How Childhood Abuse Can Affect Your Spiritual Life
When things are going poorly in my life, my mind typically jumps to the conclusion that God isn’t good. Despite what scripture says and evidence in my life to the contrary, my mind always believes this time must be the confirmation of my core fear — that I can’t trust anyone but myself.
Though I continue to turn back to God (usually through prayer and worship music), it’s a struggle more often than not. I’m a survivor of childhood emotional abuse, and it’s something that affects my relationship with God big-time. If you can relate, you’re not alone.
Gimel Rogers, Psy.D., psychologist and ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, told The Mighty childhood abuse usually affects people’s spiritual lives in one of two ways. She said they either move towards spirituality, viewing God or another higher power as their protector, healer and restorer — or they move away from it, feeling condemned and judged by God, religious people or institutions.
“When somebody experiences trauma, it’s how they view the world and their sense of self that will impact their healing process,” Dr. Rogers said. “It really boils down to the individual person.”
Nancy Colier, LCSW, psychotherapist, interfaith minister and long-time student of Eastern spirituality, echoed this sentiment, explaining that the way people view their trauma in relation to themselves affects their spiritual journey more than anything else.
“I think [whether or not people are drawn to spirituality] very much depends on where someone goes with their childhood trauma,” Colier explained. “Some people kind of lock it down and take it on as an identity, and sadly, sort of determine the rest of their life based on being victimized. But I think a lot of people who’ve gone through trauma really are [spiritual] seekers because they’re seeking a way out of their pain.”
Because everyone’s journey with spirituality is different, we wanted to ask our community to share their experiences with us. We asked #TraumaSurvivors in our community to share how childhood emotional abuse affected their spiritual life. You can read what they said below. If you want to share how childhood emotional abuse affected your experience of faith, join the conversation here:
If you’re a childhood trauma survivor and have felt disconnected from spirituality because of past experiences, you’re not alone. Both Rogers and Colier believe spiritual practice can help survivors heal, regardless of what faith community they belong to. To read practical tips for incorporating spirituality into your trauma healing journey, check out their advice below our community responses.
Here’s what our community shared with us:
- “I got closer to God as an adult. God provided me with a type of love that was fulfilling. People talk about ‘finding themselves’ and when I did that, I actually got farther away from myself. When I turned to God, I became whole. God unconditionally loves me despite my mistakes, flaws and all.” — Valerie C.
- “It made me a skeptic and then a non-believer. It made me question my reality and my existence. It made me re-evaluate everything about this world and it’s various belief systems. It made me all the more lonely as I lost my faith — and with that, I lost hope as well.” — Singh T.
- “I love God with all my heart. And I know he’s good and loves me just the way I am. But sometimes I feel like I hear this voice that tells me I’m not good enough or doing enough in areas of my life and in my spiritual life. Sometimes I feel like I have to earn God’s love. And it’s a hard feeling to shake off. I feel like because my mom was always putting me down, I feel like I have to earn things. Otherwise, I don’t deserve them. But love is a free gift, and I’m still learning.” — Becky R.
- “My dad was emotionally and physically abusive of us when we were young. He would completely destroy our self-worth and make us feel like we were nothing. My dad was also very avid that there isn’t a God. So much so that he would fight my mom and my grandparents when they wanted to take us to church. My parents had gotten back together after my older brother and I had been baptized, so it was a very hard thing to deal with. After they split again (permanently), I threw myself into my church and religion. While as an adult I don’t follow a specified religion, I still hold my beliefs dear because knowing that God loved me and helped us get out of that bad situation (at least in my opinion), verified [to me] that he was there and looking out for us.” — Tiffany A.
- “I use to be just your average Christian girl, but that all changed. I was told that if you prayed, went to church and read the Bible, God would answer your prayers. Well, things didn’t work out that way when I would cry and beg God to stop what was going on in my life, nothing changed. I completely lost faith and in fact, hated God. I’m more spiritual now than religious, definitely still have so many questions for ‘God’ and it’s still a touchy topic for me.” — SaFire Z.
