Healing from Spiritual Abuse
John Elfers (00:00:00):
Welcome Dr. Stratton, and thank you for being here to speak on this very important and emerging topic. So really where I want to begin is just asking you what drew you to this research? What was compelling about this topic?
Dr. Courtney Stratton (00:00:23):
Well, Dr. Elfers, thank you for having me here to talk about this topic that's very near and dear to my heart. How I came to this topic is actually a very personal journey that began with me having my own experience of spiritual abuse. And it was a nine-year experience that I was in as an adult. And so leaving this experience was one of the hardest and most disorienting things I had ever done. And what happened for me is as I was leaving this experience, I really did not know where to go for help. I didn't have a name for what had happened for me and I was really lost and adrift <laugh>. And so that experience for me of trying to figure out what to do with myself, trying to heal myself, became part of a really deep part of my core, of who I am.
Dr. Courtney Stratton (00:01:39):
And then that sort of lended itself to me becoming a clinician in this way, that helps other people come out of the spiritual experience. And then when I embarked on my doctorate studies, I was trying to stay away from <laugh> from doing this research, honestly. And I know that the thing that doesn't leave you alone is the thing that is yours to teach. And I kept trying to have my dissertation research go in another direction, and this topic just kept arising over and over and over again. And so finally I surrendered myself to this call, and said, okay, I'm going to be here with this. I recognize the lack of public knowledge of understanding spiritual abuse, because even in my research when I was talking about, I would tell people about spiritual abuse, and they'd go, what is that? They're, oh, you know, the little puppy dog tip the head to the side don't even know what this topic is. There's a complete lack for the basic language for talking about really oftentimes this invisible and very confusing dynamic.
Dr. Courtney Stratton (00:02:58):
And so again, there was no name and there's just no knowledge of it. And then on top of that, like leaving these types of experiences, most people, me included, were just riddled with shame and guilt. And then there's just, there's nowhere to turn and how can you seek support and help for something that's not been defined and it's not been acknowledged. Another part of the spiritual abuse experience is that in that oftentimes people lose contact with their most integral self, with the center of their being, and they lose their ability to trust themselves and to know which thing to go toward for help. Because oftentimes people ending up in a spiritual abuse experience started out seeking help, and someone in that helper role took advantage of their power position. And so there's a nervousness of trusting someone else.
Dr. Courtney Stratton (00:04:01):
There's like “can I trust myself to pick the right person?” And depending upon how egregious the abuse had been and how major the abuse had been, there can be a lack of contact with reality or the deepest part of reality. And so being completely disoriented and knocked off your center and trying to figure out where to go is a tortuous experience, honsetly. And so as I forged my own path and was able to figure out a lot of ways and to really transform through this process, like, “oh, this is something I need to share.” I have personal experience. Now I have clinical experience, and then now I have academic experience. And so researching this kind of rounded out what seems like the best way for me to also make sense of what happened to me and make what happened to me have some form of use for it.
John Elfers (00:05:04):
Yeah. So your journey really started with personal experience and a desire and need for healing. And that sort of moved you into this academic realm, trying to learn more about it and finding out that there weren't a lot of models out there, or even recognition of what this was. So in a lot of ways, you were forging new territory and having to do that dance between personal healing as well as investigation. And I imagine that that might have been very personally challenging. And so I guess my next question is really what did you find in the literature when you got out there? I mean, it was kind of sparse as I recall. There was, a little bit what was sort of surfacing and emerging as you first went out there.
Dr. Courtney Stratton (00:05:57):
Yeah. So what I understood and learned, which was a little bit shocking, is the term spiritual abuse had only been coined from what I gleaned from the research three decades ago. So in 1991, John Johnson and Van Vaughn and created their first definition that I could find. And that's where all the literature was pointing back to, this first time of naming this phenomenon. In other types of research, it's been conflated with everything else. So like, locked in with emotional abuse or sexual abuse, because sometimes spiritual abuse does include those types of abuse, but to really coin it as its own kind of thing, that happens, that's a unique experience because of the connection with the sacred, because the connection with spirituality, that it's its own thing. Just three decades ago it's been named, it's not even in the, in the DSM-5, which is the clinician's manual for treatment. It's not listed in there as its own type of abuse.
John Elfers (00:07:01):
Yeah. And I wonder if there's something about the fact that it involves religion and spirituality, and these are things that may be psychologically have been sort of off limits. We don't really touch those things that maybe it hasn't reached out there. What are some of the trends and things that you think were driving a more current interest or at least an emerging interest in this topic?
Dr. Courtney Stratton (00:07:34):
Yeah, I mean what you just said was really part of the conversation, I think is that (and this is speculation here), but I have this thing going through my mind about this separation of church and state that like the matters of state are left to the matters of state. And so even kind of like psychology maybe could even be included in that. It's like religion is left to be tended by the people who are in charge of those religious or spiritual organizations. And even just being a clinician and knowing so many clinicians and talking deeply with clinicians over the years, they don't get into spirituality with people. They feel like, oh, that's that person's personal journey. I don't want to impede here. Maybe they can talk to someone in their organization about that. They don't really know how to have those conversations.
