Emotional/Spiritual Abuse | Identify, Symptoms, and Healing
You can be grateful and sad at the same time.
One does not cancel out the other.
What/who harms you or causes pain is valid and should be identified. I can’t remember how many times I was met with “you should be grateful!...” in response to valid cries for help and an over-pouring of honest and non manipulative emotion. Growing up in the church, we also see so much of this kind of spiritual abuse. (Not hating on the church, I’m not perfect! Duh.) But wow. The inability to accept & acknowledge responsibility is in essence denying “it” happened.
You can be in the throws of an abusive relationship/situation and not even know it. "How does this even happen?"...well, this is the case more than you may think. If you are curious or wondering if you are in an abusive relationship (romantic, parental, etc) you most likely are. I say this clearly, because, if you have to seek ways to justify or prove that you are NOT being abused, then YOU ARE/HAVE BEEN ABUSED. If you are one who was/are a victim of parental abuse, you are most likely more unaware/confused because you were most likely told what to think, but if you are reading this...you are searching, and that is such a good thing. Abuse comes in many forms and it is not always physical. While I am a survivor (all glory to God) of many forms of abuse throughout my life, (some of the sexual abuse which I've touched on in my digital download RECLAIMED), I'll be focusing on emotional/spiritual abuse, how to identify it, some of its symptoms, and how to begin the process of placing boundaries and prioritizing your safety/health. I will be speaking using the 'her' pronoun, but you should read his/her, he/she, etc in place. Please know that there is not one size fits all manual when it comes to abuse, healing, or any one person's experience or story. What I share here is merely a more generic tool with an aim to aid anyone who may have been as lost/desperate for insight as I was at many points in my life. If you are in danger, NOT JUST PHYSICAL, please contact someone you trust, or a local shelter to help you out of your immediate situation.
How to Identify Emotional/Spiritual Abuse
A person may know that she has been emotionally or spiritually abused when she has been taught, either covertly or overtly, to negate her own original thoughts, emotions, beliefs and body sensations because she has been convinced in some way that to operate out of these would be a betrayal of a 'sacred contract' or relationship with either the divine, an authority figure, or a parent/the parents. This kind of 'betrayal' would typically be labeled as "disobedience" or "not honoring" the parents or the authority figure. While emotional/spiritual abuse is not always sourced from the parents, parents are the ultimate power in a child’s life and children of early ages are looking to define themselves, to find out who they are; so they seek out these powerful sources of authority and love to give them a mirror by which they can define themselves. Parents very commonly give children a faulty mirror, based in their own projections, needs or unresolved issues (their own trauma, abuse past/present). Ergo they are teaching the child to define himself separate from her own original thoughts, emotions, beliefs and body sensations. Rather the child is defined as what the parents need or believe the child to be in whatever stage the parents/authority figure is in. The child goes along because he so desperately needs these parents and fears that to do other than that would be to be abandoned by the parents, who seem to base their love on the child’s accommodation for the parental need or desire. *reference below
Some "Symptoms" of Trauma from Emotional/Spiritual Abuse
As I wrote above, there is no one size fits all manual for how trauma and abuse will weed out in each life. Every person will see different things, but what is beautiful is that we are not alone, and we are created in the likeness of the same Creator, so there can be a lot of similarities in how things affect us as humans. "The wound of spiritual/emotional abuse is the inability to access and appreciate the Self. People who are so wounded often have a great deal of difficulty asserting boundaries with their abuser/s or other people in their lives without feeling enormous guilt. They carry huge burdens of care for others in the name of being 'good'—frequently enabling others not only to do things that are harmful to themselves, but to do things that are also harmful to the person carrying the burden. They go to guilt first as a primary motivator—“I have to do that because if I don't, they will be sad (mad/angry/think I'm selfish/think I'm ungrateful).” Those who carry this kind of woundedness can be deeply conflicted about what is doing the “right” thing when any decision needs to be made or they can be very confident that they always know what is the right thing to do, because they have never dared ask themselves what they think, feel or believe—some very significant other has already told them what to think, feel and believe. They have no clue where they stop and someone else begins. They seek external approval, rather than internal peace. In other words, they have been taught to believe that Self is unimportant, while the external leadership or rules for living are everything. The spirit, the soul, the authentic Self is left out of the experience of life entirely, while the person lives out of an identity that pleases the church authority, the parents, the party who holds divine-like authority over the abused."*
With the grace of God, coupled with hard and diligent work in therapy, I have seen continued healing in my trauma responses/symptoms (shown in the figure below). While I know this is something that will be present in my life, I feel so thankful that I have had the opportunity & ability to identify and heal! Not all victims/survivors have the community or even know that they need help! After all, most abusers WERE ONCE VICTIMS of abuse, themselves! Without addressing and healing, these things can "hide" and lead to perpetuating the abuse cycle in our family system and in our lives.
