Spiritual Abuse: It’s Probably Not What You Think

02 Apr 2017

Tag: PTSD , Childhood Trauma

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In her quintessential book on codependent thinking, emotions, and behavior-Facing Codependence What It Is, Where It Comes From, How it Sabotages Our Lives, author Pia Mellody draws a direct line between an abusive childhood and struggling with life as a dysfunctional, damaged adult.

Mellody not only points to the usual suspects of sex abuse, physical abuse and emotional abuse in childhood as the origins of adult mental health problems, but she also talks about something often overlooked. Spiritual Abuse.

So what is Spiritual Abuse? (HINT-It’s not what you think) And was it part of your home life growing up?
As a baby, children rely on their parents for absolutely everything. A parent is a child’s first exposure to anything like a Higher Power (in this case meaning a God of some kind or something bigger than themselves).

As the child grows, functional and healthy parents show their children that they are fallible and imperfect, and that we all make mistakes. This teaches children that their parents are not perfect, and therefore they do not remain as the child’s version of a Higher Power.

On the other hand, when parents are unhealthy, the may use (and unfortunately abuse) their power over their children. The message is clear. “I am a God to you and I can do anything I want to you. You are merely a child and cannot stop me.”

This kind of Spiritual Abuse distorts, retards, and interfere with a child’s normal and healthy spiritual development. With these kind of parents, the child’s opinions, feelings, and perspectives just don’t matter, and are not taken into account. 



Newborns don’t know how to do anything at all. It is only through observing their parents that they begin to get a sense of who they are.

Somewhere around 2-3 years of age, children start to desire to do things in their own way. If parents do not allow this natural separation process to happen and allow the kids to continue evolving until they become adults, then the children are being over-controlled by their parents.

This can squelch the child’s ability to grow up and become a unique individual. And these types of children may become out of touch with what healthy growth and finding their own way even is.

They grow into adults who may have trouble figuring out how to do anything new. Even as adults they may ask other adults for instructions, a behavior which mirrors their own experiences as children.

They can grow up to be predictable and may have a difficult time being spontaneous and creative in life.

When these children grow into adults they may seek out in life a strict set of rules. They may even look for a marriage or a church where these kinds of strict guidelines will be offered. 


"Demanding perfection from children is demanding that they be adults which is totally unreasonable."


In a functional family, children are provided with a healthy and attainable set of rules. These rules are expected to be followed by both the children and the parents. This set of rules is a core foundation of the family’s value system. The rules are clear. And they are able to be followed.

But in a dysfunctional or sick family system they are sets of inhuman rules that are impossible for anyone to really live up to. Sometimes there are no rules at all, or the rules may change on the parents’ whim leaving the children unsure of what to expect from day-to-day. Perhaps there are reasonable rules for the children to follow, but the parents refuse to follow those rules themselves.

Do you have any memories of your parents puffing away on a cigarette while at the same time telling you not to ever smoke?

This kind of duality makes the child’s life fearful and chaotic, which unfortunately is too often continued into adulthood. These are children who also grow up thinking that they are not good enough to have a relationship with a God they might otherwise believe in.

(Author Note: When I was growing up, my mother would pat me down for marijuana when I got home from school and then ground me when she found it. She would keep what she confiscated so she could later sit and get stoned in front of me with her boyfriend. A perfect example of Do as I say, not as I do.)

Teaching children that perfection is normal is not healthy or functional. And some parents demand that their kids have perfect grades, never make mistakes, or never lose or break anything.

Growing up in a home like this teaches children to lie to avoid the shame and pain of being imperfect.

Demanding perfection from children is demanding that they be adults which is totally unreasonable.

Often these kids will work very hard at being perfect little adults but end up being depressed, a failure in life, or completely unable to enjoy their successes when they have them. As adults they may feel shame because they are never able to reach that elusive goal in life that is always moving further and further away from them.


“I am a God and I can do anything I want to you. You are merely a child and cannot stop me.”


Being abandoned by your own parents may be the ultimate in spiritual abuse.

Children are left to be parents for themselves because there is no guidance from a healthy emotionally-available adult. This blocks a child’s ability to grow spiritually and often these kids, feeling they cannot rely on anyone but themselves, become their own version of a Higher Power.

They have little or no ability to have faith in anything else because the people that were supposed to care for them simply weren’t around.

In a dysfunctional family, children are not given information about what true spirituality is. Instead they learn spirituality based exclusively on their parents views and there is no room for the child to decide anything for themselves.

(Author Note-When I was growing up my mother used to teach me that Christians were twisted and evil people, and being only a child I thought it was true. To teach a young boy these kinds of things is sick. Now I know that all people of different religions are just people, fallible and imperfect but not inherently bad.)

Most dysfunctional parent refuse to acknowledge to their children when they make a mistake. Even if it is an obvious blunder. This teaches children that they can be offensive with others and not have healthy boundaries. The children are taught that there is no need to feel shame about anything.

Shame is the emotion that leads people to take action and be accountable. But when shame is repressed or does not exist at all, children may grow into adults who have a difficult time experiencing any sort of spirituality.



​So. How many of these red flags were in your childhood? Was Spiritual Abuse part of your home life? Does this article speak to you and remind you what it was like where you grew up?

Children who experience child abuse, be it physical, emotional, sexual, or in this case spiritual grow up to be adults who struggle with PTSD, depression, chronic anxiety, trauma, and addiction.

