Religious Trauma Syndrome

Religious Trauma Syndrome
by Marlene Winell
Religious Trauma Syndrome is the condition experienced by people who are struggling with leaving an authoritarian, dogmatic religion and coping with the damage of indoctrination. They may be going through the shattering of a personally meaningful faith and/or breaking away from a controlling community and lifestyle. RTS is a function of both the chronic abuses of harmful religion and the impact of severing one’s connection with one’s faith. It can be compared to a combination of PTSD and Complex PTSD (C-PTSD). This is a summary followed by a series of three articles which were published in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy Today.
Religious Trauma Syndrome has a very recognizable set of symptoms, a definitive set of causes, and a debilitating cycle of abuse. There are ways to stop the abuse and recover.
Symptoms of Religious Trauma Syndrome:
• Cognitive: Confusion, poor critical thinking ability, negative beliefs about self-ability & self-worth, black & white thinking, perfectionism, difficulty with decision-making
• Emotional: Depression, anxiety, anger, grief, loneliness, difficulty with pleasure, loss of meaning
• Social: Loss of social network, family rupture, social awkwardness, sexual difficulty, behind schedule on developmental tasks
• Cultural: Unfamiliarity with secular world; “fish out of water” feelings, difficulty belonging, information gaps (e.g. evolution, modern art, music)
Causes of Religious Trauma Syndrome:
Authoritarianism coupled with toxic theology which is received and reinforced at church, school, and home results in:
• Suppression of normal child development – cognitive, social, emotional, moral stages are arrested
• Damage to normal thinking and feeling abilities -information is limited and controlled; dysfunctional beliefs taught; independent thinking condemned; feelings condemned
• External locus of control – knowledge is revealed, not discovered; hierarchy of authority enforced; self not a reliable or good source
• Physical and sexual abuse – patriarchal power; unhealthy sexual views; punishment used as for discipline
Cycle of Abuse
The doctrines of original sin and eternal damnation cause the most psychological distress by creating the ultimate double bind. You are guilty and responsible, and face eternal punishment. Yet you have no ability to do anything about it. (These are teachings of fundamentalist Christianity; however other authoritarian religions have equally toxic doctrines.)
You must conform to a mental test of “believing” in an external, unseen source for salvation, and maintain this state of belief until death. You cannot ever stop sinning altogether, so you must continue to confess and be forgiven, hoping that you have met the criteria despite complete lack of feedback about whether you will actually make it to heaven.
Salvation is not a free gift after all.
For the sincere believer, this results in an unending cycle of shame and relief.
Stopping the Cycle
You can stop the cycle of abuse, but leaving the faith is a “mixed blessing.” Letting go of the need to conform is a huge relief. There is a sense of freedom, excitement about information and new experiences, new-found self-respect, integrity, and the sense of an emerging identity.
There are huge challenges as well. The psychological damage does not go away overnight. In fact, because the phobia indoctrination in young childhood is so powerful, the fear of hell can last a lifetime despite rational analysis. Likewise the damage to self-esteem and basic self-trust can be crippling. This is why there are so many thousands of walking wounded – people who have left fundamentalist religion and are living with Religious Trauma Syndrome.
Mistaken Identity
Religious Trauma Syndrome mimics the symptoms of many other disorders –
post-traumatic stress disorder
clinical depression
anxiety disorders
bipolar disorder
obsessive compulsive disorder
borderline personality disorder
eating disorders
social disorders
marital and sexual dysfunctions
suicide
drug and alcohol abuse
extreme antisocial behavior, including homicide
There are many extreme cases, including child abuse of all kinds, suicide, rape, and murder. Not as extreme but also tragic are all the people who are struggling to make sense of life after losing their whole basis of reality. None of the previously named diagnoses quite tells the story, and many who try to get help from the mental health profession cannot find a therapist who understands.
What’s the problem?
We have in our society an assumption that religion is for the most part benign or good for you. Therapists, like others, expect that if you stop believing, you just quit going to church, putting it in the same category as not believing in Santa Claus. Some people also consider religious beliefs childish, so you just grow out of them, simple as that. Therapists often don’t understand fundamentalism, and they even recommend spiritual practices as part of therapy. In general, people who have not survived an authoritarian fundamentalist indoctrination do not realize what a complete mind-rape it really is.
In the United States, we also treasure our bill of rights, our freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of religion. This makes it extremely difficult to address a debilitating disorder like RTS without threatening the majority of Americans. Raising questions about toxic beliefs and abusive practices in religion seems to be violating a taboo. No one wants to be pointing fingers for fear of tampering with our precious freedoms.
But this is the problem. Sanitizing religion makes it all the more insidious when it is toxic. For example, small children are biologically dependent on their adult caretakers; built into their survival mechanisms is a need to trust authority just to stay alive. Religious teachings take hold easily in their underdeveloped brains while the adults conveniently keep control. This continues generation after generation, as the religious meme complex reproduces itself, and masses of believers learn to value self-loathing and fear apocalypse.
There is hope
Awareness is growing about the dangers of religious indoctrination. There are more and more websites to support the growing number of people leaving harmful religion. Slowly, services are growing to help people with RTS heal and grow, including Journey Free. We are discovering the means by which people can understand what they have been through and take steps to become healthy, happy human beings.

