Episode Description: When spiritual trauma infuses our growing up years, it can be hard to identify it as trauma. We might find ourselves asking, how could it be trauma if it feels normal? And how can it be trauma when what happened in our family looks like what happened in so many other families? In this episode we talk about what happens when we experience spiritual trauma in our childhood, as well as the foundational psychological and social needs we all share as humans. When these needs are met, it makes it easier for us to grow up and trust ourselves, others, and the process of growing itself. In this episode we hear from Dr. Alison Cook and William Matthews III.
Content Note: this episode contains reference to sexual abuse.
Run time: 1:00:47
Release date: Aug 2, 2023
Dr. Alison Cook
- Website: dralisoncook.com
- Instagram: @dralisoncook
- Podcast: The Best Of You
- The Best Of You: Break Free from Painful Patterns, mends your past, and discover your true self in God
- Boundaries for Your Soul: How to turn your overwhelming thoughts and feelings into your greatest allies (together with Kimberly Miller)
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 listeners. It’s Dr. Hillary McBride here. If you are joining us for the very first time, please head back to the first episodes. Like with the chapters of an audiobook, this podcast is meant to be listened to in a continuous manner, with current episodes building off the past ones. So, if you haven’t done so yet, head back to the beginning to listen right from the start. 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 lots 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’re 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 four. At the time that I was writing this episode, my daughter was sixteen months old. At that time and still now, she was curious, observant, generous, and unsurprisingly playful. It seems that she came into the world observing what we do with intention and attention. Even in the moments when seemingly nothing was happening, she would watch what we would do, the way we would do it, and how we would respond to her. Recently I noticed that she has this sweet little stuffed animal that she holds close, and tucks into her body or carries around on her hip. I can see the way she smooths the fur on its head with care and offers it some of her water when she has a drink herself. It all looked so tender, so loving, and so familiar. I couldn’t quite place it until I had a moment, almost like a mirror image, unfold right in front of me, where I offered her some water from my cup after I had a sip, the same way she offered some to her little animal. The way she smoothed its fur and kissed its nose with her nose, was the exact pattern of how I move my hand across her head as I’m breastfeeding her and kiss her on the nose with my nose when she’s done. All the things we are doing day to day, the things that feel normal to us, unconscious to us even, are becoming normal to her, shaping her inner and outer worlds.
A few months ago, she toddled over to the edge of our bed where my husband was sitting, and while she was standing there watching him, he playfully, goofily, pressed his face into the comforter and made a “blululululu” sound. She giggled, he likely got a powerful reward and learning neurological circuitry hit—baby giggles after all are wildly intoxicating—and he did it again, a few times. And she started doing it too. As often as possible, when she would see a bed with a soft comfy blanket on top, she would find her way over to it and press her full face into the blanket, wiggling her face around and making that same funny noise.
After playing with her one afternoon, my mother-in-law told me that my daughter had done a strange and delightful thing. She had found her way over to the edge of the bed in their bedroom and pressed her face into the mattress, making the wiggles and characteristic silly noise. Without context, to my mother-in-law this looked and sounded unusual, confusing—but still playful and creative. But she wasn’t privy to our sacred family afternoon ritual that had developed to induce fits of giggles in all of us. The three of us sitting around pressing our face into the bed together, watching our daughter crack up as we all laughed in glee. What we do together, even if it’s a silly moment of playfulness, she thinks is how people are together. We laugh about something, and she learns, this is a funny thing to do. And she leaves our home and goes into the world to do the same thing, expecting others to laugh with her the same way that we do. Understandably surprised and confused when she doesn’t get the same reaction we give her, she persists with them nonetheless. These moments bring close to me the gravitas of parenting, reverberating through my chest like little strikes of fear. What I teach her will stay with her. What I teach her and what I do shapes her world. Not just the little funny moments, but what I talk about and how I talk about it, even what I believe about myself and what I believe about her, how I talk to her, and how I talk about her. All of it becomes her inner world, her way of seeing the world, her way of relating to the world. All of it is developing her sense of self.
Although this can feel a little scary to me at times, in a healthy way, it motivates me to be thoughtful about what I want to teach her. The lesson here as it relates to spiritual trauma, is that we were all once developing minds. Of course, we are still developing and capable of change, healing, and growth—biologically proven to be capable of adaptation until the moment we die—but we came into the world not knowing that the way we learned how to do things in our family wasn’t the only way. It wasn’t universal to all people everywhere. In our young, naïve, neurobiologically-derived mechanism for survival as an infant, we can’t consider that things could be a different way. What happens around us becomes what is normal inside of us, all of it shaping the person we become. We can learn a lot about spiritual trauma from considering development, our families of origin, that’s our psychology term for the systems and culture of the family we were raised in growing up, and what research says about what we need to grow in healthy ways. This also tells us so much about what we need to recover that may have been lost, and the places we need to go to retrieve the young parts of us who survive things they shouldn’t have had to, who also hold the key to reclaiming the fullness of who we are. This is Dr. Hillary McBride, and you are listening to Holy/Hurt: A Podcast Exploring Spiritual Trauma and Healing.
