Tips For “Moving On” From An Abusive (Church) Experience

Full disclosure: I think “moving on” is probably a happy-slappy lie we tell ourselves. Whenever someone tells me they’ve “moved on” or “found closure” after escaping an abusive situation, I think they’re in denial. Then again, that’s just my own mess talking.

Maybe what I object to are the connotations of “moving on” and “closure.” Those words seem to imply an easy, convenient, quick-fix. No mess. No fuss. Just a simple, formulaic prescription for Your! Best! Life! Now!

I think a better description for what happens after escaping/surviving an abusive situation is the word “recovery.”

Because, I do believe in healing and recovery. Sort of.

Anyway, here are a few of my own failures (which have taught me more than my successes) on the recovery journey. Maybe some of these will be helpful for you, too:

  1. Recovery Isn’t Linear. There are setbacks, regressions, detours, revisiting the same old thing over and over. The key seems to be in not fighting the circuitous route. Let the recovery lead your journey–not your own ideas about where you should be, or how far you should have progressed by a certain date.
  2. Your Past Will Show Up Without Warning. I’m consistently surprised when new situations evoke old fears and old behaviors. Something completely unrelated to my past will happen and before I know it, I’m blindsided by “old brainwashing” and start behaving the same way I did in the abusive situation. Frank, honest communication with helps others understand where I’m coming from and why I’m reacting this way. 
  3. Boundaries Seem Boring and Unnatural. Newly emerged survivors of abusive situations are especially vulnerable to entering another abusive situation. Since I did not have my boundaries myself, I attracted people without boundaries. I kept wondering why I was drawn into similarly dysfunctional churches and co-dependent relationships. Learning to draw and enforce boundaries felt very unnatural and even….boring. But it created safety, stability and well-being.
  4. Don’t Let the Abuser Tell YOUR Story. I don’t care how many parents claim their children turned out great because they used Michael & Debi Pearl’s “child-training” methods. The truth is that many successful, functional adults turn out well IN SPITE of their abusive childhoods. For years I couldn’t admit to my abusive past. I kept qualifying all my abusive experiences by saying, “Well, so-and-so didn’t mean to hurt me!” Owning my story, telling my story and refusing to let MY story be framed by my abusers was a huge step in taking responsibility for my own happiness. 
  5. You ARE Lovable and DESERVE Love. Unconditional love and acceptance are your birthright. You don’t need to ‘earn’ love or settle for performance-based acceptance. For me, this began by learning to love and accept myself—GASP! I know, I know. But let me explain: I had been taught self-hatred, self-loathing. I was trained with a harsh, judgmental, critical eye toward everyone. This also meant I was my own harshest critic. Learning to give love and receive love must start with ourselves. For me, experiencing unconditional love was a turning point and the beginning of deep healing.
  6. Practice Gratitude & Acceptance. This is the hardest one for me. I really suck at gratitude lists. I also suck at accepting brokenness–I’m always hoping people will change! Things will get better! But scribbling down the daily blessings (even inconsistently) remind me I am loved. Gratitude helps me accept things I cannot change.

Lastly, I cannot recommend highly enough the benefits of professional mental health counseling. None of us were meant to recover from painful situations by ourselves. There is no shame in seeking help. It is not weakness to admit you need help. We all need a little help from our friends.

Speaking of friends, I need YOUR help!
Please share your own tips, stories  and ideas about recovery.

  • Joy M. Newcom

    Welcome renewed grief as it comes (because it will) and walk through it, rather than attempt to go around it.

  • Renee

    This is excellent. So true. There are so many times I think, “I should be PAST this already! I shouldn’t FEEL like this anymore!” Healing takes time.  It can be a long, long process. But that’s OK.

  • Leanne

    After two spiritually abusive churches in a row (one as a member being abused by leadership; the other as a leader being abused by the membership!)…
    1. I strongly recommend the book “Tired of Trying to Measure Up” by Jeff Van Vonderen – I read it as part of my counseling…I very rarely say that a book changed my life, but this one is amazing.  Read, read again, and keep re-reading the section on who you are in Christ – and look up the verses that he cites until they soak in.  And then keep a written reminder of them so that you can refer to it on not-so-good days!!

