When you hear the words “religious trauma,” what do you think of? You’re maybe thinking something along the lines of Catholic priests and altar boys. And while that’s certainly one of the most egregious examples of religious trauma, it can be much subtler than that.
In 1993, Marlene Winell, a psychologist and former Christian fundamentalist, coined the term Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS) to specifically refer to “the condition experienced by people who are struggling with leaving an authoritarian, dogmatic religion and coping with the damage of indoctrination.” The definition has been expanded and now includes spiritual trauma for those who may not have identified with a specific religion (e.g. cults).
You may be thinking, my religious upbringing wasn’t that bad. And you may be right. But you may want to think about if you’re experiencing any of the following symptoms of RTS:
- Confusing thoughts and reduced ability to think critically
- Trouble making decisions
- Feelings of depression, anxiety, grief, anger, lethargy
- A loss of a community (family, friends, romantic relationships)
- Feeling isolated or a sense that you don’t belong
- Feeling “behind the times” with cultural happenings
- Experiencing significant shame, guilt and/or low self-esteem
- Addictive or compulsive behaviors
- Sexual difficulties
- “Black and White” thinking (e.g. something is either good or bad; no room for “grey”)
- Inability to tolerate the distress of participating in any kind of organized religion and avoidance of religious environments, people, and reading material.
- And many other symptoms of PTSD including nightmares, flashbacks, dissociation, emotional difficulty, etc.
RTS might show up for you in your relationships with others and yourself. For example, you may struggle with being in a relationship with someone from a different religion. Or, you may beat yourself up after doing something that would have been considered “bad” or “evil” in your religion or your family of origin. You may feel uncomfortable being your authentic self in front of loved ones. If you are experiencing this, you are not alone.
Most people don’t come into therapy to deal with their religious upbringing, but depression, anxiety, relational concerns, etc., may have been how your body has learned to deal with trauma.
One of the benefits of recovering from religious trauma is that you get to choose whether you practice your faith. (In fact, the freedom to choose your own path in life may be the greatest benefit of all.) You may develop a different, healthy relationship with religion, or you may decide to leave religion behind. You may learn to create or join a community that serves your needs, rather than changing yourself to fit the community. You could develop ways of connecting with something greater than yourself without feeling guilt or pressure to behave a certain way.
But it may be necessary to work through the trauma to tap into any spiritual growth.
If you are struggling with religious trauma, you may want to consider speaking with your therapist about it. Research suggests that talk therapy can be one of the best ways to work through religious trauma.