Whenever I talk to people who have been through trauma, the question inevitably comes up: why does one person experience an event as traumatic when the other person doesn’t? The answer to the question leads us down the path of understanding something we call pre-, peri-, and post-traumatic factors. These are the variables that intersect with the trauma at various points, shaping all the ways that might make one person respond differently to an event than the person next to them. Post-traumatic factors include anything that happens after the trauma, like how people respond, if they’re believed, who cares for them, and the systems that are in place to protect, reinforce, or ignore the trauma. For example, a person might experience a trauma out in the world and return home to a community that surrounds them, believes them. Perhaps they can tell their doctor and feel understood. Their doctor might even check in on them. People close to them might bring them meals, send cards, and visit. A friend might make a referral to a trauma specialist, while another friend coordinates childcare to ease responsibilities. By contrast, another person might experience a trauma out in the world and return home to abusive and distant relationships, with no doctor to call on, long waitlists for care, no awareness of what happened and how to characterize it, or where to even turn for help.
Peritraumatic factors have to do with how long the trauma lasts, who is involved, if anyone intervenes, if the trauma is relational or accidental, if the person loses consciousness and can’t remember what happened, or is present to it the whole time, or if there’s someone there who doesn’t intervene but could have. You get the picture. Pre-traumatic factors include what a person’s life was like before the trauma, their nervous system, meaning-making schema, attachment patterns, strengths, inherited or genetic information and memories, assumptions about the world, their coping and defense mechanisms, as well as where they’re at in their stage of development.
When talking about religious trauma, if we are lucky enough to have spaces where it’s named and talked about, we do a decent job of talking about the peritraumatic factors. This is the stuff in the timeline of our lives that we draw a circle around: the stuff that has the gravitational pull, that demands our attention and haunts our dreams. What is tricky about this category is that it implies that there is a clear distinction, a delineation between the before, during, and after. And in some cases of spiritual trauma that’s true. An event happens with a clear before, during, and after sequence. For example, a member of a church’s leadership publicly humiliates a congregation member or perpetrates an act of sexualized violence against someone. This we could point to and identify; it had a specific time when it happened. It was a specific thing that happened. But, in many cases, there aren’t such clear boundaries around a singular event. Rather it’s a whole series of events. Perhaps even the cultural water that a person swims in. Or it was all the things leading up to an event that eroded a person’s sense of self, worth, and voice, making them mistrust themselves from an early age, and making it seemingly impossible in a moment of trauma to do anything except go along with it and give up.
Post-traumatic factors are harder to address when we speak about spiritual trauma. Especially in situations without such a clear beginning and end, what happened after the event ends might include its own forms of trauma: loss, perhaps of an entire meaning system and community, exclusion or rejection, terror and panic, or fear of eternal torment. If you have spiritual trauma, you might be here, living in the post-trauma landscape where the injuries are no longer actively happening, but the memories and imprints of them on your mind and body very much are. Or you might be in the middle of it all, trying to figure out why your faith system feels so powerful and painful all at once. All you know, and full of meaning, but somehow also connected to profound anxiety or self-hatred. But know this: there is always a time following when the trauma is actively happening. If you are in it, you know that what happens there can add to your healing or add to your hurt. And if you aren’t there yet, in that post-trauma experience, please know that it is coming. In some cases where people are able to identify what happened to them and share it with others, there is still such little cultural understanding of spiritual trauma that people inside the faith communities might deny that the traumatic response is even occurring. And those outside of the spiritual community might have no frame of reference to understand how this could happen, and may inadvertently blame a person for experiencing the trauma. People may not understand why it’s impacting a person so severely and may not understand how damaging the lasting impacts are. Even some therapists may not have any idea how to understand or work with religious or spiritual trauma, and people seek support from well-meaning clinicians only to feel misunderstood, blamed, or helped unskillfully. What happens after the trauma, how much we lose, who supports us, who doesn’t, how we make meaning of it all, process it, or what we do to try to shove it all down—all of that impacts how much our systems experience the trauma as still going on inside of us, or how much we can know in an embodied way that it really, really is over.
When trying to answer that question—the question, why do some people experience something as traumatic when others don’t?—what we talk about the least, but is an essential ingredient to the answer, has to do with what happened before the trauma ever occurred. Again, the problem with that is that it implies that there was a concrete before and a concrete after. In situations of religious and spiritual trauma there is often a long on ramp, a series of events and beliefs, grooming experiences, or communal codes of social behavior that make the moment when something traumatic happens seemingly imperceivable. It can make it hard to do anything about the trauma. It can make it feel confusing—the body saying this feels horrible—while the internalised social code says this is good church discipline. It may even make the trauma feel good or virtuous when it happens. A significant pre-traumatic factor is age. How old were you when that something happened, or when it first happened? When we are an adult, if we’ve had a secure and safe upbringing and healthy relationships up until that point, someone telling you that you are bad might sting, it might feel scary, it might be confusing, or it might be outright ridiculous. But, if someone tells a child the same thing, as their world is developing and they don’t have any other frames of reference against which to interpret that statement, the words feel and land differently, shaping the development of the person from that point on. Said another way: losing a teddy bear at thirty-five feels different than losing a precious teddy bear at five. It is supposed to—children are developing, their nervous systems vulnerable, their personhood deserving of being protected.
