How to help victims of spiritual abuse

As a follow-up to yesterday’s post about what NOT to say to someone who has suffered spiritual abuse, I’d like to list a few ways you CAN help. Helping someone in pain is, essentially, the work of compassion. I like how Henri Nouwen describes compassion:

Compassion can never coexist with judgment because judgment creates distance, the distinction which prevents us from really being with the other.

1. Educate yourself. Research, read books, listen to the stories of other survivors. The more you read about these stories, the more similarities you will find. The puzzle will start to piece itself together. You will begin to recognize and understand the group dynamics that lend themselves to spiritually abusive environments. You will gain an awareness of the personality types and life situations that render people vulnerable to these groups.

2. Be careful about offering solutions. Survivors don’t need another fix-it plan or formula. This was the hardest one for me, actually. When I left my childhood cult, I really just wanted someone to tell me what to do. But that was exactly the problem: I had to learn for myself. I had to make mistakes. I had to experience life outside the warm, protective, insulated environment of the cult. Sometimes I really did need advice–and that’s when I was grateful for friends who encouraged me to get professional counseling.

3. Encourage independence. If the survivor has lived inside a spiritually abusive environment for more than a few years, chances are they don’t know how to make their own decisions without first obtaining permission from someone else. What a survivor really needs to know is that they CAN thrive outside the church environment. They CAN start over from scratch. Be a cheerleader. Offer affirmation and encouragement–while steering away from specifics.

4. Offer PRACTICAL help. Depending on the severity of isolation a survivor experienced inside their abusive church, they may need help with very basic things like: learning to drive, getting a driver’s license, completing their high school GED, computer skills, applying for food stamps. Sometimes people leave cults in a flurry, without any preparation whatsoever. A safe person who provides basic, practical help is nothing less than an angel. I’ll never forget the first neighbor I met after relocating to a new city. Her simple kindness and helpful referrals made my transition into mainstream culture less difficult. We are still friends to this day.

5. Model healthy personal boundaries. Victims of spiritual abuse had their personal boundaries violated over and over and over again. They may have lost all sense of what is private, personal and appropriate. When you’re inside a spiritually abusive church, you simply have NO RIGHTS. By modeling healthy boundaries yourself, you can indirectly teach a survivor how to create and manage their own healthy boundaries. Important note: survivors will make mistakes in relationships. I am very thankful for the people who stuck with me even when I screwed up really badly. Instead of punishing me or rejecting me, they accepted my apologies and gave me a second chance.

6. Help the survivor embrace their baby-steps journey. After emerging from an abusive church, I had to take baby steps. There were people who couldn’t understand why I didn’t just throw the whole thing away immediately. I had to go slow. I still wore my headcovering sometimes because I wasn’t sure if God was OK with me not wearing one. I went straight from an abusive fundamentalist church to a conservative, evangelical one. I had to go slow, see things, learn for myself and read new books. So, instead of urging a survivor to move faster or arrive at your same conclusions, allow the survivor to go on their own journey. And most of all, always be a friend.

I’m sure I could think of more but it’s past my bedtime. :)
Can you add to this list?

  • jen

    One thing that is more from the perspective of coming out of crisis mode is to ask “what do you need right now?” The reason: people are a bit too shell-shocked to think long-term but they can think about the next 5-10 minutes.

  • Elena Johnston

    What a great list! Thank you for this.

  • Rachel

    I really like #3. I have been out of my abusive church for 12 years and I still find myself seeking permission. It comes from a lack of confidence combined with a fear of responsibility. In my family/church responsibility=punishment. By asking permission there was someone else to blame (not that it ever really prevented the punishment). Being independent was something I fought for but the longer I fight for it, the more I realize I am sometimes fighting myself, my ingrained need to ask permission. Even if the person blows it big, it is helpful to confirm the courage it took to make the decision in the first place.

  • BeccaE

    Thank you for writing these kinds of blogs. We need this – widespread!

  • Pedro M. Rosario Barbosa

    Thank you for this post, dear Elizabeth.

  • brainwashed beauty

    I definitely agree with baby steps. I still am trying not to go back. If I don’t go back every week, I’ve won. :)

  • Awol

    This is very good, EE. Thank you! It helped me to reflect on where I am in my own recovery even as I read it. I would also add that people who have experienced spiritual abuse may struggle with finding a good counselor or therapist. I had an excellent Christian therapist as well as one who wasn’t. The best help doesn’t have to come from the ‘same brand’ as one came out of, spiritually.

  • jmwe29

    As I said in my previous post, I agree wholeheartedly with your #1 tip- education. When you learn first what the common characteristics are, it really wakes you up. I felt like the authors of those books I read had been to that church. And second, when you begin to understand the psychological aspects- the codependent atmosphere- going on in these places, you understand that “hurting people hurt people”. There is a reason they are the way they are. You’re so right when you say that no one can do this for you; it’s a very individual journey out, and we all recover at our own pace. Finding out it’s OK to be critical and judge the fruit was a huge step for me.

  • Nancy

    There’s a phrase used in other types of recovery that applies here: “Relapse is part of recovery.” You’ve touched on that theme here. Years of thinking a certain way won’t be quickly undone. Errors in judgment, not knowing how to have healthy relationships, getting sucked back into an unhealthy group or friendship . . . all of these things can be part of the road out, and people need to be patient and non-judgmental (even while being honest about what they see) with a person in “recovery.”

  • ks

    Grieving with the person is vital. Or asking them about their grief. That, too, is a unique journey. Waaaay before forgiveness :)

    • falfie4

      Yes, and also understanding that the person may have mixed emotions. They may be grieving the abuse, but also grieving the loss of relationship. For me the hardest part was holding both the positive and negative experiences together.

  • Christy Chomer Karnatz

    This is a wonderful post Liz. I will be pointing some people this way. =)

  • A Guy

    Headcovering? As in I Corinthians 11 headcovering? Tell me about your experience with that and how your former church handled it.

  • Cha Cha

    Oh I am very glad you are doing this.. I hardly knew where to start, with husband and children all growing up in it.. first thing was to find a church that was totally based on forgiveness and freedom in Christ .. free from legalism and judgement.. we found several where we felt surrounded by nothing but love and acceptance, helping us in our journey back to true Christianity.