Religious Trauma After Divorce

This blog is inspired by a book that I have been reading called Trauma in the Pews. This book is creating a state of change inside of me. It is helping shed a layer of shame, disintegration, and maybe even pain that I didn’t understand was still present inside of me.

painting of inside a traditional Christian church, Religious Trauma in the Pews

How the Book “Trauma in the Pews” Changed My Perspective

Trauma in the Pews is a book about how the church lacks a trauma-informed approach.

The way the church speaks often reinforces trauma rather than healing it.

I am someone who experienced a lot of religious trauma in my young life. When I got divorced at 30, it was the moment when I finally felt freedom or permission to start exploring spaces that I had not previously felt comfortable exploring.

One of the things that contributed to my divorce was the fact that I had agreed, pre-marriage, to convert to Catholicism. And when it came down to it, I couldn’t pull the trigger.

painting of children in front of a church, with rainbow color sky in the background

Experiencing Religious Trauma

What is Religious Trauma?

Religious trauma is the emotional and psychological distress caused by harmful religious experiences.

It can leave you feeling guilty, ashamed, fearful, and confused, impacting your overall well-being.

If you’re someone who thinks about the church and feels resistance well up, there is a good chance that you have experienced some form of religious trauma and have some repressed shame.

What Causes Religious Trauma?

Religious trauma often happens when your religious experiences have become overwhelming, disruptive, stressful, dangerous, or damaging.

Abusive practices and rigid dogma can cause religious trauma, as well as a community that shames you.

One of the reasons I couldn’t pull the trigger on converting to Catholicism was I had an unhealthy relationship with the church. I did not want to be in a church every Sunday. I did not want to organize my life around church or churchy things. I was still very much triggered by most things you would experience in a church. I loved my little jaunt with Catholicism because there were so many beautiful traditions and ways of worshiping that were new to me, which felt very reverent and were less triggering to me than the things I had grown up with.

So, in a sense, it’s probably why I was drawn to my ex-husband and his Catholic experience; it was a fresh take on how to worship.

Woman painted into rainbow color background. Exploring Other Faith.

Exploring Other Faith

When I got divorced and started working on a twelve-step program in Al-Anon, I had a Jewish sponsor, and I started to develop a close relationship with my sponsor. I also had a lot of Jewish friends at the time and started leaning into exploring these other religious spaces. I became very involved in yoga and started studying a lot of Eastern spiritual traditions, getting into the principles of yoga and understanding its spiritual underpinnings and the intersections between Eastern faiths and Western faiths. Because of this, I started asking big, big questions.

Now, this was not a comfortable process for me. There were times when I would have near-panicked experiences just exploring these other spiritual and religious ideas.

I had experienced so much religious trauma that just exploring other faiths felt like I might go to hell. It was an emotional response. It wasn’t a smart-brain response.

The Connection of Shame and Religious Trauma

In Trauma and the Pews, the author Janine McConaughey talks about how it’s scary when people who have experienced this type of trauma read non-conforming texts.

I saw myself in those pages. In my post-divorce, I was exploring all these things.

And I was certainly feeling shame for having burnt my life down and feeling shame for being divorced.

I was finally able to acknowledge all the secrets that had piled up before my ex and I walked down the aisle.

Painting of a dark black hole surrounded by white, gray, and black colors. Sin and Religious Trauma

Sin and Religious Trauma

In homeopathy, there is an entire chunk of homeopathic text that talks about inner darkness or after original sin. In the course of human history, certain sexually transmitted diseases came into our lived human experience and got into our energetic bodies.

Things that aren’t transmuted become transmitted. And so, in homeopathic literature, certain dark energies can be transmitted energetically from generation to generation.

Certainly, in the trauma world, we talk about transmitted traumas of darkness, depression, and suicidality that get transmitted from generation to generation.

What is Shame?

Shame is a powerful emotion that makes you feel like there’s something fundamentally wrong with you.

It’s that inner voice telling you that you’re not good enough, and it can leave you feeling embarrassed, unworthy, or even worthless.

Shame is the great disconnector.

It’s the thing that causes us to have secrets. It’s the thing that causes us to hide, lie, and feel bad about ourselves. It’s an inner darkness, and I had inner darkness that I had not come to terms with because I grew up in a home where sin was punished with rejection and abandonment.

