A Vicious Circle: When Trauma Responses are used to Justify More Trauma
The Evangelical world has perfected the ultimate mind-fuck: a vicious circle of using their victims’ trauma responses to justify abusive dogma and perpetuate more trauma.
Evangelical culture and teachings point to symptoms of trauma and PTSD to gaslight their victims into thinking those symptoms are actually inherent character traits. Instead of seeing symptoms of a problem, these traits are explained as innately designed – evidence of the abusive treatment being necessary.
As a woman raised in fundamentalism, speaking from that identity is where I have the most expertise. But every marginalized identity will have their own unique experience with this.
As a little girl I was accosted with both obvious and subtle messages about traits that were supposedly inherent to womanhood, which were then used to explain restrictive gender roles and negative attitudes toward women.
For example, I was constantly told that women are anxious, timid and poor decision makers. Because of this they need men to be strong for them and lead them. I looked around me, and unfortunately I did see that most, if not all the women in the community were indeed anxious and unsure of themselves. The messages seemed true because they matched my observations.
I was taught that women weren’t gifted as public speakers or proficient communicators, and that was part of the proof that God created them for a servant role instead of a leadership one. It was made clear to me that women’s perspectives weren’t meant to help influence the community. Rather we were supposed to be in a constant state of listening, learning, submitting, receiving and obeying. I studied the women I grew up around and sure enough, most of them lacked the confidence and charisma that we expected from the person in the pulpit.
Throughout my church years, it was frequently implied that women’s intelligence was lower than men’s. It didn’t seem right, but I noticed a lot of women in our church did seem easily confused or slower to learn new things than their male counterparts.
I learned that women were naturally better with nurturing children and running a home, because it was God’s design for our life’s purpose and highest calling. As women, we shouldn’t want anything different than that. Most of the women I knew seemed either content with their role, or at least defeated and resigned to it. The men seemed fairly incompetent at family and household tasks but better prepared for pretty much anything else. It seemed to add up, much to my dismay.
Over the years, my psyche slowly and bitterly began accepting what the church wanted me to believe about myself. I hated women for not standing up for themselves, and I hated them for not protecting me. It infuriated me when it was women who seemed to prove right the very messages that hurt us. They even passed the damaging teachings along! My bitterness and self-loathing sometimes turned to thoughts of despair, dysphoria and even suicidal ideation.
As a girl, I felt doomed to the passing of time. It seemed like my female body and mind were betraying me as I grew up and became more womanly. I worried I was flawed to my deepest core – a faulty design down to my very biology.
Unfortunately, I would live in this confusion and terror for three decades. It is only now, as an educated, trauma-informed adult who has done years of focused healing work that I can look back and see that these supposed “womanly traits” weren’t actually inherent to womanhood or proof of the church’s teachings after all. Rather, all along the church was actually using women’s trauma responses as justification for the abuse of women.
“Look!” They said. “Women are timid and weak. They need a man to take care of them.”
Well, I know now that if someone tells you who you are for long enough, you’ll believe them. Gender is irrelevant. If you are constantly attacked and criticized, you grow terrified to make a move. If you can never win, you become frozen by fear.
“Women aren’t good communicators. They aren’t designed to be teachers in the community.”
Actually, if the women in your community had access to the same training opportunities as men, they would also learn to be good public speakers. If women didn’t have their voices choked out of them, they would use them just as freely and powerfully as men. This is about access, not ability.
“Ladies are natural worriers. Trusting in God is their eternal struggle.”
Hmm, if you were kept out of control of almost every aspect of your life, I’ll bet you’d worry too!
“Females aren’t designed for higher education, their place is in the home. They don’t possess the same intellectual potential. Their calling is for child-rearing. Leave the conquering, inventing and creating to the men.”
Well Bob, let’s see how easily you can learn this – trauma actually blocks one’s access to the parts of their brain responsible for higher thinking. When you suffer post-traumatic stress, you remain stuck in the primitive brain for however long your hyper-vigilance is activated. It’s a survival mechanism. It’s useful if, for example, you’re being chased by a bear in the woods. It’s a lot more advantageous to use primal instincts to run, fight or hide, than it is to try to use academics to calculate the bear’s velocity. Folks who did that while in danger died. In moments of danger, higher thinking can actually get in the way. If you felt unsafe all the time, you wouldn’t be able to learn new things easily either. It has nothing to do with intelligence and everything to do with whether or not trauma is blocking one’s access to their intelligence.
“Women are so manipulative and emotional!”
