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  • Janyne McConnaughey, PhD

What is a Religious Trauma Identity Crisis?

Woman holding hands in front of face

For many, the awareness that Religious Trauma (RT) is part of what is causing the internal turmoil can be both affirming and unsettling. Religion isn’t simply something we believe. For many of us, it was our entire life and our identity is tied to it.

Up to this point in this blog series, I haven’t shared much about my personal story. I will do so this week to illustrate how religion became my entire identity—and the difficulty I had in figuring out who I was when I entered therapy at the age of sixty-one. I also include information about my work that would never have been possible without healing.

My father was a pastor. He was a good and kind man who cared well for others. I know in the world of survivors, I was fortunate to have a father who loved me deeply and cared for me in ways my mother could not. (I share this part of my story in this blog: When Dads are Mothers)

I attended church every time the doors opened. I have very few memories of childhood that are not somehow connected to the church, including sexual abuse at the age of three that continued—in many different circumstances—until I was twenty-three.

Even when faith communities go wrong, there is often an element of support. As a child, I desperately needed that support and worked hard to control my trauma-related behaviors—including subconscious dissociative coping strategies. My entire life revolved around being what others expected me to be. As I grew older and could have made other choices, the church was the only world I knew.

Until I began healing from the impact of trauma, my life was immersed in the church. This life included being a teacher-educator at Bible colleges for thirty-three years—twenty years in the religious and cultural setting of fundamentalism. Again, there are few memories not connected to the church. I made many good friends, mentored many students, found purpose in my work—and buried my trauma.

Looking back, I can see that the impact of my trauma was pervasive (C-PTSD and DID). When the impact of trauma surfaced in uncontrollable ways—as it always will—I was convinced it was a spiritual problem.

McConnaughey Brave Series

The “darkness” inside of me was a well-kept secret that filled me with shame. For my entire adult life, I was what everyone expected me to be as I survived with the help of my childhood dissociative coping strategies (this story is in my first three BRAVE books).

One of my first blogs, How Shall We Then Dress? is a time capsule of my beginning awareness of what I had accepted for the sake of survival. Those were very lonely days/weeks/years as I realized that I could no longer abide much of what I was taught and who I had become for the sake of belonging and support. At that time, I had no words to explain the impact of RT on my identity. Without the church, I had no idea who I was.

My friend and colleague, Rebekah Drumsta, has helped me recognize the phases of this process in what she aptly describes as Spiritual Identity Disruption. The graphic shown below (included with permission), is more fully explained on her website—it is worth reading! Understanding this process as a normal one is especially important if you have followed this series and are coming to an understanding of the impact of RT on your life.

Spiritual Identity Disruption Rebekah Drumsta

It was unsettling to realize that my identity did not exist outside of the church. Last week's blog talked about the sense of self—which did show up in how I cared for and mentored others. But identity?

I was a chameleon. Without realizing it, I said, “Tell me what you want to be, and I will turn myself into that person.”
Janyne McConnaughey Trauma-Informed Author & Advocate

Since few acknowledged my writing as a natural gift, I rarely wrote except in service to the church, job, or others. My therapist would eventually work tirelessly with me to be able to say these words: “I am an author.” When I identify myself as a trauma-informed author and advocate, it is a hard-won victory. When I write in ways that contradict what I was told to believe, it is always intentional and another step toward freedom.

A consistent theme in these RT blogs is the emphasis on being born with everything you need—including the gifts meant to be used to form your authentic identity. These gifts should be nurtured and developed in the home, church, and school. Sadly, many religious teachings–the topic for next week—do the exact opposite. Healing involves un-layering all you became for the sake of survival and finding that child who holds the key to your authentic identity. It is never too late to build a life that reflects who you are--not what others want you to be.

Note: My intent in this blog series will never be to persuade you to follow any spiritual path! Part of my story is how I wrestled faith to the mat. I am very comfortable with where that struggle ended and I am also very comfortable with others landing in a different place.

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