Episode Description: Sometimes trauma happens as a result of a single event, with a distinct before, during, and after. More often than not, spiritual trauma happens in complex, layered ways over a long period of time. In this episode, Dr. Hillary McBride talks about the legacy of spiritual trauma in our mind-body systems, including listing many of the psychological, social, and physiological symptoms of spiritual trauma. This episode includes interviews with Mihee Kim Kort and K.J. Ramsey.
Content Note: this episode contains reference to sexual abuse; it also includes profanity.
Run time: 53:32
Release date: July 26, 2023
Mihee Kim Kort
- Website mkimkort.com
- Twitter: @miheekimkort
- Instagram: @mkimkort
- Website: kjramsey.com
- Twitter: @kjramseywrites
- Instagram: @kjramseywrites
The Body Bears the Burden: Trauma, dissociation, and disease (Robert Scaer, 2001)
List of publications by Dr. Nancy Nason Clark: https://www.unb.ca/faculty-staff/directory/arts-fr-sociology/nason-clark-nancy.html
This podcast does not provide medical, counselling, or crisis services. If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, please contact your local emergency services. The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the speakers and do not always represent the views of Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries.
Hi everyone, it’s Dr. Hillary McBride here. If you’re joining us for the first time, please head all the way back to the first two episodes. Like chapters of an audiobook, this podcast is meant to be listened to in a continuous manner, with current episodes building off past ones. So, if you haven’t done so yet, head back to the beginning and start there. Before we get started, just a reminder that this podcast was created for those with lived experience of spiritual trauma. If you have experienced spiritual trauma, I can’t guarantee that all of this will feel easy to listen to, but I can assure you that there won’t be a lot of Christian language, prayers, or scripture used. If you are listening to this and spiritual trauma is a new idea to you, I am so glad that you are here to learn more. When people without firsthand experience of spiritual trauma understand more about it, we can build communities where we love our neighbors with compassion and wisdom. This podcast also contains information and stories about sexual abuse. The details are not graphic but the content may be sensitive for some listeners.
Okay, onto episode three. One evening in January of 2022, I was greasing a baking sheet before filling it with brownie batter. I pushed hard into the corners of the dish, and I felt a sharp and hot flash of pain in the tip of my middle finger on my right hand. By the time I looked down blood was pooling in the dish. No one else was home except my sleeping baby daughter upstairs, so I rushed over to the sink, still unsure of what happened, the blood dribbling down my finger and across the floor. And as I held my open palm under the cold running stream, the water cut through the blood and into the open cut in my fingertip to see that there was a shard of glass sticking out about an eighth of an inch. I have no idea how it got into the dish, but it was now in my finger, and I was able to grab it with my opposite hand. I assumed I’d feel relief washing the incision out with the water under the sink. I got a glimpse, a flicker, of another piece of glass buried deep in my finger beyond what I could get to. I kept it under the stream from the tap, hoping the bleeding would slow and I would be able to get a better look at it. Eventually I called my mom and some friends who are medical people—who actually do medical things as trained professionals—and they reassured me that it would come out in its own time. By now the bleeding had slowed somewhat, and so I put a Band-Aid on it and I just went to bed.
In the following days, I did what was suggested to me. I let it rest in salted hot water through the day at various points, and the cut started to heal slowly. I was glad it didn’t get infected, but I must admit I’m painting the picture of a perfect patient right now—but the reality is that I was frustrated and aggravated. I would have done everything, including cut my finger back open, to get that piece of glass out if I didn’t have some very smart people around me reminding me that this likely wouldn’t go well for a number of reasons. I knew the glass was in there, but I couldn’t get to it and it was extraordinarily painful. In the coming months, every time I touched something with my right middle fingertip, so basically all the time—car keys, a keyboard, forks, the glass of water, my own hair—it felt like my fingertip was getting sliced open all over again. Especially after the incision started to heal, I know how it looked from the outside. I would be doing something innocuous—opening the fridge door, tying my shoes—and I’d wince and yelp and look down at my finger, which at this point looked like a perfectly healthy finger. If someone inspected it and knew the story, they’d probably be able to detect a small lump that had formed deep under the surface of my skin. Something was definitely there, but also invisible if you didn’t know what you were looking for.
More time passed and something strange slowly started to happen. I noticed that over time I had started to hold a pen a little differently when writing. I was holding my hand a bit differently when I was typing to avoid the pain. And I started to really wonder: was there anything in there? The mound on the end of my finger started to flatten. That flicker I saw after pulling the first piece of glass out, did I really see it? Maybe what I was feeling in my finger wasn’t the glass after all, but was somehow my body’s reaction to all the different things I had done to get the glass out, and maybe the glass wasn’t there after all. Then, in mid-summer a small lump started to form about half an inch below where the glass had originally entered my fingertip. It was painful to the touch, felt dense, and it looked slightly red. Maybe something did happen, but why was it showing up in a different place than it went in? As the summer continued, the mound on my finger seemed to grow a little each day, and eventually in early September it looked like a tiny little mountain with a snow-capped peak. It was even more painful than ever, and I would often find myself unconsciously touching it, pressing the sides, trying to encourage it along. Whatever was happening, something seemed to be happening. Then, on a Friday mid-September it seemed to kind of open up at the top and fluid started to leak out.