What if you had zero autonomy over your own life? The best you could do was try to plant an idea in someone else’s head and hope they would think it was their idea and act in your favor. It’s a survival strategy for when one is powerless to take charge of their own well-being. If you were trapped in a role where you had a “head of household” over you in all things, you’d probably also in desperation learn how to become the neck that turns the head. People have to be able to make their own decisions and have a say in their destiny. It’s a basic human need. Manipulation isn’t a thing women do, it’s a thing traumatized people do to try to stay alive.
“Wives struggle with nagging, but a godly wife learns to respect her husband and trust him in all things.”
Alright, so imagine never being allowed to take initiative or directly ask for your needs to be met. Imagine that if you do speak up you aren’t taken seriously, or maybe you are accused of being disobedient and rebellious. You are told to accept the decisions that affect you, for better or worse, and regardless of whether or not you agree with them. The best you can do to take care of yourself is reminding the person who holds the power of what it is you need and hoping they’ll take you into consideration. Anyone in this situation would develop behaviors that others might see as “nagging”.
“We ladies are more easily deceived. That’s why God commands men to interpret and teach the scriptures and for women to follow them.”
Okay Barbara, have you ever noticed how “we ladies” are taught from infancy not to trust ourselves? How it is ingrained in us to believe we are uncontrollably emotional and that our emotions always lie to us? Have you noticed how we are taught to always obey and follow without question, even against our better judgment? How we are taught to shut down every instinct and alarm bell that would normally alert us to falsehoods? This is not a weakness in women. This is men trying to control women and take advantage of our learned obedience. This is men using our trauma responses to manipulate us into thinking we need them to continue controlling us. It’s a clever way to keep us in line. It can happen to any survivor of abuse, not just to women.
“Women are more easily distracted by details while men are able to see the big picture. This is how God created men and women to compliment each other.”
It sounds like you need to educate yourself on narcissism. It’s common for narcissists to try to trap their victims with the “fine print” in order to gaslight them and shake their trust in themselves. It’s how a narcissist stays on top and appears to always be right. Narcissists use details to confuse and trap their victims, like “You said this happened around 2:00, but you’re lying to me. It was 2:12pm!” Or they might say “You said she was wearing blue, but it was periwinkle. I sure have to keep an eye on you!” This leaves the survivor in a mess of confusion. “Am I lying? Am I wrong about what I saw? Am I actually a bad person like they say? Is my perception of reality untrustworthy? Is everything I know wrong?” Churches are well known for mirroring narcissistic abuse. For their victims, life is a giant whack-a-mole game where at any moment the hammer could come down. Living like this for very long would make anyone neurotic, hyper-vigilant and terrified of making the slightest mistake. This can often lead to nervous tangents, repeating oneself, avoiding direct statements and overshadowing their main point with details that would normally be irrelevant.
“A godly woman knows her place and delights in submitting to it. She teaches her daughters to do the same.”
If you beat a person down long enough, and break their spirit, they will eventually feel powerless and take it. They will consciously or unconscionably teach those in their influence to accept it as well, to protect them from the oppressor’s wrath or simply because they know no other way of being.
Women are necessary in maintaining the patriarchy. Men know that. Abusers need a victim. On their own, men aren’t powerful enough to convince an entire community of women to bow at their feet. They need our help. They need women to self-police out of fear. They need women to enforce male dominance on their daughters and on each other. So they sow the seeds of self-doubt deep into a woman’s mind until she so thoroughly believes she’s worthless she plays into their plan.
The church keeps this vicious cycle of abuse going by persistently pointing to trauma symptoms in broken and terrified people and using it to continue to terrorize us and keep us imprisoned. They use this strategy on anyone with a marginalized identity – people of color, people with disabilities, queer folks, people with mental health struggles – they use our scars as evidence that we are flawed and deserve pain. Well, not for much longer. Our anger is waking us up.
I didn’t know what freedom was
But I sure loved the feeling
I didn’t realize it then, but I had found my escape
Let goodness lure you in, you can trust it
Listen to your body and you will be free
Those who can make you feel flawed have the power
Suddenly you need them
To fix you and tell you how to be
Journey alone and your voice gets louder
The cacophony fades away
I’m not finding myself, but finding my worth
I’m not lost, just unseen so frequently – by even my own soul
They gave me blinders – “wear these to fit in”
Now I couldn’t see where I ended, and they began
What would feel real if truth could speak for itself?
