Dissociation and Shame in Spiritual Abuse

This week, Rachael Clinton and Dan Allender look at the devastating effects that spiritual abuse has on our bodies, including deep dissociation and toxic shame. Because spiritually abusive leaders rarely stop with the mind control we engaged in the last two episodes; they work to create a system in which they can control every aspect—including the bodies—of the people under their authority. This kind of body control might involve overt physical or sexual abuse, or it might be a more subtle dynamic, in which somebody else is determining how you dress, speak, and move in the world.

Dan: “All abuse is evil, and all abuse breaks the heart of anyone who engages. But when it involves a spiritual so-called leader taking advantage of his or her position to access the heart and body of Jesus’s beloved, there is something in me that both wants to weep but also wants to rage. […] We’re dealing with really serious matters of God’s heart when we begin to deal with this topic.”

Rachael and Dan acknowledge that, for people with any degree of experience in this realm, this conversation may be very difficult to engage. When a spiritual framework—like the Romans 12 idea of offering your body as a living sacrifice—is twisted to justify spiritual abuse, it skews our perception of everything that is good and holy, even muddying our understanding of what it means to live in the world as embodied, integrated people. The result of this is often a profound sense of shame and deep dissociation from the needs and desires of our bodies.

Dan: “They’re your guardian. They’re your protector. But they also have access to pass through that boundary and then become your abuser. […] It’s back to mind control. You feel nuts. But then it’s likely reinterpreted that you’re just not trusting God or you’re not believing good things.”

Rachael: “And then it almost feels like part of you goes underground, and then a part of you gets to stay above ground. Which means all this pain in places that actually need a lot of tending, need a lot of care, need a lot of love, are so cut off from God, because it’s now moved into that sense of either being innocent or being stained.”

Dan: “And that kind of internal split can’t be kept in operation without some significant layer of dissociation.”

It almost feels like part of you goes underground, and then a part of you gets to stay above ground.

People living in this bind might end up drinking a lot or spiraling into unwanted sexual behaviors, or they might completely shut down—at either extreme, we are maintaining the split of dissociation while annihilating any awareness that it is not what we truly desire. We also internalize devastating messages of shame, coming to believe that there is something deeply wrong with us, something that makes the abuse our fault.

Rachael: “Boundary violations become normative, and there’s this pervasive sense that it’s always my fault. So when harm gets reenacted, it’s like, why do I attract this? It’s true that I’m stained. There must really be something wrong with me, because this is so normal, so of course it’s my fault.”

Dan: “We would not be doing this if we did not think there was the potential for deep, deep change. But when you have suffered this deeply in this arena, with the stain of that level of evil, where you have actually come to feel and fear that you are as dark and evil as the person who harmed you, it is very hard to believe that you will have your body back, that this kind of shame which is indelible and permanent will never, ever be able to be escaped, and therefore isn’t it better to just try to isolate, go low, escape from involving. To that I say Hell no, hell no that isn’t true, because Heaven yes, there is actually a redemptive process that will bring you back to regain your body.”

That’s what we’ll begin exploring next week as we conclude this series. No matter how long it takes, how can we begin reclaiming our minds and moving back into our bodies? What are the small steps we can take on the long road to healing?