the burdens of spiritual trauma and wounding

When you see words like “spirituality” and “religion,” what do you think of? What feelings do you associate with these abstract terms? Today, my heart goes to those who read those words and feel overwhelmed with spiritual trauma and wounding.

Not everyone who have a spiritual background and upbringing feel proud of that. In fact, I’d say a majority of people have some form of spiritual trauma and wounding. The weight of tradition and rigid doctrine can leave a sour taste in your mouth. For as important spirituality is for our culture and well-being, it’s still a double-edged sword.

As with any trauma, spiritual or otherwise, we must unpack our baggage, the scars and burdens we carry. We may want to run away from our pasts and upbringings, but God is omnipresent. That’s something we can’t run away from forever. Here I beckon The Sound of Music in saying, you can’t run away from your problems; you have to face them.

So, let’s unpack together. Our hearts deserve healing and compassion, despite the spiritual trauma and wounding it may have endured before. Our world, abundant with love, won’t turn its back on you, even if you feel sinful, guilty, dirty, broken, or just plain disheartened.

what is spiritual trauma and wounding?

The greatest question lying before us: what exactly are we referring to when we discuss spiritual trauma and wounding? The freeing and frustrating part: it’s up to you to decide and interpret.

I cannot step in your shoes and relive exactly what you’ve experienced. As much as others can empathize, their spiritual trauma and wounding will never be what you hold true. For that reason, we’re keeping things broad to allow you to dig deep into specifics on your individual terms.

Generally speaking, spiritual trauma and wounding is “an experience of violation of the spiritual or ‘sacred’ core in human beings, harm at the innermost level, by an external ‘social’ source.” This includes anything from slander, victim-shaming, outing and calling out people, competitions in spiritual dominance and/or humility, name/identity smearing, and flat-out abuse. Whatever may have happened to you, especially in childhood and vulnerable states of spiritual openness, can serve as your understanding.

The criticism around and distaste for organized religion directly stems from spiritual trauma and wounding. I mean, we’re grappling with physical wounds and deaths fought over religious differences. There’s denouncement of native cultures and heritage, tethered to systemic racism. Cults and extremist ideologies that foster terrorism and violence. The list goes on.

why heal? what’s the point?

I mentioned earlier how bitter we may have regarding our spiritual trauma and wounding. In fact, if we’ve been brave enough to leave those abusive patterns, we can experience even more challenges and shame severing our connections to faith. We try to leave everything behind when we can.

However, simply leaving our spiritual trauma and wounding in the past doesn’t necessarily “cure” us. One may associate religious trauma as a form of PTSD that undoubtedly affects our overall well-being. Time heals, but it alone cannot heal everything.

Speaking as a very spiritual person, in fact preparing for ministerial ordination, I know your anguish. I hear your distrust, guilt, anger, and sadness around spiritual trauma and wounding. But I’m here to say, you deserve love, and the truth stands that God is love. The only wrong way to believe in God is if love doesn’t come first and foremost.

The abuse you may have endured, the people and leaders who shunned and disappointed you, do not define your worth, especially in God’s presence. Even if you don’t walk away a believer in some capacity, you at least deserve some peace.

coping with spiritual trauma

I won’t claim to know how to fully “cure” spiritual trauma and wounding. However, we can begin the process of addressing and coping with it.

professional support and guidance

Like I mentioned, I equate religious trauma to PTSD, which is both a matter of spiritual and mental health. I highly recommend therapy to anyone, but especially those needing to unpack their spiritual trauma and wounding.

Maybe you prefer a psychiatrist or therapist, but another amazing resource is spiritual direction and guidance (something I can provide to you!). These spiritual professionals cannot give you prescriptions or diagnose you, but they can help you dig deep into spiritual matters and your theology. A healthier outlook on God and the Divine can truly change the way you view your life, your purpose, and the world at large.

practice vulnerability

Any chance I get, I’m throwing Brene Brown into the mix. If you keep all your emotions and scarring locked up in a dark corner, don’t expect it to heal. In fact, the more time you keep that box hidden, the more frightening it’ll become to step close to it.

Even if you’re not talking to a professional, allow yourself to lean into what scares you. Our instincts may feel anxious, that limbic fight-or-flight response, but you grow stronger and braver the more you open yourself up in a safe, healthy way.

Undeniably, this is hard stuff. You likely experienced your religious trauma in a moment of vulnerability and weakness, so you associate vulnerability with pain. Take baby steps. Share a detail or two with a close friend or family member. You never know how others may relate to your experiences and uplift you. Let your support system do just that: support.

explore diverse spirituality

Just because one tradition inflicted pain doesn’t mean all spiritual traditions and beliefs will do the same. Utilize this as an opportunity to grow in new, unanticipated ways through learning and practice.

Have you been curious about other religions like Buddhism or Judaism? Maybe Wiccan and earth-based practices are calling your name. Whatever calls your name, allow yourself curiosity to explore the plethora that spirituality encompasses. You don’t have to feel like an organized religion or certain affiliation validates you: choosing your own path is just as honorable and wonderful.

Spirituality can be playful, inspiring, awe-provoking, overwhelming, and, most importantly, fulfilling. The gap that may have formed from religious trauma can be refilled with a sense of Spirit that’s more loving, accepting, and healthy. All it takes is an open heart and mind.

May these words provide the first stepping stones to whatever feels necessary in your healing. A God defined by hatred and injustice is not a true representation. Not even close. I encourage you to seek out all the love, compassion, empathy, peace, and sacredness your heart longs for.

Take care, and keep the faith. -Allie

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