Hundreds of little shards of glass
Broken bits of me
Arranging them together as a sparkling mosaic
Each one reflecting my spirit
I’m joining the resistance by not hiding
Sharp and bright – this art is dangerous
Drawing attention is a threat to the weak
They protect themselves by rattling the strong
They cower at authenticity
Celebrating myself is my chosen act of rebellion
Biography of a Traumatized Person
A poetic glimpse into the prison of trauma
“Are you ever coming back?”
I never fully left –
You made sure of that
You trapped my past self behind bars
Silent screams echoing
Swapped innocence for scars
My stolen youth, still frozen in time
Waves from your stones reverberate
Rippling across decades, resounding in my mind
I carry your shrapnel in my body
Fingerprints on my arm, bruised indentations
Voices in my head, faces in flashbacks I see
Depositing love, I withdrew pain
Maybe that’s why you say “give until it hurts”
I swear, my only sin was trusting
Reaching through time you stole
Marring moments that were mine
Claiming my emptiness was a God-sized hole
You took away what I didn’t even have yet
That was my inheritance, my change you spent
Hating a version of me you hadn’t even met
Reducing the chances she would ever be born
Protecting your agenda, eliminating threats
Intimidated by a woman who can weather the storm
Mining my soul for power and control
Extracting what you needed from my lifeless form
You felt tall by pushing me low
The old me is still back there, a square in your quilt
You’ve stitched her in between colorful demons
Hemmed in, a brick in the empire you built
I’m cursed, but I swear I wasn’t born with this fate
Cornered, held down, I couldn’t escape
Fangs sunk in deep, cold venom contaminates
Now it oozes out my pores, infecting those I love most
I cower, I lash out, I hate this master
I’m contagious, watch out, don’t get too close
Everything I touch crumbles under my weight
I test each foothold in case the floor falls through
As I approach, healing waters evaporate
Splash in the rain only to find pools of blood
I breathe in sweet nectar only to cough on dust
The oasis was a mirage, I sink into mud
Every shadow looms like a monster, every tree a beast
The wind chases me, strangers leer
Each new sound a potential threat – dangers never cease
Is joy even real or are y’all pretending?
I have a vague a distant memory
Is happiness a carrot on a stick, to keep us running?
New life springs up in tender green leaves
Delicately sprouting forth, from my younger, decaying corpse
I lay petals on her grave, wipe snot on my sleeves
Life is so cruel and unfair
She should never have had to die
But if she didn’t, would I be here?
The Worst Thing to Happen to Me
Church is the worst thing that ever happened to me.
Every single traumatic event experienced throughout my life – losing my community, being bullied, losing thousands of dollars to financial abuse and outright theft, sexual assault and rape, an abusive marriage and divorce by age 26, becoming a widow at age 29 – all of it was either caused directly by the church or made exponentially worse by it.
There is no question about it – church is the worse thing to ever happen to me.
For me, growing up in the church was being in a constant state of vigilant performance and pleasing hundreds of people who could never be pleased. I couldn’t win, but I had to. My worth, safety and acceptance depended on it.
The high stakes were known by a young age – the message loud and clear:
“Feeling frustrated? Sin! You must always be patient and kind.”
“Short on money? Sin! Your selfishness and greed foiled wise financial planning. God blesses the prudent.”
“Attracted to someone? Sin! Carnal desires draw you away from God!”
“Got a speeding ticket? Sin! We must obey the governing authorities God has established.”
“Don’t feel like smiling? Sin! We must always showcase the joy of the Lord. How else will people know we are Christians?”
“Exhausted? Sin! You lack responsibility and maturity, so you stay up too late.”
“Misplaced your car keys? Sin! Your lack of organizational skills prevent you from giving God your best.”
“Missed your alarm? Sin! Laziness and sloth are the devil’s playground.”
“Got a B in Math? Sin! We must do everything to the glory of God. Is that really your best?”
“Feeling a little down? Sin! A cheerful heart is good medicine.”
“Running late? Sin! Would you be late if you were meeting Jesus? You must do everything as if you’re doing it for the Lord!”
“Made an innocent mistake? Spilled your drink, burned the dinner, broke a vase? Sin! Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Sometimes these messages were said overtly and sometimes it was more manipulative and pervasive than that. The church knows how to make you feel what they want you to feel without saying so out loud. It keeps them from needing to take responsibility, while still maintaining control.
Living every second of every day this way for my entire formative years left a permanent mark. There is no coming back from that, not completely. There is only learning how to navigate my now hyper-alert nervous system, training myself in self-soothing and grounding techniques, and seeking out positive and safe experiences to rewrite as much of the first two-and-a-half decades of my life as possible.
