Finding A Therapist

I am really fortunate (and crazy blessed) to be able to do the work that I do. Every day people contact my office inquiring of how to get an appointment. Some of the folks are out of the state and even out of the country. My licensing requirements are that I can only work with clients who are in the state of Texas. Even then, I really prefer counseling sessions that are face-to-face and not on the phone or online. Some counselors do distant counseling and that meets the needs of many people. I just find it more enriching to be in person when walking through different life experiences.

Whether you are in the Dallas/Fort Worth region or across the world, I thought it might be helpful to list out some key highlights when looking for a therapist. Many people know the waste of time it can be when working with the wrong therapist. Clients report back that they feel they spent more time trying to get the therapist to understand the situation rather than moving forward to healing whatever was the issue at hand.

If you find yourself looking for a counselor, here are some things to consider:

Rapport goes a long way

I highly recommend not trying to schedule an appointment through email. Call the potential therapist and interview them on the phone. By that I don’t mean ask a whole bunch of personal questions that they won’t be able to answer. It’s unethical for therapists to share too much about themselves and we all know that limitation. Instead, ask them about their approach to whatever issue you want to work through. Give them a brief sentence or two about what you are looking for and why. Explain that you want to meet for a session and see if it’s a good fit for you both. When therapists make the first appointment, we are not automatically agreeing to work with a new person. In the first session, we have to assess if we think we are a good fit and can help the client. You should be doing the same thing. Rapport does go a long way because when there is a good therapeutic connection, the therapist and client can trust one another to have the client’s best interest at heart. When there is friction or an undercurrent of tension in a counseling session, very little growth will be met.

Is it easy to go to counseling?

You will definitely want to find a therapist whose office is easy for you to get to, has appointment times that work with your schedule and the sessions are at a price you can afford. Some counseling clients will try to see a therapist who charges more than what is in the client’s budget so they end up only going into the office once in a while. Good solid growth seldom happens at that infrequent of an interval.  Now, this doesn’t mean a client has to bring a sleeping bag and be at the office so much they feel like they live there but a rhythm of appointments is very helpful to see any progress.

Does the therapist think like you do?

I can’t tell you how often laughter fills the counseling room when I am working with clients. Laughing while at counseling? Absolutely! Sometimes life is so jacked up we have to laugh. Now that’s my style. I have personally walked through many life challenges and have found that a sense of humor helps soothe some of the intense pain. Do we set out to have a good time in counseling? No, but with the clients who think like I do and see life in a similar way, we find ourselves having a relaxed time while we meet.

When visiting a new therapist, notice if they ask questions or expect you to drive the session. Do they seem engaged in your life story or are suppressing yawns. Take note of how you feel. Do you feel good visiting with the person or does it feel like pulling teeth to keep the conversation flowing? When you leave the session, do you have any nuggets of new insight or a new good book to read?

Basically, was the time you spent with the new therapist worth your efforts and money? If not, keep looking.

In every city there are plenty of counselors to choose from so shop around until you find a good fit. Remember, you are not there to meet the needs of the therapist, but the therapist is there to walk with you on your journey.

A huge red flag is any therapist who makes you feel like you are there for them. It could be a number of ways but if something doesn’t feel right when you meet with a therapist, something probably isn’t right. At least for you and that’s enough evidence to move on.

Do you agree with the therapist’s approach?

There are as many therapeutic theories as there are therapists. Most of us have an eclectic mix of theories and interventions that we use. We have key books we like and have go-to handouts that help the majority of our clients. Make sure the approach to working on the problem fits with your own ethics and values. You will find this information out as you visit with a therapist. It may take a few sessions to really know if you are compatible and if you find you are not, don’t reschedule. You owe the therapist no loyalty other than cancelling with enough notice for them to fill the time spot. I have heard that some therapists use guilt with their clients and that is completely unethical. Clients are in charge of their treatment and are free to come and go as they see fit.

