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  • Janyne McConnaughey, PhD

How Can Religious Trauma Rob Our Sense of Self?

Almost every survivor of significant levels of trauma struggles with knowing who they are—especially those who experience childhood trauma. If religious teachings emphasize that children or adults are to obey without question, it adds another layer that makes pleasing others more important than knowing ourselves. 

Who we become is a mixture of what happened to us, what we are taught, what we come to believe about ourselves, and who others tell us we should be. When our lives are embedded in religious culture and teachings emphasizing conformity, there is little opportunity to form an authentic identity and healthy sense of self.


Identity and sense of self are not the same thing. . .  

“Your personal identity is how you perceive yourself, whereas your sense of self is more like your internal compass—it's what you believe and helps you establish boundaries and make decisions that serve you.” (Source)

This quote resonated because, as I healed, I found a small child in me who did have a strong internal compass. Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy defines this as the core Self. Children are born with this core self or internal compass--though trauma and neglect have the power to destroy or bury it. In addition, religious teachings often cause us to distrust this core self. This can result in living a life focused on becoming what others expect us to be instead of who we were born to be.


What is a healthy sense of self and how can religious trauma impact it? (See What is Religious Trauma?)The article quoted above also provided a list of what it looks like to have a healthy sense of self (see here for full descriptions of each bullet point). While reading the list, the contrast to how I lived my life was striking. The words in italics illustrate the impact of religious trauma or spiritual abuse from either my story or the stories of others who have shared with me.

  • Independent decisions: Spiritually abusive teachings caused me to doubt myself and any decision that was based on something that I wanted to do. Everything had to be aligned with God’s will and I was to know what that was by listening to church leader’s and/or parent’s instruction and teachings.

  • Self-Awareness: Understanding what I might want to do outside of the church which had consumed my identity was difficult. Choices made to care for self were seen as selfish. I was to always remember the acronym JOY—Jesus first, others next, and yourself last.

  • Boundaries: My entire life was built around being a godly woman (Proverbs 31 woman). This required that I please everyone by being exactly who they believed I should be. Saying no when asked to do some type of service was almost impossible. 

  • Flexibility: Anything challenging was viewed as likely being the result of “sin” in my life and the answer was always spiritual—such as reading my Bible more, praying more, etc. The solution to challenges always involved waiting on God for the answer because I was inadequate.

  • Emotional intelligence: I was never taught anything about trauma, how it felt when my nervous system was dysregulated, or how I could find the answers within myself or with the help of professionals. When my actions were inappropriate, the answer was to repent. This caused me to tightly control myself instead of recognizing and healing trauma patterns.

For all who are healing from both childhood trauma and religious abuse, it involves finding our sense of self that will allow us to embrace these five qualities:

  1. To trust ourselves to make independent choices and accept that things don’t always go as planned.

  2. To know what brings us joy, purpose, fulfillment, and comfort.

  3. To know what we will and will not accept in our lives as we build a life we can enjoy.

  4. To be confident of our ability to face challenges and develop skills that enable us to self-regulate and be more flexible during them.

  5. To know and honor our story and have self-compassion when we struggle.

When you begin to build a new foundation with a healthy sense of self, you will likely have an identity crisis as you realize who you became was so influenced or controlled by religious teachings and/or leaders (see last week's blog). I will address identity in next week’s blog.

Please know that you were born with everything you needed for a healthy sense of self. If you had this core part of you diminished or robbed from you, have self-compassion and respect for all the ways you learned to survive under those circumstances. You can heal--that beautiful child who holds your sense of self is waiting for you.

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