In many cases, the pre-traumatic factors of childhood, family narratives, attachment style, messages about worth, goodness, and self-trust, might be traumas of their own. That means when a person grows up to be in a spiritual environment where harm is occurring, the pre-traumatic factors that their nervous systems got used to all those years ago, can make it difficult to identify that anything is wrong—because it is all they were ever used to. This is like the upside-down version of the story I told about my daughter at the beginning. What we experience most frequently growing up almost always feels “normal.” At least, that’s the story that we tell ourselves unconsciously. Even if the behaviour isn’t normal, because we’re used to it, it has a kind of familiarity to it. This can include being shamed or punished for asking questions of parents, experiencing abuse or spanking growing up, being told that you’re worthless, bad, deserving of punishment or violence (now or in perpetuity) ,that you are untrustworthy, or fundamentally broken. The things that can also be traumatic that we might become used to based on the environment that we grew up in include: neglect or isolation, shame, and high-rigidity and high-control parenting styles. You can imagine how if a person came out of childhood, or adolescence, or an abusive relationship believing that they are fundamentally bad and the cause of their suffering and others’ suffering, how it would be so seamless to fit into a religious or spiritual context where that idea was supported, and a very wonderful solution is proposed: a spell of sorts that involves saying a prayer almost as it there are a few magic words to make all of those bad parts inside of them go away.
In other cases, the pre-traumatic factors are seemingly appropriate social rules that dictate the normal happenings of a faith community, that are communicated clearly and up front, or in a more passive and insidious way articulated what is not okay, what can’t be talked about, based on what is surrounded by silence. This often looks like being punished or shunned for asking questions; being expected to share vulnerable information before trust is built; being told promises about the future that can’t be guaranteed and are used for manipulation; the subtle or overt shaming of emotions, instinct, and bodily wisdom; rejecting of ways of thinking or discipline which critique the structures or community practices; communicating that those who have left or thought critically of the community were shameful or dangerous; excessive welcoming and promises of belonging and community that can’t be followed through on; the introduction of rules and controlling structures as a means of keeping a person safe; suggesting that the punishment or consequences are a function of love or protection; or making a person doubt their experience of reality through denial or outright lying. There are many more things in this category, but you likely get the point here. Our sense of “normal” begins to change in a way that we are led to believe is good. We start to question our sense of truth and rightness and begin to disconnect from people who think differently.
It’s time to meet Dr. Alison Cook. I came to Alison’s work when someone forwarded me a very interesting post she made on social media that seemed to effortlessly cut through avoidant spiritual bypassing without erasing the value of spirituality. Since then, we have gotten to know each other a little, and I have come to respect her work as a therapist and author. Her academic work has specialised in integrating psychology and spirituality, and her doctoral dissertation was titled “The Role of Reflective Judgement in the Relationship Between Religious Orientation and Prejudice.” In short, she looked at the role of religious orientation and its impact on prejudice. Yes, I did download it. Yes, I read all 193 pages. Yes, it was a Friday night when all of this went down. No, I do not regret any of it; it was the highlight of my fall.
18:26 INTERVIEW WITH ALISON COOK
The other thing I think about, Hillary, is you know this idea of spiritual trauma. We can’t bifurcate the body from the soul. So, you know, all trauma is probably spiritual trauma on some level. So, I always go to: what do I mean by that? What does that mean to me? What does that mean to my clients? I tend to think about it in really pragmatic terms, kind of along the lines of, you know all trauma causes you to question your worth, to question yourself. And I think spiritual trauma adds this sort of terrorizing layer that God might question your worth too. And that’s often subconscious. You know that is often not a conscious, you know we’re not walking around wondering, you know—but as I’ve worked with people over the years, there is this kind of a “I know” quote unquote, in quotes “God loves me” or “God cares about me”. But I don’t know it, you know from my body, from my spirit, from my emotions, from my soul. So, those are kind of just the first thoughts that always, when I think about spiritual trauma that come to mind.
Absolutely. And when you’re working with people, what do you sense causes this kind of wounding at such a soul level?
Dr. Alison Cook
You know I think there are two primary things that cause—I mean there’s probably a million. But the two that I see, I think there’s what we call more religious trauma, which I separate out a little bit in the connotation of maybe a religious institution, you know, a pastor, someone who’s supposed to be the shepherd of a flock, causing a trauma. And that’s more overt and it’s no less awful. And sometimes it’s not overt. There’s another way that I have begun to understand spiritual trauma, which is informed by Ana-Maria Rizzuto. I don’t know if I said that right. I’ll have to. I think it’s Ana-Maria Rizzuto. “Birth of the Living God,” where she talks about how our parents, our first caregivers, are really our first glimpse of what God is like. And we don’t know, you know, God is a very abstract concept. You know, we don’t know as a tiny baby, as a young child. And so even in our homes, even if it’s not an overtly faith-based home, there’s a way in which we’re taught what God is like. And this is terrifying you know for those of us who are parents. And we do it imperfectly of course. But I know, Hillary, you’ll relate to me on that. But we do it imperfectly, but there’s a way in which we are that first glimpse of what love is, of what kindness is, of what presence is. And so, when that is for any reason, whether out of neglect, whether—even if the parent you know has a mental illness, maybe there’s something that’s understandable—but where that experience of love, of safety, of presence, of comfort, isn’t there, we pick up a wound. And that wound is a spiritual wound, I would say. It’s a wound that cuts at those deepest core needs of belonging, of being known, of understanding our purpose—that we matter, that we are valued. And so, when we don’t get those glimpses of what I believe God represents, right, ultimately, early on, those wounds get created. So, all the time I’ll see clients that come in and sometimes this happens in faith settings as well, where a parent will say, “God loves you,” and then that parent is absent. You know, they don’t show up for you. And so, you’re like, huh okay so love means absent, as a child. So, okay, now I understand love as absence. And you go through life you don’t know that that’s, you know not, you know that’s all you know. So that’s how you perceive love. Or your parents say, “God loves you unconditionally,” but then your parents actually teach you that their love is conditional based on your performance.
