One day last week, my husband got home and asked me how my day was. Ordinarily, it’s an innocuous question. This day, it was loaded. We had just posted something big on the blog. Something I had been carrying around for years, and he for decades: his story of surviving gay conversion therapy (what others might call ‘sexual orientation change efforts’ or the ‘LGBTQA+ conversion movement), which of course involved him coming out as bisexual. That kind of thing can make you feel a little vulnerable. Brene Brown tells me that vulnerability is courage though, so I was mentally feeling like a badass, while emotionally feeling a little…meh.
I rambled, as I tend to do when I’m feeling overwhelmed. As I rambled, I explained my fears that people would make it about them when it wasn’t, or that it would be seen as an attack on churches when it isn’t…that it was, in fact, a call for churches in general to wake up to damage that may be invisible to them and to become safe places for LGBTQA+ people. But I was scared that it would be taken the wrong way, and I was pre-empting the responses. Then my husband said something that made me sit up and listen.
He said, “Babe, that sounds like internalised victim blaming.”
Yowza. He didn’t tell me what to do about it. He just let me sit with it. And sit with it I have.
I wanted to take a moment on this blog to pass on that little lightbulb moment. Victim blaming happens. We see it all over the news in all sorts of horrendous situations. It happens when people try to cover up institutional abuse. It happens when judges take the side of a neat, tidy, middle class perp and offer un-earned leniency or when people say the victim was asking for it. It happens in all sorts of places. It’s wrong on all counts.
But it also happens inside us. We blame ourselves. When someone has been the victim of any type of abuse, be it psychological, spiritual, physical, or sexual, it might be hard to realise that we are internalising the victim blaming – that we are blaming ourselves for things others might say or think, or pre-empting how they’ll react. I’m inviting you to notice it. In particular, I’m inviting survivors of religious abuse to take a moment to do so. Because noticing matters. It can be so healing.
Over the year that I’ve been writing this blog, it has gathered together a unique readership: we come from all over the world. We are mostly Millennials and Gen X’ers. We have been raised in and around churches, but have found ourselves at odds with doctrines or power structures that we weren’t allowed to question, or that crushed our spirits. Many of us are spiritually curious. We are Christians in and out of church, many of us are agnostics who have been burned by church, or atheists who have walked away from their childhood faith. So many of us are closet progressives who are wondering if we can be called “Christian” and still sit to the left of Judo-Christian conservatism.
I like you. You are my people. I blog for you. And me, but I’m one of you so there’s that.
A lot of us, sadly, have left groups that were toxic to us. I have a feeling a lot of us have suffered some type of religious abuse. So here are some things you need to know :
- Religious abuse is real. It can involve psychological manipulation or various types of harm inflicted on a person through the teachings of their religion.
- It is often perpetrated by people in positions of power within the religion, but I’d argue that it can include lateral violence (whereby the abuse becomes part of the culture of a group or religion and is then inflicted by peers as well).
- Wikipedia, the font of all wisdom as we know, says “It is most often directed at children and emotionally vulnerable adults, and motivations behind such abuse vary, but can be either well-intentioned or malicious.”
- It’s confusing as heck, because sometimes it is well-intentioned and is interwoven with empowering moments or talk of a benevolent, loving God. A lot of us have heard church referred to as a “Family.” That can be so promising but so traumatic at the same time. All of this amounts to what can be well-intentioned and damaging at the same time.
- Regardless of the intent, the effects are real. Long term damage may include “the victim developing phobias or long-term depression. They may have a sense of shame that persists even after they leave the religion. A person can also be manipulated into avoiding a beneficial action (such as a medical treatment) or to engage in a harmful behavior.” Depression, anxiety, PTSD and dissociative disorders are among the other mental health issues that may arise from religious abuse. So it is serious. It shouldn’t be fobbed off.
- It’s not that uncommon. You might be surprised how many people relate to it. A recent study took a sample from a College campus in the States and found 12.5% of participants had experienced religious abuse.
An expert in the topic, Ronald Enroth, wrote a book called “Churches that abuse”. In it, he proposed 5 categories of abuse (Thanks wiki *again.* for the summary .)
