very sensitive to the fund-raising appeals many mainstream faith-based communities depend upon.

Conflicts with loved ones. While people who were raised in spiritual communities and then leave them often leave their families behind, those who join may have become separated from their families outside the group. Spiritually abusive groups often try to separate members from their families as a means of maintaining control. Consequently, many former members of abusive groups, whether alienated from their families of origin within the group, or alienated from their families as a result of joining a spiritual community, will have impaired relationships with the family members to whom one would expect them to turn for help.

Lack of preparation for life outside the group. Many of those who have grown up in groups are completely unprepared for life outside of their groups. They may even lack basics such as primary or secondary education, work skills, or knowledge of how to find a place to live or socialize. Their needs may be extensive, and they may lack the customary support of friends or family members who remain in the group.

Misinterpretation of harmless spiritual behavior. Realize that spiritual abuse victims may perceive the enthusiasm you feel for your faith as “pushiness,” “pressure,” or “manipulation.” They may view your good intentions through a mental filter clouded by years of abuse.

What You Can Do for Victims of Spiritual Abuse

Be patient. Give them space and time to feel comfortable with you. If they rebuff you or show ingratitude, keep in mind that their response may be related to sometimes horrendous abuse of which you may have no knowledge.

Be gentle. Many spiritual-abuse victims continue to be very hard on themselves, as they were taught to be in their groups. Being gentle with them may help them be gentle with themselves. Earn their trust through patience, kindness, and understanding.

Listen to them. Encourage them to talk to you, rather than to listen to you. Avoid a lecturing tone. Even if they may criticize individuals, groups, or organizations that you respect, hear them out. Often, it is more important that someone abused spiritually speak honestly, not correctly. The pressing challenge for them is to overcome the fear of speaking their mind, not to figure out which opinion is correct.

Encourage, encourage, encourage! The self-esteem of a spiritually abused person may be at rock bottom. You have the opportunity to foster a more positive self-concept via encouragement. If you must criticize, be tactful.

Encourage them also to get information and assistance from resources that specialize in this area (e.g., International Cultic Studies Association).

Encourage them to ask questions. Help them find their own answers. Respect their views, even when you disagree.

Laugh with them. Encouraging and joining former members in humor can be a great antidote for their experiences because in many groups humor may have been forbidden.

Be confidential. Former members of some abusive groups are accustomed to having others seek to acquire and then misuse personal information. For this reason, they are understandably sensitive to perceived violations of confidentiality. Explain the exact limits of confidentiality under which you work. You should not share information with others unless the spiritually abused person knows that you will do so.

Let go! However good their intentions, helpers should be vigilant about how their own needs may sometimes cause them to hold onto a helper-helpee relationship when they should let go. Spiritually abused persons may begin a relationship as emotionally needy; however, if they have been genuinely helped, they will become independent and self-confident. Helpers should be careful not to deceive themselves and unintentionally try to maintain a relationship that has come to bring more benefits to the helper than the helpee. If you've done your job, you should let go and permit the helpee to go on with her life.

About the Author

Michael D. Langone, PhD, received a doctorate in Counseling Psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1979. Since 1981 he has been Executive Director of International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA). He was the founding editor of Cultic Studies Journal (CSJ); the editor of CSJ’s successor, Cultic Studies Review; and editor of Recovery From Cults: Help for Victims of Psychological and Spiritual Abuse (an alternate of the Behavioral Science Book Service). He is coauthor of Cults: What Parents Should Know and Satanism and Occult-Related Violence: What You Should Know. Dr. Langone, ICSA Today’s Editor-in-Chief, has been the chief designer and coordinator of ICSA’s international conferences. In 1995, he was honored as the Albert V. Danielsen visiting Scholar at Boston University. He has authored numerous articles in professional journals and books, and spoken widely to dozens of lay and professional groups, various university audiences, and numerous radio and television stations. In 2017, he was coeditor of ICSA’s book Cult Recovery: A Clinician’s Guide to Working With Former Members and Families.