Dr. Alison Cook
Okay, well, okay, so God needs me to perform for God. So, these are the more subtle ways, you know where it’s not necessarily like you’re being taught this awful, awful thing about God—that also happens, and I see that too. But there’s these more subtle ways that we pick up these spiritual wounds. So, you know, I have a client come in who—severe neglect, absentee parents, really raised herself, has all the theology, you know, all the head knowledge, but no experiential understanding of safety, of love, of presence. And it’s just, that is just, that’s what I mean by holy ground when I’m in those moments with people. Because as you know, in our work that’s like, oh my goodness, because now I’m standing in that space with this person, right? This is that restorative moment. Because when we glimpse that safety in someone else, we start to get a glimpse in our bodies of what God is like, you know, of what love is like.
Because our sense of self is shaped so early on in our lives, when we get the things we need it’s easier for us to grow. Most of the time this helps us feel confident, connected to ourselves and others, able to give and receive love, experience our bodies as calm safe places to be, allowing us to be genuinely compassionate towards ourselves and others, think flexibly, meet our own needs, and have a clear sense of “no” when things are not okay or we need them to change. Think of this as the pre-traumatic factors gone right. When we get what we need growing up, it makes it easier for our systems to know later in life what isn’t okay, what hurts us, and how to get away from it. In case you’ve never heard any of this before, I want to make explicitly clear the kinds of things that we need to have, especially in our early years:
- We all deserve to know that we are loved and lovable, both because we hear it, and see it, and feel it.
- We need safe, respectful, nurturing touch. We need to be protected from violence, emotional, spiritual, physical, and sexual; and should those experiences occur, we need adults in our life to intervene and come to our defense.
- We need to have our cues responded to—first if we’re angry, sad, hungry, dirty, lonely, or scared—and we need them to be seen and validated, even if in those moments nothing can be done to change the circumstances. This is part of us learning to trust our bodies, and learning our bodies are good and safe places to be.
- We all need to know that the feelings we have are important and deserve to be felt. Our feelings can be tolerated when we’re supported through them, they are not too much, not dangerous, and won’t make us be sent away.
- We need caregivers who show us how to take responsibility for their own mental health and emotions instead of blaming us or others, and we need to see that they can do their best to make a repair when there is disconnection in the relationship.
- We also need to be protected from ideas and experiences which are dangerous or inappropriate for where we are at developmentally. This includes ideas, experiences, and material that is fear-inducing or highly sexualized.
Therapist Adam Young has summarized our basic psychosocial needs this way:
- Affect regulation
- The presence of an adult who is strong enough to handle our emotions, and has the willingness to repair
Hearing this list, you might have a little reaction. If this list is new to you, or it’s very different than what you experienced, you might feel confused, or sad for what you didn’t have. Or you might have the temptation to minimize these needs. That’s not surprising if you grew up having your needs minimized. We likely internalized that as a strategy that we now do to ourselves or others. As we have been talking about, what we experienced as the norm in our childhood shapes the way we are as adults internally, and in our relationships. So, if we are prone to minimizing, judging, or ignoring emotional or relational needs, and their value for our development, it’s likely that that happened to us by the people who were caregiving for us.
The good news is that even if we didn’t get these experiences growing up, it’s not too late to learn how to do that now, and to get what we didn’t get back then. It is not too late to let love, care, and support in, that we deserved so long ago. The inspiring and hopeful research about neuroplasticity shows us that there is no such thing as too old, too hurt, or too stuck to change. Our selves have the ability to adapt, heal, and change, right up until the moment we die. And we’ll talk more about healing in the last few episodes, so I just want you to know that that’s coming. For now, know you deserved all of these things back then, and you still deserve them today. Not getting what you needed was a result of existing in systems of people, and systems built by people, who likely didn’t get their needs met either. And not getting your needs met was not proof in any way that you were bad. I’m so sorry if anyone ever told you that, or if you ever had to believe that to make sense of why you felt so scared or alone.
Whenever I am working with people, and working on giving them some of these things they didn’t get, there is often a familiar point that we get to in therapy. I am communicating what is good about them, and the things that are true about us as people, and they say, “I believe you. I believe that people are worth loving and deserve care, blah blah blah, but when it comes to me it doesn’t feel true. How can it be that something that is true doesn’t feel true? How can it be that the things that I believe are true about other people, don’t feel true about me?” You might have asked yourself that question by now, too, and what we have been talking about in this episode might be helpful. What was normal for us, and what we got used to, what we heard, shapes so much of how we are in the world as adults. This is true of our behavior, our relationships, and how we feel about ourselves. Said another way, what feels true is often what we are most used to hearing and believing, not necessarily what is actually true about us.
