In early July of this year, Kate C. Bowler—author and Duke Divinity School professor—added a post to her Instagram feed titled, “A Blessing for When Faith Breaks Your Heart.”
I felt those words in my soul.
For many of us, our culture’s public reckoning with the prevalence of spiritual abuse in the church and Christian institutions has felt like one heartbreak after another. In recent years, the topic of trauma has entered the mainstream, offering many the language to describe their experiences for the very first time.
The word trauma can be quite polarizing, especially as we’ve seen the topic enter the mainstream by professional clinicians and social media armchair psychologists. While there are certainly varying degrees of intensity, trauma is simply defined as the impact of an emotionally painful or overwhelming event that exceeds our internal resources to cope or process effectively. As a result, these experiences “get stuck” in our bodies, specifically, our nervous systems.
I have been a Christian trauma therapist for more than a decade, and this cultural movement has become deeply personal. More and more courageous clients of faith who have been deeply harmed by spiritually abusive systems, teachings, leaders, and parents are reaching out—longing for a safe space to be seen and for their stories to be heard.
And where there is spiritual harm, faith deconstruction is often close behind.
One of the most insidious consequences of religious trauma is how it often shatters a person’s sense of safety in their relationship with God. For those whose faith has been the foundation of their lives, the experience of deconstruction can become a trauma all its own. The process of working to make sense of and sort through the shattered pieces of one’s identity as a person of faith and the subsequent loss of belonging and certainty that often follows can produce an emotional free-fall that feels endless.
Anyone who has been through this type of pain will tell you there’s nothing trendy about faith deconstruction.
Dear reader, if you (or anyone in your life) resonate with these experiences, I see you. While I can’t offer answers, nor do I have the foresight to see where your personal faith questions will ultimately lead, my heart is to offer some simple, practical hope.
The more we learn about trauma, the more we understand that healing is an embodied process that involves learning to cultivate an internal safety that allows us to be with ourselves in whatever we face.
When it comes to trauma work, pacing is everything. So, let’s start small. I want to offer two simple practices: something to expand and something to narrow. (Note: These practices are intended to be a resource, and not a substitute for professional counseling. If, at any point, these exercises no longer feel like a resource or you become overwhelmed, please stop and come back to them at another time. Finding a trauma-informed therapist in your area is also a great next step.)
Something to Expand
Many of my clients have a history of using primarily spiritual practices like prayer, Bible reading, or other spiritual disciplines to cope with and find comfort for difficult emotions. But what do we do when these methods feel inaccessible at best and, at worst, unsafe?
A great first step is to expand our resources to include practices that allow us to regulate our nervous systems and experience safety in our bodies.
I often encourage my clients to develop a personal “sensory toolkit” filled with individually tailored objects they can see, smell, taste, touch, and hear that bring comfort and allow them to experience goodness. Physical activity, deep breathing, and temperature shifts (e.g. running your hands under cold water or placing an ice pack on your chest) are additional practices that regulate the nervous system by guiding the stress to move out of the body. Lastly, slow bi-lateral stimulation—practices that involve alternating stimulation of each side of our bodies—can be very calming (e.g. going for a walk or practicing the butterfly hug: cross your arms over your chest, gently and slowly tapping each shoulder until you feel calm).
As we expand our resources, we experience glimmers of goodness and safety that provide the foundation for healing and the rebuilding of self-trust.
Something to Narrow
Surviving trauma is overwhelming. When my clients experience emotional overwhelm, I always remind them of this: overwhelm is a signal that you’re experiencing something that is too big to process. A flood of intense emotions is not an indicator of personal defectiveness, but rather an invitation to narrow our focus, making our problem smaller. (I first encountered the concept of “make the problem smaller” from Kendra Adachi, the brilliant and compassionate author and host of The Lazy Genius podcast.)
One of the most effective methods I’ve found for helping trauma survivors navigate emotional overwhelm is Internal Family Systems therapy (IFS), which focuses on engaging and understanding different parts of ourselves with what author and licensed therapist Aundi Kolber refers to as compassionate attention. (Try Softer: A Fresh Approach to Move Us out of Anxiety, Stress, and Survival Mode—and into a Life of Connection and Joy by Aundi Kolber [Tyndale, 2020].) When we identify the parts of ourselves that have been impacted by trauma, it provides containment and allows us to engage the healing process in more tolerable, digestible pieces.
The next time you’re caught in an emotional whirlwind, here is an exercise you can try:
- Focus your attention inward and identify one part of you that seems to want your attention today.
- As you connect with this part, notice if there are any memories, thoughts, feelings, or sensations in your body that seem to be standing out to you today.
- How do you feel toward this part of you? What would it look like to engage it with curiosity and compassion?
- If you are able to reach a more compassionate, curious posture toward this part, you can engage it with the following questions, trying to be nonjudgmental about what comes up:
- Is there anything you want me to know?
- What are you afraid of?
- What are you angry about?
- What are you feeling sad about?
- Are there other times you’ve felt the same way?
- The more we engage in this process, the more we learn that by allowing the parts of ourselves to be heard, we will then feel more calm, regulated, and connected. ( Resources to learn more about IFS: Boundaries for Your Soul: How to Turn Your Overwhelming Thoughts and Feelings into Your Greatest Allies by Dr. Alison Cook and Kimberly Miller (Thomas Nelson, 2018) and The Best of You podcast with Dr. Alison Cook.)
The hope is that, as we get to know these parts of ourselves more and more, we internalize experiences of safety that continue to increase our emotional capacity and grow our confidence in our ability to move through intense and complex emotions.
Faith can be heartbreaking and healing is possible. In order for more whole-hearted, trauma-informed, and emotionally healthy communities of faith to emerge from the wreckage spiritually abusive systems and leaders have left behind, healing is necessary. Perhaps those who know the depth of this pain have the best perspective for the way forward.
Within this cultural moment lies an invitation for the church to take these issues seriously. Here, there is hope that people may once again become curious about Jesus—our gentle and lowly Wounded Healer who consistently moved toward the suffering and led with love.
It seems fitting to end with Kate Bowler’s words:
Blessed are you standing among the ruins of a faith
That once felt so sturdy,
Now turned to dust under your feet.
The certainty you once had, gone.
The community you loved, dissipated.
The hope you held dear, hard to find.
Instead, what’s taken up residence
Is the very stuff that seems counter to what you imagined:
Disappointment. Doubt. Disillusionment. Despair.
In this new landscape, may you practice the courage to find the others
Who make space for your questions without easy answers,
Who celebrate doubt when it makes room for more faith,
Who search high and low for a defiant hope born amidst despair.
Bless you, dear one. You who don’t give up wrestling,
Who have eyes to see something new being rebuilt on top of what was.
Blessed are you who walk away wounded, yes. But changed.
(Kate C. Bowler (@katecbowler), posted on Instagram July 9, 2023.)