Desecrating the Sacred: The Legacy of Religious Trauma
Religious Trauma is a different form of trauma, one that impact an individuals attachment style, their belief system, and their nervous system. Often individuals coming in with Religious Trauma will speak to how invisible this form of trauma feels, in that they know something is wrong, but they are unable to speak to one event, like when one has suffered a car crash, or an abusive parenting figure.
Often individuals with Religious Trauma have grown up in an environment that was not conducive to their attachment system, but that lack of support happened because of religious messaging. Therefore as one comes into contact with some of their trauma symptoms, much of them are disqualified as “that’s just the way things are”. Another way of thinking about this, is through the use of the term “worldview”. When something has been instilled in us from a young age, even if we ourselves feel distress about it, it’s hard to examine. It gets labeled in the mind and heart as reality, and as much as we would like the space inside of ourselves to look at it, the conditioning we have experienced stops us.
In addition, the confusing thing about Religious Trauma, is it’s attack is not just on the brain systems, but it’s implementation on fracturing of the nervous system. Often individuals, who are no longer a part of the religious organization, will speak to these “bubbles in their nervous system” where their thinking mind no longer accepts the belief, but they can feel the implantation of said belief within their nervous system.
One client spoke about this as they reflected on the sin nature, as discussed in Christianity. They said “I no longer believe it, yet I feel unable to escape this core sense that deep within me it’s true”. The average therapist or helper hearing this information, may look at it as “client struggles with a core sense of shame” but would fail to consider how the religious system that fostered this wound may need closer review. These critical considerations, in how helpers digest and make sense of a client’s experience with religious trauma, are one of the reasons this trauma can be so different than other forms of trauma.
As these “bubbles” continue in their nervous system, this dichotomy results in a fracturing of their identity, and the siloing of resources that results in an attitude towards life of “just getting by”. This can also be exasperated by the feelings of guilt, shame and depression that an individual feels unable to face due to the elusive nature of their core content.
On top of this, an individual might have complete lost, or feel that they are at risk of losing, their social support structure should they go deeper into exploring these things. Their identity may still be wrapped up in their family of origin, and this lack of differentiation of attachment, may make it easier to label their internal experience as “shame” and dismiss the symptoms as “sin” or something that shows they need to try harder to believe the religious system they are a part of.
These threats and complications makes therapeutic progress often result in deeper factoring of the individual. When seeing an untrained therapist, seeking to unpack these feelings, they never get to the space of discharge, and may at times continue to be in a high functioning, but disassociated state that is left over from childhood strategies.