A good example of this is the way that perfectly lovable, valuable, precious humans are born into families that abuse them. They often end up feeling unlovable, unworthy, disposable, and alone. I like to think of the way we feel about ourselves, or think about ourselves, as kind of like these well-worn paths we create when walking through a forest. Or, if you prefer, like skiing down a snowy mountain. Taking a particular path creates an imprint. The more we take the path, and the more we have the important people in our lives take this path, or reinforce that we should take this path, the easier that it is for us to go on that path. The ridges and terrain become worn, almost having their own gravitational pull. The more we take the same direction, the easier it becomes to continue doing that. Then, we don’t even have to think about it at all. The path almost seems to choose us. It feels inevitable, familiar, unquestionable. It’s just the way things are. Our systems can get so used to certain experiences or conditions that when we are without them it can feel disorienting. It can feel so disorienting that we end up unconsciously recreating the conditions that we’re used to. In psychoanalytic theory we call this repetition compulsion. There are some theories about why this happens. Without knowing it is happening consciously, or choosing it willfully, if we have been through something scary, painful, or abusive—especially in a relationship dynamic—our systems can feel the familiarity in those dynamics and be drawn into them, leaving us repeating them or wanting to repeat what we’ve already experienced—simply because it’s familiar, simply because it’s known.
Here is one reason why this might happen. The organ of the brain is highly organized around energy conservation and taking short cuts, so whenever something seems to be programmed in—especially when it happens early in our lives and through relationships—the energy budgeting system can deem changes to our way of thinking, moving, relating, and predicting, to be too expensive, too demanding, or outside of the budget so to speak. We can also get so used to certain levels of stress in our body or high relational intensity or heightened emotional states, including chaos or fear or unpredictability, that when we are outside of those states, our system can go into a kind of withdrawal. The things that are healthy, or sustainable can feel scary to us, banal, sometimes even boring. It seems like our brains are wired to both:
- feel a sense of normal for what is familiar, and
- get confused, scared even about change—even if that change is in the direction of health, healing, or truth.
Even if this is the case, our system is always orienting in general towards survival or health or flourishing, even if it doesn’t seem that way on the surface. What that means is that when we are finding ourselves in a situation that reminds us somehow of what we’ve been through before, we have an opportunity to have it go differently this time, to make ourselves safe in the present, but also to correct or complete the memories of what happened to us before. That is one way that things can go. People unconsciously are drawn to situations that are familiar to them, even if it hurts them—they get to do it differently this time, correcting, completing, creating something new.
But another way that this can go is that people experience a similar dynamic to what hurt them before, and it leaves them feeling even more wounded than they would be otherwise. I imagine this to be like having a scab ripped off, a bruise pushed. An example of this might be a person who grows up experiencing abuse from one parent and goes to the other parent to say, “I’m being hurt.” And that parent denies what is happening and defends the other parent, leaving the child further alienated from care, doubly betrayed, doubting their own experience, and unprotected from further abuse. Then, imagine this person grows up to be part of a religious community where the leader perpetrates harm against them in some way. They work up the courage to tell another leader what happened and what they hear back is: “That couldn’t have happened. You’re wrong. They wouldn’t have done something like that, and you’re bad for even suggesting it.” This feels like the same dynamic they experienced growing up: abuse followed by denial of that experience in a way that adds to the original wound, making what is happening in the present even more painful. It can explain why things in the present feel hard to recover from or process. The pain actually has deep roots and they reach all the way back to our early years of development.
Although it’s slightly different, it can hurt just the same. A child is experiencing sadness, or fear, and goes to their parent to say, “I’m sad; I’m scared,” and the parent responds by denying or ignoring their pain. “You don’t need to be sad, nothing is wrong” or “don’t be scared, you’re fine, go on now and make me proud.” Those kids grow up to be in communities which use the same defense against feelings, but with different words. They say, “I’m feeling depressed, and lonely, and sad,” and hear back, “don’t be sad, God made you happy.” Or they say, “I’m feeling anxious and afraid a lot of the time,” and hear back from community members or leaders, “Don’t be afraid, there is nothing to fear, God will protect you.” The denial of emotion using a similar strategy of repression and spiritual bypassing, especially when well-meaning, can leave a person feeling misunderstood and like their more painful emotions need to go away for them to belong, to stay connected, and to be okay. We know well by now that emotions that go unfelt do not go away. They stay there, lingering, asking to be addressed by getting louder, which can only serve to reinforce the same pattern in some situations that come up, and again others repress and deny them.
There is another thing that happens in faith communities that also makes me wince. We ascribe our own defense mechanisms to God. We discount people’s pain and assume that God does, too—and then tell people that as a way of reinforcing our responses and defending our defensive behavior. We criticize others, judging them for their suffering and calling it a lack of faith, and saying that God does, too. We celebrate the people who are most defended against their emotions, their vulnerabilities, distancing themselves from what feels scary and painful, sexually repressed, and controlled. And we tell the story that they are the most prized, rewarded, that God calls them this, that, or faithful. We teach people to hate their humanness the most, and praise them, calling it righteous, because God hates their humanness, too—so we say. We offer people chronic guilt, shame, and fear of hell, and celebrate it as signs of the Spirit. We grow or nurture in people an inner critic and then tell them it’s the voice of God. I understand that when we hear about complexity and layers of pain inside ourselves and our systems, we can become overwhelmed, despairing, scared, even defensive. But I want you to know that healing, changing our patterns, growing in ways we were stuck, is totally possible. The beginning of our healing is often through understanding how we got here in the first place, and why it’s so hard to do things differently—even if it’s good for us—and why things hurt so much, even if we were told that we’re just a little thing, or it happened to everyone.