Thought you were listening to a podcast about spiritual trauma, instead of an audio essay about a minor finger injury? Hang in there.
On Saturday, the next day, our family was in the car on the freeway. I was sitting in the back seat with my daughter reading her a book, and of course, I was also low-key pressing the sides of this finger mountain—just to, you know, see what would happen—and out popped the piece of glass. It was sticking out of my finger—the perpendicular protrusion—and I was totally out of sorts. More scary than it was actually painful, there the glass was—half out of my finger, half in, until we got to the nearest place we could pull over and my husband reached over and pulled the shard the rest of the way out. It was so much bigger than I would have ever guessed: somehow both bigger, and actually smaller than it felt or seemed, and long. I took photos, as one does, and I shared them on social media, if you feel curious at all to see the object with your own eyes. The glass was in my finger for nine months, less a day.
You might have already seen where this was going, but I’ll make it explicit. It was only a few weeks into having the glass in my finger that I started to make the connections between how this very real experience was a metaphor for the kinds of complex and ongoing traumas that many people face. For example, I mean the traumas people experience during their developmental years that seem so normal for so long that it’s hard to even identify them as trauma, and the kinds of trauma that happen in religious or spiritual environments, or the not-so-unique experience of having both of those happen at the same time. Something really did happen, and it hurt us. Something that was never supposed to be in us—the story, the belief, the ache, the fear—it got lodged inside and no matter how much we convince ourselves otherwise, or how familiar it becomes, or even how much our community celebrates it, our systems are wise enough to know the truth of what hurt us and will keep saying that something is not right. And because our whole brain-body systems are oriented towards health, that something, whatever it is that got lodged inside of us, will make its way out of our systems one way or another, even if it takes so long that we’ve forgotten how it actually got there.
My name is Dr. Hillary McBride, and this is Holy/Hurt: A Podcast Exploring Spiritual Trauma and Healing. Welcome to episode three.
I have been eager to introduce you to Mihee Kim-Kort. Mihee is currently pastoring a church in Annapolis and is a doctoral student in Religious Studies at Indiana University, which means that she likely had a million papers she could have been writing or reading, or a bunch of people she could have been talking to, if she wasn’t actually talking to me about spiritual trauma. She has such important things to say about queerness, race, and Asian American feminist theology, and she’s written a few books, like Outside the Lines and Paper Cranes. Even though we have come from different disciplines, I saw her once describe herself as a hopemonger, and I knew immediately I would find myself home in the presence of her words.
When you hear the words spiritual trauma, what comes to mind?
8:23 INTERVIEW WITH MIHEE KIM-KORT
Oh goodness. I think of, I think of a certain level of—I guess, manipulation, and a manipulation towards a certain kind of behaviour, and a certain kind of morality, I guess, or expression of morality. And so, like, thinking specifically about the Korean immigrant churches that many folks like me have grown up in, that tended towards—no matter what denomination, these Korean, Asian, but mostly I can only speak to Korean immigrant churches, for the most part, you know—they, no matter what denomination tended to have a little bit of this sort of evangelical flavour. And that makes sense because of the sort of history of US American missionaries that would go abroad. They tended to be, you know, somewhere in the same vein as Billy Graham. And even if they came from really specific denominations, there was that sort of very evangelical, kind of—you had to speak a certain way and carry yourself a certain way and hold certain ideals. And so yeah, I mean I think of even just the Korean sort of culture that was present at the time too, tended to be very traditional and expected, you know, certain gender roles, and certain expectations depending on how old you were and what generation you’re in. And so some of it felt, I mean, like looking back on it a little bit now, it seems a little benign, you know—in terms of, you know, it’s not, it didn’t feel like terribly oppressive or brainwashing, you know? It felt like, it felt like just the structure of our community. It was just the way that we related to one another. We just kind of knew our places, you know, we knew where we could speak and how to act. But then, you know, I look back to a few moments here and there, you know, where you sort of see some of the cracks to the system sort of, you know, it breaks down in certain places. In terms of where it felt like, like it was odd, you know, towards—as I got older when I didn’t see women really doing very much except in the kitchen, you know, serving and cleaning.
And, you know, sometimes they would be allowed to pray from, like, the lectern. They would offer the prayers of the people kind of thing. But, yeah, you know, it wasn’t until I was well into college that I discovered or knew or figured it out that in my denomination women could actually be ordained to be elders and to be pastors. And yeah, I tell that story often about just, like, my dad went to seminary later in life while I started college, and he was the one who told me about, you know, being in class with female students who were pursuing ordination. And I was like, “What are you talking about?” You know, I remember arguing—I was arguing with him about how, you know, the Bible says this, and, you know, women are supposed to, you know, hold this role. So, I guess I think of trauma as, like, you internalize something so much that, yeah, you don’t even realize the sort of self-oppression, and, you know, that you’re sort of enacting in your own life. Yeah, I guess that’s the thing I’m thinking about.