Some Typical Behavior of the Abuser If You "speak up"
As with the symptoms of trauma, there is no specific guide for how all abusers behave all the time. I am listing some very common ways that abusers behave that I feel comfortable sharing, but there are many ways that cannot possibly be listed. Many victims/survivors have tried to "speak up" and speak their truth once they realize they are able to say "NO", but were met with one or all of the following reactions:
Opposing: The abuser will argue against anything you say, challenging your perceptions, opinions, and thoughts. The abuser doesn’t listen or volunteer thoughts or feelings, but treats you as an adversary, in effect saying “No” to everything, so a constructive conversation is impossible.
Discounting & Belittling: This is verbal abuse that minimizes or trivializes your feelings, thoughts, or experiences. It’s a way of saying that your feelings don’t matter or are wrong. "You are so emotional", "You lack self control", "You are negative", "You are ungrateful"
Undermining & Interrupting: These words are meant to undermine your self-esteem and confidence, such as, “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” finishing your sentences, or speaking on your behalf without your permission.
Denying: An abuser may deny that agreements or promises were made, or that a conversation or other events took place, including prior abuse. The abuser instead may express affection or make declarations of love and caring. This is crazy-making and manipulative behavior, which leads you to gradually doubt your own memory, perceptions, and experience. In the extreme, a persistent pattern is called gaslighting, named after the classic Ingrid Bergman movie, Gaslight. In it, a husband used denial in a plot to make his wife believe she was losing her grip on reality.
Blame Shifting, Comparing & Minimizing: As 'simple' as it sounds. An abuser uses all their circumstances, 'perceived reality of you' (you are disrespectful, you have rude body language, etc) and/or their emotions to justify their bad behavior and abuse all the while shutting down your emotion and response. An abuser may also attempt to minimize the affect and gravity of their abuse by recalling and responding that they had it much worse (comparing your experience to their prior relationship, their parents, etc). They will list the things that they have done for you, things that they never had, ways they were neglected, and ways/times that they were loving to you as an attempt to guilt you out of your stance to end the abuse or put boundaries in place.
How to Confront, Set Boundaries, Or Repair the Relationship
In order to confront the abuse, it’s important to understand that the intent of the abuser is to control you and avoid meaningful conversation. Abuse is used as a tactic to manipulate and have power over you. (See "How to Spot Manipulation.") If you focus on the content they spill over you verbally, you’ll fall into the trap of trying to respond rationally (you cannot have a rational conversation with the irrational), denying accusations, and explaining yourself, and will lose your power. The abuser has 'won' at that point and deflected responsibility for the abuse. One thing I want to restate, you cannot have a rational conversation with the irrational. This is not to say that people cannot change and that God cannot redeem ANY relationship, but just because you are ready to confront/repair the relationship (I'm assuming at that point you have already forgiven), does not mean that they are ready or have even acknowledged your place. Whether it is your wife, husband, mom, dad, friend, or sister, if they are in the throws of their abusive behavior and are still in denial of the existence of that abuse, it is not wise to pursue repair of the relationship, rather, space and distance (i.e. boundaries) are needed. This will look different in every single abuse/receiver case, and in most cases, there is an enabler involved. There will be a temptation to allow the abusers' enabler to remain "unboundaried" because in most cases, they were not the direct source of the abuse, but think about it this way: if the abuser is the meth addict and the enabler is the one prepping the needle and handing it to the addict, are they any less responsible? If the enabler has never fully and truly spoken up or pushed against the abuse, they too, are an abuser. *
I believe that God is actively reconciling this world. This pain is not what he intended for us when He created such beauty, but we don't have to despair, because this is not the end. Unfortunately, it is not fully in our control how people react, think, or respond. I believe God will one day reconcile all the broken relationships of all time and the thought of that brings me to tears, but it may not happen this side of death, and that too brings me to tears.