Dr. Courtney Stratton (00:08:24):
That's not really a part of a lot of clinical training programs to like dive into people's personal, spiritual and religious practices. Those are really sacrosanct, you know? And so, to now bring like a manual and like this kind of thing into this separate place, I think it has been segregated in this way, right? And so now to bring that in is something new and fresh. And I think it's really coming online because we're really looking at systems right now and systems of oppression, in the zeitgeist, it's very popular and we're all focusing on really patriarchy, <laugh>. And I found that as an underpinning in my research of a lot of things that a lot of the elements of spiritual abuse can be linked to power dynamics that are inherent and really ingrained in us that we're swimming in them without even seeing them. And you can't really separate religion and spirituality from what's happening to us socio-culturally and how we're being raised and the language of power that we're learning. Even if we don't, it's implicit, but we're still learning it.
John Elfers (00:09:44):
Yeah. Do you think that a hands-off approach to religion was also accompanied by the fact that maybe there aren't really guidelines or standards for spiritual leaders, gurus, and mentors in terms of well, there's certainly not a lot of supervision <laugh> or, you know, self-policing. So people maybe not understanding the point at which trying to recruit someone or work with someone spiritually really starts spilling over into psychological harm.
Dr. Courtney Stratton (00:10:24):
Well I think when we're looking at spiritual abuse, the issue here, and this is also what I think I should double back on in the original question that you had asked me about, what I found in the research, is that there really isn't a solid definition. And as I was looking, it was like, there's a definition and then it got expanded and is evolving. So there's not really a place that says, this is what it is. And as I was doing my research, and my looking, re spiritual abuse can happen in minor ways and major ways, and in so many different formats. It's almost impossible to say like, this one thing would look this way. and how there are dynamics that are linked inside this. So we're looking at like--the Catholic church has its own thing going on, but a Buddhist sangha has a whole different thing going on. And I think it's just been given to each organization to kind of tend itself inside itself and what's happening, you know, in my research there are people from Alcoholics Anonymous that had the abuse happen inside the Alcoholics Anonymous model. Yeah.
Dr. Courtney Stratton (00:11:41):
And so it can happen in a million different ways. It can happen dally, it can happen in an organization. And so I'm not exactly sure how to speak to that exactly. Except to say, woven inside the fabric of each organization is the understanding that what spiritual abuse is, and that it exists, and we can even be looking for it, or that's even a possibility. Because one of the other pieces about spiritual abuse that's really challenging is that the abuser gets conflated with God or spirit or what the sacred is. And this merging is what creates this really difficult power dynamic. And people in positions of power, oftentimes the ones doing this abuse, are charismatic leaders. And they have in some ways even embodied or feel that they are the mouth of God, or they are the mouth of the divine.
Dr. Courtney Stratton (00:12:39):
And someone else is going to have to check that. But oftentimes the systems are organized around that person in believing that. And so it's a very complicated question to think, I mean, I kind of shudder to think that there's a governing body over what's happening spiritually. It gives me, I'm like, oh, wow. I would like there to be a lot of freedom inside spirituality. And there is the question, who is checking this? And how do we check this? And how do we check something that doesn't have a name? Right? And so maybe even just naming something is where we can even start like, this is a thing. This is what happens. This is how it looks. We need to be on guard for this.
John Elfers (00:13:27):
Yeah. Very good point. And it sounds like some of what you're doing is helping to put a name to this. So maybe this would be a good time to ask you to, , if you can briefly summarize what were your findings? What were some of the stories, what were the, some of the dynamics feeding into this? And then maybe we can deconstruct some of those.
Dr. Courtney Stratton (00:13:54):
Yeah. So maybe should I start maybe with a definition here? Yeah. This is a very succinct definition that I put together for the purpose of my research. And this is kind of my little quickie that I tell people when they're like, what is spiritual abuse?
“Spiritual abuse is the complex experience of disempowerment and disconnection from what is considered sacred through mistreatment by someone in a position of spiritual power or authority. In essence, the perpetrator robs the victim of their spiritual connection. They interrupt, intervene, block commandeer, and deprive the survivor's inherent connection to that which they consider sacred.”
John Elfers (00:14:46):
I love that. And therein lies the dilemma, because we would think spirituality is something that would be, first of all, empowering and connecting. And so what you're saying is really, spiritual abuse is something that does the opposite. It prevents someone, it disempowers someone, it disconnects them, not only from the sacred, but maybe the sacred parts of themself. And so yeah, therein lies the sort of conundrum. I love the definition. (Pause Delete)
Dr. Courtney Stratton (00:15:24):
So one, one thing I'll add if that's okay, to piggyback Demaris Wehr, she wrote a lot about this too, and one of the things that she said is that survivors of spiritual abuse sometimes even feel like they've lost something so central that it feels like they've lost their soul.
Dr. Courtney Stratton (00:15:40):
And one of the, when I'm talking to clinicians and when I've put together this work about implications for clinicians, I have a little bit of a checklist, like, oh, look for these things when you have people coming into your office, and one is that people have an extremely depleted life force, and that's this, like your sacred center, your most integral self, your connection to the sacred. It's like the way I'm talking about it now is like this life force, this life-giving connection to yourself. And when you're disenfranchised from that, when you're disconnected, you feel like you've lost that it, the person becomes completely deflated. And many people in the study told me about this experience and this feeling like one, one of the participants described themselves as feeling like a vapor.