Yeah. And you said something so important there too, about it being this kind of benign, that it had a benign quality to it. I think of, like, insidious where something is, like, slow and, and has a bent towards dysfunction. But if we are to meet it face-to-face, we can’t necessarily put our finger on it always. We can’t necessarily name like, “this, this is going to be traumatic” or “this is traumatizing me,” or “this is harmful,” because it feels like the culture that we swim in, or the water we swim in or the culture we’re in. So, I’m just curious about that piece: the noticing now that it was trauma or that it’s traumatizing, but at the time it felt like community.
Yeah, yeah, yeah I think that’s right. I mean, I think insidious is a really good word for it. And the sort of, the quiet, slow, sort of under-the-radar, almost under-the-surface, you know, it sort of, it becomes a sort of atmosphere and climate you don’t even, you don’t even really notice it, but you know that you can’t live without it in some ways. You know, because that was our only community growing up. And I remember looking back at your first email, and even just the first question about spiritual trauma and thinking about, I think there is something really distinct about spiritual trauma in, you know, communities of colour and immigrant communities. I’ve been reading a little bit about a particular church that’s just in the last, I don’t know I guess a couple of years now where folks have been coming forward, in a Korean church, who’ve been coming forward about the sort of—the harassment and sexual abuse from leaders in the church, I think from a particular pastor and then the leaders who are sort of surrounding this person, and trying to protect this person from those accusations. And, you know, that I feel like would never have happened in my time, you know? And I’m sure that there were, I’m sure there were things in terms of boundaries being crossed. And there’s just sort of, the constant consistent response of just silence, or just of brushing it under the rug. But I think that the sort of insidious and the, kind of, again sort of innocuous sort of, I don’t have stories of, like, you know, overt what I feel like, what I’ve heard, you know, from folks who have left evangelical communities or their churches because of that sort of overt physical or spiritual or sexual abuse that has happened.
But it’s the kind of thing where it feels like you just can’t trust yourself or know yourself, you know, and it’s the kind of shaping and constructing, disciplining that happens, so that you don’t even really know your own voice until you’ve left the community and have had a chance to kind of look back. I mean, I have to say again—I mean, of course there are really important and wonderful and significant things there. Like, I think that there’s never, these things aren’t ever just one thing, right? But that it was the fact that what anchored that community was a very specific idea about what was proper and acceptable. I mean, to use purity language, what was pure and good. And that was, you know, so all the stuff around a certain kind of sexuality, a certain sort of identity, you know, a certain kind of, you know, masculinity or femininity, very rigid. And there was just no room for any other kind of thinking or possibility.
The story about the glass in my finger is useful for this comparison to spiritual trauma in a few ways, especially when we consider the way that our physical and psycho, spiritual, social systems are all interconnected. First, my memory of seeing the tiny little speck of glass was such an important part of my ability to understand what was happening and why. It was like a foothold for all those months when I was in pain. It was a coherent, easily identifiable why. I could say to myself, “Of course it hurts. There is a sharp and dangerous foreign object in my body, and my body is constantly communicating that the object is hurting me and needs to come out.” As we talked about in the last episode, knowing and understanding doesn’t heal the trauma on its own, but it does minimize the shame and fear that is specifically caused by the not knowing. Knowing what is happening also helps us to create the opportunity for more self-compassion, asking for what is needed, and clearly articulating to others the source of the wound. When we know that something is there, and we know where it came from, we can also begin to ask: what does this need to heal? And maybe we don’t know, but we might know someone who does. What if I had blamed myself for getting it stuck in there? If I hadn’t been greasing that dish, if it wouldn’t have gotten lodged in my finger. Sometimes knowing comes with judgement, especially if that’s the eye we’ve been trained to use.
This reminds me of a specific principle that I encountered in my journey with injury recovery and chronic pain. It’s called the second arrow. It’s talked about in the chronic pain recovery community because of how common it is with disability, injury, illness, and pain, to add more pain to the pain. Imagine, for example, that I am going through life and I get an injury, something hurts me: I’m playing tennis with a friend, I get into a car accident, I scrape my leg working in the garden, or burn my hand on the stove. Any of these situations are the first arrow. It’s the initial wound that just happens from being human and moving around through the world. But then there is a story that we tell ourselves about that. Maybe I start to get critical and shame myself. I beat myself up for doing that activity in that way or at that time. That is the second arrow. It’s funny how when we’re human we sometimes add more pain to our pain. I imagine on some level we think that if we’re hard enough on ourselves we won’t do that thing again that hurts us, we’ll get the message and change our ways.