Setting boundaries/separation for a period of time in the context of marriage is such a painful thing, obviously you both love each other, but isn't the BEST love the kind that heals? Perhaps that small period of time will reap such beautiful fruit so that the marriage can TRULY flourish. Choosing to set boundaries with your parents can be so devastating, especially, in some cases, the parents will not reach out to you or seek after you. God calls us to honor our parents, and in the case of an abusive parent/s, the best way to honor them is to forgive, love them from a distance, pray for healing, and not allow them to dig themselves into even more guilt with their inability to love you without harming you. Remember, you are the child, THEY are the parent. Just a God seeks out His children, we were designed to allow our parents (earthly creators) to seek after us when they are ready, able, or even want to have a relationship with you. Setting boundaries with an abusive child is so heartbreaking. That is your son, your daughter. You remember their laughter when you'd throw them in the air and catch them. You remember their innocence as you tucked them into bed. But now, the toxicity is affecting you and the rest of your family. They may be angry, hurt, and confused as to how or why you could choose to place a boundary, but this could be the catalyst that helps spur change and growth towards a healthy mind! Obviously, there are so many different stories out there and how you are currently experiencing the pain of brokenness in relationship, but know that right now, I am praying for you. I am praying for your abuser/s. Hurt people hurt people, and I can only feel so much hope that one day, our abusers will also find healing and repaired relationship. It is no fun carrying guilt, our prayer should be that one day it's no longer masked....but set free.
Most of us have some amazing and happy memories with our abuser/s. This can be confusing and even more difficult to set boundaries. But it cannot be safe to try to place all the good on one side of the scale, and the abuse on the other in an attempt to see which side outweighs the other. Abuse is not an even trade off for a good deed or a moment of kindness, ESPECIALLY in a parent/child abuse scenario. Parents feed their children. Parents change their children's diapers. Parents make sure their kids go to school. These are not things that should/can be used as reasons for children to be indebted or ignore abuse. I don't expect my neighbor to feed his dog and then beat him with a stick and come out even because he has cared for his dogs hunger/physical needs. Children who have experienced abuse and then grow up into adults who have yet to confront the abuse typically feel loyal and soldiered to the "family" and keeping the family secrets. This typically roots out in an over defensiveness of the family/parents and a code of "family over everything", but usually, this only reaps deeper pain, bitterness, and even more abuse. Hold onto those great memories, laugh when you can laugh, watch home movies of special times if you don't feel like they are a trigger, and then also allow the boundary to keep you and your family safe. As my counselor/therapist once said "It's not always either/or, sometimes it's both/and". It may not be "I never talk about my abuser or our history", but more so, "I loved this one time _____ and I went to the park and I was laughing so hard...I miss that, and I miss ______, but for right now, this is how it has to be."
Whether it’s a family member, friend, or your own self talk, PUSH AGAINST these kinds of lies:
- because you acknowledge something/behavior is unacceptable/damaging, you are also ignoring all the “good” in a person or situation
- because you are not allowing abuse/bad behavior, you are ungrateful for anything beautiful, past or present, in a relationship
- because you have a legitimate feeling of sadness, you are dwelling or a negative person .
I hope this helps any of you out there that have experienced abuse or know someone who is/has! Praying for you & just know that we love a God that is making all the broken things whole, new, and beautiful.
I am here for any direct emails: firstname.lastname@example.org or, if you feel comfortable, you can comment here on this post. If you are in any danger, please contact your local authorities and/or shelter.
Sending love to you,
sources and references:
Darlene Lancer, JD
Andrea Matthews, LPC