Distinguishing between our beliefs (what we think), our behaviors (what we do), and our identities (who we are) is a critical part of growing and learning. It also happens to be our best defense against shame. For starters, let's define these terms.
Beliefs are temporary opinions we hold based on the limited information we currently have available.
Behaviors are the choices we make and actions we take based on our beliefs. Both our beliefs and behaviors can change easily when we learn from our experiences.
Identity is the core traits and values that we choose to embrace and embody. When we establish an identity, our beliefs and behaviors will typically evolve to be in alignment with it. While beliefs and behaviors are constantly changing, identity is where we choose to drop our anchor.
Why is this differentiation so important?
When we think flexibly, test theories, make mistakes, and learn from them, we shouldn’t feel like we're betraying ourselves. Changing our beliefs and behaviors frees us to adapt to our circumstances without shame. Alternatively, if we think that being wrong or making a mistake reflects our actual identity, we’ll view any cognitive or behavioral flexibility as a character flaw. This traps us in belief systems and behavioral patterns that don't even represent our authentic selves.
As children, many of us were taught that our actions represent or even define us. This perspective is completely backward. What we think or do at a single point in time is not who we are. If that were the case, we’d be doomed to be "bad" the first time we make a bad decision. Fortunately, if we don't like the impact that our beliefs and behaviors have on the world, we can change them to be more representative of who we actually are.
How do we know if we're confusing our beliefs and behaviors with our identity?
Three maladaptive (unhelpful) patterns tend to show up when we don’t differentiate. They include shame, defensiveness, and rigid thinking.
Shame: Tying our beliefs and behaviors to our identity makes it way too easy to sink into self-loathing. Every regrettable choice we make seems like proof of our fundamental inadequacy. We think, "If I were a better person, I wouldn't have done that." This leaves us feeling powerless to change.
Defensiveness: When we think our actions represent our identity, we have a very fragile sense of self to defend. If we make any mistakes or cause unintended harm, we feel vulnerable, instinctively trying to defend ourselves. When someone calls us out for being wrong about something, it feels like an accusation that we’re a bad person. Naturally, we get defensive.
Rigid Thinking: The last trap of conflating our beliefs with our identities is inflexible thinking. Rather than holding our beliefs loosely, we cling to them. We think that compromising or changing our minds will make us lose ourselves. This leaves us trapped in our refusal to change.
None of those outcomes are necessary, though. Our beliefs and behaviors don't define us. Recognizing this distinction brings surprising liberation and empowerment. When we have regrets, we don't need to feel doomed or ashamed. Our regrettable past beliefs and behaviors no longer represent us. Because we’ve learned and grown, we can be a more authentic version of ourselves.
When it comes to religious trauma, learning about power and control tactics can be equally helpful for raising awareness and spotting negative patterns. While I’m not the first to do so, I’ve created an adapted version of the Power & Control Wheel. Each category is a way that religious groups can use power and control to disempower their members. They’re each aimed at keeping members submissive and loyal to the group.
Coercion & Threats
This tactic maintains control through the use of threats (either explicit or implied). Members are coerced by their fear of practical and spiritual consequences. Nonbelievers may be coerced to join the group for the same reasons. Some common coercion and threats include:
- Being judged or punished by God or the group leaders
- Being kicked out of the group
- Being publicly shamed
- Going to hell or being eternally tortured
- Being eternally separated from loved ones
- Being harmed or tempted by evil spirits or forces
- Being harmed or deceived by non-believers
Claiming to have a direct connection with a higher power is incredibly intimidating and can inspire unquestioning submission. Spiritual claims might be about the belief system, the religious leaders, or the group itself. This often includes condemnation of all other belief systems and justification of the group's right to enforce their rules on outsiders. Some spiritual intimidation claims are:
- The group’s beliefs are the ultimate, undisputable truth
- The group is not subject to secular authorities
- The leader has a divine calling that gives them authority
- Group members are superior to nonbelievers
- The group has the right to rule or have dominion
- The religious text is perfect or inerrant
- The group's practices are superior to other groups
This abuse tactic disempowers people by decreasing their confidence in their own worth apart from the group. Members who have been repeatedly shamed are much more likely to submit to leaders who appear to be more enlightened. This can look like:
- Setting unrealistic spiritual expectations
- Suppressing and shaming emotional responses
- Shaming and villainizing nonconformance
- Name-calling (“sinner, apostate, heretic”)
- Devaluing self-care and healthy boundaries
- Villainizing self-confidence (“pride”)
Cult control techniques almost always involve cutting off the group members from outside support. This prevents them from hearing things that contradict the group’s ideology or raising awareness about problematic practices. Isolation tactics can look like:
- Limiting access to outside resources (healthcare, education, etc)
- Condemning the use of secular media
- Controlling communication within the group
- Discouraging relationships with nonbelievers
- Inciting fear of external threats or agendas
- Dehumanizing outsiders
Minimizing, Denying, & Blaming
This common abuse tactic, often called "gaslighting", allows abusers to maintain control by making their victim doubt their own perceptions and opinions. This establishes the abuser as the only one who can accurately assess reality and make valid decisions. This often looks like:
- Invalidating members' complaints
- Denying that mistreatment occurred
- Justifying mistreatment with good intentions
- Blaming victims for causing their own mistreatment
- Using spiritual bypassing (see Chapter 6)
- Requiring forgiveness or reconciliation regardless of the circumstances
Loss of Autonomy
Groups may use transparency and a lack of privacy to produce conformance. Suppressing personal agency and discouraging critical thinking makes members reliant on the leaders. Loss of autonomy can look like:
- Requiring submission to group leaders
- Telling members to consult leaders before making decisions
- Requiring regular confessions
- Encouraging members to police and report on each other
- Villainizing self-trust and intuition
Defining Gender & Sexuality
This control tactic uses patriarchal views to create strict expectations, enforce conformity, and isolate power to an elite few. This is often done by:
- Setting explicit or implicit gender roles for men and women
- Enforcing cisgender and heterosexual norms
- Villainizing LGBTQIA+ identities and behaviors
- Shaming or excluding members who express themselves in non-conforming ways
- Denying women or queer people access to positions of leadership
Many groups profit economically from member donations which are sometimes required. Members are strongly encouraged to volunteer their time and resources for the sake of the group. This normalizes practices that force members to rely financially on the group. This can look like:
- Requiring tithing or donations
- Mandating certain money management techniques
- Discouraging members from saving or investing money
- Demanding trust in God’s provision
- Shaming the enjoyment of worldly things
- Limiting the education or employment status of certain members
Below is my personal take on the symptoms of religious trauma. All five categories have some common secondary symptoms listed. Keep in mind, not every religious trauma survivor experiences all of these symptoms. Be curious as you read this and take note of the things that resonate with you. Therapy with a licensed trauma therapist would likely be very healing.
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