Religion—like many aspects of life—holds both beauty and brokenness. In the name of religion, wars have been fought and countries have been colonized. And at the same time, I’ve seen how religion can help individuals in despair find hope and community.
The complexity of the human condition often calls for faith in something unseen—and every person should have the right to practice the traditions of their faith. But what do we do as clinicians when religion plays a harmful role in a client’s life?
Recognizing Religious Harm in Your Clients
“Religious harm” refers to any adverse effects of one’s religious experience. It’s important that we recognize that this term does not mean that religion in and of itself is harmful, but that through religious experiences some people may be harmed. As we learn more about trauma, we’re finding that certain things that appear neutral or even positive can have unintended consequences. In light of this, we can treat religious harm in the same way we treat trauma.
Trauma-informed therapy rests on the belief that we can only heal once harm has been named as such. In order to have a healthy relationship with religion, there must be a willingness on an individual level to critique it—just as someone would with any other experience in life. When an individual does this, it’s with the hope that they can learn from their past experiences, and take what they need for their journey forward. Then, they leave behind what is no longer serving them.
A mentor once told me that as a therapist, “You can only take someone as far as you’ve gone yourself.” It’s a statement that has multiplied in truth for me as time has passed, and I find it especially helpful in my work with my clients who are processing religious harm—and in processing my own experiences with religious harm.
My Own Religious Experience
As a child, I was scared a lot. Scared that there would be a deadly tornado in my home state of Maryland (highly unlikely). Scared that I’d be eaten by a beast under my bed (also unlikely). Scared that I’d end up sad and alone like Eleanor Rigby in the famous song by the Beatles (Where do all the lonely people come from anyway?).
When uncertainty taunted me, I sought anything that would offer me a sense of certainty and in that, I found peace. In my childlike mind, I made sense of the world around me in black and white terms. I judged the world around me, and myself, as either good or evil.
I was drawn to seeking the approval of authority figures in my life who could help me feel “good.” So when the Christian evangelical church presented me with a blueprint for how to gain the approval of the ultimate authority figure—God—I was all for it. My fears of making bad decisions in my life were calmed by the reassurance of theology that God had a plan for me, as long as I followed God’s will.
The church offered me a toolbox of coping skills for life’s many quandaries. The songs I sang at church were also the songs I’d sing to myself to soothe my mind at night. Memorized scripture served as comforting mantras that I could repeat when faced with difficulties. Similar to a mindfulness practice, I was taught to slow down and pray to my Heavenly Father for discernment and protection.
Religion gave me a sense that I had a purpose beyond myself. Not to mention that the church came with a built-in community of like-minded peers to have as friends and potential future life partners. By the time I graduated high school, God had become more than just an authority to me—God was a primary attachment figure who had been central to my development.
The Possible Long-Term Impacts of Religion
Having an attachment figure who often speaks without words and keeps mystery central to their nature can have some consequences. Instead of comfort, I found confusion when it came time to make decisions as a young adult. I often mistook the symptoms of an anxiety disorder for God’s disapproval of me. Although the coping skills I gained from my experience in Christianity were helpful at the time, I later found that an unintended consequence of relying on a higher power for all decisions is that I didn’t develop strong critical-thinking skills.
Instead of relying on my own inner wisdom and instincts, I was taught to turn from them and wait for an external force to guide my path. As a young woman, this made decisions very difficult and I found myself paralyzed by fear of disappointing God and other religious leaders if I didn’t make decisions that were in line with their beliefs.
When the messages I was receiving from church leaders contradicted what I felt was true in my body and through relationships with others, I was left questioning what I truly believed. How could I know for sure if the God that I had imagined growing up was a manifestation of all that people told me God was?
The real unraveling came while attending my first graduate school class in which the professor instructed us to turn to our fellow classmates and discuss three questions: “Who is God? Who is Jesus? And who the hell are you?” Hearing the different answers from people I highly respected and had similar experiences as me was like a revelation.
For the first time, I was in an environment where I could safely apply critical thinking to my religion. What made it safe was that I perceived that those around me understood the beauty it possessed—and yet could honestly explore their relationship with it. It was in the deconstruction and reconstruction of my faith that I came to a deeper understanding of my own story and could see myself with more compassion.
How Therapy Can Help Recovery from Religious Harm
In my work with religious harm, I’ve found that it’s helpful to approach helping people heal from religious harm in the same way as we approach healing from harm caused by their parents. In her writing on object relations theory, psychologist Melanie Klein writes about “splitting,” which refers to the mental separation of objects into “good” and “bad” parts. The theory goes on to suggest that as an infant develops, they acquire the ability to understand that a given object can be both good and bad simultaneously.
Although this is a necessary stage of development, in my experience splitting occurs throughout a person’s lifespan, and it takes effort to integrate the positive and negative parts of any person or experience appropriately. As clinicians, when we guide our clients through their own experiences of splitting, we have to make them aware of what splitting is, so they can integrate the fact that both good and bad can exist within themselves at the same time. This is imperative to true self-acceptance and well-being.
In my practice, I work with clients who have split in their relationship with religion. Often, when they don’t live up to the ideal religion has presented them, they’ll see their religion as all “good” and themselves as all “bad.” But that’s a byproduct of the underlying splitting. I can treat the shame my clients feel, and together we can go deeper to help clients see how their religious experience has been harmful. This leads to a talk therapy focus on critical thinking with respect to religion.
Another challenge in treating individuals who have experienced religious harm is their fear of losing their community. Questioning aspects of religious commitment can threaten the person’s acceptance and belonging in the community. In my practice, I’ve been mindful that my clients may need to bolster their resources outside of their religious community, or find people within that community who can hold nonjudgemental space with them.
If you’re looking for additional resources for yourself or your clients, I’ve found Dr. Marlene Winell’s book Leaving the Foldto be especially helpful, as well as the support groups and trainings from Reclamation Collective.
I’m not trying to suggest that my experiences, or my healing process, should be the same as anyone else’s. But I do hope that by sharing my story, I’ll be able to inspire others to dive further into their own stories. If we as clinicians can find that space for ourselves, we’ll be able to help others find that space as well.
The views expressed here are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect the ideas and opinions of SimplePractice.
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