And why is it that we do that? Well, when we’ve had no other strategies modelled to us, that’s the one that gets internalized. When we were younger in our families, or by the people we saw around us in our communities, we might have seen that judgment and shame was the response to our pain, or even what was called in some circumstances “our sin.” It makes sense that we would have learned from what we received firsthand, and what we saw around us, and that our default would be to heap judgment and criticism onto the place of injury. That, however, is the second arrow. It is a lot harder than we might think to uproot the internal narratives that we collect from families or faith communities that relied on judgment and punishment to help us change, but even with that it can be a gift to ourselves to not string the third arrow into the bow by saying to ourselves, “Well, of course it’s hard. That’s what I learned” and, “No wonder I’m judging myself. It’s what was modeled to me, and celebrated for all those years.” Instead of shooting the second arrow, or the third, or the tenth arrow, the place of pain left by the original arrow needs love, tender, nurturing, protective, healing, and gentle attention. It needs something very different than what caused the injury in the first place.
Back to the piece of glass. What if it wasn’t just one piece of glass in there, but hundreds of tiny little fragments? I wince even now as I think about it. Just that tiny, but not-so-tiny, piece buried under my skin created so much distress for me. And what if they were buried under there so early that I didn’t have the memory of each of them happening? What if when the tiny pieces of glass got stuck in my fingers, people told me it was a good thing? And they let me know that it was part of being good, and fixing the thing that was actually wrong about me. I feel a little sick to my stomach thinking about that. It seems so horrific to talk about it, to imagine a community of people surrounding a child and inflicting harm on them, telling them it’s the only way to truly be alive, until the child grows up and just doesn’t feel the finger, or their body at all. It all becomes numb to protect them from the feeling of these tiny little razor-like cuts that happen any time they go about their day using their fingers. There is something about the image of that happening physically that connects us to how violent and disturbing it is. But when we think about the same parallel with our emotions, our social and psychological selves, our spirituality, we can see just how used to these kinds of injuries we are as a society. Our consciousness about trauma and what is abusive is increasing in our general social consciousness, but there is still so much harm that is done to people emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, in the name of tradition, in the name of discipline, in the name of God.
I find it fascinating, looking back, how subtle the shifts were in the kinds of ways I did things just to minimize the pain. I was altering how I picked things up, altering how I typed or held a pen, opened the car door, turned the key in the ignition. You could imagine that if I had glass stuck in my hand, especially if it was in multiple places in my fingers, or fingertips, that what had already started to happen to me would happen. Our systems are wired to help us adapt and have an intuitive sense about how to not do the things that hurt us. So we find other ways to get through, but those adaptations, when unnatural or unsustainable or unsupported, can just end up creating more injuries in our systems in the long run. I remember when my back pain was at its worst. I saw a movement specialist who helped me identify how my back pain was worse because the muscles in my left glute were tight, which was also pulling my pelvis off balance. How did my glute get so tight on that side? Well, one of my feet wasn’t hitting the ground flat when I was running because of an old injury to my knee. So, you can imagine, we have this work-around situation to manage the pain, but that doesn’t actually get rid of the pain. It ends up just creating these awkward adjustments that eventually create their own pain, and the rest of the system compensates around them.
I keep thinking about all the system adaptations we develop when living with spiritual trauma, just to help us find work-arounds from the original pain. The original wounds of being highly controlled and terrified to speak up or out against the rigid rules; of being told from a young age you would burn alive for eternity, and so would everyone else you loved, unless you said a magic spell in the perfect way; of being highly sexualized and being blamed for how anyone else objectifies you; the original wounds of being told that the truest thing about us is that we are bad and unlovable and need to be rescued from ourselves. When those things happen, like pieces of glass getting lodged into our nervous system over and over again, our bodies, our very psyche, will start to tell the story of all the ways that hurt us. Even if we still have a story in our minds floating around as a kind of learned helplessness—that this is good, that’s exactly how it should be—the symptoms of the spiritual trauma can show up in so many ways: in our physical body, our behaviors and emotions, our inner thought life, and in our sense of spirituality. They are, after all, all connected. As we have already discussed, spiritual trauma can sometimes be a single event, or series of interrelated traumas which occur over time, sometimes called complex trauma.
As a means of highlighting just how far the shards of glass can travel, here are some examples of the different facets of our life that glass, or the adaptations to the glass, can begin to show up in.
The psychological symptoms can include things in the following list:
- Feeling an internal sense of chaos, confusion, or disorganization. It can feel really scary just to be alive.
- Superstitious thinking and behaviour. Wondering if you do the wrong thing if you will get punished, or anticipating severe consequences for making the wrong choice or upsetting someone.
- Having flashbacks or nightmares. The unintended rememberings of events that were scary, stressful, or unresolved—and feeling agitated or dissociated because of it.
- Lacking identity, or a sense of wants, goals, and values. Just not knowing who you are, or feeling confused about who you should be.
- Difficulty with identifying and feeling feelings. Finding it difficult to feel feelings from the inside out.
- Challenges making choices. Not knowing how to make choices and feeling paralyzed by options or perseverating on what could go wrong with each choice.
- Boundary challenges or confusion. Finding it difficult to set boundaries with others, not knowing what boundaries with friends or leaders are appropriate, difficulty with appropriate sharing or caring of others.