While there are some very specific and acute spiritual traumas that happened once we were adults, what I’ve learned from working with so many people who have spiritual trauma, is that —like other forms of trauma and abuse—when they occur at the beginning, and are baked into our families of origin, or culture, or education, as something passed on dutifully from one generation to the next and wrapped in spiritual messages, the developmental process of growing into a healthy adult is impaired. There are specific things that each of us need to experience and figure out psychologically as a way of learning how to be in the world. In my field we call these developmental tasks. Think of them as lessons or steps in the sequence of growing up, that we need to help us be fully ourselves and in relationship in a healthy way. You might think of a little baby who needs to learn how to stand and take a step before they can run, or how we learn to do basic math before we can do our taxes or put together a household budget. In those cases, it makes sense that doing the more complex things later would be harder, if not impossible, without first having the experiences that act as the building blocks for what comes next. Running and doing math might not seem so disruptive, but in religious families and contexts of high control, certain developmentally-appropriate tasks and experiences are not appropriately scaffolded, but instead are punished, forbidden, even shamed. Things like: developing and expressing one’s feeling and opinions, sexuality, including self pleasure and sexual exploration with others, experimenting with romantic relationships and dating. Even lying and boundary pushing, and rule breaking. Each of these are appropriate, even healthy, at certain stages of development. And are meant to happen at a certain time, while we have people who love us around us to care for us, and help us navigate the complexity, consequences, pain, and joy of how this shapes who we are to become.
Take the example of a toddler who is crying because they aren’t getting what they want or saying “no” to something that needs to happen, like having a bath. The parents can look at this and decide that it is rebellious, disobedient, and as a result punish the child. Or they can see that toddlers are learning to say “no” because they are figuring out that they have a voice, a sense of will and personhood, and are trying to get a sense of how to use that voice and what will happen if they say “no.” In one sense, the toddler is saying “Hey, I’m a person, and I have wants and feelings too,” but what they’re also asking is, “Will you still love me even if I say no? Even if I have feelings that are different than yours? And will you show me that we can still be close even if I want different things?” If their “no” costs them connection, they will probably grow up to learn that they have to do what other people want them to do to stay close, they have to do what other people want them to do to be liked or loved.
Here is an example that’s a bit more advanced that might help us clarify this. A former mentor of mine, a psychologist who specialized in working with children and teens, told me one time about when her daughter had recently lied to her about something. In a way that both seemed matter-of-fact and somehow proud, and almost with a twinkle in her eye, she let me know that something important had happened for the first time in their home. Her daughter had concealed information from her about the toy that she was playing with. This wasn’t a toy she was supposed to be playing with, and so her mother asked her about it. In a way that was apparently obvious to the mom, her daughter lied. She went on to tell me about how important this moment was, an opportunity for her to talk to her daughter about lying—when it’s appropriate, when it’s not—and to help her explore internal processes about deciding to lie, the consequences for lying, but also what it means to tell the truth, how and why we tell the truth, and varying layers of honesty and integrity. Most importantly, they got to talk about how to feel the feelings that go along with all of this. Mother and daughter both learned important things that day, and the mom got to support her daughter to grow in ways that would have been inhibited if she just went straight into punishing her. She was able to see that what her daughter was doing was practicing navigating the world, figuring out rules and relationships, learning about reality, truth, will, independence, consequences, and self-control. She’s figuring these things out, and the lie is only one part of the equation. The other part is what her mother did. Together, over time, with this happening enough, these two parts form a story that the girl carries around inside of herself, about how to be an adult in the world, how to make good choices, and how to relate to others about the choices she makes and the choices that they make.
Here’s what I’m trying to get at: now that you know all of that, in religious and family high-control environments, some of the very normal things that need to happen don’t get to happen. The developmental steps, even the basic ones around no, agency, self-responsibility and life choices, boundaries, rule breaking, and rebellion, all of those important developmental steps can be impaired—keeping people stuck in a perpetual state of psychological and social childhood. This, of course, can go on as long as it does because the institutions, or the parents, or the theology, portrays the person as good for being like a child—supposedly compliant, with no differentiated sense of self, no voice of ones own, no desire to think critically. Meanwhile the responsibilities for one’s life get displaced onto someone else: a parent, a partner, an institution, or a paternalistic God. Where I have seen this go, is that when people leave families or communities of high religious control, they have not yet met some of the developmental tasks that peers accomplished long ago. They might try to make up for lost time, realizing there are things they never got to do. In fact, that might be why they leave their faith altogether. Even if there are some parts that are good and beautiful, the sense of control and the suppression of their own agency, leads to a full and emphatic “no” as they finally get to assert their voice for the first time. But often, this experience of being outside of the tight reins of moral, psychological, and social control feels like a freefall, leaving a person to feel as though they are feeling displaced into adulthood—perhaps even still feeling like a child inside, but with no one to take responsibility for them, no one to show them how to make mistakes and clean up the mess, realizing that the stakes are a lot higher at thirty-eight than they were at eight.
