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Understanding and working with spiritual abuse

Spiritual abuse (SA) is still a little-known form of abuse, but our recent work shows that it is actually more common than might be assumed. Two years ago my colleague Dr Lisa Oakley and I carried out an online survey which looked at people’s experiences of SA. Over five hundred people completed the survey. Yet, still, unfortunately, because SA is not yet widely recognised or acknowledged, people who have experienced it can be very traumatised for a long time. The victims of SA may not have a name or label for the trauma they have suffered. Additionally, if they seek out therapy, most counsellors are unlikely to recognise the experiences the person might relate. That is, if a person finds their way to a therapist. Worryingly, most people who responded to our survey did not know how to contact a counsellor. Of those who did know how, most stated that they would not seek therapy as they were afraid the counsellor would not have relevant knowledge of the issue to help or empathy and skills to work sensitively with them.

So, this article is to raise the profile of SA in order that anyone who has experienced – or is experiencing – this form of abuse, knows that there is progress on identifying it as a specific form of abuse and more importantly, that there are counsellors who know about it and have experience working with it. It is also to raise awareness of this form of abuse among counselling colleagues.

Spiritual Abuse has been defined as: "Spiritual abuse is coercion and control of one individual by another in a spiritual context. The target experiences spiritual abuse as a deeply emotional personal attack. This abuse may include: Manipulation and exploitation, enforced accountability, censorship of decision making, requirements for secrecy and silence, pressure to conform, misuse of scripture or the pulpit to control behaviour, requirement of obedience to the abuser, the suggestion that the abuser has a ‘divine’ position, isolation from others, especially those external to the abusive context." (Oakley & Kinmond, 2013 p21)

This is an early definition but one that has been found useful. Nonetheless, it is recognised that just as with definitions of other abuses, (e.g. the definition of domestic violence and abuse which has developed and grown in length and complexity over time) it is likely that any definition of SA will not be a fixed entity but alters depending on developing understandings and changing cultural and historical contexts. What we know now is that SA is not confined to one faith or doctrine. It is about power and it is about the use of Holy text and divine position to abuse. We also know that people who have been abused will need support and they need to know that their counsellors understand.

Ref: Oakley, L., Kinmond, K. (2013) Breaking the silence on Spiritual Abuse. Hove: Palgrave Macmillan

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Stafford, Staffordshire, ST19

Written by Dr Kathryn Kinmond

Stafford, Staffordshire, ST19

Dr Kathryn Kinmond is a chartered psychologist, chartered scientist and associate fellow of the BPS, and a registered and accredited member of the BACP. Kathryn is an executive member of the division of spirituality with the BACP. She also counsels in private practice and works particularly with clients who have been abused.

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