John Elfers (00:16:29):
Dr. Courtney Stratton (00:16:30):
Another person described themselves as like, after leaving the experience, like they were, they just couldn't connect to anything. Or like doing a very minor task, felt very challenging and very far away, and very, almost impossible to get done. Like they're like they had no life force inside them. And multiple people explained that. And I also had that feeling too, like, I had such a depleted life force center. And I think it's because of that disruption of the contact with your center, with your soul, with the sacred, what you consider sacred, how you connect with sacred, that someone's gotten in there somehow and wiggled themselves into this place where they do not belong.
John Elfers (00:17:21):
Yeah. You know, your definition really in my mind is a justification for being able to connect this phenomenon, spiritual abuse, to other forms of trauma, because one of the hallmarks of trauma is dissociation, right? So people are struggling, you know, whether it's emotional abuse or sexual abuse, it helps to separate them from that deeper part of themselves. They lose contact with their soul. And often I think part of healing is recovering that soul. But in spiritual abuse, there's like a wedge there to the part of you that should be the center of healing. There's no access to it because of this.
Dr. Courtney Stratton (00:18:11):
And that part, sorry to interrupt t,hat part is also now connected to this perpetrator. It's connected to the abuse experience and in some cases it's like even defying or leaving or breaking away from it is somehow then defying God. So it's like this double bind of, I need to break away from this thing in order to have contact with this, but this is the contact with this. And so it's a terrorizing and terrifying experience of like, I'm going to be punished if I leave this experience, but I have to leave this experience in order to have contact with this thing. Or even people just running so far away from spirituality, because that's the place where it was hurt. And then that's the thing that you need to come back to your center. So it's definitely part of a, yes. I love that you're saying this.
Dr. Courtney Stratton (00:19:05):
It's very much about part of what creates trauma in the system and how this is a very traumatizing experience and the disconnection from self and to resolve traumas that we come back into contact with ourselves and we welcome all of our parts. And in healing, we're looking at the word healing from the native translation of whole, which is like wholeness. It might not be curative of symptoms, but it's to come into a feeling of wholeness that we have to be able to have access to all these parts, including our most integral self.
John Elfers (00:19:39):
Yeah. So the very center and hub of our wholeness is, is what has been taken away or impeded or challenged
Dr. Courtney Stratton (00:19:49):
Or even like sometimes contaminated by this, the abuse experience. And so its very murky.
John Elfers (00:19:59):
So I'm wondering if you could maybe give us a few brief vignettes of some of the women that you interviewed and a little bit about their story to give us a little more concrete example of what does spiritual abuse look like and how does it kind of evolve and grow?
Dr. Courtney Stratton (00:20:18):
Yeah. Okay. So 1, 2 women actually had an experience of, actually there were three, had an experience of having their therapist turned, spiritual teacher. And then they were also sort of like in a group experience, it was different groups, but they were, it was a similar, similar experience. And I'm just thinking of one of them right now that described in the research, she used the name Sienna, and she described that there was no boundary between her and the spiritual teacher slash therapist. And so she actually felt that that teacher was inside her mind. So even her own private thoughts and feelings that were just for her and her sacred self, she felt that this teacher was inside that.
Dr. Courtney Stratton (00:21:18):
And so she couldn’t even feel like she could have a rebellious thought or rebellious feeling without this being known. There was no differentiation of herself as separate from this teacher. And it was terrifying for her. And then the teacher was in a position saying, everything I do is for your spiritual honing and pruning, and so I'm doing this to help you. And so she's saying, Hey, this is really harmful. And the teacher's like, no, I'm here to help you. And so then she just keeps splintering more and more and more off from herself. And she just broke down so much. She felt so terrible that she finally left. And really, she felt like she was crazy. She felt like she was the wrong one. She was the bad one. And what happened is she went to a body worker and told her body worker what happened.
Dr. Courtney Stratton (00:22:13):
And she was terrified to tell the body worker what happened because she really thought she was so bad and she was crazy. And that she was going, it was going to be known by the teacher somehow that she was talking about it. And the body worker just validated her experience and said, this is wrong, and this is abuse. And that reflection, oh, it gives me the chills, like snapped something back in her where she, she was like, it is, and she found a little bit of space inside herself to go, okay, I have to leave this, this is not good for me. This is actually bad. But someone externally had to validate that for her because she had lost and was so disoriented.
John Elfers (00:22:56):
Yeah. So she didn't have her own moral metrics, so to speak, by which she could judge and validate because this person had gotten into to her thoughts. And what you're saying also speaks to the power of naming spiritual abuse. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative> wondering. Yeah. Was that true for other women in your study that just they were surprised that it really was that, or that there was a name for it?
