What You'll Learn
- The Relationship Between Religion and Identity
- Why Questioning is Healthy and Shouldn’t Be Discouraged
- Signs You Might Have Experienced Religious Trauma
- Red Flags vs Green Flags for a Healthy Religious Environment
- How to Heal From Religious Trauma and Find Your Own Path
Research has shown that religion and spirituality can be a fundamental pillar of resilience. But not all religious environments are healthy. Many of us had negative spiritual experiences and are searching for how to heal from religious trauma.
Today I’m joined by Dr. Quincee Gideon, clinical psychologist and specialist in religious trauma and cult recovery, to discuss religion, trauma, and the role spirituality plays in our identities.
Unpacking My Own Upbringing
I grew up in a strict Evangelical environment. During my upbringing, I received a lot of messages about what being a woman and being a mom looked like.
When I was able to establish my own identity, I had to unpack and unlearn a lot of those messages. I spent time digging into my own beliefs and determining what I wanted for myself and how my religious childhood had impacted me.
When I was able to establish my own identity, I had to unpack and unlearn a lot of those messages.
For many of us, spirituality is a healthy, fulfilling outlet that should be encouraged. But countless people find themselves battling restrictive, controlling ideals that come from unhealthy religious environments.
Religious trauma occurs when we struggle to leave behind an indoctrinating, often controlling religious environment.
Dr. Quincee broke away from her own toxic religious environment, and now guides others in the process of how to heal from religious trauma. I was excited to have her return to the podcast to dig into the topic of religion and discuss healthy vs unhealthy religious environments.
The Relationship Between Religion and Identity
Our spirituality can be interwoven tightly into our identities. The beliefs system we are raised with shapes what it means to be a wife, a woman, and a mother.
The beliefs system we are raised with shapes what it means to be a wife, a woman, and a mother.
Dr. Quincee said that when we start to pull apart religious trauma, our beliefs, and the specific roles we are taught, we have to determine what’s left of our identity.
For some people, there isn’t much left—they have a lot of rebuilding to do. For others, pulling apart their religious beliefs can be a relief—for years, they have been yearning and fighting for moreand they just needed to let go of religion to grow.
But Dr. Quincee said most people fall somewhere in between. They don’t quite know how to do motherhood, spousehood and womanhood in a new way, but they yearn for freedom and growth, and they can’t put the shackles back on.
Why Questioning is Healthy and Shouldn’t Be Discouraged
It can be very hard to step outside of religious beliefs and start the process of pulling them apart. In coercive religious environments, the very idea of questioning is often associated with a lack of faith.
Our ability to question things, to critically think, is a gift.
Our ability to question things, to critically think, is a gift. But in certain religious environments, we are programmed not to do so. There is an idea in some communities that what religious leaders say is absolute truth, and if you are questioning what you are taught, the devil is responsible, or you are just too far away from God.
In these environments, questioning is viewed as a faith challenge—not a healthy process. This is a powerful technique in a coerced environment.
Dr. Quincee pointed out that if you feel your nervous system activate while questioning religious beliefs or doctrine, it’s an indication that there’s some religious trauma there.
She said that she often asks clients to think about:
- The environment built around healthy skepticism
- What happens when they are asked to disengage from it
- How they respond when asked to disengage
If something seems off about any of those answers, the environment might not be healthy.
Signs You Might Have Experienced Religious Trauma
Faith communities pose as safe places to help you connect with God, solve the mysteries of life, and get to the afterlife you desire. They offer safety from fear and insecurity. But when those communities become abusive, controlling, fear-based, and guilt-ridden, they suddenly become the most unsafe place to be.
This often makes people feel that they themselves are the problem. They didn’t feel safe outside of the religious community, and they didn’t feel safe in it—so they often look inward and view themselves as the common denominator. That is the type of relationship with religion that can cause trauma.
Some signs that you have experienced religious trauma include:
Delayed Sexual Development
If your religious environment has strict views on purity culture, it can create undercurrents that sex should not be enjoyed, or that it somehow makes you separate from God. This can be hard to overcome. Sometimes people that are raised in these environments find themselves struggling with their relationship with sex even if they get married within their religious community.