Dr Brene Brown: Going Into the Petri Dish of Shame

For instance, sex. There was no open dialogue about sex, love, being a teenager, and how to handle those urges in a meaningful, modern way. When it came to substances, whether it was alcohol or drugs, there was no meaningful conversation about how to handle peer pressure, just the desire. The desire that goes with drinking too much, using illicit substances, having unsafe sex, hurting someone, or revenge.

There was not a safe place for me to talk about the desire to lean into darkness in my childhood.

And so then, what do you end up doing with that?

As Brene Brown would say, “It goes into the petri dish of shame,” where it gets covered up and grows in the dark place – until you shine a light on it.

Painting of a tree with rainbow colors in the background. Jesus and Forgiveness of Sins

Jesus and Forgiveness of Sins

You now can look at this moment through so many lenses, but the reality is, when you grow up in a religious institution where sin is shamed rather than explored with grace, you end up with a lived experience where sin is treated with rejection and not through the way that Jesus would see us. Jesus doesn’t say, “Oh, you sinful creature, I don’t want anything to do with you.” He said quite the opposite.

And I’m not trying to make light of serious behaviors or heavy mistakes that we women have all made, but I am trying to say that so much of why we feel unworthy is because we women see ourselves through the eyes of repressed shame and not through the lens of unconditional love.

Drawing of a woman's face, holding her chin with her hand, colored in rainbow colors. Redemption.

Giving Yourself Permission to Explore Redemption

After my divorce, I went back to church, but that was triggering. Of course, I wanted to have faith that all was going to be well, but I felt anxious and panicky a lot. Of course, I wanted to build a new, magical life where I could find love. And of course, I tried new illicit substances and had unsafe sex. It was a whole mixed bag for me.

Through my divorce healing journey, I leaned into the dark spaces, and I did destructive things in my life after divorce. Now, I sit here before you with far more light and love.

One of the key pieces that allowed me to get there was permitting myself to explore redemption in places that weren’t the Christian church.

Finding Safe Places to Be Truly Seen

It was allowing myself to find safe places where I could talk about all of my dark, twisty parts and be received with love and acceptance from other people – and that typically wasn’t the church.

As a silver lining of my divorce, I have been able to carve out a spiritual practice for myself that includes tarot cards, astrology, and ideas like The Law of Attraction and intentional manifestation.

I am coming to you today kind of pulling together all of these pieces of religious trauma, repressed shame, and building a spirituality and a faith that is very much biblical and is very much God-loving.

I have come to believe how forgiven, saved, loved, accepted, and wanted I am first by God, then by myself, and then by the people I choose to surround myself with.

Drawn Eye surrounded by bubbles in rainbow colors. Heal Religious Trauma.

Three Steps to Heal Religious Trauma

Honoring Your Darkness

I’m at this place in my life after divorce as a result of a lot of healing and honoring of my darkness, and not looking at myself through the eyes of those who have judged me or rejected me as a result of the darkness that I have leaned into.

It is a gift as a therapist to be able to sit with people and dig into their darkness and not shame them or judge them for it.

And it feels good to hurt someone, do drugs, have unsafe sex, you name it, it feels good. And I will never shame you for doing those things that feel good.

I may ask you, “Was it sustainable? Did it bring you lasting peace? Did it bring you lasting love? Did it bring you light and joy? And did you still feel good about it the next morning?”

I may ask you, “Are there other things in life that have brought you deeper peace?” Because that’s the transformation right there.

Not Shaming Yourself

Those questions are not to shame you for having hooked up with that guy last weekend because you were feeling lonely. You did it. It makes sense to me. We women then have to build a bridge out of that.

It’s not a magical light switch, and we can only heal these places if we talk about them.

Woman's face with eyes' closed, hair up in a bun, and red lips. Learn to Love Yourself, Overcoming Religious Trauma after Divorce.

Learn to Love Yourself

My shadow self didn’t feel safe doing that healing work in the church because of the religious trauma. And those unresolved things are what attracted me to my ex-husband in the first place. Darkness calls to darkness.

Even though you’ve suppressed it or even though you’ve done your best to be a good girl, if you haven’t faced it and you haven’t learned how to love yourself well through it, you are going to continue to attract darkness because you haven’t made peace with it.