Dr. Courtney Stratton (00:23:24):
Yes, definitely. People didn't have names for that. And then, and oftentimes there were like two women that were inside the church. Two different churches, but they, one was a Greek Orthodox church, and she would go to, she was being deeply abused by her husband, who was a priest in the church. And whenever she would go to complain that the system was also abusing her back in, so it wasn't, she was being abused by the system, by the other wives, by the other elders in the church. And was saying like, this is like, you're supposed to be here to help him. This is his ministry and you're here to do that. You're here to serve him and finally getting herself to leave. She felt very alone and very scared. And she started to find some underground groups on the internet to go, okay, right, this happened to you. Okay. I'm not crazy. Like this is a thing, right? Like, because she's looking around at like hundreds and thousands of people in her community that are all buying into the same feeling. And so there's what I call a group trance. And when you're a single person inside a group trance mm-hmm. <Affirmative>, it's like, am how am I the only person that's in contact with reality that this is wrong? But that's actually the case, you know? Yeah.
Dr. Courtney Stratton (00:24:46):
This is something that I didn't speak about in the research is the group trance, but something I've been talking about as I've been a lot of my clinical work with people exiting, especially the group experiences where they're standing there and they're so isolated. It's like, how can I be the only one that thinks this is messed up? And that's a really weird thing because we're so tribal, we're so, you know, familially oriented just from being a human mammal that to feel like you're the only thing separate from this massive group, it's a mind-bending experience that's very hard to organize. And so to have someone give you that reflection that feels so true is absolutely critical. I mean, every single person named that, every single person named how the validation from others was really, really important.
John Elfers (00:25:39):
So I would imagine that part of healing is somehow maybe finding a community that's supportive and validating so that you, you can get that mirroring that Yeah. I'm not crazy or that support.
Dr. Courtney Stratton (00:25:52):
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, when I left the abuse experience, it was a group experience and I had left before some other people and then when they left, they reached out to me to say this was really unhealthy. Right. Like this was not okay. Right. And I had to say yes. And at that early time, I didn't have a name for what that was. And I actually in a way named it myself. I was like, I think what I went through is spiritual abuse because I was in what I would consider like a cult situation. It wasn't called that, but it was a cult type situation. And that's another piece that was like messed up inside the research is, there's a lot of people think that spiritual abuse is cult abuse.
Dr. Courtney Stratton (00:26:38):
Cult abuse and spiritual abuse aren't always the same thing because cults aren't always spiritual and all participation in cults isn't traumatic for people or abusive for people. Some people have really positive experiences in cults and get what they need and they leave and they're not hurt at all by the experience. And in fact, it's very helpful and useful for them, or like it's serving something for them. And that's in the research too. And so I did make a distinction in my research and to pull that out. Or people are thinking like, oh, David Koresh or something when they want to think about spiritual abuse and they don't think about some of these other smaller instances that are happening, or even that's what's happening inside the church. I mean we know largely about like you know, the perpetration of abuse on little boys and sexual abuse that happened in the Catholic church. And then that's also a very specific type, but it really spans across so many different categories and, and organizations.
John Elfers (00:27:37):
Yeah. You know, I wanted to go back for a moment because I'm intrigued with your distinction between some of the abuse can happen through an individual. And some of it is seems to be systemic or the systemic elements support the person in whatever abuse might be happening. And I know one of the things you shfted out in your research was the role of patriarchy in that part of the systemic support for that. Is there anything you can say about that that you noticed that contributed to people's experience?
Dr. Courtney Stratton (00:28:18):
Yeah, for sure. I mean, since my demographic was women, and it actually just happened to be that way, I didn't try to only select women just in my process of getting people, that's just how it worked out was women. So we were looking at some of the implications of power structures just from being a woman, right? And especially inherent in maybe like the church structures too, where in some traditions only men can hold the positions of authority in the church, like a Catholic priest, you know, things like that. That women can't be the ones who are the direct channels. And this happened with two different women specifically that they had their own wisdom, they had their own connection to God and spirituality and their own mystical understanding. And that was completely disregarded by anyone around them.
Dr. Courtney Stratton (00:29:17):
And because they were in a woman's body that they couldn't have a direct contact with God, that that would have to come through a man. So that's one example of how that's there. But even in a dyadic experience, like in our patriarchal organization, there is oftentimes a misunderstanding of power and power dynamics. And like Starhawk is the one that named this “power over” versus a “power with”. And there's oftentimes, like when someone's in a position of power, it could be your therapist, it could be your doctor, anyone who's been given a seat of authority, or even if someone's in a different color skin or a different body, there are different, you know, different bodies and different colors of skin and different levels of education are given in different money. Someone being more economically what's the word resource than someone else, is also a power dynamic that's inherent. And so there's a way of we give over to someone else, or that person feels like they can have power over and that the power is like a domination
John Elfers (00:30:25):
Dr. Courtney Stratton (00:30:26):
And that's what happens there too. And so inside these systems we've handed our power over, or we don't even know it, it's just we have been, we're drinking it our whole lives. It's just coming in as the message that this is what is here and it shows up in these dynamics for, on both sides of the experience. Yeah.
John Elfers (00:30:48):
Yeah. I was just going to say when like when the more marginalized people, that's going to be more vulnerable to these things too. The more marginalized, the more inner intersectionality there is, I think the more vulnerable to this power dynamic.