- Anxiety or panic, feeling on edge. Feeling agitated in the body, like being hooked up to an electrical outlet, or chronically tense muscles.
- Chronic, neurotic, or misplaced guilt. Wondering if, or being sure, that a bad thing happened, you made the wrong choice, or hurt someone, and the anticipation that you likely will.
- Ongoing and pervasive shame. The feeling of being broken, unlovable, unworthy, or deserving of bad things happening, even in the face of relationships or experiences that prove otherwise.
- Anger, rage, and defensiveness. Reactivity, flying off the handle, explosive and disproportionate reactions, and reluctance to take healthy responsibility and strategies to shift blame.
- A sense of hopelessness, helplessness, or despair. Feeling powerless, unable to change the future or the present circumstances, and believing that no other reality is possible.
- Depression, emptiness, and loneliness. Feeling empty inside, isolated, even if others are around, unreachable, lethargic, depleted, and overwhelmed at the prospect of change.
- Substance use or addiction to other processes or behaviors. In spite of the negative consequences, using drugs, alcohol, food, or certain behaviors to manage pain or distress or to avoid feeling feelings.
- Self-harm or suicidality. Hurting oneself, fantasizing about death, or planning to end one’s life.
- Grief and profound sadness or loss. Seemingly unchanging heartache and emotional pain, and the sense of having a hole inside.
- Difficulty feeling joy, pleasure, or peace. Even when doing things that used to feel enjoyable, or feel pleasurable to others, there is little or no effect or change in mood.
- Perfectionistic tendencies with self or with others. Rigid expectations for self or others related to thinking, behavior, interactions, or value systems, and consequences if something isn’t perceived as perfect.
- Hatred or shame of one’s body, sexuality, and physical needs or limitations. Having unrealistic body narratives in which normal challenges, emotions, sensations, or behaviors are considered disgusting, awful, or intolerable.
- Difficulty with self-responsibility, self-care, or self-love. Challenges with owning one’s own actions and choices, and nurturing the self through actions or thoughts.
- Difficulty enjoying sexual pleasure. This can include genital pelvic pain, fear of sexual arousal or desire, resistance to sexual relationships, or shame about sexual desires and behaviors.
- The inability to trust others and anticipation of rejection or judgment.
- Feeling an immense sense of guilt if not helping others, or all others, the pressure to save, convert, or rescue.
- Skin-picking or hair-pulling, also called trichotillomania or dermatillomania, involves compulsive skin-picking or hair-pulling, distress before the behaviour, and relief after engaging in it.
- And disorders of eating. This can include preoccupation with clean eating, compulsive eating without being able to stop, food restriction and avoidance, eating and purging after (through vomiting or exercise), and eating things which are inedible or harmful to eat.
The physical symptoms can include:
- Chronic fatigue
- Auto-immune disorders
- Chronic pain
- Sleeplessness or oversleeping
- Lack of appetite or binge eating
- Frequent illness or injury, and impaired healing
- Chest pain or gastroenterological issues or irritable bowel syndrome.
The social and relational impacts can include:
- Loss of community and connection and broader social support
- Rejection and social isolation
- Restricted social networks
- Relationship conflict or stressors
- Family conflict and stressors or loss
- Damage to one’s sense of social self
- Social anxiety, and as was already mentioned, difficulty with boundaries.
Then, there are the spiritual symptoms and effects:
- When people’s spiritual system has been the core of who they believe themselves to be—the most important, most enduring, most true part of their identity—spiritual injuries and wounds can leave a person without a sense of identity, without a meaning-making system, or a clear sense of reality, without the comfort of ritual to navigate life transitions or difficult experiences, without the comfort of security, and the shared narrative and language through which to form connections and community with ease. Our assumptions about the world are shattered in a way that, in a worldview and existential sense, makes it difficult for us to feel the ground steady under our feet.
Here is more from the conversation with K.J. Ramsey.
28:37 INTERVIEW WITH K.J. RAMSEY
So, I am a survivor of spiritual trauma—what I often refer to more as religious trauma with spiritual abuse—and also long-term exposure to, like, high control, high demand religion. And so as a person recovering myself, knowing those are loaded terms that are attached to very, very painful stretches of my life, and painful responses that I’ve had in my own body to being silenced and shamed and diminished as a person. And beyond that, as a therapist, I work with so many people right here, I see all my clients on video because of the pandemic still. And I think of their faces and their bodies, and the confusion that they have experienced from being part of spiritual systems and relationships where their full selves are not honoured and protected.
When you, you named the confusion piece, which I think is such an important part of this, and you are uniquely positioned to be able to understand things in a way that some other folks might not because of your clinical training. I’m really wondering about how you came to label this as spiritual trauma.
