By Mark Weiss, Ph.D.
The Twelve Step program in all its forms is the fastest growing spiritual movement in the western world. Last year, Time magazine reported that over fifteen million people were involved in ongoing Twelve Step programs and anticipated exponential growth. Spiritual abuse, the process by which religious dogma and concepts were used in our childhood as punishment and shaming devices, is probably the greatest block to receiving the healing power of a Higher Power in our lives.
The Twelve Steps refer to “God as we understood him” and therein lays a critical issue for many recovering people. If in childhood we experienced abuse, abandonment, loss and shame (and all of us did on some level) and have associated that pain with God, then our ability to access Higher Power as a healing resource is severely damaged and we tend to move superficially through the Steps, perhaps being able to maintain sobriety but never being able to get the “juice”, the loving, tender gratitude that could be derived from our spirituality.
The use of religious dogma to enforce social control is as old as history itself, but only with the explosion of awareness of family dysfunction have we been able to isolate the part religion can play in the breakdown of self-esteem in children and the subsequent effects spiritual abuse plays in the cycle of addiction. Children are told “You made Jesus cry by disobeying me.” “God is keeping a checklist of your bad behavior and you can’t ever erase it.” “Do what I say or you will burn in Hell.” From an adult level we can understand that these are symbolic statements, but to small children these statements are literal and are internalized as true.
For many adults who were physically and sexually abused as children, there is an internalized message that emerges out of their extreme powerlessness and pain: “God has abandoned me.” Even more potent and self-damaging is the message, “God is punishing me.” When such a person is asked in Twelve Step work to turn it over to God as we understand Him, he is literally being asked to surrender to a force he perceives as dangerous and harmful. It is often a powerful revelation for these people to consider that they survived their abuse because their Higher Power was there to support them. This reversal of thinking may be a first step in the renewal of a spiritual source of inner strength that allows them to face their pain and move through it to health.
The power of our thoughts about God or Higher Power may shape every perspective we have about ourselves and the world. For example, take a look at the perspectives about God listed below and see if you identify any of them as your own:
God is fear; God as dysfunctional parent(s):
Our parents are the first image we have of God. They are all-powerful and if they are angry people, we see God in that way. We seek adult relationships that overpower us and generate massive resentment and we rebel against any religious authority.
God is love; God as healthy loving parent(s):
We look to our higher power as a nurturing and guiding resource. We are able to receive love and strength from the internalized spirit.
God is fear; God requires our suffering:
We have to earn God’s love through our suffering and pain. Life is a struggle. We sabotage ourselves in order to make life harder. The more we suffer, the more we earn spiritual points. No fun.
God is love; God supports our celebrating life:
Experiencing our Higher Power is an act of joy. Sharing that joy with others is part of our spiritual path. Enlightenment is “lightening up.”
God is fear; God is a punisher:
We are afraid to give 100% to life because we are afraid to make mistakes. We fear God’s punishment which limits our ability to risk.
God is love; God is rewarding and encouraging:
Spirit teaches us mistakes are simply learning devices. We experience gratitude for every step we take in growth.
God is fear; God is abandoning or non-existent:
We experience ourselves as alone in the world, unable to trust. We have trouble bonding or joining with others. We are often self-blaming or feeling betrayed. We expect people to leave us.
God is love; God is always present and loving:
We feel safety and inner support. We give love as a demonstration that we have received it. Since we have received love we are easily able to give it. The more we give the more we have.
God is fear; God is judging and evaluating:
We feel bad, not good enough or that something is wrong with us. We will never be able to earn God’s love. We are damaged and cannot be fixed.
God is love; God is accepting and forgiving:
We feel worthwhile and valued. We are willing to risk and more able to make amends.
God is fear; God is Ineffectual:
Our picture of God is beautiful, but God is 8 million miles away. God cannot be a source of strength because God is too far away. We experience people as distant and not supportive. Everything is working but me.
God is love; God is powerful:
We feel in constant communication with a Higher Power that supports and strengthens us. Our relationships empower us as well. We can stand up for ourselves.
God is fear; God is isolating:
We believe that if we become spiritual, we must be isolated, like a monk in a mountain cave.
God is loving; God is joining:
Our spirituality is reflected through the quality of our relationships with others.
Healing Our Relationship to Our Higher Power
The first step in healing our relationship to our Higher Power is to admit our negative thoughts about God and religion and attempt to understand the dynamics that led to these thoughts. Sometimes we may recognize family patterns that made us bitter toward religion or God. It may relate to the death or abandonment of a loved one or some crucial and painful trauma. It may have simply been the sense of emotional remoteness we experienced from the adults around us. Disillusioning experiences with organized religion, church politics or religious school may have contributed to our dissociation from our own spirituality.
The second step is to recognize the impact of these thoughts on our ability to access spiritual help in our lives. By holding on to resentment, we are blocking ourselves from experiencing the ascension attitudes of acceptance, forgiveness and gratitude, attitudes which uplift and enlighten us. If it happened in the past, it is not the event that is hurting us now, but the thoughts we are having about it. It is the meaning we are giving the event. We can make a choice to see it differently. We may need therapeutic assistance to feel the feelings associated with the origins