    2. Allow yourself to feel and to acknowledge your feelings – good ones and bad ones!  You will never work through the bad ones if you just ignore them.  I’m not talking about wallowing and sinking into a deep depression.  I’m talking about acknowledging that they are there – taking time to talk to someone about it or journal or whatever your personality type needs to do to address them :).

    • Rebecca

      Thanks for the book recommendation! I ordered it this afternoon.

    • Medennejones

      Families Where Grace is in Place is a fantastic book also by the same author.  

  • KatR

    I think Number Four is HUGE.  And for me, the “forgiveness” brickbat is used to try get people to be silent about abusive church experiences.

    I think way too many Christians feel the need to act as forgiveness stalkers”Have you forgiven now? How about now? Now? Have you forgiven yet? Here are five incredibly trite and insulting quotes on forgiveness for you! Have you read them yet? Have you forgiven?”

    The underlying message of this is “please shut up now, I only want to hear church discussed if its pink and lacy and covered in glitter”.  So yeah, I stay far away from these folks.

    • Sisterlisa

      omg..can you imagine if people said it’s time to stop raising awareness about domestic violence or child molestation? To attempt to only speak positively about church would only further the gangrene we see festering in our world’s churches. The elephant is still in the room, why ignore it?

  • Janet Oberholtzer

    Great points EE!

    I’ve had a bumpy journey of recovery from a few situations and I agree with all your points, especially your last paragraph, because most times you need counseling to learn how to live the other points. Counseling has saved my life in more ways than one.

    Your #4 does raise some questions for me. I wonder if a more complete recovery is based on whether or not any of my past needs to be classified as abuse.

    As far as my upbringing: I’m still trying to figure out how much of the crap I dealt with from growing up with a super-critical-domineering father in a strict traditional Mennonite religion (almost Amish) was simply a tough situation or whether it crossed over into abuse. I do know that creating boundaries and learning to love myself were key in not allowing that past to control me anymore… yet sometimes I wonder how much it still affects me. Some of it reared its ugly head again over the past few years after almost losing my leg and my life in an accident. That, along with some the evangelical/reformed teachings from the church I was in at the time, sent me into a deep, dark depression for a few years.

  • Melissa @ Permission to Live

    I love your points. Being honest, setting boundaries, and getting help have all been huge in my ongoing recovery. I also feel that grieving losses is important, and that there is no wrong way to grieve. Another thing that helped me was apologizing to people I had hurt in my past, and learning to forgive  myself.

  • Tracey

    When I am trying to digest something and work things out in my head, I start talking to myself. I have arguments with the kitchen curtains, I rant when I am by myself in the car, I let ‘er rip with all the things I would like to say when I am alone, and then once it’s out of my system, I can speak and articulate what I am feeling. The ranting and muttering to myself out loud has often brought me to realizations  that I did not see before and actually brings some clarity as to why I am so angry during those times.

    • Angela

      Me too, Tracey! I have been in full detox from an abusive relationship and I spend so much of my alone time talking out loud. I highly recommend it!!

    • Mark S.

      Thank you for this! My abusive childhood at home included NEVER letting your feelings out? Now I am struggling once again in my own mind and heart with anger, love, etc. I admit I have never let it rip in private? I feel great fear in thinking about doing that. It feels like I will change into a monster if I do but maybe that was what I am carrying as baggage, conditional love and all from 50 years ago. I will do it…try it on for size, keep it private and, maybe, trust that God wont abandon me.

      • Handsfull

        Many of the psalms are BRUTALLY honest with God about how the writers are feeling about their situations.  They really don’t hold anything back!  If God was happy for those psalms to be included in the Bible, I’m pretty sure that He wants us to be honest with Him too.
        I’ve had many a rant at God (hanging out the washing, having a shower or driving seem to by my favourite times) and as long as I’m being honest about me, I’ve never felt condemned by Him.  However, on several occasions (usually while mid-rant) I have had the very strong feeling that He was laughing at me.  Very kindly and very lovingly, but definitely laughing!  Which is a little disconcerting, lol!