Yeah, it was a process for sure. You know, I, even as a clinician going through, this is a broader thing, I think there were layers of uncovering of what was traumatic and, like, uncovering that through naming spiritual abuse and the resulting trauma in my own body and in my husband’s body, there was also this uncovering of, like, a whole lineage of spiritual trauma of my childhood, but also family of origin and the way that spirituality has been passed down through generations. So there’s multiple layers there, but I think where it began was personally—and my husband was a pastor at a church that I also ran my therapy practice at, and we were very controlled and diminished by a very domineering leader. And it was in seeing the rest of the staff be treated so terribly behind closed doors and in staff meetings, seeing the response when people would speak up about something feeling off that we began to notice how diminished we were.
And it was our own, like, the cries of our own bodies and souls of overwhelm and deep, deep sorrow, sadness, physical illness, that made us pay attention and we started to just search out, like, why is—and I’m sorry to use this language, not really—why is church so fucked up? And why does this feel so fucked up? And, you know, the first person that started to give us language for what was happening was Diane Langberg, and some of her videos she has out there about spiritual abuse and narcissistic systems. But it was really the aftermath of leaving as I started to uncover more of my own symptoms of post-traumatic stress that I had to take what my body was saying seriously, and really, like, listen more closely. So, that’s the beginning of an answer. I had to come to this through a very personal experience rather than, which I think is probably true for a lot of us, even as clinicians, but yeah.
I mean, I have a million things that I want to say in response. Primarily I’m so sorry and I’m also so grateful that you listened to your wise, wise body.
I’m really grateful I got to listen, too.
And it is amazing how hard it is to listen in systems that have asked us to shut down, right? Like the messaging from our bodies that says, “You’re not safe” is also something we learn to mistrust and it makes it really hard to know that we’re not safe.
Yeah. And I think that’s one of the most damning and destructive parts of spiritual trauma, is the way that the diminishment of humanness is handed down as spiritual maturity. And it’s actually more a perpetuation of dominance and control than love, that the way that our spiritual communities and spiritual practices are ordered, more as a manifestation of control, uncertainty, and upholding a power structure than being fully human. And so yeah, it is in that, like, there is a deep, deep, deeply seated mistrust of the very things that would tell us something is wrong, because we’ve been taught collectively to not listen, and that not listening is actually holy.
Symptoms are easy to list, even if the list is painful and long, and includes more things than one could imagine, but again, it kind of acts as a neat simplification of the complexity of our lives and pain. So, to add a bit more complexity to it, there are a few other ideas I want to add in. The first is something called multifinality and equifinality. Multifinality means many ends, and it explains why some folks who have a similar kind of trauma end up experiencing the effects of it differently:one person has panic attacks, the other person experiences addiction. Equifinality is the opposite: there can be different experiences that result in different people experiencing some version of the same thing. For example, people who have lived through different things all end up experiencing depression. As a developmental theory this helps us hold the possibility for many different experiences to exist at the same time.
Second, a list of symptoms doesn’t really capture the way that as people we’re dynamic, and can adapt, and have stories. Some of those things can be rattled off like they’re a grocery list, but it is a profoundly terrifying and devastating thing to experience a panic attack, especially when it happens in a formerly peaceful place or in response to something that used to feel safe, like a church or with a certain sacred song. It’s really hard to convey in a list the damage that comes with a person feeling like at their very core they are bad, profoundly awful and unlovable, and the grief and anger and shock of realizing that it didn’t have to be that way, and that people should have protected them. Usually, the ones doing the damage were the ones who should have been doing the protecting.
Third, the impact of these experiences is real and it lives in our bodies. We can so easily turn the finger on our nervous systems, our seemingly sensitive or overactive gut, our skin, our emotions, and blame them. Seeing it as proof that they were bad, that they were always bad and led us astray from the objective truth, or from the abstractions into our logic. But we miss that our bodies are telling the truth. Our bodies, bless our flesh and blood, is what usually speaks up, loud enough to hear what our words have been unable to say, what our voices and thoughts have been trained not to articulate. The stories our bodies are telling is sometimes about right now, and sometimes about what we’ve been through, and sometimes a reflection of what has happened to those in our family systems and those we have come from. But the story always, always, deserves to be heard, and is not a betrayal. I might even say that it’s a prophetic word to the harmful systems and leaders that have done our bodies harm.
In his book entitled, The Body Bears the Burden, the neurologist Dr. Robert Scaer highlights how unprocessed trauma changes the nervous system, the brain, our physiology, suggesting that is at the root of the most common complaints that bring people to their physicians. Scaer puts it this way: “The most common complaint in current medical practice, that of persistent and unexplained chronic pain, has its roots in the actual changes in brain circuitry associated with unresolved trauma.” Psychologist Dr. Adele LaFrance has said something similar: “The moment we sweep a feeling under the rug, we sweep it right into our nervous systems.” That old adage about sweeping things under the rug, turns out the stuff we don’t feel doesn’t just disappear. Our bodies, in their wisdom, won’t participate in the rouse that it’s all fixed, and they keep track of what still needs to be felt and healed so that when the time is right, when there is much to be felt, or we can’t wait any longer, or we finally feel safe enough to look at it all, our bodies create the opportunities to feel what was always unfelt, never missing or skipping a step. A technical word for all of this stuff under the rug is allostatic load: it’s the cumulative effect of the stressors we’ve been through or are still going through. As overwhelming as this can be when the bodies we were taught to ignore, or silence, or mistrust, demand our attention, it is as natural as the wild animal’s instinct to shake after an attack. It is as natural as a tree dropping their leaves in the fall or the shoots springing up from the grounds in the spring. We were taught to fear it, but that doesn’t mean it is dangerous or bad.
