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Religious Trauma Therapy: How It Works

Updated: Dec 7, 2023

religious trauma

Stillwaters Counselling specializes in working with survivors of religious trauma. Although the therapeutic process is unique for each person, there are some common themes that come up, and the goal is to empower individuals to heal, grow, and live authentically. Here are some of the core issues that Stillwaters counsellors address when working with religious trauma survivors, and some of the approaches that we take to supporting your healing.

1) Purity Culture

If you have grown up in purity culture, you may be struggling with feelings of shame and confusion around sexuality, relationships, intimacy, and desire.

  • Therapists can provide a safe space to explore and unpack the beliefs and values instilled by purity culture.

  • Helping clients understand the origin of these beliefs and their impact on their thoughts and behaviour is crucial for personal growth.

  • Therapy can support clients in developing a healthier understanding of their own sexuality, free from the constraints of rigid cultural expectations.

  • Learning about consent, communication, and boundaries in a supportive environment can be empowering.

  • Purity culture can shape unrealistic expectations about relationships. Therapy can assist in redefining relationship goals, emphasizing emotional intimacy, communication, and mutual respect.

2) Recovering from abuses of power

High control religions are characterized by abuses of power, where a few people hold most of the power. This means that physical, sexual, and emotional abuse can go unchecked, because perpetrators who are in powerful positions are held “beyond reproach” in the religious community. Therapy can help survivors heal from abuses of power.

  • In high-control religious environments, trust may have been broken. Therapy can aid in rebuilding trust, both in oneself and in others, fostering healthy relationships moving forward.

  • High-control religions often prescribe strict identities and hierarchies. Therapy supports clients to explore and form their own identities outside the constraints of the religious community.

3) Disempowerment Based on Identity

In high control religions, who holds power is often based on identity categories, with men holding most of the power and everyone else holding very little. If you grew up in a disempowered category, here are some ways that therapy can help.

  • Therapy focuses on empowering clients by helping them recognize and reclaim their agency. This involves developing a sense of control over their lives and making choices that align with their values.

  • ​​Therapy works to rebuild self-esteem and self-worth, challenging negative beliefs about one's abilities or value as a person.

  • Developing effective communication skills is essential for people who may have been silenced or dismissed in their previous environment. Therapy can teach assertiveness and effective communication techniques.

4) Internalized shame about LGBTQ identity

LGBTQ people in high control religions often feel pressure to hide their identities or face rejection, exclusion, or violence. Many high control religions continue to embrace conversion therapy as a way of treating or curing LGBTQ people. Because of these dangers, LGBTQ people have an extra layer of vulnerability to experiences of trauma in high control religious groups and may benefit from the support of an LGBTQ affirming therapist.

  • Therapy supports clients in exploring and embracing their LGBTQ identity without the constraints and judgments imposed by religious teachings. The therapeutic process can involve self-discovery, self-acceptance, and understanding one's authentic self.

  • Therapy helps in identifying, challenging, and overcoming negative beliefs that LGBTQ people may have been taught about their identities, and fosters self-acceptance and self-compassion.

  • Therapy can support clients to build connections with a queer or trans chosen family and to find a community that embraces and affirms their LGBTQ identity, helping them find belonging and support.

  • Therapy helps with navigating complex family dynamics, particularly when there are conflicts or tensions related to LGBTQ identity and religious beliefs or when family members remain in the religious group and continue to exert pressure.

5) Navigating Relationships and Setting Boundaries

In high control religions, boundaries are often blurred and people are told they are not allowed to say no or make decisions for themselves, especially decisions that contradict religious doctrine or the values of the community. After leaving these communities, survivors often need support in maintaining boundaries with family members who remain in the community, as well as in new situation they encounter due to minimal experience setting boundaries in the past.

  • Therapy helps clients identify and understand patterns in their relationships, including how religious trauma may have influenced their approach to connection and intimacy.

  • Religious trauma can impact one's ability to form secure attachments and engage in intimate relationships. Therapists work to address these challenges, promoting healthier attachment styles and intimacy.

  • Therapy helps clients clarify their values and priorities in relationships, understand what they really want, and what they won't tolerate (ie. boundaries).

  • Therapy can help you understand and develop healthy relationship dynamics, even if they were never modelled to you in your family of origin.

  • Many people with religious trauma identify as “people-pleasers.” Therapy helps clients recognize and respond to boundary violations, empowering them to protect their emotional and physical well-being. Setting boundaries may trigger feelings of guilt or shame, especially if religious teachings have instilled the idea that prioritizing one's own needs or safety is selfish.

