Religious trauma is when religious beliefs that are psychologically harmful are implemented by people who hold power in religious institutions. These psychologically harmful beliefs range anywhere between the belief of hell, belief that being LGBTQ+ is a sin, having sex outside of marriage makes you impure, or not trusting your heart/intuition and only trusting what God says. To read more about the symptoms of religious trauma and how to recover, you can click here.
There are 5 lasting effects in religious trauma that have more to do with what happens interpersonally to us than anything else. Let's take a look at what those 5 lasting effects are, thanks to the help of Happy Whole Way and the work they do in the religious trauma community.
1: Constantly Monitoring the Behaviors of Yourself & Others
In Christianity, you're taught to always hold yourself and others accountable to the system set in place. In the case of Christianity, the system is based on a Biblical principles and morals, such as not having sex before marriage, being submissive to your spouse if you're a woman, leading the family if you're a man, praying and reading your Bible daily, tithing a certain percentage of your money each year, speaking up against abortion and the LGBTQ+ community, believing marriage is between one man and one woman, and the list goes on. In Christian institutions, this system of accountability was a way to keep yourself safe within the group. You knew the boundaries and rules, and you knew that if you didn't adhere to them, other people would hold you accountable and question your character and decisions.
After leaving religion, you still might find yourself subconsciously monitoring your own behavior and the behavior of other people. This is because you were taught that doing this keeps you safe. In reality, doing this keeps you enslaved to a system that was created to control you.
2: Mistrusting Yourself
In Christianity, you're taught that you cannot trust yourself because "the heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9). You're encouraged to be guided by the Holy Spirit to make decisions, and even if something in your intuition feels off, your intuition is disregarded because it isn't God. And since our intuition can easily lead us astray, according to the Bible, trusting ourselves and what we know is best for us is actually just giving in to our sinful nature. You're taught that trusting yourself is a sin; only God can be trusted.
This makes it incredibly difficult to build self-love and self-trust. Many Christians believe that self-love isn't a Christian value because we should deny ourselves (which they equate to not giving ourselves "earthly pleasures") and follow Jesus (Matthew 16:24). After leaving Christianity, people find it challenging to believe their gut, or they may even wonder if the Holy Spirit they used to believe in was actually their intuition the entire time. Learning to fully love themselves and not believe they're worthless sinners is something that follows them for a really long time.
3: Fear of Making Mistakes
Christian institutions are pros at teaching people how to create facades...and stay in them, even if their lives are falling apart. In Christian institutions, you're taught what reactions are acceptable and what are not. Perfectionism and a performative nature are the name of the game, and in order to survive in these institutions, it became a natural part of who you were. Life really may not have been fine and your mental health really may not have been okay, but when asked if you were okay, you would say, "I'm not doing great, but man, God is still so good even when life is so hard!" Anything less than an answer like that would've let the mask slip.
The perfectionism and performative nature are so engrained because you had to become a professional at creating the perfect reactions, thoughts, and behaviors.
4: You Believe You're Still Broken
Because Christianity instills the belief that all are sinners who are deeply broken and in need of being saved, people who leave Christianity still struggle with the belief that they're inherently broken. The belief that we need someone or something outside of ourselves to save us is so incredibly psychologically harmful because it perpetuates the belief that no matter what we do, we will never be good enough on our own; our own human existence is damned, just for being human. Something we didn't choose, to be born and be human, is inherently evil.
Those who leave Christianity still wrestle with this, and may even go back and forth believing that something's wrong with them and that they need healed of a "toxic" trait.
5: You Struggle with Mental Health Issues
The majority of Christian institutions teach their followers that mental health issues are an indication that something's wrong with their relationship with God OR that Satan is attacking them, which is ultimately a good thing, because it means they're exactly where God wants them. This leads to years of people suffering with mental health issues without getting the proper treatment. Christian institutions might encourage counseling, but many have Christian counselors on staff to help you with your mental health issues, many of who might encourage you to continue praying and looking to the Bible for answers, never actually getting the root of the issue. Many Christian counselors in churches continue to perpetuate harm because their income is tied to the church, and the church has a specific doctrine they expect their counselors to adhere to.
The interesting thing is that Christian institutions are actually the perpetrator of mental health issues within the church. When there are people in power telling others they hear from God, anything that comes out of their mouth is trusted by their congregants. If these people in power are given "a word from God" for someone about their life, it could cause people to make unhealthy, harmful decisions, or cause them to believe damaging things about themselves (can we say cult much?) Anxiety and depression are diminished as "works of Satan" or "attacks of the enemy", and Christians are taught that the more anxiety and depression they feel, the closer they are to God.
It's common for people coming out of Christianity to realize that what they were experiencing while in the church was actually mental health issues and not an attack from Satan. This can actually be a great thing, because now they're able to seek professional help for what they're experiencing and can move forward in their healing journey.
At Root Counseling, Abi works with clients who have experienced religious trauma by providing them a safe, nonjudgemental space to process their experiences. To schedule an appointment, you can visit our therapists here.