John Elfers (00:31:17):
Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. So, if I'm a therapist and I am working with a client, what are some of the things I would be looking for? What would be signs of API ofs, spiritual abuse? How would I be able to detect that or help a person name that?
Dr. Courtney Stratton (00:31:37):
So I have like eight points and this is not comprehensive. This is what came up in the research and what I put together there. I mean, that's my caveat. This list has to keep going and keep getting you know, added to as we go. But one is that they're following a spiritual teacher with unquestioning acceptance. And if they're not questioning that spiritual teacher, like, this teacher knows this and I just do what they say. And if you try to bump into that, you get a lot of resistance. That's maybe a potential indicator for that. And it could be, so this is sometimes you might meet someone who's inside an abuse experience that you're going help them exit, or you might meet someone having exited this situation
John Elfers (00:32:25):
Mm-Hmm. <Affirmative> and
Dr. Courtney Stratton (00:32:27):
You're going to be supporting them. So this is like a, a list for both things because if, if they're inside the abuse experience, they might not be ready to break off from the teacher yet, but they're going to start using their work with you to get a hold of their center to get strong enough to maybe do that. And so this is just a little ping for you to understand. And if you bump into this like extreme resistance that maybe you don't go diving toward that right away because you might scare them off that you just hold that to the side and go, okay, I'm going to hold this here and see, and I'm going to track this and see what might be happening here. Another one that's, it's mistrust of their own voice or intuition. That is one of the absolute hallmarks. Now that can happen from other types of things, but this will definitely be in there, especially if it's fresher or newer where they're just like, because in those experiences, their own voice and intuition, which is saying, Hey, this is wrong, this is bad, this is not okay.
Dr. Courtney Stratton (00:33:29):
Is being completely obliterated by the other person and made wrong. And so, and then also the person being in the experience got themself there by saying yes to something, especially if it's adults. Now, if it's children, this is different because my research is on adults, so it's going to look a little bit different with children because they're not walking into it as an adult with like a full-on prefrontal cortex ready to go. You know, they're put into this when they're developing as humans. So, this is more like working with adults who've had an adult experience and maybe some of this will, they've had this as a child and it's been built in into their inner architecture that they don't trust their voice or intuition because their whole life they've been told not to. So that's a little, that's always a ping for me about that.
Dr. Courtney Stratton (00:34:19):
Also, those clients that are extremely compliant, that's another one is extreme compliance. You start to wonder, okay, this person is incredibly compliant, they're compliant to me, they're compliant to everything around them. Huh. I wonder if this might be there, and you might not directly ask in that moment because it's also just such a tender space that to sometimes go straight at it and scare the person off because they're already scared to even talk about it because it's such a scary inner space that circumnavigating it and kind of spiraling around it gently and letting them start to disclose more information is better. Again, this depleted life force, like when there's an extremely depleted life force, I always wonder about this when I get clients that are extremely depleted in their life force. I think I wonder if something happened to them spiritually.
Dr. Courtney Stratton (00:35:18):
And I mean, every time that someone, I'm going to say from my current experience, every time someone's come with this extremely depleted life force, there has been a spiritual abuse experience that we've uncovered. So that one is a huge ding, ding, ding for me. Yeah. Also if you see that one of your clients or patients coming has a dual relationship with their spiritual teacher, oftentimes these experiences, there are no boundaries and it's like really, really messy. And they get, it's like instead of having it like be teacher student, it starts to be like friend or they're also a therapist or like they start working with them. Like, there's a lot of different types of relationship. And not to say that that's always the case, right? But this is like, it can just get your spidey senses online, just get your tingles like, hmm, maybe there's something untoward happening here.
Dr. Courtney Stratton (00:36:15):
Or I'll keep an eye on that and just kind of put that in the background that if the boundaries are messy, that something like this could potentially be happening. Yeah, makes sense. Yeah. And then high levels of shame. So if a person has a very high levels of shame, this experience can really make you feel like you are intrinsically wrong and bad as a person. When you feel cut off from the sacred, from God, from the divine, whatever you want to name it from nature, you, how do you feel like you're okay and right as a person when you're cut off from the very essence of life. And so there are tremendous amounts of shame that accompany depending upon how deep the spiritual abuse experience was, some can be like I said, it's on a continuum of minor to very major egregious forms that can completely dismantle a person from the inside out.
Dr. Courtney Stratton (00:37:16):
And some are just, you know, lighter experiences. The person was able to get out right away or something, or wasn't super, super impactful to them. But there's often shame involved. And, of course, there's shame involved with most of our culture surrounded by shame. So again, that's not just a single indicator, but these are things that like start to like, formulate and paint a picture like, huh, I wonder if also, if the person has extreme resistance or a lot of resistance to talking about religion or spirituality or they don't want anything to do with it, you know, it's like, hmm, I wonder what happened there. I wonder if there needs to be some eventual contact with that, if that's a super off-limit space. and of course we want to expect you know, respect boundaries. If someone's like, I don't want to talk about something, right.
