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  • Janyne McConnaughey, PhD

How is the Shaming of Self a Form of Religious Trauma?

This is the last of the series of teachings and only one aspect of Religious Trauma.

Have religious teachings impacted how you lived your life? This was certainly true for me. I have spent ten years unraveling all the tangled threads that tied my identity, purpose, career, and life with family and friends to teachings within religious communities. Many of those teachings created shame for simply being a human being with dreams and desires.

Not all religious teachings are harmful. Loving your neighbor was, and still is, valuable. Living in kind, helpful, grateful, and gracious ways can provide a solid basis for a good life. I could list many more of the positive teachings but those that fully honor individual identity and the self are rare.

The teaching that begins with loving your neighbor ends with the admonition to love yourself. The view of most sacred writings is usually literal, but this one is often seen as not actually mean loving yourself. I am amazed at how many ways this has been twisted or expanded to mean something other than what it really says. For instance:

  • Loving yourself is selfish.

  • Don't trust your emotions and feelings--the heart is wicked (See this blog).

  • Self-care means you are not placing God and others first.

  • Your identity is in Jesus--not your own.

  • You are not capable of anything without God.

  • Your desires and dreams are counter to what God wants.

In Trauma in the Pews, I stated, “The lifelong teachings in the church about my identity being in Christ, having no strength without God, and never trusting my feelings or choices walked right in step with trauma-induced patterns of learned helplessness that caused me to second-guess every choice.”[1] The fear of making sure choices are what God wants is echoed in the stories others share with me. (See more in this blog: How Can Religious Trauma Rob Our Sense of Self?)

The problem was perfectly described in a recent cartoon by David Hayward which depicted Jesus crying while listening to a person explaining the following:

All I was taught my whole life was that I could only want what you wanted so I never knew what I wanted because I wasn’t allowed to want anything except what you wanted and now, I still don’t know what I want, and I feel super guilty whenever I even consider wondering what I want in life. (Source)

Listening to your inner voice is a monumental task if you have been taught to distrust that voice. I had a deep distrust of myself and my choices. I sensed that if I wanted something that meant it was against God. Not too long ago, I came across the following comment on a Facebook thread which confirmed my thoughts on this teaching:

The youth evangelist told us that in order to know the will of God, just decide what we want. The opposite of that is God's will. Based on scripture ‘spirit and flesh at enmity with each other’ This was spiritual abuse.

The mistrust of anything that God created in us also showed up in another comment:

Everything I was remotely interested in seemed to be ‘not of Jesus’… seriously?! Now realizing that just because it wasn’t ‘of the church and other people’s views’, doesn’t mean it’s ‘not of Jesus’. And if I’m interested in something or like something, that’s ok

Instead of these teachings, consider the following:

What if you were meant to enjoy life, believe in/love yourself, have an identity not tied to religious teachings or outside expectations, listen to/embrace your feelings, and make your own choices? What would that life be like? What if following your heart allowed you to become who you were born to be? 

Some of the most harmful religious teachings misuse scripture in ways that cause you to diminish or distrust yourself and rob you of the life you were intended to live. It is even more difficult if you are a survivor who became trapped in these teachings as you searched for hope and healing. These teachings and authoritarian leaders often create this fear of making choices and keep you trapped. (See blog: How Do Authoritarian Leaders Cause Religious Trauma)

Anytime that shame is part of teachings, the path to healing will likely involve grieving what was lost. Because shame causes us to lose or hate ourselves, the shaming of self is a form of Religious Trauma. Be gentle with yourself—you still have so much life to live. Trust and grow to love yourself and others as you follow your dreams! Life is waiting for you.

Note: I will be taking a break over the holidays. Please let me know if there are specific topics you would like addressed in the new year.

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