  • Angela

    Part of my recovery has been tossing the notion of “forgive and forget” out the window. I have no expectation that God is going to erase my memory! But I do have hope that as I walk through recovery, the memories that have caused me so much angst and pain will gradually lose their power and the trauma attached to them will be healed.

    I love the essence of every item on your list because it boils down to this: we can’t oversimplify recovery by offering people pat answers and platitudes. I am with you, that people who say they have “moved on” are usually in denial. I used to say things like that while I was in the thick of my insidious denial.

  • KR

    Do you have a post on elements or signs of an abusive church; might be helpful to church leaders of things to avoid and be aware of, thanks.

    • TheresaEH

      I found the book “Toxic Faith” by Stephen Arterburn & Jack Felton VERY helpful

  • Hippie Gramma

    Outstanding list!  Some of those things I am just learning, and others I have to keep learning over and over again.

    A couple other things that help me:

    1.  “You have to feel to heal.”  Burying feelings doesn’t help anyone; they will come out sooner or later, as misdirected emotion or physical symptoms.  Better to burrow through them than to bury them.

    2.  If you’re spiritually inclined, don’t be afraid to be honest with God.  Tell him you are angry, you think he’s a big bully, he screwed up your life, he’s a big sham and you don’t believe in him, you aren’t going to give him the time of day anymore, how could he do this to you — whatever.  There won’t be a lightning strike (and if there is, well, it just proves what a mean guy he is anyway, waiting for the one moment you screw up, right?), he already knows all this anyway, and it makes for a lot more honest relationship.  Don’t worry, He’ll still be there — part of that “unconditional love” thing that is so hard to get used to.

  • Dawn E. Robertson

    I agree with the phrase “moving on.”  While I didn’t have abusive church experiences, my mother herself was abusive in her own right.  Also, at age 30, 6 years ago, I was widowed.  The phrase “move on” was thrown a round a lot.  I hate it.  I prefer the term “move forward.”  To me, that phrase feels like you’ve taken the time to process everything and realize that there’s more processing to come, but life still has to be lived, bills still have to be paid, children still need to be fed.  We called being widowed starting Chapter 2 of our lives when chapter 1 was the life we had with our former spouse. 

  • Sarah Moon

    I wouldn’t call my church experience abusive (though, I also wouldn’t call it positive), but as a survivor of other kinds of abusive, I found this very encouraging. :) Thanks

  • TheresaEH

    number 2 “Your Past Will Show Up Without Warning”……..I call this “my knee jerk reaction”.  While I was not physically abused, I was verbally battered by a woman, my biological mother who also had Border line personality disorder”.  I loved her very much, but I didnot LIKE what she did to me.  Sadly my older brother now behaves exactly like her.  I refuse to be controlled or abused by him, and I have broken off all contact with him.  If he were to call me, yes I will chat (briefly) or meet  up with him in a store I will be civil, but I donot interact with him voluntarily.  I will run him down verbally to other family members or his adult children.  Nor do I justify my actions to anyone who asks. 
    in 1976 my mother/father and I were in Montreal, Quebec Canada.  The home of ST Brother Andre.  In St Josephs Oritory the walls are covered with crutchs, canes and other items that were used by people with handicaps who were healed by this saint.  I prayed, OHHOWIPRAYED that Brother Andre would heal my mother as she had a lower back condition that reduced her mobility and laid her up in bed alot. Maybe then she would be nicer.  My mother was not healed THANK GOD!!! I think she would have killed my brother and myself in one of bouts of BPD if she had full strength.

    • TheresaEH

      ACK!!! I need an editor, I DONOT run him down (my brother) to others .
      Speaking of knee jerks reactions, my first reaction to reading that I made a big writing error was to apologize for being stupid, dumb, an idiot. etc etc….it hurts less to put yourself down than to have others do it to you. 

