The Elements of Spiritual Abuse: Emotional Neglect

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Jason Swilling

In a previous blog, we discussed the basics of spiritual abuse and its effect on the development of addiction in adulthood, including sex addiction. The most prolific element of spiritual abuse, the power differential of spiritual leaders, was also discussed in a previous blog. In this post, we’ll continue the discussion about elements of spiritual abuse.

One of the most damaging elements of spiritual abuse is the emotional neglect that members of a religious/spiritual community experience. Emotional neglect occurs when certain emotions are written off as an issue with the person’s spirituality or behavior instead of being given real care, attention, nurturance, and love.

Often, these difficult emotions (such as fear, doubt, sadness or depression, anxiety or panic, and even grief) are “over-spiritualized,” meaning a quick fix, pat answer, or illogical spiritual tools are encouraged. Other times, a person’s faith and spirituality is called into question as a result of the difficult emotions: e.g., “If you had more faith, you wouldn’t be struggling with depression.”

When a person dealing with clinical depression is encouraged to read their Bible more, pray harder, and give more to the church to overcome their depression, the emotional neglect of spiritual abuse has occurred. When a person who has been sexually abused is told to pray and work on forgiveness without helping that person through the traumatic emotions, the emotional neglect of spiritual abuse has occurred. The abuse is multiplied when the perpetrator of that abuse is one of the religious leaders, a parent, or when the victim is a child.

Clinicians and people in recovery have known for some time that emotional neglect within a family can be a factor for the development of addictions, including sex addiction. When emotional neglect comes from religious/spiritual leaders and/or a spiritual community, the message is sent that God doesn’t care about our emotions. In this way, the emotional abuse we experience at home can be reinforced by the spiritual abuse from our Higher Power. If God doesn’t care about our emotions, then why should our parents, siblings, teachers, and other leaders; therefore, we shouldn’t care either. Instead, we are taught to focus on performance and obedience. In some cases, our emotions may be viewed as disobedience.

Learning to invalidate emotions is a developmental factor for addiction because our emotions do not just disappear. When we are simply taught to compartmentalize our emotions, we learn to survive emotionally by numbing, medicating, or otherwise escaping through behaviors and fantasy (work, video games, gambling, drinking, using drugs, sex). When these behaviors are used over time, they can develop into an addiction.

The emotional neglect of spiritual abuse stops us from asking our spiritual leaders and community for help because our plea will be neglected, and shame will incur. Eventually, through our desperation to discontinue the consequences wrought by addiction, we must take a counterintuitive step and ask for help outside our religious community, most often from a treatment program or a 12-step program. With this, recovery can begin.

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If you or a loved one are struggling with spiritual abuse, especially as it impacts sexual addiction recovery, Seeking Integrity can help. We offer an online six-week workgroup on this topic. For more information, click HERE