Dr. Courtney Stratton (00:38:05):
And as a clinician, but might be like, I wonder why they don't want to talk about it. I wonder if something is here. So again, how to do that would involve, more case study and more supervision and whatever to get deeper with that. But really kind of recognizing some of these signposts. And then the last one I have is and I've noticed this one a lot. It's like using language indicating that they feel responsible for or have manifested everything that happens in their life. A lot of times that's part of what happens in a spiritual abuse experience is like the person gets blamed for every bad thing that's come their way or every harmful or hurtful thing, and they're totally responsible for everything that happens in their reality. And when I see that one, I'm always like, where did that come from? How is that integrated here? Because that's also really feeding into the shame dialogue inside them too. But I see that one a lot when people feel like, oh, it's my fault. I'm responsible. They're blaming themselves. They think they've manifested everything. I'm like, oh, you've had a teacher that, or, or a somebody who's, or you know, that's made you feel wrong about yourself and they've disempowered you so they can weed all their way in, you know, and Have their way with you
John Elfers (00:39:29):
<Laugh>. Yeah. And even if it's not a spiritual leader, clearly there's a power dynamic involved in some of these that if you trace back the origin of that could go back to some sort of experience with a religion or a spiritual teacher or someone that had a lot of influence over someone. I mean it really helps when you name these things each time you name one I go, that absolutely makes sense. And so you're really creating this kind of bigger profile of all the ways or all the signs that might indicate that something really serious has gone on or is going on. And I like your distinction between is someone just becoming aware of the situation or have they already exited? And I would think that the sort of therapeutic approach to those two would be very different. You've already highlighted some about spiraling around some of these topics and finding opportunities to build safety and trust so that more of that can come out in the therapeutics.
Dr. Courtney Stratton (00:40:35):
That's right. Yeah. Because even if someone's exited, it depends on how early that exit has been and what kind of work they've done, what kind of resource they have. Like, there's so much case by case, depending upon what the person's moving into, especially if someone's exiting a group where they've been orienting their entire life around this group of people and then they leave. And even though that support system was toxic, that was their support system. Yes. So now are they not only leaving a scenario where it's unhealthy and they need to for themselves and they feel bad enough about what happened inside it. Now they've lost their groove, they've lost their people, they've lost and they're grieving intensely the relationships and whatever else is happening. And it's just like, how am I, so, and then they've been living in like probably a bubble, and this is their community and then they're moving into the world at large and feeling really disoriented. And I'll tell you also when this conflation happens between the perpetrator and we'll call it the god or the, the universe or the divine, whatever it is that conflation the person is actually really scared to even talk about it because talking about it is like this defiance and this act of rebellion against God. And so they can feel like, oh my God, I don't even think I should be saying this out loud.
John Elfers (00:42:02):
Dr. Courtney Stratton (00:42:02):
I don't even know if I should be talking about this. Is this even true? Is this even real? Am I making this up? Clearly I have to be wrong. And so it's very scary to even start touching into it. And if, especially if they've been able to successfully compartmentalize that and they're moving along in their life, they're not thriving, but they're able to function to start opening that is a very careful kind of thing. And you need to see what kind of resources are avail available for them and to build some resource as the person is dropping into these pretty painful experiences and, and coming into contact with like, whoa, that actually happened. And there's a great fear in how they can differentiate, the leader from God <laugh> or the Sacred or whatever it is that these are two separate entities.
John Elfers (00:42:58):
Yeah. There's a lot involved there. Not only you making that distinction, but then coming to a decision to actually exit. This must be really, really challenging and difficult for people, particularly if in doing so they will be in a situation where they don't have support. And so maybe part of the decision is, can I do this on my own? Where am I going to be if I make this exit. I'm thinking from a therapeutic perspective, let's say someone has exited or maybe I've helped someone in that situation, what are some of the therapeutic approaches? I mean, I guess just in thinking about them, some of the ones, they would have to be empowered, they've been disempowered. So more empowerment, more having to trust their own voice and having to make that reconnection with their, their center, their soul, their spirit, whatever that is, that must be really challenging and, and take some time. Do you have any thoughts about that?
Dr. Courtney Stratton (00:44:13):
I do. And, and again, it's like we're, when we're looking at this, it's a challenging topic to speak about because again, it's like some people, it's a minor experience and some people it's a major experience, right? And so it's going to be where you use your own judgment and your own, getting the whole thing contextualized as you're moving through. So I kind of want to just caveat on there, but some of the things is like you know, one of the survivors that I was blessed to interview was sharing with me that, she had these mystical experiences and these deep spiritual longings and she was having dreams and her therapist at the time was like pathologizing that and wasn't really respecting her mystical connection and her mystical experience. And that was her one tether back to the center of herself.
