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Spiritual Toxicity: When a carers act as if they were your higher power

This is an unusual phrase, Spiritual Toxicity (or Spiritual Abuse) which I first read about 15 years ago in Pia Melody's, Facing Codependence, (1989, New York:Harper Collins). However it has stayed with me as there is something distinctive that seems to happen to children brought up in "religious households" where literally the fear of God is put into them.

This often manifests in adults as a sense of paralysis when making decisions, not knowing what is right and wrong or what to trust in; in Carl Rogers language having no internal locus of evaluation. One's own internal agency, healthy sense of discrimination has not been cultivated. It is often linked with a tremendous sense of shame.  There is something  bad and rotten in you, which ultimately even God would not like.

In contrast a healthy upbringing is where parents are reliable, caring and safe enough to provide a consistent nurturing environment and where children admire them whilst realising that they are not perfect. One aspect of codependence (arising from a toxic spiritual environment) is to idealise people, and then not be able to cope when they inevitably fall off their pedestal. This means that one is unable to use people constructively for support as they are seen as either perfect or useless which often leaves the person alone and isolated. Healing happens when we start to be able to appreciate people whilst also recognising their weaknesses or limitations.

This process happens by slowing down, looking at one's thinking and developing an awareness of what you project onto others (either perfection or badness). One needs to heal the underlying shame and to appreciate, that you have every right to be here, that you are a part of this world and every situation that you are in and to learn the skill of taking your needs into consideration, rather than constantly obsess about the other.

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Written by John Seex, UKCP

Hello, I offer a space where you can be deeply listened to and understood and where we can make sense of what you are experiencing.  I combine Gestalt, Integrative Psychotherapy and Mindfulness to pay attention to the present moment and understand where your thoughts and feelings come from.  I have worked in the NHS, in a small charity and in private practice and worked with a wide varie… Read more

Written by John Seex, UKCP

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