I have worked with so many people who were told that if they did not have any sexual contact with a partner until they were married, that they would get married and on their wedding night they would have the most profoundly intimate and satisfying sex possible. Only to realize, our bodies don’t, can’t, and won’t just go from inhibiting something and feeling shame and fear about it, to feeling ease, comfort, and confidence with it overnight. That is not how development works. We need to learn skills, and we need places to learn those skills, especially when the skills are relational. This has left what seems to be a whole generation of individuals who grew up in the purity culture movement, without the skills or practice for sexual encounters that help them know the basics of consent, say no, feeling safe in one’s body to explore pleasure and ask for what feels good—let alone the more nuanced, complex, and satisfying forms of sexual expression that come with knowing one’s wants, needs, preferences, and boundaries. I have lost count of how many people have told me that they feel betrayed, deceived, and abandoned by a cultural narrative of purity that promised them intimacy and satisfaction, but forbid them from the experiences and education that would help them develop that. The parallels between family, development, and faith communities are not hard to draw, as religious communities of high control often use the language of “family” to exploit trust and engender the perception of closeness and kinship that hasn’t been earned. Although this isn’t always the case, in some of those environments, saying “we are a family,” is one way to manipulate people into relationship where they are the subordinate children who need to unquestioningly follow the rules of the paternalistic leaders who claims to rescue them from their badness and evil nature.
I first met William Matthews III in October of 2017. We were sharing the stage at The Liturgists event in Seattle, and when he was singing, I think I literally did a full 180 pivot to hear who was making the unforgettably beautiful sounds. Not long after we were invited to be co-hosts on the podcast together, and he soon became someone I not only love to be around, but someone I looked up to. He is equal parts creative genius, incisive cultural commentator, Black history and Star Trek knowledge encyclopedia, and he will tell it to you straight—whatever it is—in a way that will hit you square between the eyes. You can count yourself very lucky if you ever get to sit in a room with him and listen to him talk about pretty much anything. I’ve been trying to peer pressure him into writing a book for years. Maybe taking it to a public level in the form of this podcast will help. William, if you’re listening, we are waiting on that book my friend.
45:58 INTERVIEW WITH WILLIAM MATTHEWS III
What came to mind for me was this image of trudging through mud. That’s what spiritual trauma means for me. It’s one of those things that, it’s very hard to explain because it doesn’t feel tangible like a lot of emotional hurt or abuse. It doesn’t feel like you can necessarily grab a hold to it, but it feels just as real. It feels like you’re in a fog and you’re just like I can’t move this. And I’m trying to, like, see through this or I’m trying to navigate this. Or have you ever had that feeling where spiderwebs—like you walk through a spiderweb—and it feels like you can’t really see it, but it’s just on you, and you feel like you’re pulling at nothing. Spiritual trauma is like that. It feels like everything and nothing at the same time. Mainly because I think of how we frame what is an issue, what’s not an issue, what’s painful, what’s not painful, what’s real and not real. And so, because we can’t see our emotions, and because we can’t see our insides and what is happening in these chemical reactions, we often think of it as less real, but it’s just as real. But it is hard to name. It’s hard to find within oneself. Growing up religious always felt like I was living in a bunker underground and every religious experience that I had was one that I believed would hopefully lead me to freedom. That would lead me just a little bit higher. I would get out of one bunker and find maybe a bigger bunker underground and think I was free—ultimately to realise I was just inside of another bunker. And then I would find another container and think—the whole time I’m underground, and I’m not realising that I’m fully underground, but I know that there’s more.
I know that there’s something else up there. And so, I often think kids that grew up religious, we feel like we’re growing up at a disadvantage because we’re not taught about the world, we’re not taught how to take care of ourselves, we’re constantly forced to be vulnerable, we’re forced to defer to people who don’t always have our best interest at heart—especially adults. We’re constantly told to lose our power, and to give up our power for the sake of this greater reality. Yeah, I feel growing up I was put at a disadvantage by the Church, and therefore so much of my life has been about reclaiming power—because I willingly gave it up because I thought that’s what God demanded of me.
And just as you’re saying that I’m thinking about how honest that is, and how in touch with yourself that is, because I think there’s a lot of people who actually are having that experience, but they feel somehow like being on the inside of the bunker is the pathway to closeness with God. It’s like, oh this bunker is suffocating me. And somehow that’s proof that I’m doing this right. It’s like there’s this.
And there’s safety.
Right. Yeah, you’re not exposed to the elements. There’s nothing, you know—but as you’re handing power over to someone, you’re also expecting you’re going to be taking care of me. That means that I actually have all of my needs met. So, on some level I’m thinking about how aware you are to recognize some of the ways that you were trapped in that, given that there’s also another narrative that’s layered on that, that keeps people in the bunker, often—which is like no this is—you’re chosen, you’re actually supposed to be here. And it’s very exclusive to be here.
I was going to say, you know we take those scriptures in the Psalms particularly, where you know David talks about being chosen by God or being beloved by God. And we sometimes internalise that to mean our group is so special. And I think that was Israel’s problem in general. I mean, Walter Brueggemann the theologian, talks about this a lot in his work on the Psalms, about Israel’s sin of chosenness—like, that they thought they were so special that they could get away with anything. They didn’t care how they treated the poor. They didn’t care how they treated the prophets or the outcasts or the marginalized. And Israel’s sin was always taking this religious zeal and pride to a level that created harm for themselves and others. And when you’re in the bunker, you’re right you feel chosen, you feel special. You feel like I’m doing the thing that nobody else wants to do. And that makes me better than everyone, makes me better than those surface dwellers, you know those people in the world out there. You know or the people that choose to leave the bunker—how dare they leave, you know don’t they know they’re loved by God, and we love them. And it’s just fear. I’ve realized so much of my life was shadowboxing this boogeyman of fear, that was really created in my own mind, or implanted there in my mind, by the spiritual authority in my life, parents in my life—was to create this fear to keep me safe, to keep me hidden, to keep me protected from anything that could have hurt me. And oftentimes it wasn’t malicious. I’ve had to—in my growth and healing, have had to understand that that’s not always malicious. Sometimes it is. Sometimes it really is not. I can’t think of a day in my life my parents have been malicious towards me. Have they created harm? Have they created situations and belief systems that created harm? Absolutely. And in that way, we can raise those issues, hold people accountable, or at least have dialogue around that. You know, and then the people that have created harm—you know those people like in my healing journey, I’ve had to cut out of my life because they were intentional with harm. And so, learning that differentiation between who’s malicious, who’s intentional, who’s not intentional—and also there’s a spectrum in there of complicity, of people being unconscious in their own, you know, journey, in their own shadow work. And having to hold space for: maybe they really don’t see, they’re creating harm, but they don’t see. And when you’re in the bunker it’s hard to see. When you grew up in the bunker and you’re perpetuating the myth of the bunker, it’s hard to believe that there’s life above ground.
