When stories like that of James Arthur Ray or Jim Jones are brought to our attention, we are usually made aware of them because people have died or been so seriously injured as to warrant national media attention. We would definitely say that these people have misled others for personal gain, or because they, themselves, were misled by some philosophy. But what we don’t know is that people are “dying” every day because of spiritual abuse.
Anytime someone teaches someone else, regardless of age, gender, religious preference or philosophy, that Self needs to be negated in favor of the thinking and treatments invented by others, that is a form of spiritual abuse. When we are told that our own thoughts cannot be trusted, that we should listen to the “laws” and philosophies set forth by others, we are being spiritually abused. Anytime we are physically, sexually, verbally, emotionally or mentally abused we are also being spiritually abused—because we are generally being taught to negate Self in order to tolerate such abuse.
Those religions and philosophies that allow plenty of room for personal contemplation, meditation and questioning to find one’s own resonant answers do not spiritually abuse. Rather they support the spirit of the Self.
Spiritual abuse is abuse of the spirit of another human being. We abuse the spirit—the deepest core essence of a person, also known as the soul or the authentic Self—by teaching, either covertly or overtly, that that spirit, that soul, that Self, cannot be trusted and/or must be negated in the name of someone’s or some organization’s notions of reality, righteous living, or safe living.
I remember when, unbeknownst to me, my children, at the ages of 12 and 9 were taken to a Halloween function at a church in which they were sent through this “haunted house” where there were depicted all manner of horrible images about people who had gone to hell. When I found out about it and questioned the people who did it, I was told in no uncertain terms, that this was a way of “helping” my children, because it meant to challenge them to do what it took to have the opposite result. The haunted house was intended, they said, to save my children’s souls. The person I spoke with even bragged that he’d saved several children’s souls that night. My children were both traumatized. Already sensitive, they were terribly frightened and had nightmares for weeks, finally allowing themselves to be “saved” lest they burn in the tormenting fires of hell.
This event is a classic example of spiritual abuse. Why? Because my children were not challenged to think for themselves, to get in touch with something real inside of themselves, to meditate to learn of their own deepest essence, to pray to their own individual resonant divine image, to question and find meaningful answers. Rather they were told what to believe, and told that if they didn’t believe they would be tortured in hell for eternity, by a beloved father. Spiritual abuse denies the abused any other option but to accept the abuser’s belief as the only possible reality.
This same kind of abuse is still happening regularly in the New Age, New Thought and Human Potential movements as well. When we are taught not to trust our own thoughts, to disallow supposedly “negative” thoughts, in order to prevent “negative” circumstances in our lives, we are being spiritually abused. We must keep a special and unrelenting guard on our thoughts and emotions, repressing any and everything that smacks of the “negative” in order assure ourselves that we will have only “positive” experiences in our lives. What this teaches is that Self cannot be trusted to take care of self. Rather we must be hypervigilant to make sure we are always thinking and feeling correctly or “negative” things are going to happen to us. This is a similar threat, only with more immediate consequences, to the threat of hell fire.
When people are told that they are not being brave because they cannot endure an overheated sweat lodge, they are being spiritually abused. They are being taught not to trust their own bodies, but rather to negate these messaging sensations in the name of how the teacher defines them. The body cannot be trusted. Only the teacher is to be trusted. This is a kind of death in and of itself, even if the person is able to survive the overheated sweat lodge.
The wounding that takes place as a result of spiritual abuse is loss of a sense of grounding in the Self and a fear that if one does get in touch with that Self one is somehow in danger, or betraying something sacred. Spiritual abuse yields a great deal of confusion regarding what is actually true about self-definition and what is false. Spiritual abuse makes it very difficult to get in touch with one’s own personal boundaries. Where do I stop and you begin? Am I responsible for how you feel? Am I somehow responsible for making you okay? The answers to these questions and more become very blurry when one has been wounded by spiritual abuse. Fear and guilt become primary, but often unconscious, motivators for the choices being made.
Telling someone that he must stay “positive” all of the time, lest “negative” events come to bear on his vulnerabilities, means that not only does he repress the so-called “negative” thoughts and emotions, which could, if rendered conscious, provide valuable information about that individual and his life, but it also means that there is little time or energy left over for true exploration of Self.
In order to heal this wound, those who are spiritually abused may need to seek therapy from a professional who understands spiritual abuse. And/or, they may need to spend some time alone in contemplation, dialoging with Self in order to gain some clarity about the Self and the boundaries Self would like to assert, and the powerful messages that come to us in the form of emotions of all kind (even those previously thought of as “negative”). The Self is always giving us information. Our fears, our angers, our sorrows, even our despairs—commonly thought of as “negative” emotions—can tell us to slow down and observe, tell us that there is a problem that needs our attention, tell us that there is deeper, richer soil to be fertilized, tell us that the very nature of our being can be trusted to guide us and protect us.
The wounding that comes from spiritual abuse makes us believe that we are not safe or cannot be happy unless we do or believe the thing that is being taught or the teacher who is teaching it. Those teachers who are teaching us to listen to them, to be defined by them, to trust that teaching lest something bad happen are spiritual abusers—whether or not they intend to be. Those teachers that teach us how to go within for answers are not spiritual abusers. Everything we need is already within us.
~Andrea Mathews, LPC, PhD
Andrea Mathews is a psychotherapist, author, speaker and radio host, currently teaching workshops to clinicians on how to assess and treat spiritual problems. She is the author of three books and the host of the most popular show on the 7th Wave Network, the Authentic Living Show. Learn more about her work at www.andreamathews.com.