Emotional abuse is a technique used by leaders to establish power and control. Emotional abuse negatively affects the believer, causing them to try harder and do more, even though they wonder if it will never be enough; it tears down the person’s self-esteem, and can cause depression and anxiety.[i]
The group claims to offer the person safety, happiness, and love, but the reality the person experiences is often different. The teaching and indoctrination leaves him or her being cautious to do right and to not offend. They are cautious because they know that one misstep can bring swift repercussions. They have observed what happens to other who have disagreed or slipped up. The emotional abuse causes cognitive dissonance. They are stuck between what they see and what they are told. They may see injustice but hear of love, and they are not allowed to question.
Emotional abuse makes a person feel crazy. It involves mind games, name calling, humiliation, and insults. There comes a point where the person is damned if they do, and damned if they don’t.
Loaded language is used to create fear. Calling people who leave “mentally diseased”, “apostate” or God’s “enemies” keeps people afraid of others and afraid of asking their own questions. Mixed messages and double talk creates anxiety. Some groups say things to imply that an individual can follow their conscience on a matter, but then follow up by saying a faithful Christian would weigh it carefully, implying that anyone who did the action was weak.
Healthy groups change policy and theology and reverse course in order to correct an injustice or to create a more loving environment. Spiritually abusive groups change policy or theology for their own gain, and to manipulate followers. Groups that set prophetic dates that fail to appear, will often shift blame to their members, or deny they ever set dates; both are emotionally abusive.
Emotional abuse can literally occur behind closed doors when people are put on trial for perceived wrong doing. Victims of rape or sexual abuse have experienced the humiliation by being forced to describe in explicit detail every piece of their victimization. Good, conscientious people are made to feel guilty over minor mistakes. Members of spiritually abusive groups even report being followed (stalked) by others who are trying to catch them in sin.
It is emotionally abusive to instill fear through excessive talk about demons. In some groups, movies, cartoons, and toys are made to be objects through which evil gains access to the individual. Urban legends are repeated as fact to help remind members to stay close and to never deviate. Demonology causes people to fear their neighbors, their homes, and even family members, making it nearly impossible to find the courage to leave.
There are a multitude of ways that emotional abuse occurs in spiritually abusive groups. But there is only one way to recover from emotional abuse. The person must choose to leave the relationship. He or she must stop engaging with the abuser. Continuing to engage, or returning to the group, will lead to further abuse, further name calling, further mind games, and further humiliation. Examining the person or group from all angles will often reveal enough to keep you from returning.
Thoroughly evaluate what happened. Were you put into a no win situation? Examine your own cognitive dissonance. Were they really the happiest, most loving people? More importantly, were you really happy, or were you motivated by fear of loss? To overcome ambiguity, get solid in your own beliefs. Start by writing, “They taught me, ________, but I believe.” For example, they taught me that all nonbelievers were evil, but I have met many people outside of the group who live in integrity.” Continue writing this list over the next few weeks. By stating your beliefs, you begin to create distance between them and you.
Emotional abuse erodes self-esteem, so be kind to yourself and identify your good qualities. What are the things that you like about yourself? What are you good at? What are your best characteristics? The group may have insulted you, humiliated you, and made you feel bad about yourself. Their love was conditional. Grow in unconditional love for yourself. Build and review this list regularly.
If you are ashamed of some of your choices related to the person or group who spiritually abused you, such as joining, staying, or not leaving sooner, identify the lessons learned and use these lessons to avoid spiritually abusive groups in the future. If you are dealing with betrayal, can you think of the person as your very good teacher? What did you learn from that person and situation that will help you have a better future for yourself?
If you have a lot of left over fear and anxiety, a good therapist can help you examine it and find ways to manage it and let go. Some general suggestions are to limit your exposure to media that raises anxiety. If you were fed images of Armageddon, stop watching the news for a period of time while you work through the spiritual abuse. In some cases, you will need to expose yourself to the things you were taught to fear. For example, watch those movies, or cartoons, and read those books. Look for the overarching themes like good winning over evil, loyalty and friendship, or the metaphor of journeying. Buy that prohibited toy. See and count the good things that occur on a daily basis, despite your exposure to the prohibited. Experience the freedom of choice. Little by little you can heal from the emotional abuse.
[i] For more on emotional abuse in relationships please visit: http://www.womenshealth.gov/violence-against-women/types-of-violence/emotional-abuse.html, and http://www.med.umich.edu/abusehurts/abuse_emotional.pdf
My blogs take on all topics related to recovery, including commentary on the intersection of spiritual abuse and current events.
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