- “I lost hope in God. As an adult, I thought I had grown closer to him, but then I saw some things you can’t unsee and it’s too hard to justify that there’s a loving God. I believe in the universe as in balance and life after death, but that’s all now.” — Katherine L.
- “I stopped believing in any higher power when I was told that you can handle whatever comes to you. No one deserves to hear that when you are enduring that much pain.” — Ace D.
- “Church and the presence of God was literally the only thing that brought me peace. I was writing suicide notes and throwing them away before I was 10 years old. But when I went to church I would just cry because I was overwhelmed at the peace and love I felt for the first time. It was like an emotional vacation that felt like home.” — Hannah C.
Everyone’s faith journey looks different, and it’s your choice whether or not you decide to pursue religion, faith or spirituality. If you do choose to seek healing in spirituality, Colier believes you will give yourself an invaluable gift.
“No matter what’s happened to you, spiritual practice gives you a space to experience yourself as goodness — which a lot of people who come out of trauma certainly have been taught not to believe,” she explained.
If you want to begin to explore faith for the first time, or reconnect with spirituality but don’t know where to start, both Rogers and Colier recommended some practical tips to get started. We’ve listed them below.
Meditation can mean different things to different people. For some, it means mindfully focusing on your breath to get in tune with the present moment.
“In mindfulness and other Buddhist practices, we start to shift who we are into a basic sense that we are actually the awareness itself,” Colier explained. “It isn’t so much that you’re in a relationship with, you know, a God, but rather that we are all made of the same essence. We just appear as these separate beings.”
For others, meditation can mean focusing on a specific part of a religious text for a prolonged period of time.
“Whether it’s the Torah, the Quran or the Bible, reading different texts can help people stabilize on re-regulate,” Rogers said.
No matter how you choose to meditate, bringing your awareness back to the present moment and focusing on something bigger than yourself can be key in getting through dark moments. For some quick and practical mindfulness techniques, check out Harvard Health’s mini relaxation exercises here.
It’s no secret that journaling can help your mental health. From reducing stress to helping you manage anxiety and depression, journaling has many well-documented benefits.
Rogers told The Mighty incorporating journaling into your spiritual practice can help stabilize your emotional experiences, particularly in difficult times. She’s seen people use journaling to copy down words from their religious texts or write down their prayers.
3. Focus on Relationship, Not Religious ‘Rules’
Some religions or churches emphasize structure more than others. While there’s nothing wrong with striving to live in accordance with moral standards that reflect your values, sometimes focusing on religious “rules” can get in the way of truly connecting with your faith. Instead of fixating on how you’re not “measuring up,” when you’re struggling to connect with your faith, Rogers recommends focusing on the relational side of spirituality:
[I recommend] really engaging and developing and focusing more so on the relationship, versus just all of the do’s and don’ts and the structural aspect. That’s what I personally believe heals people — there’s healing in the relationship. There’s healing in the relationship with Christ, there’s healing relationship with God, there’s healing in the relationship with whoever your higher power is.
Try talking to your higher power like a friend, a parent or trusted loved one who wants to hear how you’re really doing. If you’re struggling with symptoms related to past trauma, consider journaling, praying or having a conversation with your higher power about what’s going on — it might lift some of the emotional weight you’ve been carrying.
These three recommendations aren’t the only way to connect or re-connect with your spiritual side, but they are a good place to start. As you dive into spiritual practice and healing from past trauma, be patient and gentle with yourself.
Lastly, it’s worth mentioning that it can be tempting to think connecting with spirituality means you won’t struggle anymore or you won’t have to deal with what happened to you. But this couldn’t be further from the truth.
“Over the years, I’ve seen people can use spiritual practice as a way of bypassing a very human emotional pain,” Colier said. “And so the first thing is to be real careful we’re not missing that step.”
If you are a childhood trauma survivor, it’s important to let yourself feel. Feeling is often one of the most important parts of healing. Though healing can be a long road, we want you to know you never have to do it alone. To connect and heal with other survivors about your current struggles — faith, mental health, trauma or otherwise — post on The Mighty with the hashtag #TraumaSurvivors. We have a community of caring individuals who would love to support you.
How did past trauma affect your spiritual life? Let us know in the comments.
Getty Images photo via Grandfailure