If you are an adult struggling with your abusive childhood and the wreckage of your past, here are a few things that might help:
  • One-on-one “talk” therapy with an understanding counsellor
  • EMDR Eye Movement Therapy either in person (which is expensive) or with the Virtual EMDR Program 
  • A Therapy Group with other people struggling with the same issues
  • A 12 step program like Co-Dependents Anonymous (CoDA) (*For more on CoDA and codependency, check out the blog of Girl in Therapy)

View Comments

Fiona Keel · 09 Jul 2019

The article above is word for word my childhood but at 54 my mother still acts the same as she always did, we splintered into 100s or more insiders and have just found our very first safe adult who can recognise us and help us be heard, she heard 4 seperate voices last session and each insider had a different posture. Our outsider didnt hear or sense our different voices but she believes her trauma counsellor, she had been hunting fot a safe adult for decades. Its scary to be heard as thats against the rules, mother told her 4 years ago she had a male demon inside her but this is not true, but she heard a male voice so she must have splintered in front of mother. Its all starting to tie up loose ends, its going to be a long haul but ee will be heard and finally we will be believed, no emotions good or bad were allowed as she grew up. Every thought was denied, she just went silent and barely spoke or ate. At 11 her granddaughter was a healthy 8 stone but she was only 4 stone, senior school wrote to mother very worried about the withdrawn and silent 11 year old, mother never replied. She only found out this in a disastrous mediation 3 years ago. She thought if she didnt eat she would disappear and silence meant safety. But even death was banned, suicide being the unforgivable sin


Virtual EMDR · 19 Jun 2018

DAVE T. Thank you so much for your incredible comments on this blog post. We also think EMDR can help the world. You have made my day!


Dave T. · 19 Jun 2018

I’m inspired by “Al” and motivated by his level of commitment. As happy as I am for what Al is accomplishing, the responses from the ‘creators’ of Virtual EMDR have me impressed beyond belief. The suffering public of regular everyday go-to-work, come-home, REPEAT folks living ‘less than happy / vital lives’ must WAKE UP. You do a little bit of interesting and fun learning; practice at your convenience; and watch your world blossom LITERALLY before your eyes. The VA wrote me off with 100% Combat PTSD - Unemployable after 16 years of conventional therapies; talk & drugs. In 2015 (est.) VA & DoD accepted the recommendations of the National Center for PTSD that “EMDR Therapy” was among the four ‘Gold Standard’ Therapies they recognized. After insisting on EMDR Therapy, and being referred outside the local VA Regional System, which had no trained providers; I am thrilled to report almost immediate encouraging results. As I better learned to be a ‘better patient’, the results became an amazing time-travel through my life. The ‘VA related Combat PTSD’ issues were definitely real; BUT how I viewed them was predicated upon a miserable 19 year life I had lived before ever hearing the first bullets whiz just past my ears. Flash forward 58 years to an antisocial, unapproachable, disassociated, cranky old Vet.... who didn’t HAVE to be !!! My wife says that since EMDR she has seen tremendous real-time gains in my (once dead) ability to experience joy, and a sincere connection to what I’ve come to know as my God. And not the ‘Flag, Country, God’ thing (that’s assumed); I mean the Higher Power, Creator Of All, The Source of The Soul thing. To y’all at wherever “Virtual EMDR” came from ~ God Bless You. Al, my fellow ‘seeker’; thanks for the inspiration ‘ motivation. The rest of the PLANET, who will rejoice in the freedom to use your opportunities to do what’s right once you discover YOU; get your feet wet ~ it feels good.


Virtual EMDR · 19 Jun 2018

This is so amazing to read Al. The number 1 reason we created this program is because we knew 100% it would help people to feel well. It really means a lot to hear your kind words.


Al · 19 Jun 2018

I'll give an update. I have been doing sessions daily, knowing I may face strong and scary emotions initially. The first 2 days I felt a ball in my stomach, like a resistance. I went on since, well, it is changed even while doing it. Each time I'd do a session, some resistance would fade away. Sometimes grief came, and one time anger came, which is good! I wasn't afraid of my own anger! I read last night (in my 12 step group) how we learned to survive using fear. Fear had created a "false self" to protect me, and the resistance I felt days before was a survival instinct to hang on to it. During one session, it felt like my gut was holding on for dear life. Yesterday morning, after I'd done my few days of facing fears (my noticeable targets), something in me changed. While doing the EMDR, that false self fell aside. I felt vulnerable but safe. I was looking through my own eyes, seeing and feeling......without my guard up. I was seeing and feeling a "me" I'd tucked away a long time ago. I felt relaxed, peaceful, and unafraid. I'd not seen this coming. EMDR works! Having the opportunity to do it alone at home has been a wonderful gift, for I'd been hiding behind my false self in front of therapists numerous times, but little change ever happened since....I was in "survival mode". But having had small successes with EMDR therapists, plus knowing it is a proven tool, I tried VirtualEMDR. This is changing my life! Thank you for offering this! NOTE: It has been less than a week I've used it!


Virtual EMDR · 19 Jun 2018

Wow. Al your comments are amazing! And honestly, it is hearing words like yours that make all the insanely hard work we did developing Virtual EMDR worth it. I am absolutely touched by what you said and cant wait to pass it around the company.


Al · 19 Jun 2018

I am using virtualEMDR since I internalized a shaming and abandoning parent. I do it to myself, and I've been "working" on it for 25 years. I began recovery years back, seeing a lot of parent blaming........and it never stuck with me. My mom, my only parent, was not around. I was abusing, scaring, and abandoning myself daily. It was all I knew. I have used EMDR in therapy, but only shortly since I imagined me abandoning the therapist, or me not staying due to lack of finances. I've done both, having had a half dozen counselors and therapists in my adult life. VirtualEMDR allows me the CHOICE of using it--nothing forced. I can if I want, I won't if I'm unable or unwilling. But being responsible for my own decisions, something not taught by my parent, is gold to me. It's priceless. I am grateful I have this choice today. I am using it since it is healing me :-)


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