It can be so hard to disentangle this all. We can find ourselves asking questions. What was real? What actually happened? What did I think was good but actually hurt me? What still hurts me but feels stuck inside of me? And how do I trust myself to know and sort through this all when I’ve been told that I’m bad, that my heart is deceitful, or I’m just in pain. If my only way to make sense of what I’ve been through is to blame myself for being responsible, what do I do? Am I remembering it all correctly? And if I do talk about it, will I be believed? It’s difficult to do this all—the sorting, negotiating, and disentangling. When we have been deprived of the right to self-responsibility, we may feel like a child in an adult’s life, and it can cost us a lot to look at this. What we have coming next is meant to help. Our next episodes are about the mechanics of understanding how spiritual trauma happens, how we get stuck in it, and how we get out. Then from there we move into healing from spiritual trauma on an individual and systemic level. But I want to leave you with this in the meantime: no matter what happened in your development, whatever occurred in your past that has you feeling stuck will never be more powerful than your inborn human capacity to keep developing. There is a drive, written into us from the beginning that points us towards growth, movement, and healing. There is a door that our system always keeps slightly ajar, for a way out of a stuck pattern, a way of thinking, or a belief about ourselves. Even if something in development got stuck, even if we learned to believe we are unlovable and bad, even if some of the steps others took before us feel out of reach—it is never too late to learn. If you are listening to this, the capacity to change, heal, and grow, is still alive inside of you, and maybe that means you get to do something you never got to do. Maybe that means seeing things in a new way or facing the discomfort of looking at your past and seeing what you never got, or did, but shouldn’t have had to go through. Even if it’s hard for you to believe it, know that I hold a relentless and unwavering hope inside of me for you, and will hold it in my hands here until you have the courage to hold it yourself.
I want to end our time together today with a practice around getting our needs met. So, if you want to adjust how you are sitting or resting to allow your attention to go inside, perhaps giving yourself a moment to wiggle or move or stretch—finding a supportive way of landing. As you’re doing this, pay extra careful attention to what feels right or good in this moment. Maybe you want to take that extra second to adjust your posture, take a sip of water, or as you get settled you realize it would actually feel better to stand. As you’re doing this, notice that even right now you are meeting your own needs. You’re paying attention. You are attuning to yourself. And you are responsive to your own bodily cues. As you do that, you might notice for a moment—what’s it like to meet your own needs? What’s it like to have your needs met, even by yourself? As we wade ourselves into this practice, I want to invite you to bring to memory a time when you got something that you needed. It could be a really significant moment in your life where someone showed up for you, or it could be something from the last week, where you sent an email off with a question marked urgent and it came back right away with a reply that satisfied your curiosity or put to ease the thing you were concerned about. Whatever it is, bring to mind a time when you got your needs met in some way. And as you play the movie of that over in your mind, remembering what happened, I invite you to slow down. Almost as if you go in slow motion. Focusing on the parts of that that felt best, or what specifically was most notable about that for you, or maybe the moment that came with the most relief.
As you slow your mind down to hold your attention on the part of it that felt most important or salient, allow yourself to begin to notice what’s happening inside of your body. Right here and right now as you remember that memory. Perhaps there’s something that you can know about yourself, or life, or relationship in this moment. Maybe it’s the feeling of right now slowing down, how good it can feel to have your needs met. Maybe it’s a noticing of an emotion or a sensation that you often skip over and don’t let yourself really sink into. But as you bring this to your awareness, I invite you to imagine that there is enough of this knowing or sensation, or belief, or emotion, that you could sink all the way into it. As you sink all the way into it, perhaps you can imagine that it begins to sink into you. That there is an abundance of it; there is more than enough of it, and you don’t have to rush through this, or believe that there’s only just a tiny bit and not enough to go around or savour. Feel yourself surrounded and held by this feeling. Imagining that it’s sinking right into the core of who you are, into each cell. And if this is where you stay for the practice then that’s fine. But if it feels available to you, you might imagine a different version of you, a younger part of you, a story that you have of this and feeling this way is impossible, just imagining that that could come to the periphery of your attention—that it could see that there is more than enough of this feeling in this moment. And that by virtue of being connected to you, that this part, this belief, this younger version of you, can get access to this, too. You might take a moment to breathe into this, crystallize it with a word or image, a colour perhaps. And then when you feel ready, beginning to return to the space around you—if your eyes were closed, maybe blinking them, perhaps using some movement, or a stretch, or a wiggle to help you transition back to what’s coming next. Thank you so much for joining us for today’s episode.
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 Alison Cook and William Matthews. 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