They have been taught to pull away from sex, and then expected to flip a switch and have a healthy sexual outlook. Sexuality doesn’t always work that way. This can lead to sexual dysfunction or difficulty enjoying sex.
Delayed Social Development
Sometimes in religious households there is a restrictive environment around TV shows, music, or even exposure to other children.
When children grow up in this environment and then seek less restriction as adults, they might have a difficult time relating to their peers, understanding pop culture references, or engaging in healthy age-appropriate activities.
If you feel judged around others, or uncomfortable going out around other people, it might be an indicator of religious trauma.
Delayed Emotional Development
Another sign of religious trauma is if you have been told that your feelings are wrong. If the answer to emotions was to submit yourself to God, you might not have learned to process a range of emotions in a healthy way.
Restrictive religious environments might not provide opportunities for emotional expression. This can lead to depression, anxiety, or an inability to manage and cope with emotions.
Red Flags vs Green Flags for a Healthy Religious Environment
But Dr. Quincee was quick to point out that spirituality itself isn’t a bad thing. In fact, when people don’t have a spiritual connection or a set of beliefs, they are often more vulnerable to cult-like groups. Religion can be a source of comfort, resilience, and strength for many people.
So how can you determine which environments are healthy and which are potentially harmful? There are several signs to look for.
Red flags for an unhealthy religious environment include:
- Not being able to leave without consequences
- Restricting emotions
- Having expectations to give up anything—time, resources, or money
- You entered the environment because of a personal trauma
Green flags for a healthy faith community include:
- Being able to leave at any time
- An encouragement to express a full range of emotions
- No expectations for giving anything up
- Healthy skepticism is not shamed
Dr. Quincee also pointed out that when you are evaluating these red and green flags, a helpful tool is to apply the expectations to an entirely different situation. If you were locked in a home and not able to leave without any consequences, that wouldn’t be healthy. It’s not healthy for a religion either.
She also expressed that the consequences don’t have to be external. The most manipulative cult leaders will never have to create their own consequences—they will allow their followers to build their own prison cells.
Leaving an unhealthy religious environment often comes with massive psychological consequences. For example, if you have raised children in the environment, you might wonder what leaving says about you as a mother, or how it will impact your kids. Sometimes, it becomes easier to stay than to face those consequences.
How to Heal From Religious Trauma and Find Your Own Path
When people start to realize that they are in an unhealthy environment and they leave, they are often in a very vulnerable place.
This can lead to “cult hopping,” where people leave one toxic environment but end up finding another one—even if it’s just a conspiracy group online or another non-religious environment—in an attempt to fill the psychological vacuum left behind.
That’s why Dr. Quincee recommends focusing on healing from trauma and recovering first and foremost when coming out of a toxic religious environment, rather than seeking a new spiritual community.
Eventually, once you heal and gain perspective, you will be able to form healthy boundaries and create a new relationship with religion.
Once you heal and gain perspective, you will be able to create a new relationship with religion.
Connecting with a therapist who understands trauma is a big part of recovery. Other important healing techniques include finding new ways to fill your time, outside of religion.
Dr. Quincee suggests discovering your hobbies and interests. In toxic religious environments, personal interests are often used against people, so they learn to shut them down or put them on the back burner.
After leaving an unhealthy faith community, spend time trying new things. Take classes, use groupons, and start to see what you like and don’t like.
She also suggests making a list of cultural references you don’t understand and start looking into them. Watch shows you weren’t allowed to watch. Do things you longed to do but couldn’t. Give yourself the opportunity to have access to the things that were restricted from you.
As mothers, this might even look like exploring sexually, trying new things to determine what you like and don’t like.
Most of all, remember that you have your whole life ahead of you, full of chances to experience things, find joy, and chart your own course.
If you’re struggling with trauma, our Wellness Center is here to help! Connect with a mom therapist near you. Book your free 15 minute consult.