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?