Dr. Courtney Stratton (00:45:06):
And that was a further traumatization because they were, thinking, oh, you're delusional with these like dreams you're having and these experiences you're having of, Christ and Mary and all of these kind of things. And so in helping someone exit this experience and to find their spiritual sovereignty is that you respect and hold and most importantly believe their mystical experience because that's also what's been tainted. Is someone saying, I am inside your mystical experience. I tell you what God is, I tell you what is sacred, I tell you I'm here. And so if a therapist comes in and goes, oh, that's not mystical or whatever, it's just a reenactment of that. That's a good point thing, right? Yeah. And so it's like, I believe you, I believe in your mystical connection. Why do you not have a right of direct access to life's essence? Of course, I believe you. And supporting that person being able to have agency around their own mystical union, their own connection to nature, their ability to meet God and dreams, to have this. And because that's their unifying experience and that's what's been ruptured. And so that has to be respected. Their own mystical orientation has to be held as real and true because it is for them. And so it is real and true.
John Elfers (00:46:38):
Yeah. It really puts a lot of responsibility on the part of therapist to handle this so delicately and have what you and I might call a transpersonal approach to doing <laugh> this, which is probably what drew you into your own healing and allowed you to come this far and be a spokesperson and a voice for this. So I'm curious given now this wisdom that you have and this insight into this very important, and I'm thinking probably prevalent experience for a lot of people. Are you out there beating the drum? Are you are you talking to people? How are you spreading the word about this important phenomenon? I
Dr. Courtney Stratton
So when we go back to like the previous question that you'd asked me about, like the trends or whatever and, and why, I think why now or why has this gone unnoticed for three decades or just now in the past decades? I think it's because of what you just said, that there isn't a transpersonal approach inside the realm of psychology. And so, this is kind of budding as a simultaneous budding of transpersonal psychology where the transpersonal is being invited into the psychology experience and that people have, it is a tremendous responsibility and maybe they don't have expertise and they don't know every religion that's out there. They don't know every spiritual background. They don't even have facts about their own spirituality. And so to kind of be dabbling in someone else's spirituality is a very insecure place, right? Yeah.
Dr. Courtney Stratton (00:48:46):
That's why this abuse hasn't been looked at as much either, because it's like, wow, look how many traditions there are out there. Look how many spiritual orientations there are out there. I don't feel like an expert in every spiritual tradition. I don't feel like an expert in every religion. How am I to say what is or isn't okay. About a religion? But the thing is, is that in what we said very in the beginning, that a spiritual contact is an empowering experience. And if you notice someone feeling disempowered, our jobs as clinicians is to help people be empowered and to be able to listen to themselves. So in a sense, you don't have to be an expert on every religious tradition, even though, if you have a client that's in one and they're really working through something, maybe you want to brush up so you have a language and whatever, and they don't have to teach you everything. But you can also be helping them find out what's true for themselves and find out how to speak and be with themselves and how to trust themselves. Right. And that's an orientation that can be here. And like we can talk about that in this topic. We can talk about it in this topic and every time we're bringing you back to you and what you are noticing, what you're feeling and finding your own sovereignty here as well as everywhere else in life. So I wanted to, to get that in there, <laugh>.
John Elfers (00:50:05):
No, that's a good point. And it really speaks to the need and value for mental health overall to start paying attention to spirituality for many reasons because of its potential to empower people. Because the research shows that people want to be able to talk about their spirituality in the context of therapy. So there's many, many reasons, but what you've done is highlight one that has potentially very harmful consequences for not handling appropriately, pathologizing someone's spiritual experience who's trying to heal from some kind of spiritual abuse. Very important.
Dr. Courtney Stratton (00:50:50):
And it's also my little plug for transpersonal psychology too, because I'm always championing transpersonal psychology. You know, some go, oh, transpersonal psychology, it's like, that's not real psychology, or something like that. I mean, I'm being a little funny.
John Elfers (00:51:05):
Woo. Yeah. You're in. Yeah.
Dr. Courtney Stratton (00:51:06):
It's like, oh, it's woowoo or whatever. I'm like,
Dr. Courtney Stratton (00:51:10):
Spiritual life is, is serious business. Like it's at the core of who they are. And if they can't come to therapy and talk about this part of themselves, I think it does them a great disservice. And so again, it's like, I feel a lot of times I'm educating people on what is transpersonal psychology. And again, it's a large umbrella kind of topic but I'm educating people on what that is. And then I'm also educating people on what is spiritual abuse. After my, finished my research last year, I'm creating a course for Sophia, for clinicians and I'm doing individual work, you know somatic specifically work with people. I think one of the greatest ways to heal from a spiritual abuse experience is through the body. and through the soma, through the somatic experience I do Somatic Experiencing, which is a type of therapy that Peter Levine has developed over time. And it's well, I guess I wouldn't call it a therapy, it's a trauma resolution modality. And I practice that and I really have found that helping people safely land back in their bodies and feel their own body’s wisdom and knowing is one of the best ways to help them become sovereign and help them to be able to trust themselves and to read themselves and to empower themselves. And those people become
Dr. Courtney Stratton (00:52:48):
That are dropping into the body and doing the body work. They transform and they become very potent, clear people that know themselves and know their connections and trust themselves deeply because they know how to listen to their own inner knowing. And that's why I love using the body as a way in. It's very, very powerful.
John Elfers (00:53:12):
Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Thank you for that. I would imagine in someone losing their own voice, their intuition being disconnected from their spirit, the body goes along the way because that's a channel to all of those. So reconnecting with that, that's a very good reminder. Thank you.
