Here’s How Spiritual Abuse Can Lead to Religious Trauma

Spirituality can offer a profound moral compass for how you embrace to live your life. It may provide a sense of solace and community when going through a difficult time. 

However, this isn’t always the case. Spiritual abuse can quickly transform a beautiful way of living into a perpetually trapped feeling of discomfort. At times, this discomfort may morph into complete terror. 

All types of abuse can be challenging and shameful, but spiritual abuse is particularly confusing. Here’s what you need to know. 

What Is Spiritual Abuse?

Spiritual abuse is an umbrella term that refers to abuse from a spiritual system, leader, or set of beliefs. This abuse is often covert and challenging to understand. For this reason, it’s common for people to not truly recognize its impact for many years. 

Spiritual abuse can also happen within the context of family or interpersonal relationships. For instance, perpetual blaming or shaming you for thinking differently could be a sign of abuse. Likewise, feeling silenced or punished when refusing to obey a particular rule is also problematic.

In some cases, spiritual abuse comes in the form of physical abuse. Leaders or other followers may use certain scriptures or beliefs to justify such harmful behaviors. 

Some other common signs of spiritual abuse include feeling:

  • Forced to subscribe to a specific way of thinking or acting
  • Prohibited to explore other religions or beliefs
  • Like it’s an “us vs. them” world when it comes to your spirituality or religion
  • Unsafe to be yourself because of being shamed or ostracized
  • Forced to pay money for enlightenment 
  • Inferior to other individuals within your religious sector
  • Trapped and unsafe to leave

Spiritual abuse tends to be insidious. Committed members of the faith will often rationalize or downplay the effects of abuse. They may contextualize these behaviors as necessary components of the religion itself. 

What Are the Effects of Spiritual Abuse? 

Depending on what specifically happened, spiritual abuse can result in long-lasting consequences. These consequences can range in severity. But, with that in mind, the more connected you felt with your faith, the more intense these reactions might be. 


There is often a sense of grieving associated with spiritual abuse. It may seem like you’ve endured a significant loss once you come to terms with your feelings. 

With this loss, you might feel a complex mixture of sadness, anger, and denial. It’s normal to feel uncertain in knowing how to manage these intense emotions. In addition, adjusting to your new life- especially if you start healing from the abuse- can also mimic a grief process. 


Spiritual abuse can result in a sense of profound loneliness. This is particularly true if you’ve built a significant community within your faith. 

For example, you may wonder if you can maintain your relationships with your family and friends. At the same time, you might find yourself distancing yourself from your loved ones, especially if you believe they don’t care about your feelings. 


Spiritual abuse sometimes comes in the form of gaslighting. When this happens, you might blame yourself for the abuse. For example, you may assume that it’s your fault you aren’t more accommodating or conforming.

To compound the issue, some faiths or leaders will encourage this kind of guilt. Therefore, you may feel justified in how you interpret your situation. 

Identity Problems

Spirituality can be a fundamental part of your identity. You may have arranged your life to follow a particular way of thinking or believing, and this pattern might have begun from a very young age.

Therefore, recognizing spiritual abuse often leads to a sense of existential despair. You might feel directionless or lost within yourself. You could feel stunted in your development and afraid to explore other paths of living. 

Unresolved identity problems often lead to unhealthy coping responses. When people don’t feel assured within themselves, they might turn to substance use, toxic relationships, or other self-sabotaging behaviors. 

Religious Trauma 

Unfortunately, spiritual abuse can lead to religious trauma. Religious trauma often comes from a sense of religious shaming, betrayal, and loss of community. 

Symptoms of religious trauma vary, but they may include low self-esteem, feeling directionless, and intensified anxiety and depression. The impact of religious trauma may linger for many years. 

Sometimes, religious trauma leads to people leaving their faith altogether. Other times, they evaluate their role within the community and focus on building a positive support network. 

Final Thoughts 

Spiritual abuse is a complex issue, and people often feel alone and afraid in their experiences. But if you’re struggling, seeking professional help can be invaluable.

Therapy offers a compassionate but neutral approach to working through your feelings. No matter where you stand with your faith, it’s important to feel supported. At Willow Counseling, we are here to help you. Contact us today to learn more. 

Willow Counseling, PLLC, Nashville, TN

Willow Counseling, PLLC exists to provide quality trauma-informed mental health counseling to the Nashville community, recognizing the interconnectedness of our emotional, spiritual and physical selves. We work together to alleviate symptoms, learn better coping skills, relieve burdens, remove the pain of trauma, and so much more. However, our greatest desire is for you to know what it means to feel purpose and joy again and to recognize the strength and worth you have to offer the world.


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