  • Therapy help to build self-esteem and self-worth.

6) Building Consistent Self-Worth

People leaving high control religious environments may be exposed to messages that their whole value as a person is based on their connection and service to their community. Many people feel lost after leaving and struggle to feel worthy.

  • Therapists provide a safe and validating space for survivors to express and process the impact of religious trauma on their self-worth. Validation is a crucial step in acknowledging the validity of their experiences.

  • Therapists work with survivors to identify and challenge negative beliefs about themselves that have been internalized due to religious trauma. Cognitive-behavioural techniques can be effective in reshaping these beliefs.

  • Therapy focuses on fostering self-compassion, helping survivors treat themselves with kindness and understanding rather than self-judgement.

  • Survivors of religious trauma may struggle with perfectionism imposed by religious teachings. Therapy helps individuals reframe perfectionistic tendencies and embrace the idea of being imperfectly human.

7) Reconnecting with Spirituality

For some people leaving high control religious environments, reconnecting in a safe way with spirituality is an important part of healing and recovery.

  • Therapists can help survivors find meaning in their experiences.

  • Therapists assist survivors in reframing religious narratives to create a more empowering and positive perspective on spirituality. This may involve deconstructing harmful beliefs and reconstructing a more nuanced understanding of spirituality.

  • Survivors can work with therapists to redefine what is sacred and meaningful to them outside the constraints of their traumatic religious experiences. This process involves discovering personal sources of inspiration and awe.

  • Therapy supports the integration of spirituality into daily life, helping survivors find moments of reflection, gratitude, and connection that feel authentic and uplifting.

8) Protestant work ethic

Not all high control religions are Protestant, but many are. The Protestant work ethic, which emphasizes hard work, productivity, and a sense of moral duty, can affect mental health and well-being when it has been learned and internalized in a high control religious environment. People from other faith traditions may identify with this experience as well. Here's how therapy can support the healing process.

  • A Protestant work ethic can contribute to perfectionistic tendencies. Therapy helps survivors challenge perfectionism and unrealistic standards, promoting a more balanced and self-compassionate approach to work and life.

  • Survivors may have developed unhealthy patterns of overworking or neglecting self-care. Therapy assists in identifying these patterns and exploring healthier alternatives that prioritize well-being.

  • Therapy supports the reframing of beliefs around productivity and rest. Survivors learn to value both work and rest as essential components of a balanced and fulfilling life.

  • Survivors may experience guilt or shame when not actively working. Therapy addresses these emotions, helping to let go of self-judgement and embrace a more compassionate attitude towards themselves.

  • Therapy explores and establishes a healthy work-life balance. This involves setting boundaries, prioritizing self-care, and recognizing the importance of downtime and leisure.

  • Survivors often tie their self-worth to productivity. Therapy helps in disconnecting self-worth from external achievements, promoting a more intrinsic and stable sense of self-value.

9) Figuring out your own values

It can be hard to know what your own unique values are when you have been told what to believe your whole life.

  • Therapists often use values clarification exercises to help survivors identify and articulate their core values. This may involve exploring various aspects of life, such as relationships, work, personal development, and community.

  • Survivors may have suppressed personal preferences due to religious expectations. Therapy supports individuals in identifying and expressing their true likes, dislikes, and aspirations.

  • Values are often closely tied to emotions. Therapy helps survivors connect with their emotions, facilitating a deeper understanding of what truly matters to them.

10) Connecting with your true self

An olive branch symbolizes peace and forgiveness, important concepts when healing from religious trauma.

Perhaps the most important part of religious trauma therapy, connecting with your true self is at the core 

  • Therapy validates survivors' emotions, acknowledging the legitimacy of their experiences. This validation is essential for rebuilding a connection with one's authentic self.

  • Therapy focuses on empowering survivors to reclaim agency over their lives. This involves making choices that align with their authentic selves and breaking free from external control.

  • Therapy works to rebuild self-esteem and self-worth, emphasizing survivors' inherent value and worthiness outside of religious expectations.

Therapy for Religious Trauma Near You

Finding a therapist who is experienced in working with religious trauma and creating a safe and supportive therapeutic relationship is crucial. The therapeutic journey is a collaborative process, and through therapy, survivors can gradually reconnect with their authentic selves, fostering personal growth, resilience, and a sense of inner peace. Stillwaters Counselling in Vancouver offers therapy for religious trauma - if anything written here resonates with your experience, please reach out today.

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