Dr. Courtney Stratton (00:53:30):
Well, in the patriarchal system, things get chunked. That's the essence of patriarchy too. That's inherent here that things get chunked, things get broken into pieces, and when things get broken into pieces, they're easier to manipulate. So when I was speaking about the wholeness too, so when someone's an integrated being and they're dropped down in their body, they're very hard to manipulate and very hard to confuse and very hard to budge in a certain way, especially when they're feeling their whole selves. Right? And so this, this, that's a reverse orientation to patriarchy. It's like, and it's coming into wholeness versus division and chunking and really object-oriented living versus subjective-oriented living.
John Elfers (00:54:18):
Yeah, that's a great point. Thank you for that. I really appreciate these perspectives because it helps my mind think about an approach or a value to working with someone in a situation where they may have been a victim of spiritual abuse. And I think you do use the term victim, is that right?
Dr. Courtney Stratton (00:54:42):
I think you can use that term victim as much as you want. I chose the word survivor because that just had some, like, some power to it for me, but also naming, being a victim of something is really important because oftentimes in this spiritual abuse loop, they're like, oh, victim consciousness. And that people aren't allowed to say this hit me, this hurt me, this impacted me. These are the effects. And witnessing all of that, like claiming and owning they're victim hood is actually very empowering. It's like, this happened to me, this is what hurt. And then that being witnessed is a way that the person can then come out of shame. And this is part of David Bedrick, one of my teachers. His work is really in an unshaming is that someone gets properly witnessed.
Dr. Courtney Stratton (00:55:31):
Someone is properly witnessed, like in an experience where they internalize and they become shamed. You know, and I'm paraphrasing his work here, but that they become full of shame because their pain wasn't witnessed. And so to take away someone's victimhood when they've been victimized by something is another shame producing layer that chunks someone further off from themselves. And so to, this happened to you, you are a victim.
John Elfers (00:55:57):
Dr. Courtney Stratton (00:55:58):
You know, I don't think that produces victim consciousness. It's just like, yes, that happened. Someone did that to you, and this is the impact.
John Elfers (00:56:09):
And then that becomes a starting point for healing. I would too, being able to acknowledge that, then you can get to the, now I'm a survivor, I'm healing from but it starts with that recognition.
Dr. Courtney Stratton (00:56:23):
And I think each person can name that for their process and how that feels good. And that's part of their own agency and sovereignty. Like, this is how I'm orienting to this, this is how I'm processing this, this is how I'm owning this. I think also another piece is that in my research, the people who were successfully transforming and healing from the experiences that they were rejecting toxicity
Dr. Courtney Stratton (00:56:51):
And so they’re rejecting toxic beliefs, rejecting toxic things that have happened, and like saying no to that and pushing that away. And that's part of this experience too. It's like rejecting this victim consciousness as something toxic or rejecting what is what happened and saying, no, I do not want to take this in. I'm not internalizing it as part of owning your own victimhood too. And I think that's really powerful and important.
John Elfers (00:57:19):
Yeah. And, and the starting point of being able to reject and push away is acknowledging the toxicity. that's part of that awareness that someone has to come to. It seems that they are so critical. Well, Dr. Stratton, you've highlighted so many important elements for us here. Is there anything you want to say by way of summary or encouraging our listeners to now be advocates for recognizing spiritual abuse or any final thoughts that you have?
Dr. Courtney Stratton (00:57:57):
Well, if someone listened to this whole thing, I'm really super excited that they listened to this and that they're taking this information in. That means that there is somehow an opening inside that person to understand this and to be curious about this. And that's really important too, is expanding that awareness and that makes me just really happy that someone's listening this far in and getting to the end and considering what's here. I wish there were more resources that I could give people. And so I'm hoping to be creating some more resources where people can find access to knowing what this material is. And I'm hoping to build some things that will be helpful for people. Hey, do you want me to come to your practice? And if you're in a practice, do you want me to come in and give some training and spread the word?
Dr. Courtney Stratton (00:58:56):
Maybe I don't know that this is here. And I would love to be educating people more about this. And you know, I mean, I'm probably preaching to the choir here because people are in the transpersonal field already. But I really want to say that this is not like a WOOWOO type thing. This is something very central to a person's being to their connection to reality. And it's a phenomenon that needs a lot of attention and respect. And so the more people can start to get languaging around that, and even if they don't know what to do with their clients, they can give a name about that and then start educating themselves on it to have a framework. I think it's really important and to encourage people to begin to get curious if they have their own resistances about working with clients in terms of the transpersonal, in terms of spirituality and religion and how they can work inside their own resistances there to open up some of that space for people and not have that separation of church and state in the therapy room too.
John Elfers (01:00:08):
So. Oh, right. Well, I want to honor all of the work you've done on yourself because I'm so impressed and just, really want to honor the personal work that you've done to get to this point, to move into the academic realm, to learn all this, to do a study, and now have something really valuable to share to others. And I know you're going to continue to do that to all of our benefits. So thank you very much for your time and for sharing your personal experience.
Dr. Courtney Stratton (01:00:41):
Thank you so much, Dr. Elfers.
John Elfers (01:00:43):