Damages Inflicted by Spiritual Abuse
Excerpts from chapter 2, Recovering From Churches That Abuse, by Dr. Ronald Enroth. The complete book now available online in PDF format.
Dr. Enroth quotes one person's experience after leaving:
"You feel so glad to be out when you first leave. For all those years we weren't allowed to visit other churches, so it was great to be able to find other Christians, people who studied the Bible and who loved the Lord. We settled into a church fairly quickly after we got out. After the newness of being out wears off, you begin to feel the tremendous loss of the years that you were there. You don't feel that you really fit in anywhere."
Not being able to fit in is a common feeling of the victims of spiritual abuse. Studies reveal that when people experience what sociologists call "role exit", they frequently endure a period of anxiety and feeling in a vacuum.
Quoting a study by sociologist Helen Ebaugh:
"The experience is best described as "the vacuum" in that people felt "in midair," "ungrounded," "neither here nor there," "nowhere."
The anxiety felt over "the lost years" is common to many former members of abusive churches or cults. Sometimes people go through a kind of grieving process as they reflect on "what might have been" if they had not been trapped in their situation for a long time.
Read the Bible?
Quoting an interview:
"I enjoy visiting other churches and hearing the Word of God preached. But it is hard for me to read my Bible every day because of the regime I lived with for twenty years. I don't like to read the Bible. I don't feel part of anything. I don't want to feel a part of anything...I don't have any desire to become involved. How do you explain to other Christians the last twenty years? People try to be nice, but it is hard for them to understand...What would help me in my recovery is to talk to someone who is farther along in recovery than I am."
The problem of not being understood is common among victims of spiritual abuse. Just about the time they find a "normal" Christian church and develop friendships and a trust relationship with the leadership, they tell their story to someone and in response are likely to encounter suspicion and skepticism about their spiritual stability, their mental health, or both. As a result, victims feel guilty, misunderstood, and even rejected. They wonder whether they should ever again risk revealing their past.
Quoting cult expert Madeleine Tobias,
"The betrayal of trust by the group, with its residue of hurt, rage, and fear, presents problems for the ex-member. Knowing whom to trust and to what extent takes time...The key to trusting is to proceed slowly. Trusting is a process, not a final act. It must be earned by those who desire to get close to you."
By learning to trust again, the victims of abuse also discover that they can tolerate and trust themselves, an important part of the recovery experience.
David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen write,
"People who have been spiritually abused tend to have a negative picture of self, or a shame-based identity... Shame is an indictment on you as a person... You feel shame even when you've done nothing wrong; you feel defective as a human being, and like a third-rate Christian undeserving of God's blessings and acceptance."
Victims are always on the receiving end of blame. Because abusive church leaders typically blame members for anything that goes wrong, those who break free of the abuse either find it difficult to accept blame for anything or find themselves wallowing in self-blame. Madeleine Tobias comments,
"Ex-members have a tendency to continue this practice of self-blame after they leave...They may feel that there is something lacking in themselves, or they were not good enough."
Besides trusting people, victims of spiritual abuse also need to learn to trust God again. There will be a struggle with the question of why God allowed people to be ensnared in the group. One person wrote,
"I keep asking myself, why can't I recover from this? Why can't God take it away and make it disappear? If I could, I would let Him. Maybe I am holding on to it as an excuse. I don't know. I'm very confused about why God would let me go through these things."
Research shows that it is not uncommon for victims of spiritual abuse to have disturbing dreams and nightmares. Re-experiencing trauma through painful memories or recurrent nightmares is one of the elements in diagnosing what has come to be known as "post-traumatic stress disorder." This disorder should be treated through professional counseling.
Further reading on damages inflicted by a cult experience: