I recently visited a forum of former members of certain restrictive-type churches. I didn’t have to search long to find fallout from a spiritually abusive experience. The third comment on the most recent post said this:
I don’t know what is sadder, that we’ve left and basically no one has cared or contacted us or that we still feel kind of sad that no one cared. We left the church I grew up in about a year ago and then started going to a new bigger church. … When we left the first church, family members shunned us and treated us bad because basically, how dare we leave the little family church to go to a bigger church, one of their enemy churches. As far as they are concerned we are basically out of the Lords will and living under a curse for leaving them. Then in May we stopped going to the big church and no one cared. What’s crazy is that we still haven’t completely given up on the idea of going back to …[this kind of] church, we just don’t know which one to go to. We are entertaining the idea of going to a different type of church but it’s like we are stuck in depression and confusion and don’t know what to do anymore. What is wrong with me that I tend to cling toward a religion and think about going back to these churches that were nothing but crazy drama anyways and then to top it off when we left the people didn’t care anyway! We have no friends anymore and most of our family doesn’t speak to us. They don’t even like us enough to try to win us back!
Then, sadly, the author of the comment adds a pathetic “Lol.” at the very end.
There really isn’t a lot to laugh about here.
The comment was just the first example I could find. It is not an isolated case. Far from it. All over the nation – really, all over the world, according to the Feedjit site reader on the Provender page – individuals are leaving churches with their faith demolished and their spiritual ideals shattered, victims of abusive churches.
When churches or church leaders take the most vulnerable parts of us, our trust and faith, and rip them to shreds, the results are truly devastating.
On Provender, I link to an article called Psychological Issues of Former Members of Restrictive Religious Groups by Jim Moyers. This piece examines the great damage done to those whose faith was shattered after leaving “fundamentalist” groups.
Moyers details the effects of something he calls “Shattered Faith Syndrome.” Here is how he describes it: Having lost faith in what was once a primary source of meaning and guidance, the former believer feels lost and overwhelmed. While not all groups go so far as to prohibit contact with those who leave, a former member is unlikely to be well regarded by the faithful. Estrangement from the community of believers – the focus of social life within many such groups – will compound the sense of isolation and despair that often comes with the loss of one’s faith.
Isolation and despair: the hallmarks of severely abused Christians abandoned by their former friends.
Moyers says that the psychological effects experienced by such outcasts are long-lasting. He says they often undergo a chronic “sense of dissatisfaction coupled with difficulties in finding new sources of meaning and direction.”
That certainly would describe the forum commenter above. Because controlling groups treat human reason with suspicion, Moyers says, these members too often fall prey to authoritarian teachings.
Their teachings stress “human imperfection.” The followers often internalize the belief that pride in oneself is sinful, and that results in a perpetual negative self image.
Carrying around a persistently negative self image is a horrible way to live. The toll, even before leaving the group, must be a burden difficult to shoulder.
Moyers says that many inhibitions and compulsions as well as frustration and guilt stick around long after those who leave have intellectually rejected the teachings. “Having been taught to regard every impulse as potentially evil,” Moyers writes, “the former believer may have little capacity for spontaneity and lack viable means for genuine self-expression.”
Some of the spiritual abuse checklists mentioned on Provender include “lack of a sense of humor” as a sign. Living with constant negativity is a sure way to beat out of a person any spontaneity or humor. It is no wonder people from controlling groups begin to dress, act and look the same, and often seem to have little joy.
Even after they escape or are kicked out of controlling fellowships, they still experience some of that same flatness, and sometimes things might even seem worse for a while.
After you are out, where do you find new friends? In churches your former elitist church looked down on and castigated? Unlikely. Out in the world, full of sinners and backsliders? Hardly. In another elitist group? All too often that’s what outcasts are led back to.
Moyers claims that when people leave restrictive groups, they lose the tenets that formerly composed their source of meaning and self-definition, “the central organizing principle of her or his life.” When you lose the core, you are suddenly open to a sense of meaninglessness or futility.
Because of this, there is going to have to be a period of grieving, and people in these situations don’t always recognize that need. Many of these groups are already suspicious of “worldly” psychology. Psychology is seen to be a system of explaining the human heart in direct competition to the biblical worldview.
If you didn’t trust psychology when you were in a controlling group, you probably aren’t suddenly going to find it acceptable when you are out. It still holds a threatening place to many. But even so, just as medicine has value, mind medicine also has value, and survivors who do take advantage of therapeutic methods may end up with an advantage.
Moyers suggests that naming your losses and also those things you gained by leaving “can go a long way towards helping someone move through a necessary grief process. The depression that an ex-member may feel is a normal and understandable response to a very real loss.”
He also points out the “double loss” that ex-members from these groups have to deal with. They aren’t understood by family and friends still in the group, and they aren’t understood by those outside. To the world, any member of an unorthodox group is probably going to seem weird. Moyers says they are therefore “misunderstood and isolated.”
Another article on the deep repercussions of spiritual abuse comes from the churchabuse.com site. Titled Spiritual Identity Crisis? this article describes the loss that comes after spiritual abuse as a void, as the stealing of our identity. The anonymous author says that when we let our identity be taken by these groups, we are “forced to manage our own identity again” after the leader is no longer a part of our lives.
The author likens the process to brain surgery. Afterwards, you have to learn all kinds of basic skills all over again. It’s not impossible, but it can take a long time.
Here is a very powerful description from the article on what happens: “When we turned our back on the pastor/group, it was equal to abandoning God in our minds. In our desire to please the group/leader, we learned to become people pleasers, which caused us to abandon our own identity. We replaced who we were on a very deep spiritual level with the identity of the group/leader. We emptied ourselves out and took on the group mentality. After we escape this process, we find ourselves feeling empty and fractured. This is not because God is gone, but rather, because we abandoned our self identity.”
No wonder we who have escaped controlling groups often wander around aimlessly, almost in a state of shock sometimes. The central core of who we are has been manipulated and distorted. When we no longer have purpose, when we have lost our own identity, everything we do can seem futile, worthless.
The author describes what can happen when you feel this way. Some will stop reading the Bible or going to church for a while. Some are exhausted and stop working to please others, focusing on self. Others find it hard even to make decisions or perform simple, daily functions. Some cannot form their own opinions. Some will struggle for years.
But the article does end on a positive note. It says that though it is hard to do these basic things, you CAN take back your life again. Like atrophied muscles, your decision-making powers just have to start being exercised again, and eventually they can get into shape.
So if you are dealing with a sense of futility after leaving a spiritually abusive situation, what do you do?
Recognize, first, that you aren’t alone. What you are experiencing is a common reaction to the manipulations of a spiritually abusive group.
Second, be careful that in your haste to avoid all the negative fallout you don’t immediately seek refuge in another abusive group. Keep eyes and ears open!
Third, recognize that you might have to take a break from church and church-related activities for a while. It might feel strange and seem wrong, but until your discernment skills are given a chance to be strengthened, and until you have “decompressed” or “detoxed” it might be necessary.
Fourth, list the negatives of being in the group as well as the gains from being out of it.
Fifth, talk about your experience and read about the experiences of others on sites such as this one. When you’ve lived under repressive systems for a long time, chances are there was an unspoken “don’t talk” rule. You feel like you’re gossiping every time you mention your negative experiences. You weren’t. You were being controlled. Now it’s time to get it all out in the open.
Sixth, pray. Even if you’re not sure who God is anymore. It’s okay. It really can’t hurt to pray.
If these authors are right, and I think they are, eventually you will be able to find purpose and light and hope again, though it may take time.
For more, please visit Provender, “A clearinghouse of sources on spiritual abuse and cult-like practices in churches and groups.” It provides a wealth of information, hope, and encouragement. Many, many thanks for your contribution to Quivering Daughters.