I’ve written a good bit about my childhood abuse trauma lately, and today I want to bring the focus back to the main type of trauma this blog is supposed to be about: Religious trauma.
The concept of Religious Trauma Syndrome is fairly new, and even those at the forefront of research and advocacy in this area focus on the trauma that comes from leaving your religion first, with the trauma of indoctrination as sort of secondary.
For me personally, leaving my church (the UPC) and Christianity as a whole wasn’t the worst of my trauma. Sure, I suffered from some fears and doubts – everyone does. But the damage done to my psyche happened inside Christianity and inside the church I belonged to.
I can talk all day long about the emotional and verbal abuse I experienced as a child, and for the most part people take that very seriously. Child abuse isn’t something people tend to brush aside – unless of course they’re the ones you’re accusing of the abuse. But that’s to be expected. If my parents could have realized the damage they were doing they (we would hope) would have tried to do better.
But when I bring up the trauma I experienced as a run-of-the-mill member of the UPC and Christianity in general, people crawl out of the woodwork to explain it away. I’ve heard everything from “you just didn’t know the real Jesus” to “you must have had your faith in people instead of God” or even “hey, life is traumatic you can find something to complain about anywhere you look hard enough.”
If you’ve also experienced any kind of trauma related to Christianity I’m sure you’ve heard these dismissals as well. And you’ll know that they hurt. They really, really hurt. So what do you do? How do you respond?
Speak Up. Call Them On It
The most important thing is not to stay silent if it’s at all possible. Let the person know what they said was hurtful to you, and explain why.
When someone tells me “I just didn’t know the real Jesus” or wasn’t in the “right” church, I tell them that while certain UPC doctrines were damaging, it is the core, fundamental message of Christianity that really did the most damage to me.
The idea that I am born “wrong,” “sinful,” “wretched,” and in need of an outside savior to be worthy of love fed into everything my parents had ever inflicted upon me. That’s an inherently hurtful doctrine, and it was tailor made to damage someone with my background. It took the tiny bit of self esteem I had left and trampled it into the dirt. In fact, I was told that my ONLY self worth SHOULD be based upon my relationship with the Christian God. And since it’s so impossible to live up to that standard, he had to send his son to die a horrific death just to make me acceptable.
The fact that this doctrine does not inflict psychological trauma on everyone who buys into it doesn’t take away the trauma it inflicted on ME, or any of the other millions of people who struggle with feeling worthy of love and respect because of this teaching.
Many people have never considered this possibility, and just need some education. Educate them. Tell them why it’s painful.
Don’t Back Down
The more time you spent in Christianity, the more tempted you’ll be to “make peace” with the person who is negating your experiences. Do not fall into this trap. Do NOT apologize for “insulting their religion” or blaspheming their god or just generally offending them. THEY hurt YOU. YOU deserve the apology, not the other way around. No matter how hysterical or over the top their reaction, try to stay calm and stand your ground. You have been a victim of trauma and you have every right to express that trauma and expect your experiences to be respected.
Finally, Don’t Beat Yourself Up If You Don’t Do Any Of The Above
Again, you’ve suffered trauma. Real trauma. I cannot express this often or loudly enough: THE TRAUMA YOU EXPERIENCED IN CHRISTIANITY IS REAL AND IT MATTERS.
But we’re all at different stages in our healing journey, and of course some days are better than others. Maybe you just don’t have the emotional energy to stand up today. Maybe you get intimidated by the hysterics and apologize and make peace. Maybe you have a good, strategic reason to do so. Or maybe you just want to end the discussion.
All of these reactions are valid, and are in no way a failure on your part. We do what we can, as we can.
The main thing to remember, again, is that THE TRAUMA YOU EXPERIENCED IN CHRISTIANITY IS REAL AND IT MATTERS.
That’s why it is so painful when that trauma is dismissed or made light of. If nothing else, when it happens, know that you’re not alone. Read blogs like this one, turn to a trusted friend who gets it to vent, or just repeat to yourself over and over MY PAIN IS REAL. IT MATTERS. I MATTER. Keep repeating it until you start to believe it.
Because truer words have never been spoken.
Do you have other ideas for dealing with this issue? I’d love to hear them in the comments!