Fear and guilt are two very powerful components of spiritual abuse. These two forces can cause people to live their lives striving to get the approval of their religious leaders and fellow group members – many times to the detriment of themselves and their family members.
Between fear and guilt, fear is the more powerful of the two components. Fear is what hooks us into the spiritual abuse to begin with. While we are in a spiritually abusive group, we hear messages of fear over and over, telling us that if we are "out of God's will" (aka out of their church) that Satan will take over our finances, relationships, families, etc. We are taught that if we leave "the covering" of the abusive leader, Satan will destroy us. This is how we get locked into a spiritually abusive relationship, and it doesn't stop there. The entire time we were in these groups, we were being continually programmed with fear. This is why many of us found ourselves bound with fear, panic attacks, anxiety, and even depression after leaving the group. It can take years to get deprogrammed of this fear, which happens by educating ourselves.
For 12 long years I was programmed to live in fear that Satan could strike at any time and wreck everything in my life if I were to “leave God’s will”. I was taught to stay away from "the world" and anything that wasn't Christian. However, all that did was create fear and anxiety in me. It took several years for me to get this fear out of my thought patterns, and I am sure that I still have a ways to go yet. When I first escaped my former abusive church, I was so scared to be cast out into "the world" with no "covering" that I even had several panic attacks (which I had never had before) over a two-year period. I viewed the world as if it were Satan's playground, and I feared that I would be vulnerable to his attacks now that I had left my former pastor's "authority and protection".
Guilt is also one of the primary tactics used on spiritual abuse victims, only taking second place to fear. While we sat and listened to sermon after sermon condemning the "fallen nature of man" and how to correct this fallen state, the abusive leader was constantly twisting scriptures in order to brainwash us with guilt and fear that would be used to manipulate us to do their will (aka God's will). We were to "repent and turn away" from our imperfect condition, and take on the nature of our abusive leader (well they said we were learning to take on "Jesus' nature, but that was just another part of the bait-and-switch). Whenever the preacher would blast us with a sermon showing all of our flaws, we would go home inspecting and re-inspecting our lives, desperately trying to make our imperfect human condition conform to this perfect state of being. When we couldn't conform, we lived in guilt. Of course, we couldn't tell anyone else that we could not comply - so we lived in guilt.
How do we get rid of this guilt? For one, we need to accept the fact that we cannot attain perfection (religious or otherwise). Then we need to let everyone else in our lives know this also - especially those with whom we have had performance-based relationships in the past. We need to constantly remind ourselves that it's okay to fail, it's okay to make mistakes, it's okay to let others down - it's all part of being human! We have to counter the message that told us "You are only worth something if you perform properly". It can be very stressful and frustrating when our worth as a person is based on our religious performance. This is no way to live. Healthy relationships allow us to be human, and they accept our whole package as a person – strengths and weaknesses included – without trying to change us or make us constantly feel guilty for not measuring up.
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