Cultivating Emotionally Healthy Spirituality
Many people find meaning, comfort, and connection through religion or a spiritual practice. But it’s also not uncommon to have negative religious experiences that can complicate your relationship with spirituality.
As kids, we all need to be encouraged and affirmed as we explore our identities and develop into our true selves. Unfortunately, many of us are subjected to guilt, shame, and pressure to conform with belief systems that aren’t authentically ours. Some children receive the message that if they think or act in ways that don’t match up with these belief systems, they’re bad people, unworthy of love within their families and communities. Some even experience physical or sexual abuse at the hands of religious leaders, which is a profoundly traumatic betrayal that leaves a painful and enduring scar.
As adults, many people who’ve had harmful experiences like these have zero desire to maintain a space in their lives for religion or spirituality, and understandably so. But others wish to rebuild a spiritual belief system based on their own authentic values. Many seek out a counselor who can not only help them process past religious experiences, but also repair their relationship with spirituality in the present — without exposing them to the dogmatic styles of thinking that have already caused them so much harm.
If you’re interested in cultivating emotionally healthy spirituality in your life, this article will help you begin. I’ve also created an episode of the Love, Happiness and Success podcast on this topic. The episode is a conversation between myself and my colleague Jennifer C., a therapist and life coach on our team at Growing Self. One of Jennifer’s many specialties is helping clients explore big, existential inquiries — and arrive at their own answers through a process of meaningful self-discovery. You can tune in on this page, Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.
Our authentic relationship experts know how to help you learn, grow, and move forward into a bright new chapter.
Why Is Religion Important?
Human beings have been developing spiritual and religious belief systems since the earliest days of our species. After food, water and shelter, connecting with a force that transcends our daily struggles seems to be a fundamental human drive.
So what is the purpose of religion? Why are humans so drawn to spirituality?
For many of us, religion is an important way of making meaning out of our experiences, particularly our most difficult experiences. Meaning making is a powerful psychological tool that can help us cope with grief or loss, persist after disappointments and setbacks, or overcome a devastating turn of events. Finding meaning helps you take control of your story, develop internal narratives that move you forward, and find hope when everything feels dark.
Someone with a Christian belief system might find meaning in the death of a loved one, for example, if they believe that they have been reunited with God and that some day they’ll be together again. If you’ve ever lost someone you love, you can understand how comforting a belief like this would be, and how it could help someone remain resilient in the face of grief and loss.
People from other faith traditions may believe that, after death, their loved ones are reincarnated as a different being in this world. Or that they’ve joined a pantheon of ancestors who are now watching over them. The details of these belief systems vary — but they all offer a framework for creating meaning out of pain and suffering.
Of course, religion is not the only path to finding meaning. Nor is it the only path to transforming a traumatic experience into growth and healing, or to living by a moral code. Many people who identify as atheists or agnostics have lives that are full of meaning, purpose, growth, and morality. But if you are a spiritually inclined person, and negative experiences with religion have robbed you of that side of yourself, that is a tremendous loss. You deserve to heal and to find emotionally healthy ways to engage with your spiritual side, if that is your desire.
What Is Religious Trauma?
While religion or spirituality can be a very healthy pursuit, there are things that can happen to people in the name of religion that are damaging or even traumatic.
For example, kids raised in a strict religious system often receive negative messages about themselves, especially when they’re doing what kids do best: exploring themselves and the world around them with open hearts and minds. They might be shamed by their families or communities for dressing a certain way, listening to non-religious music, not conforming with gender expectations, or for simply questioning the belief system.
Experiences like these do a number on a child’s healthy development. Many kids internalize a sense of toxic shame that follows them into adulthood (especially if they’re gay, bisexual, or gender non-conforming, and being raised in a tradition that casts these identities as sinful).
It’s common for people raised in a strict, dogmatic practice to experience self-esteem issues, problems with unhealthy guilt, and struggles with perfectionism. They may have a hard time trusting themselves enough to feel confident in their own decision-making processes. These challenges are magnified if they can’t leave their religion without losing connections with their friends, family members or communities. Some religious sects ostracize those who stray to discourage others, a practice that is incredibly damaging and traumatic for everyone involved.
This is all to say nothing of the acts of outright abuse that sometimes happen in religious communities, like the child sex abuse scandal within the Catholic church. Children who experience abuse at the hands of religious leaders suffer a profoundly traumatic betrayal that can create pain and difficulty trusting others for the rest of their lives. If you’ve experienced religious trauma of this magnitude, I hope you can connect with a good, trauma-informed therapist who can help you heal. You deserve it.
It’s easy to understand why many people who have religious experiences like these lose their faith and feel no desire to recover it. But for others, exploring their spirituality on their own terms can be an important part of healing. If you’re interested in cultivating emotionally healthy spirituality after a negative or disempowering experience, here are some pointers.
Cultivating Emotionally Healthy Spirituality
Creating a healthy spiritual practice begins with empowering yourself to explore.
This process can take many forms. You may wish to journal about your feelings about spirituality, or the values you want to live your life by. You might also find it helpful to learn about religious practices outside of the ones you were raised in, by reading, attending services, or talking with people who hold these beliefs. The goal is not finding the “right” religion or spiritual practice, but drawing freedom and inspiration from the many paths people take to create meaning, purpose, and direction in life.
Creating rituals that allow you to connect with your authentic spirituality can also be healing. Maybe you feel the most spiritual when you’re spending time in nature, or when you’re meditating, or when you’re listening to a beautiful piece of music. Notice the experiences that put you in touch with your spiritual side and begin to intentionally incorporate them into your life.
Changing your mindset can also be an important part of healing from negative experiences with religion. One of the most important mental habits you can cultivate is a tolerance for uncertainty.
Many organized religions enforce a black-and-white thinking style that says people are all good or all bad, or that things are either right or they’re wrong, and that there’s only one correct way to live. If you received messages like these growing up, your subconscious mind may be seeking “the one true answer” to life’s big questions, when the healthiest thing you could do is embrace the idea that there is no one true answer. Life is complex, and you can look at every experience from multiple angles. Practicing this style of thinking allows you to explore new beliefs, while holding them lightly.
Support for Healthy Spirituality
If you’ve had bad experiences with religion in the past, it can be helpful and healing to process those experiences with the help of a good counselor.
It’s important that this process is led by YOU. We are harmed by experiences that take away our power and agency, and we’re healed by experiences that allow us to reclaim them. Make sure you choose a therapist who knows how to support you as you explore your own relationship with spirituality, without pushing any particular belief system on to you.
I wish you all the luck on this journey. And if you’d like to work with an experienced therapist on our team, I invite you to schedule a free consultation.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
P.S. — For more information on building an emotionally healthy life, check out our “emotional wellness” collection of articles and podcasts.
Listen & Subscribe to the Podcast
Cultivating Emotionally Healthy Spirituality
The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
Free, Expert Advice — For You.
Subscribe To The Love, Happiness, and Success Podcast
Music in this episode is by Danit with their song “Quatro Vientos.” You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: https://danit.bandcamp.com/. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.
Let’s Talk: Start With a Free Consultation
If you’re ready to grow, we’re here to help. Connect with us, and let us know your hopes and goals. We’ll follow up with recommendations, and will help you schedule a first, free consultation.