      • Tammy

        Being raised by a BPD mother means that your errors have a very bright light shined on them for all to see and they are exaggerated to a huge proportion. Her mistakes and flaws are to be conveniently overlooked. 

        My BPD mom has never forgiven me of anything in my life and holds even childhood mistakes over my head and Im a grandma..correction – she TRIES to, I refuse to accept her blame anymore. 

        I think I “should be” sad that we havent spoken in 4 years, but truly, it is great for me…I have a much better life away from her abuse. She is such a sad and tormented person…if I could make her better by letting her hurt me, I might consider it, but it wont help. 

        HAve you ever read “The Borderline Mother”? My jaw nearly fell having my life described to me on its pages. 

        You were blessed by your mom not having the strength to beat you. The physical abuse done to me wasnt that bad,  so I feel lucky. Im glad yours wasnt worse.

  • Holly

    Great points!  As I’ve gone through my own healing journey I think that the emotions have been the most difficult thing to deal with.  It is so easy to think, “I should be over this.”  Reality is, emotions are suppressed in all abusive situations, and once a person enters into the path to healing all of those long repressed emotions come flowing upward.  Realizing that I didn’t develop all of these feelings in one day, therefor they aren’t going to dissipate in one day has helped me a lot.  It took time for me to get like this, it’s going to take time to heal, too.
    The other point I would make is the whole forgiveness/anger issue.  I truly have forgiven those who abused me.  I am still angry at the abuse. It’s perfectly acceptable to be angry that I was hurt and damaged, and that I am still working through things that were done 30+ years ago.  I don’t know if I will every stop being angry that it happened. More and more I’m thinking that maybe we all need to be angry at abuse, whether we were a victim or not.  I’ll take anger over complacency any day.

    • anothercindy

      yes, anger is not wrong..I’ve been told so much in leaving my abusive husband that “you’re angry” in a tone that implies I shouldn’t be. Yes, I should be! God “burned with anger” at injustice and mistreatment of widows and orphans. 

  • Anonymous

    Elizabeth, I don’t know that I can add to what you have said, but I do concur with the six lessons you have learned.  It has been 55 years since that my parents, both of whom I loved, divorced when I was a child.  I have healed and recovered exactly as you have described.  Nowadays there are many more children in need of such healing than there were in my childhood.  They may appear normal on the outside, but on the inside, it hurts.  Peace, and continued recovery.

  • Tess

    I agree with much said here.  I was told that if I could remember that the church leader sinned against me then I had not truly forgiven.  The fact that the leader didn’t acknowledge her continued abusive ways and clear habitual sin was not addressed.  Only my response of asking for a resolution was pointed to as sin, since I was still “remembering” her sin, thus I was unforgiving in the pastor’s eyes. 

    I agree with the other posters that this is continued spiritual abuse. 

    I’ve also noted many leave quietly and live in a state of denial, stuffing their thoughts and emotions in hopes of them going away.  They don’t realize they are simply delaying the inevitable, that they must deal with it.  The longer the delay, the more complicated it becomes.

    When we’ve been in denial, or we’ve witnessed others denial, we discover how threatened a person is when someone who is dealing with the real issues and emotions of it all comes around.  The response from one in denial is often one of religious condemnation.  It’s helpful for all of us to continue checking to see if we are treating others with love, or are we reacting with fear and condemnation out of self-preservation?

  • Sisterlisa

    Personally, I think it’s annoying that people think you can move on after religious abuse. Especially when the religious abuse is being spread through their congregations and they take it out into the community and we have to keep coming face to face with it all the time.

    What helps me in the process of healing is to be able to sort out my frustrations in conversations with others who have experienced the same things. My FB community has helped me immensely, but will we ever really be over it? To forgive is for our own sanity, but I think having righteous indignation for religious abuse is needful. But finding balance is also needful. I don’t want my whole life to be spent chopping away at my past pain.

  • The Cult Next Door

    I found that I often felt like a Picasso painting walking about (my eyes in my forehead, nose in my chin). In other words, I felt like a freak. BUT!!!! If I am a Picasso I am a work of art!