Fourth, there is something in systems theory we call first and second order change. Because as people we are systems, this applies to us too. Let’s say that I’m struggling with a shopping addiction. It feels really good, but even more than that it feels really painful and anxiety-provoking not to shop. So I realize it’s becoming an issue and I work really hard on not shopping, and that feels great for a while, but then I start drinking a lot and it helps me manage the discomfort. I have changed in one sense, but not in another. The thing that the shopping was helping me manage is the same thing the drinking is helping me manage: those feelings of anxiety, insecurity, or emptiness I feel inside.
When systems teach us to think in a particular way—like in a really black or white way, or really rigidly controlling or perfectionistic way—the way of thinking and orienting to the world can become so habitual that doing anything differently feels scary or like it’s not even an option. If we have learned to mistrust ourselves, believe that we are fundamentally bad, or see the world in ways that demand that we are rescued from the awfulness of ourselves, or the present moment, it is easy for us to get caught in more systems that are like that, without really even knowing what’s happening. We can easily bounce from one abusive system to the next, and not even know it. Or we know it’s happening, but without being able to figure out why or do anything differently. I have heard countless stories of people who have left an abusive church only to find themselves in a different one, or have walked away from a cult only to discover that they are in a job with a boss who has the same characteristics of the cult leader. This is something that sociologist Dr. Nancy Nason-Clark has researched in her work looking at the parallels between abusive religious environments and abuse in intimate partnerships. She has identified that individuals, women in particular, who have been in highly controlling religious environments are more likely to be in an abusive partnership because they have internalized a story that their voice doesn’t matter, and someone else is allowed to have control over them, that they’re supposed to forgive whenever they’re hurt or abused, and that it would be a sin to leave. The systems are the same whether they are in a marriage, in a church, on a team, or in a workplace. And when we have had our sense of self eroded, when we’ve been devalued, when someone has had power or control over us and told us that it was at the will of the creator of the universe, it makes sense on some level that a system that we got used to would be so internalized that we wouldn’t even recognize it if the same dynamics played out in another context.
If you feel the temptation to blame survivors for the multiple forms of abuse they have endured, please resist it. If anything, what we need to do is step back and marvel at how hard it is to get away when there are so many places and dynamics which reinforce the same pattern of abuse, recognizing the profound damage that happens to a person’s psyche when they are told that abuse is godly. We will talk more about it in a future episode, but it’s so important to name even briefly here how adaptable our nervous systems are. It’s kind of amazing. It’s incredible that we can learn to get used to what we are exposed to enough times, especially when it’s somehow also meeting one of our needs, like belonging and relationship. We can so easily be drawn to systems that harm us when they feel familiar, when they remind us of what we’ve come from, or (here is the tricky one) when they claim to be able to rescue us from those patterns that we’ve been steeped in—but really, they are just the same system with a better branding and a music team.
Okay, back to the glass in the story for one last round of analysis. When I had glass in my finger, I would do normal everyday things that everyone else around me was doing, but they were extraordinarily painful: brushing my teeth, picking up a utensil, driving the car. Any time something touched my finger it hurt in a way that it wouldn’t have hurt anyone else who didn’t have glass in their finger. And remember, there was nothing to show for it, just the fragment of a memory holding together my awareness that there was a cause for this pain. What I want you to know is that when there is trauma living unprocessed in our systems, things casually bump up against it as we live our daily lives, and it hurts. It doesn’t hurt because we are incurring a new injury or the thing around or happening is actually dangerous, most of the time, but because an existing wound is getting touched. Our body’s pain system necessarily responds to the pain from the old wound to remind us there is something there that needs healing and attention, but we need our present day awareness to remind us that the pain we’re feeling is a kind of remembering, a signal about what we’ve been through, as opposed to the present moment being something that we cannot survive. When we have spiritual trauma, bumping up against things that touch on the shard of glass living inside of us might include encountering key religious or cultural phrases or patterns of speech, entering religious buildings, reading religious texts, being around people or interactions with people who were part of our religion and spiritual experiences—or, if you haven’t yet put this together, listening to a podcast about spiritual trauma.
Listening to this might be one of the things that touches in on the place of pain. The way we know those places of pain get accessed often comes through the body: we get hot, or tight, we feel terror or fear or rage, or we freeze, we blank out—we might even think or sense that we’re back there where the hurt happened, almost as if we get transported back to it, or it might seem like our entire body disappears. Those are not just symptoms of the body’s remembering of spiritual trauma, but are the way the body reminds us of any unprocessed pain and inner wounding no matter which route it entered our lives. So even if it’s not about spirituality or religion, you might have had those reactions to other things. Again, it’s all our body’s good, good way of telling us: “Something here still hurts and needs to be attended to.” That might be very different than the story you might have learned about your body being bad and untrustworthy, so it’s okay if it takes a while for that to sink in.
