Can anything good come out of experiencing spiritual abuse? It might not seem possible when someone has lost family, friends, years of time, finances, or opportunities, but I believe the answer is yes.
Trauma researchers have studied survivors of all kinds of trauma, from sexual violence, to natural disasters, to acts of terrorism, to major illnesses and have identified five areas of growth that generally occur: growth in relating to others, increased personal strength, spiritual change, appreciation for life, and new possibilities (Tedeschi and Calhoun 1995). Some perceived benefits include enhanced self-efficacy, increased compassion, and life style changes (McMillen and Fisher 1998).
What can a person do to maximize the possibility of positive outcomes following spiritual abuse? I suggest using therapy as a safe space to explore what happened and help you cope with the trauma. A therapist can help you draw meaning from your experience and help you reinterpret it. A therapist can help you move from victim, to survivor, to being a person who thrives. They can help you challenge your own black/white, all/nothing thinking patterns which are commonly promoted in spiritually abusive situations.
It’s important to nurture relationships with people who have no agenda to convert you to something new. As you establish boundaries and take time to know someone, you will discover that there are kind, loving people from all walks of life. You will feel liberated by having friends of your own choosing. You can discover the richness that comes with having friends with a variety of beliefs and cultures.
Whether you left voluntarily or were expelled from a controlling group, you soon find out how strong you are. You take on seemingly impossible tasks like figuring out what you believe or do not believe. You take on new challenges like trying new hobbies, returning to school, and raising your children to be curious and nonjudgmental.
You can blossom spiritually. You develop discernment; you recognize and avoid other abusive forms of faith. You can study science and religion, and form a set of beliefs about life that work for you and your family. You can decide what nurtures you spiritually. For some people it might be time in nature, or volunteering, or a new faith tradition.
After leaving an abusive situation you may feel great relief for having escaped. There may be gratitude that you are no longer wasting time or being manipulated. There is a new appreciation for the small things in life. You are free to have a drink, say a swear word, vote, celebrate a holiday, wear a short skirt, sleep in on Sunday, try out a new church, or use your money as you see fit.
Read that book. See that movie. Ask that question. Give your opinion. Talk to that person. The net result of having all these choices, friendships, and experiences, is self-efficacy, self-esteem, and self-determination.
Post trauma growth is seen during times of reflection. People who report the most growth have been able to stay optimistic, have re-framed their situation, and used the available supportive resources. If the trauma is new, do things to help increase your happiness, such as daily exercise. Find supportive people. Therapists and others who have left abusive religions can be very helpful. Reframe your situation. You have losses, but what are your gains? It may seem impossible, but over time you too should experience post traumatic growth.
My blogs take on all topics related to recovery, including commentary on the intersection of spiritual abuse and current events.
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