How Experience Religion Creates Religious Trauma

The church is flawed because humans run it, and humans have created patriarchy using religion to control people. Through the course of history, women have had to pay the price for the sins of men. For example, the modesty revolution, where women in church are told they have to cover everything because men can’t control their urges.

Religious trauma is when your religious experience has felt degrading, dangerous, abusive, or damaging.

Religious trauma is going to church and feeling stressed or like you are seen as a sinner and not as someone who is redeemed.

You may have difficulty making sense of your dark, twisty places because you know you’re a good person. You can’t quite reconcile the parts of you that you have been told are bad or dark or that you should be ashamed of.

You can’t quite reconcile how you have so much love to give but you sabotage yourself at so many turns.

This is very much related to suppressed shame and religious trauma.

Religious Trauma and Our Relationship with God

Religious trauma affects the way we relate to God, the way we relate to being mentored by religious leaders, the Bible, God’s word, or all kinds of spiritual practices. I tend to refer to God as a woman because it’s less threatening to me.

I have to work around the resistance that I have experienced with religion, which allows me to approach healing from a failed marriage, mistakes that I’ve made, and dark places I’ve gone to.

I need to work those things out with God, with the people I love, and the inside of myself. And you can’t do those things in silos.

Drawing of two women, holding their faces with their hands, with rainbow color backgrounds. Shame Creates Unworthiness

How Shame Creates Unworthiness and Feeling Unloved

Part of the reason you feel unworthy and unlovable is because you haven’t faced your shame. So, let’s talk about how to start shifting your relationship with your dark, twisty places and how to start relating to yourself and those dark urges differently. They are normal. You are not alone. I don’t want you to continue to judge yourself or shame yourself for those things.

How to Heal From Religious Trauma

How do you start turning towards and owning the darkness that you have embodied in your life after divorce more gently?

Well, let’s normalize that it feels good. Let’s normalize how human that is. Let’s normalize that God already knows, and he does not have a negative response to your dark, twisty places.

Does he have things that he wants for you that are bigger than that, that are better than that? Yes. But no shame.

Turn Towards Your Darkness

There are people in the world who are going to shame and blame you for those dark, twisty things.

I want you to make a list of the darkest things you have thought, felt, said, and done. And I want you to light that list on fire.

I want you to imagine me saying to you, “I see your list. There is nothing on your list, love, that someone else hasn’t told me or that I have not already done. I love you the same. I am not afraid of you. I am not going to run away from it. And I do not judge you for it.”

You make sense to me because you are human and because you are looking for places to be able to talk about those things, heal from them, and make better choices. And I know you are.

Drawing of a woman, face up to the sky, eyes closed, praying, surrounded by rainbow colors. Love Yourself Well

Love Yourself Well

I know that you want to love yourself well, and you want to love others well. I know how much resentment you have and how much you would love to get rid of that resentment.

Resentment is a function of judgment, blame, and victim consciousness. No one can get rid of resentment if they have not walked the path of facing their shame and learning to love themselves well. 

Give and Seek Encouragement

Encourage each other to rise above the darkness, but then also crack jokes about hiding the body together. There’s an ease around being able to discuss the darkness. And it’s important to encourage one another to do better.

Ask, “How can I support you while you’re doing better with this really hard thing?”

This is your call to start looking at that list of dark, twisty things through loving eyes. They’re wonderful. They’re part of God’s creation. They’re part of this earth.

How can you experience the light unless you’ve experienced the dark? Contrast is built into the experience.

Create a Meaningful Relationship with God to Stand in Your Power

I’m in the process of transmuting some things for myself through this lens of religious trauma. And this just helped me go deeper with it. So I hope you can just feel how inspired I was to share some very, very inspirational things with you in this episode.

You’ve got this. I love you.

Divorce recovery coach Dawn Wiggins

...helps people crack open. Challenging the status quo, she integrates multiple modalities from EMDR to EFT tapping, journaling, homeopathy, and movement, embracing remedies that heal both the mind and body. Divorce recovery coach Dawn Wiggins is on a mission to deliver life-changing therapy in an accessible, scalable, affordable way and make waves in the world of mental health with the same enlightenment that happens in her office. Part science, part essential oils, pure magic.

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