Estranged Families and Christmas

Christmas is the hardest time of year for those estranged from close family
Image – CBS

With Christmas just around the corner, many will be finalising plans to see their families over the festive period. Yet for others, family relationships are challenging, distant and a source of pain. In some cases, relationships break down entirely leaving people estranged from close relatives.

Results from a new online survey of people estranged from family members conducted with the charity Stand Alone, has shown how difficult Christmas can be. The survey was completed by 807 people who identified as being estranged from a parent, sibling or an adult child.

Almost all identified the holiday season as the most challenging time of year, describing feelings of loneliness, isolation and sadness. These feelings and experiences are in direct contrast to the idealised images of happy families around the dinner table that feature in Christmas advertising and the media at this time of year. One respondent said:

Everyone always says ‘what family plans do you have for holidays?’ and look at you funny when you say none. It’s hard to explain to people why you don’t want to be with your own parents.

Two-thirds of the respondents felt there was a stigma about family estrangement. They described feeling judged or blamed – and feeling that estrangement was a taboo subject about which there is little understanding or acknowledgement.

No two estranged relationships looked alike. Yet common factors often led to estrangement, such as having mismatched expectations about family roles and relationships, clashes in personality and values, and emotional abuse.

Estrangement was found to be more complex than simply a lack of contact or communication between family members. Although most of the respondents who were estranged from a parent, sibling or an adult child had no contact whatsoever with this individual, approximately 25% had contact that was minimal in nature. These results are similar to those of Australian social worker Kylie Aglias, who has distinguished between family members who have no contact at all (physical estrangement) and those whose contact is infrequent, perfunctory, and often uncomfortable (emotional estrangement).

We also found that estranged relationships change over time and that cycles in and out of estrangement are common. Of those who said they wished that their estranged relationship was different, most wanted a relationship that was more loving, warm and emotionally close.

What can be done to help?

When it came to getting support, respondents said those friends and support services which offered them emotional and practical support and took the time to listen to them and show them understanding were the most helpful. They found it unhelpful when they felt friends or counsellors dismissed them or when they felt they had been judged and blamed for the estrangement.

It would be wrong to assume that all those experiencing estrangement wish for there to be reconciliation in the future. Feelings about the future of estranged relationships were varied. Of those who were estranged from a mother or father, most felt that there would never be a functional relationship between them in the future. Yet for those who were estranged from an adult son or daughter, most felt that there could be a functional relationship in the future or were unsure of the future direction of the relationship.

Four out of five respondents also reported that there had been a positive outcome from their experience of estrangement. These included feeling more free and independent, feeling happier and less stressed, and having gained a greater insight or understanding of themselves and relationships more broadly.

By listening to the hidden voices of people who are estranged from close relatives, we can begin to move beyond assumptions about what families could or should look like and begin conversations about families and family relationships as they really are.

