Three Scars of Spiritual Abuse

May 1, 2012 Becky Oberg

Spirituality can be a wonderful healing tool for people with borderline personality disorder (BPD). However, it can also be a source of pain. When religion becomes abusive, it does more harm than good.

According to The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen, spiritual abuse leaves several scars. Among these are difficulty with personal responsibility, difficulty with trust, and difficulty setting personal boundaries.

Difficulty with personal responsibility

This can be either under-responsibility or over-responsibility. Both drain a person considerably.

A person with the former condition has realized that while performance can be perfect, it is not fulfilling. Performance does not guarantee the promised love and acceptance. It does not result in a restful feeling. Therefore, the person either gives up or uses the least amount of energy possible to get by. There is no fulfillment; only burnout.

An overly responsible person believes that they are supposed to bear everyone's burdens. This goes far beyond compassion; it is an unhealthy fixation on meeting others' needs. It is the belief that you are responsible for everything--in other terms, a Messiah complex. This leads to the belief that having any needs is selfish and having any feelings is immature. This results in fatigue and a feeling of being trapped.

Difficulty with trust

People who have been spiritually abused will have a hard time trusting a spiritual system again. Once bitten, twice shy.

I was involved in a spiritually abusive church during my college years. After I left, I did not return to church for a long time. When I decided to return, I needed the help of anti-anxiety medication to even get there. While your case may not be as extreme as mine, you may feel fear and pain in religious settings.

Trust is an important part of spirituality. You need to trust your Higher Power in order to find serenity. You need to trust your spiritual brethren in order to have a sense of community and fellowship. You need to trust your conscience in order to grow in your faith. Yet spiritual abuse shatters these abilities. I still feel spiritually numb at times because of the spiritual abuse I experienced; and it's been almost fifteen years.

Rebuilding trust takes time and effort. But it is possible.

Problems with personal boundaries

"Boundaries are invisible barriers that tell others where they stop and you start," write Johnson and VanVonderen. "People who have misused their spiritual power have disrespected or beaten down your boundaries. They have shamed you out of your 'no,' clouded your will and intruded into your life with religious agendas."

I can't think of a more apt description than that. Spiritual abusers have no concept of boundaries, and in obliterating yours have left you with trouble rebuilding them. You may feel it is selfish to say no, that having a sense of independence is evil, and that not listening to spiritual abusers indicates a hard heart. These are lies.

It is not selfish to say no when you don't want to do something. It is not wrong to stand up for yourself. It is not stubbornness to refuse to listen to a spiritual abuser. You have a right to not be abused.

Each of these scars from spiritual abuse can heal. It takes time and effort, but healing is possible.

APA Reference
Oberg, B. (2012, May 1). Three Scars of Spiritual Abuse, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 13 from

Author: Becky Oberg

July, 19 2014 at 7:42 pm

I totally get the spiritual abuse thing. Nowadays there are too many people in pulpits who aren't there because of a genuine call of God but because they are seeking to ameliorate wounds and validate themselves in some area. Consequently only those who polish their image of themselves as truly wonderful and successful people helpers and community heroes are "safe" in the system. Point out a problem and you become a threat and are exposed as the problem. Sometimes, there are malcontents who are operating from a controlling and critical spirit and aren't pointing out a problem from a genuine motive. But a healthy system welcomes respectful inquiry and isn't threatened by it. One key issue is that the leader is a people pleaser, seeker of approval. That is treacherous ground to try and have integrity based relationships. Another key is that anyone who leaves the church is always characterized as in the wrong or "the problem". You will never hear an admission that perhaps the church failed them or sinned against them somehow.
we wound up in a crazy situation in which the pastor was underhanded and seemed to be projecting some of his own issues onto our marriage. He also tried to use us to displace a controlling lady and then when it didn't work let her think it had been us who had tried to displace her when it had been him. I think he was actually playing us off against each other. To this day she believes we were trying to take away her position when it was actually him and thinks he is her greatest supporter. He actually didn't like her for how controlling she was and frankly neither did we. There was a lot of phony shenanigans went on and scripted performances designed to make her look humble and righteous when she was a gorgon to deal with in private. It got so distorted we had to leave and even then we were subjected to the most manipulative, attacking, cajoling and demanding, accusatory phone call ever. The pastor's behaviour towards my husband whom he admired but was also jealous of, was almost possessive. It was just weird and creepy. So now we are extremely leery, having witnessed the lack of integrity and self examination that is present these days in a higher number of situations than it ought to be. I actually called Jeff Van Vonderen and told him what was going on and he gave me some good advice. It was a sheer fluke that I got his number and actually made contact with him. Made me feel somewhat better.

May, 8 2012 at 10:27 am

I recently have realized that there is a difference between religion and spirituality.I totally don't want anything to do with religion, period. My husband is Catholic. My Mother, that has cut me out of her life due to religion,she is Jehovah's Witness. And ever since I can remember I have had bible beaters shoving it down my throat. I live in Utah to top it off. My mind has always been clouded with feelings of not being good enough for God or anyone. Reading this article has helped me, to start to try to heal my soul.

May, 3 2012 at 12:02 pm

I totally understand what you are talking about especially with personal boundaries. When I was in a pentecostal evangelical church I started to feel such shame and guild and for the whole time I was there I felt bad about myself. So many of the services and other meetings just revealed how I was so wrong with god and all the prayer I could do never seemed to "deliver me from sin".

May, 1 2012 at 8:48 am

There is a vast difference between religion and spirituality. Once we learn how to separate them we can truly find healing from the soul trauma that occurs with spiritual abuse. All of the work we do to heal ourselves physically, mentally and emotionally are in vain until we learn to heal the damage to our soul that has been inflicted by our religions.

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