    As EE mentions in a previous post, don’t be afraid to feel. And don’t be afraid to reach into your community or to a counselor if said feelings are overwhelming you.

  • Katherine Gunn

    These are great, Elizabeth. Some others I have learned…

    - You can only work from where you are, not where you wish you were.
    - Pain comes in waves.
    - I do not need anyone to interpret God for me. He will do that directly.

  • Holly

    Brilliant and insightful, EE.  I nodded throughout.

    I saw a church sign a little while ago.  It said “To have to forgive means that first you had to have blamed….”

    I thought that was the stupidest church sign I’ve ever seen.  It moved the tragedy and pain onto the victim.  It’s YOUR fault, you see.  If you never blamed you wouldn’t be needing to forgive.


  • Susan McKenzie

    Hi Esther… a friend of yours pointed me to your website and I love how you’re using your voice to speak up for victims of Christian cults…. I’m just now waking up and getting my voice… having been slaughtered in the Christian cult system… while at the same time being married to a misogynist, a deacon and eventually pastor in the church…. ah, what a messy time those 30-years have been! I’m about ready to use my voice…. I’ve been silent way too long…. thank you for showing me how it can be done, in love!

  • Nancy

    One thing that’s really helped me  is knowing that I will understand my past differently at different points of my life.  I grew up with an alcoholic, chaos-creating parent, and I had different things to grieve as a young adult, as a newly married person, and then as a parent.  It’s kind of like re-reading the same book at different times in your life — it’s the same book, but you notice different things, or the same passages hold different meanings for you.   

    And I do believe that I’m called to forgive my abuser (because I am a Christian), but I don’t ever need to trust that person again, because they have not proven themselves to be trustworthy.  Forgiveness doesn’t mean I should be stupid about my safety, or my kids’ safety.

  • Pamela

    Thank you for posting this today.  For the last couple of days, I’ve been SO struggling with the “I have nothing to offer that anyone would value, and I am not worth caring about” thing.  You know, the mindset I was taught at home, and then again at two churches, one right after the other.

  • Tammy

    Recovery from Religious abuse is much like recovery from any betrayal from someone you were taught to trust. 

    Betrayal by a Church, parent, spouse or even your children can shake you to your core, steal your coping and impair how you trust for the rest of your life. 

    Ive been seriously betrayed by my parents & my spouse and unintentionally by my adult children. I can honestly tell you that I will really never trust anyone 100% ever again. 

    Im ashamed to admit that  internally dwell on my betrayals…not so much to fan the fire of discontent with the people involved but perhaps to remind myself to stay on guard. Maybe if I ever fully recover I can be appropriately wary without reliving it in my head all the time. 

  • AngelaJoy

    It took me awhile to be able to vocalize my abusive past. I was afraid to say it out loud but it has been healing. I feel like I’m in a constant state of recovery. It is a lonely place, but I am beginning to find that I’m not alone. There definitely have been day when I tell myself that I just need to find a therapist! But then my pocketbook can’t handle that and I’m also too scared to trust anyone.
    I am learning to just be vulnerable anyway, because I need to talk about my pain in order to survive. And I now KNOW that God loves me UNCONDITIONALLY. This has been my salvation.
    I just started a blog so I can start writing down the truths about God’s love. I needed a place to “talk” to “someone” about the good news of God’s unconditional love. Strangely, I don’t know many or any people that want to hear that good news.
    I recently discovered that in order to love others I needed to love myself. It’s so cool that you touched on this in your post. No self-esteem and a lowly opinion of myself were pretty much hammered in to me. So I’m still feeling timid about opening up. I hope I get more brave. You are brave Elizabeth! Thank you for what you are doing.

    • anothercindy

      There exist Pastoral CAre of whatever state. I know Virginia and Tennessee have them. It is income-based counseling and wonderful!! I had looked and looked as my kids needed it and so  did I . My pastor mentioned it to me and I am sooooooo thankful!! 

