Recovery from religious abuse
By Eric Merrill Budd
What happens to individuals who have been psychologically abused and
morally betrayed by fundamentalist cultic religious groups? how can
they recover from the damage done? Physically leaving such a group
is relatively easy, but the emotional and psychological departure
can take months or even years. This is why many people do not understand
how any person can stay within a situation of religious abuse - much
the same way that people fail to see how battered women stay with
Such dysfunctional and destructive groups often use manipulation,
fear, and deception to maintain a hold on members. They also shower
their prey with unbelievable amounts of affection and approval for
staying in the group and meeting their expectations ("love-bombing").
Groups also control and distort information from the outside. Thus
it becomes a sin to read any "worldly" publications or "spiritual
pornography." The group makes an extremely sharp distinction between
right and wrong, good and evil; everything in the group is positive
(godly), everything outside is negative (satanic). Ambiguity, doubts,
and serious questions are not tolerated. The authority of the group's
leadership is virtually absolute. All problems are oversimplified
and deflected either away from the group or back towards the individual
(this is a methodology that I have come to call conflict isolation).
It is no wonder, therefore, that the religiously abused frequently
suffer from emotional and psychological problems. I believe that it
is high time that our society recognizes and deals with religious
abuse as a social-psychological disorder in itself.
Generally, a person who breaks involvement with a dysfunctional group
will encounter the following problems:_
Depression - the product of group-induced self-doubt and self-blame.
Isolation and loneliness - the shock of crossing the barrier from
one social environemnt to another.
Impairment of decision-making and other intellectual skills.
Floating - occasional lapses into the group's imposed mindset, often
triggered by certain stimuli (music, symbols, key words or phrases,
Difficulty in talking about group involvement - often related to strong
feelings of guilt, fear, and bitterness.
Interpersonal difficulties - communication, expression, making new
friends, organized activities, dating, emotional and physical intimacy,
etc. Recent walk aways are frequently mistrustful and suspicious of
other people and groups._
So, how does one recover? How does a person heal the wounds of religious
abuse? Hopefully, within a caring and understanding new social setting.
This can be a family, a support or therapy group, or an organized
community such as a mainstream church, religious group, or humanist
society. It should also be done with patience and the consideration
that recovery will take time and effort. The following are some ideas
for persons who have walked away from religious abuse and who are
on the road to reclaiming their lives._
Work towards trusting yourself and relying on your own abilities.
Put your experience down in writing. This will help you to evaluate,
understand, and cope with your past involvement in the abusive group.
Get in touch with other people who have gone through similar experiences,
either one-on-one or in a support group.
Find a hobby or pastime to reinforce a positive sense of accomplishment.
When floating occurs, firmly remind yourself that the episode was
triggered by some stimulus. Remember also that it will pass. Identify
the trigger, learn to make a new association, and repeat the new association
until it overrides the old one. Talking it over with someone who undersands
can really help, too.
Handle decisions, tasks, and relearning of interpersonal skills one
setp at a time. Don't rush yourself, talk and think things over, and
don't be afraid if you make mistakes - we all do!
Be more willing to help people as you go along. This builds up self-esteems
and exercises your problem-solving skills.
Take a breather from organized religion for about three to nine months,
at least. Deal with your questions about religion, ethics, and philosophy
in an honest and challenging manner._
Remember, you are no longer a victim but a survivor!
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Copyright 1995 IFAS
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