The different places of hurt, and how we respond, are different for everyone. Remembering this helps us access compassion and curiosity instead of judgment, shame, and blame. Listening to me talk about this might feel energizing for you: you’re finally understanding some things about yourself or someone you love, or why something that’s painful for you creates no reaction for anyone else. Or, listening to this comes with a flooding of temperature, energy, and fear in your body, and it’s hard to keep listening. All of those reactions make sense as part of the human experience in general, but also because of who you are as a person and what you’ve lived through.
Most importantly, I want for you to hear this: the glass found its way out. My bodily system, in its wisdom, knew the way to get out something that didn’t belong inside of me, that wasn’t part of me. As the glass was working its way out in the last few days, my finger was hot and red, swollen, weeping fluid, and was painful even when I wasn’t touching it. It was such a reminder to me about how healing can be gentle and graceful and slow, and other times it can be painful, feeling intense and uncomfortable. At times it takes courage to stay with the process and to let our systems know that they can take the course that they instinctually know how to take on the road to wholeness. As we keep walking forward in this conversation about spiritual trauma, I want to remind you that just as hurt can look many different ways, healing can look so many different ways, too. But ultimately, even if it’s hard, the process of healing through integration and processing is good. Even if we have memorized a story that our bodies cannot be trusted, our nervous systems know the way to wholeness—that has been written into us from the very beginning.
Because our bodies hold so much, I want to invite you to join me in a gratitude practice towards ourselves. I invite you to join in along in a way that suits you, knowing that you might have various levels of comfort with touch or connecting with your own body. You might find that if you come back to this exercise in the future, that it feels different for you depending on where you are in your journey of integration and healing. I invite you to start by allowing your body to feel supported. That could mean planting your feet flat on the ground or adjusting your pelvis in the chair, or finding something to support your neck. You might allow yourself to trace the edges of your body for a moment, to sense with your mind’s awareness where those places of contact are, allowing yourself for a moment to experience what it’s like to be held and supported. You might notice the parts of your body that aren’t making contact with anything else, perhaps becoming aware of the temperature of the air as it touches your skin, but then returning your attention to what is supporting your body from the outside.
When you feel ready, I invite you to let your hands land somewhere on your own body. Maybe you placed one hand on your chest and one on your belly, or you wrap one arm around the opposite arm almost as if you’re hugging yourself, or maybe it feels good just to let your hands rest on your lap. As you do so, you might bring to mind the way that you touch or make contact with someone that you love: how these very hands often extend kindness, gentleness, and care into the world around you; how you might wipe a tear from a loved one’s face, reach for their hand when they’re in distress, rub their shoulder, or pull them close. Think of these hands as being hands which bring goodness and care into the world. And in the same way that you offer touch to someone that you love, you might imagine as these hands are touching your own body, that they can infuse care and warmth, affection and love into your very own being, imagining that your hands if they had a voice could say to whatever part of you they’re touching, “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” If it feels right for you, maybe even saying through your hands, “You have something so important to say, and I’m listening.”
Perhaps adding to that if it feels more true for you, “I’m sorry that I haven’t been listening, but I understand now that that’s because I was told that you couldn’t be trusted, and I am so, so sorry.” Maybe you want to add something else like, “You’ve been holding a lot and I appreciate everything you do. I’m realizing that it’s even more than I knew. You are wise, body. You hold ancestral knowledge of how to survive and mend, feel joy and connection. And I am so glad you are exactly who you are.” Notice if there’s anything else that you want to say to your body through these hands, maybe even to the specific part of your body that you’re touching, maybe bringing to mind something that that part of your body does and directing some appreciation towards it. If there was something about this exercise that you want to return to, you can bookmark it mentally, maybe deciding to do some reflection or journalling, or take it to therapy another time. But as we land our practice here, I invite you to bring your attention to the places that are supporting you, allowing yourself to feel contact with the floor, the chair, or the bed, or whatever it is that’s holding you up.
Thank you so much for joining us today. The Holy/Hurt podcast was written and recorded by me, Hillary McBride. Executive producer: Leslie Roberts. Sound editing by Bradley Danyluk and Micaela Peragallo. Music and scoring by Jon Guerra adapted from the album Ordinary Ways. Strings performed by Valerie Guerra. Logo and art from Courtney Searcy. This episode’s guests are Mihee Kim-Kort and K.J. Ramsey. This podcast was made possible by Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries. Sanctuary equips the Church to support mental health and wellbeing. They provide free resources that meaningfully engage the topics of faith and mental health. The content is developed in collaboration with mental health professionals, theologians, and people with lived experience of mental health challenges. These resources prepare communities of faith around the world to raise awareness, reduce stigma, support mental health, and promote mental wellbeing. To learn more and access these resources, please visit sanctuarymentalhealth.org