- “Authority and Power: abuse arises when leaders of a group arrogate to themselves power and authority that lacks the dynamics of open accountability and the capacity to question or challenge decisions made by leaders. The shift entails moving from general respect for an office bearer to one where members loyally submit without any right to dissent.
- Manipulation and Control: abusive groups are characterized by social dynamics where fear, guilt or threats are routinely used to produce unquestioning obedience, group conformity or stringent tests of loyalty. The leader-disciple relationship may become one in which the leader’s decisions control and usurp the disciple’s right or capacity to make choices.
- Elitism and Persecution: abusive groups depict themselves as unique and have a strong organizational tendency to be separate from other bodies and institutions. The social dynamism of the group involves being independent or separate, with diminishing possibilities for internal correction or reflection, whilst outside criticism.
- Life-style and Experience: abusive groups foster rigidity in behavior and belief that requires conformity to the group’s ideals.
- Dissent and Discipline: abusive groups tend to suppress any kind of internal challenge to decisions made by leaders. (end wiki quote)
You can imagine that all sorts of ploys would be needed to maintain that sort of control. The book is excellent. Read it if you need to. But consider the ways in which mind games, gaslighting and manipulative control methods would be needed to create such an environment (Even if it started out, or is still to some degree (of cognitive dissonance, I’d argue) well-intentioned).
Research has shown the people who depart from such groups often show symptoms associated with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. In fact, complex PTSD is one of the points laid out in something called “Religious Trauma Syndrome  Mensline Australia has published a list of things to watch out for in terms of religious trauma . Some of these cut pretty close to home, so I’ll leave it to you to jump over to that page if you feel the need. But why am I talking about this in an article about internalised victim blaming. Well for one thing, we need to understand the harm is real. For another thing, this:
Someone raised a point to me a few months back that really made me think: he said “people who have been gaslit (made to question their own mind) in abusive situations are often chronic over-explainers.”
Again. Yowza. When my husband mentioned the term “internalised victim blaming” it connected for me, instantly. When you’ve been made to question your own mind, you over-explain because you need to be believed. When other people have blamed you or made you question your own nature or worthiness, you can blame yourself too. Long after their voices are absent from your life, you still hear them. As long as this goes unchecked, the damage can continue. And you deserve better than that. We all do.
I lay all these things out for a few reasons: Firstly, I want you to know that you aren’t alone. Secondly, I want you to know that internalised victim blaming isn’t uncommon. But thirdly, that doesn’t mean what happened to you was your fault. And it doesn’t mean you have to continue to listen the voices that blame you. Even if those voices are from your own mind, or echoes from memories you’d much rather forget.
I’m a strong believer in therapy. I’m a strong believer that the company of positive people, intentionally chosen to support and empower you, is therapeutic. I’m a strong believer that meta-cognition, or the act of noticing your own thoughts, can help free you from the prison built by trauma.
I didn’t know that internalised victim blaming existed until this week. Or perhaps I did, I just hadn’t given it words. I didn’t know that victims of gaslighting were often chronic over-explainers until recently. I’ve noticed now. So if this is you, too, then I want you to know that you don’t have to blame yourself or explain yourself to anyone. I want you to notice that internalised victim blaming can sometimes mean feeling the pressure of what you are sure people are thinking even when it isn’t said to you. Hey – no one can read minds.
You don’t have to blame yourself or be responsible for what others think about you.
You don’t have to avoid God just because church was traumatic.
Not all churches are traumatic but that doesn’t meant you have to step inside if you just can’t bring yourself to.
If you can’t be a Christian inside church at the moment, then you can be a friend of mind and we can follow Jesus together, and grapple with the big questions, and get into the philosophical and hermeneutical mess of life knowing God’s shoulders are big enough to carry it if we stuff it up.
I just don’t think God would be nearly as hard on us as we are on ourselves sometimes. The irony in fearing hell is that sometimes you can live it anyway. I hope that, in noticing with me that internalised victim blaming and chronic over-explaining is a thing, we can release ourselves from that kind of hell.
Hey people – take care of yourself this Christmas. I’m aware this can be a triggering time of year for some. Make sure you check in with yourself and exercise some self-care if you need.