The Conversation.com

Shunning and Suicide

Shunning, one of the most abusive practice of high-pressure groups, is often the most obvious sign that a group is abusive. It tears families and communities apart, forcing many to choose between their faith and their loved ones. Whether it is called Shunning, Disconnection, Ostracism, or De-FOOing, the harsh reality of alienation ensures that those who leave the group are cut off absolutely, often losing their entire community – friends, relatives, and their complete support system.

For one woman in Michigan who had left the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the strain of losing her community was too much, and, struggling under the weight of the shame her abusers had taught her to assume, she drowned the family dog and shot her husband and two adult children, before turning the gun on herself. According to family friends, Lauren Stuart and her husband had left the organization because their children wished to attend college – something the Jehovah’s Witnesses strongly discourage – and she wished to pursue a modeling career. Because she could no longer be a member of the group in good standing, former friends ignored her, looking the other way when seeing her in town, refusing to speak with her or acknowledge her presence. In a small community, such treatment can make life intolerable, and although the Jehovah’s Witnesses have claimed in court that shunning is a “personal choice” and never absolute, their own internal convention videos show a harsh reality, where parents are coached to ignore their own children if they are disfellowshipped.

Read more here: Open Minds Foundation

Cult Mentality

When the majority think of a “cult” they tend to focus more on religious orders. A cult can develop when a group of any kind is formed such as: “friends”, a performance group, a spiritual group etc.

You could happily be a member of a group and not realize you are gradually becoming more under the control of a particular person.

I found this article informative as it shows the type of personality to look out for in any group where there is a leader:

Cult members are “focused on a living leader to whom members seem to display excessively zealous, unquestioning commitment.” The leader is a strong-willed, domineering character who rules the group with tight control. He lets it be known in subtle ways that he is in charge of the movement. He makes the plans, he orchestrates the movements of the group or groups (sometimes he exercises his sway over several groups). He dispatches the workers, assigns their chores, etc.

Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged,” and there can be pressure or social punishment when there is disagreement with the “boss.” Those who disagree are made to feel as though they are stupid or inept. They are brainwashed with the notion that they do not have the knowledge or experience to question the leader. Younger people are particularly vulnerable to the leader’s gift of gab, and his feigned expertise. No matter how radical the leader becomes in his decisions or actions, the cult members will not criticize him. Even if there should be mild disagreement, no specific expressions are voiced. The members reason that though he may be mistaken in some of his judgments, yet the overall good he accomplishes outweighs any minor flaws.

Members are taught to “rationalize” the conduct of the leader in matters they have always “considered unethical before,” under the guise that the “end justifies the means.”

The cult leader always takes the major credit for the movement’s accomplishments. Members become psychologically dependent upon him. “What would we ever do without our leader?,” is the cult mentality.

The cult leader generates within his members “a polarized” mentality. His people evolve an us-versus-them outlook. Little by little, he criticizes other groups with which his members might tend to associate, undermining confidence in them, attempting to discredit anyone who could have influence over his flock.

An abusive person seeks to isolate the victim and make them a carbon copy of themselves by dismissing any criticism or dissent and demanding that followers or partners think like them and offer support for unacceptable acts under the guise that it benefits the group.  An inability to accommodate difference and rage at those who challenge or question unethical conduct is also used to make members tow the party line and mirror the values of the leader as good despite the reality that the consequences are often harmful to the followers.

Such people and groups are dangerous as they prey on the vulnerable to build personal assets and a faulty sense of strength and power by dominating and crushing all opponents as weak. Thinking that people can know people better than they know themselves has been the basis of analysis; however, many analysts have blind spots and react with rage to justified criticism by their patients who challenge their interpretation as projection or wrong.

Beware any leader whose ego blocks him or her from being responsible for mistakes or unacceptable behaviour and instead tries to blame the victim for daring to point out his weakness or mistake. Be wary of any group that exploits its members and makes false promises or claims power or knowledge while behaving like a mad or bad man.”

If you find this behaviour in a group of people you associate with it would be wise to extricate yourself (even though this will be difficult) before any serious damage is done.

Read more here

Psychology of Cults