  • Medennjones

    I haven’t read through all the posts but we have some healing mantras that we use to help heal our daughter from early neglect and abuse (13 months in an orphanage).  They may sound silly but they really do work.  The first one is, “You’re only as sick as your secrets.”  Get ALL feelings out.  Allow any anger at anyone including anger at God.  The key is expressing those feelings safely, which means yelling them if need be, writing them down and putting them in a “God’ mailbox we have on our steps, saying them quietly, running them out while screaming I am angry (or whatever feeling there is), crying them out, just get them out.  Feelings are bigger and scarier when they are stuffed inside of us.  We call it black bag or proverbial bag of crap that all of us carry to some extent or another.  It isn’t anything to feel ashamed about but it just is and giving it a visual has helped our daughter recognize where her trauma triggers, PTSD, comes from.  

    We also rate the emotions on a scale of 1-10 as well as discuss what the typical person who hadn’t gone through the crazy mixed up crap she went through might be feeling.  This helps her begin to get her feelings down to a more typical and manageable level.  She used to feel things at a 9-10.  Now it is more likely she feels things between a 4-6.  This also lets her see how much healing has actually taken place so she can feel her own pride at her hard work and progress.  

    One of the best parenting books we read to help understand what childhood trauma does to a person is Dr. Karyn Purvis’s book, “The Connected Child.”  Dr. Purvis worked with TCU’s child development program and camp that worked with international adoptees that had Reactive Attachment Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Sensory related issues.  She worked with some very seriously traumatized children and she is now working with Stephen Curtis Chapman’s organization Shohannah’s Hope to help educate and equip adoptive parents to the special needs of children adopted from hard places.  I would venture to say that other children raised in abusive environments fit this bill as well.  

    There is also Ron and Nancy Rockey “Life Renewal Institute” that deals with early childhood trauma and the impact it has upon us as adults.  

    There is a lot more we do but I have to run snuggle my girl and read to her before bed.  

  • Medennejones

    well I guess my DH is going to read to her for a bit.  We use this to teach both of our girls about safe people:

    1) Safe people will be kind to you
    2) Safe people will care about you
    3) Safe people will listen to you
    4) Safe people will not hurt you
    5) Safe people not threaten you
    6) Safe people will not tell you to keep secrets
    7) Safe people will not touch you in ways that are scary or hurtful

    Dr. Karyn Purvis, “The Connected Child.”

    We also work with many professionals in the field of child trauma, such as our daughter’s amazingly gentle and loving attachment/trauma therapist.  

    Some other ways our daughter has gotten feelings out in a real way is putting her feelings down on paper, through crayon drawings (scribbling is more like it) with a particular color that signifies whatever emotion she is having, and then writing the particulars down on the back.  She then put these “notes” into a small toddler size pillow that she had drawn a face onto to signify those who hurt her during her babyhood.  

    There is more but these are all I had time for now.  By the way, our baby girl started hurting herself when she was only two years old.  It may be hard to believe that one so young, 13 months old at the time of her adoption, could still remember the pain from her past but the truth is that the body keeps score.  Even if the mind doesn’t remember pre-verbal trauma the body and cells do and she had very real and very powerful PTSD reactions to each and every trigger.  After a lot of hard work on everyone’s part she hasn’t hurt herself in two years.  

  • Wendywander

    Thank you so much for this post. I certainly know the experience of feeling like I’m walking wounded in the midst of all the shiny happy people. For a long time, I thought that I would always and forever exist in a demolished state. It’s taken years for me to realize that, while some things do appear to be broken for good, other things have healed into something stronger than they ever could have been of natural causes. It helps to remind myself that my current state is not permanent, that God continues to heal me. And it helps to see the way I can connect with and help other people because of what I’ve survived. That feels like the best way to fight back.

    Also, early on when the past would come back for another round, I would panic because I thought I was going to be steeped in it forever. I’ve learned it helps to relax and go with it, knowing it will pass and this is just part of the cycle of recovery.

  • RebeccaPi

    When I’m feeling like my life is too much, it’s a simple thing, but in my prayers at night I make myself find 10 good things I can thank God for about the day.  By the end I usually end up thinking, “What an awesome day!”  =D