Religious trauma destroyed me. I never knew when I was going to make the next mistake. It would always happen when you least expected it. The slightest misstep and your world could come crashing down at any moment. And mine did. Multiple times.
I was told regularly how bad I was. But I wanted so much to be good. Not just good; I wanted to be the best – the best Christian I could be, the best daughter, the best friend, the best student, the best employee, and eventually… the best pastor I could possibly be. I climbed the Christian ladder; studied theology, preached sermons, earned credentials, gave money, changed lives. But it was never enough.
The system sets you up to fail.
One day I would inadvertently bring the wrong flavor of ice cream to a ministry house and cause a huge scene. Apparently non-alcoholic amaretto flavoring in a “dry house” was a no-go.
On a typical Tuesday I would nonchalantly put on a pair of long shorts to go to work, only to have a disapproving Christian boss point out a new dress code. I was out of compliance – by one inch.. ‘Jokes’ and snide comments would be made for months.
Someday I would date a person who made me feel safe. But he used a rainbow filter on his profile picture and it caught the attention of the top-dog ministry director. I was on thin ice.
One Sunday I would wear my hair in two braids and be chided for looking immature and childish – what will people think?! But when I started wearing more makeup and fashionable clothes, now I was drawing too much attention. It seemed my sin was existing.
This performance culture would be the reason that at 27 years old I would wear yoga pants in public for the first time in my entire life. I was so excited for an acrobatics class I had always wanted to take – only for unexpected tears to come streaming down my face while I ran red-faced from my car to the class with a long sweater tied tightly around my waist; shame choking me so I couldn’t breathe.
This insane emphasis on reputation is why, after 7 years of proving my character in ministry and giving it my all, I almost got fired and lost everything just for letting someone crash on the floor in my house when they needed a place to stay. All because he was the “wrong” gender.
Christian perfectionism is why, now in my early thirties, if my husband is feeling grumpy I cringe, wondering what I did wrong. If he asks a simple question I snap back defensively, thinking he’s slyly criticizing me. I’m often nervous to drive with friends in the car, gripping the wheel in anticipation of the critiques that are sure to come at every turn. I’ll hit the brakes too hard or not hard enough, I’ll go too fast or too slow. I need to take the most direct route but also avoid the traffic; if I can’t do both it’s because I messed up. I should have used the parking brake, or maybe it’s silly that I did.
Going to church is the worst thing that ever happened to me.
I didn’t get the privilege of choosing my own religion. What I would believe was decided for me when I was innocent and impressionable. That’s not how beliefs are supposed to work. I didn’t get the chance to have a healthy brain or a normal development. I grew up always watching my back, reading into every word people say, watching and listening for cues and warning signs.
I might have been able to pass it off as a fluke, just one bad church out of millions. But then my college ministry job, which at first came across as so accepting and communal, forbade me from dating or drinking even when off the clock. A speaker at one of their conferences made cutting remarks about “girls who wear yoga pants” right before making an altar call. The area director made demeaning comments about the students I dearly loved, only because their school was known as “progressive”. A male speaker at a conference told us that even though we were an egalitarian ministry, women still needed to take 10 years off from the ministry jobs they loved when they became mothers. Our ministry’s founder hinted at being severely disappointed in any community members who weren’t outraged at the legalization of gay marriage. (Even though in a community of over 500 people, there are bound to be multiple members of the LGBT community among us and even more who dearly love someone who is.) He expressed surprise at “how many of us were deceived”. A lesbian ministry staff member was forced to forego any chance of a relationship if she wanted to keep her job, and people would often talk about her “situation”, as if she was an interesting case study and not a person. A trans student was forced to live in a ministry house with people who shared their sex-assigned-at-birth, not their gender identity. My best friend was held back in her credentials training program and forced to repeat an entire year because she had a bubbly personality and guys might “get the wrong idea”, while a man who had sexually harassed her never had his behavior called into question. Her supervisor even admitted the decision was made based more on what the higher-ups would think, than on any problematic behavior from my friend. Another close friend was forced to cut off contact with someone she deeply cared about, because the leadership found out she had a crush on him.
Even with all this I might have been able to chalk it up to really bad luck, two-for-two, but then the church I was required to attend on Sundays to fill my internship obligations, used me for free labor and volunteer hours even after my long 80-hour ministry work weeks. They had no regard for my need for rest or being ministered to for once. Frequently I would show up exhausted, almost in tears, hoping to pray with someone or just talk and let it out, only to be immediately asked at the door to cover teaching Sunday School last minute. I would linger after services, hoping to be asked how I was doing or invited to spend some unstructured time together, but no one ever did. One week, I bravely opened up about my deep spiritual wounds and the pastor’s spouse told me that “all good Christians walk with a limp” and if I didn’t get hurt I wasn’t engaging enough in the battle.
Even my “progressive” church years later, ostracized my partner because he wasn’t as engaged in activism and being “woke” as they thought he should be. He was the greatest person I had ever known and is solely responsible for saving my life and supporting me through my darkest moments. But apparently that didn’t matter to them as much as labels.
Christians from my distant past continued to stalk and harass me online for an entire decade after leaving their church. My fiance’s devout Christian family stole tens of thousands of dollars from me after he passed away, saying they thought I wasn’t “Christian enough” and wasn’t a “real widow”. Ministry friends I had considered like family, my closest companions I lived with for years, ignored my plea for support in the aftermath of my grief. Yet they still wanted all the juicy details about “where I was at spiritually”.
Fuck them all. This isn’t a specific church problem. This is a Christian problem, widespread across multiple generations, regions and denominations.
Church is the worst thing that ever happened to me.
And they still wonder why I left.
Good Christian Girl
Two decades of stained glass and steeples, pastors and preachers but never a therapist. Surrounded by Bibles and hymnals; prayer requests welcome, but never a “negative” emotion.
A Good Christian girl counts her blessings and remembers God has a plan. She always practices etiquette and good manners; she only says nice things, she’s never a downer.
Christian mothers wagged their fingers at my furrowed brow, “You really would look so much prettier if you smiled more”.
Sunday School classes centered on seeking the joy of the Lord, having a good attitude and never complaining. Questions were allowed if they had “easy” answers; anything else was backsliding. A Good Christian Girl doesn’t rock the boat.
“You’ll feel better if you look on the bright side.” “You should volunteer, you’ll see others have it much worse than you.” “Follow God and you’ll be blessed.” “Everything happens for a reason” “God works in mysterious ways.”
Church leaders promised if I trusted God I would be okay. After all, I was a Good Christian Girl and God was on my side. So I trusted and prayed, volunteered and obeyed, but the truth is, their promises turned up empty.
With a cheery face and a scream trapped in my lungs, I was drowning. For far too long I was silenced with a smile.
Living in a box too small for me, there comes a breaking point. So much was stolen from me in the name of Goodness, but I’m surviving and finding my strength.
Now on the other side, I don’t need to find a silver lining. I’ve been learning a few lessons of my own. My innocence, my health, my happiness weren’t obstacles to my virtue. Suffering isn’t always refining.
There doesn’t have to be a greater purpose to a loved one’s death, or abuse, or a diagnosis. Hardships don’t have to be lessons and trials aren’t signs I need my faith tested.
Not everything is worked out for my good. I wonder where I would be if trauma hadn’t held me down? Sometimes evil injustice wins, and it’s not because of my hidden sins.
I don’t have to be okay with it and I don’t have to get over it. I don’t have to believe this was all part of the plan. I can be angry, I can doubt, I can wrestle. And it’s not a crisis of faith.
Now I let my experiences shape my beliefs and not the other way around. There is no magic wand waving in the sky. I choose to trust myself.
Gone are the days of silent submission, fake smiles and shallow answers, and to hell with linear religious narratives!
I’ve found love in all the wrong places,and encountered peace where it wasn’t supposed to be.
I’ve discovered a sense of purpose in what I was told would be meaningless,experienced joy in situations I was warned would bring pain.
Healing has come from the very things I was taught would damage me, I even felt the safest from decisions that were supposedly dangerous.
The truth I was looking for turned out to be unorthodox and the saints I’ve met have all been sinners.
I’ve encountered God among the ungodly and I have come face to face with goodness in perhaps the most surprising of places – I have found it in myself.
Now I really have to wonder – what exactly did they try so hard to keep me from?
I’m learning to find my voice again and the more I unravel the indoctrination, the more sacredness I find.
Sometimes when I let myself sit in the darkness, I see the Light inside of me and I realize that maybe God is more like me than I was taught…
Maybe She is angry too.
~~~ ~~~ ~~~
This is a version of a piece I wrote for the deconstruction magazine Hyssop & Laurel. For those of you who have been following for a while, you might recognize it as a reimagination of two of my past works “Silenced with a Smile” and “Finding Love in all the Wrong Places”. It also includes brand new content. This piece I’m sharing now is very similar to my published version, with a few edits.
This writing was an attempt at describing my mental health journey while living through religion and coming out the other side. There is a lot of darkness, but also so much light and healing to be found.