On a humorous side, many of us in the field are familiar with a clip that shows exactly what NOT to do as a therapist. I thought I would share it with you as an illustration of a horrendous therapist and for some chuckles The clip is from a Mad TV episode that featured Bob Newhart as the worst therapist on the planet. Go head and take a few minutes to enjoy! I will wait 🙂  “Stop It – Therapy” 

Pretty awful right?! You’d be shocked at how some therapists come across a little similar to Bob’s character or at least that’s how it feels to clients. In some settings, a faith-based therapist may add “and pray more.” It is my personal pet peeve to hear how my fellow counselors have added spiritual guilt to clients.

Now you have a few key areas to think about when looking for a therapist in your area. If you don’t find one you click with, keep looking until you do. I assure you that there is someone out there who is a good fit and will be more than happy to journey with you toward deeper healing and joy.

Keep Dreaming Big!

Shannon

 

Family and Friends: Your Loved One Isn’t Crazy

From reading the title, you might be wondering what this post is going to be about.  I am writing this for the family and friends of survivors of psychological abuse. Why? Because I hear from many survivors who say that it is incredibly hard for them to describe the insidiousness of the abuse they experienced and many family and friends just don’t know how to support their loved one through the steps of recovery. There is so much to be said on this topic but I am going to try and just hit the highlights.

For those who aren’t familiar with me, I am a Licensed Clinical Social Worker Supervisor and I am the owner/lead therapist of a private practice. One area of my counseling work includes specializing in recovery from psychological abuse from a narcissist, sociopath or psychopath (aka toxic person). These relationships can either be romantic, family members, friends or in a work environment. For the purposes of today, I am going to focus on recovery from abuse within a romantic relationship.

October is Domestic Violence Awareness month and if your loved one was romantically connected with a toxic person, he or she was the victim of abuse. I know that may be hard to comprehend because the type of abuse your loved one experienced didn’t leave visible bruises or broken bones. It did, however, leave your loved one very harmed and much different from when they began the relationship with the abuser. You may even have witnessed behaviors from your loved one that you never thought he or should would do. Their reactions to the psychological abuse may have even left you questioning if your loved one might actually be losing their grip on life or might be “crazy.” For some reason, toxic people love to accuse their victims of being crazy. I hear it again and again. Not sure why that particular word but it is a favorite go-to for narcissists, sociopaths and psychopaths.

I hope to shed some light on why your loved one is or has been struggling with finding stability post-breakup with a toxic person. Let’s start with the basics of why this breakup is not like any other relationship your loved one has been in previously or maybe you have experienced:

It Was All A Lie:

Your loved one met someone who they had fully and truly fallen in love with and wanted to spend the rest of their life loving. Your loved one was authentic in his or her feelings towards the other person.

However, your loved one met a con-artist. The other person only pretended to have feelings for your loved one and strategically set up the entire “relationship” in order to meet his or her own abusive needs.

Toxic people derive great entertainment out of taking a healthy and happy person (your loved one) and completely ruining their life. Hard to imagine right? As a therapist, I can tell you it is 100% true. Your loved one may have tried to share this information with you but it was hard for you to believe. You may have even liked the toxic person. Guess what? You were scammed too. Luring in the family and friends is all part of the staged affection the toxic person exhibited and it is done to gain your trust that they are a good honest person. How does this work to their advantage? When your loved one comes and tells you all the nasty and horrible things that happened to them, you question them and their perspective. Maybe you even unknowingly sided with the toxic person against your loved one. Nice move by the abuser, right? It’s all part of the calculated attempt to destroy your loved one and even their relationship with you. Pretty scary if you ask me.

Not A Normal Break-Up

Telling your loved one to go date again or even better, to go hook up with someone new isn’t going to help the situation at all. So, please don’t tell your loved one anything close to that advice. The reason that your loved one isn’t ready to get out there is because they are a shell of human being right now. Their grief is so complex during the stages of a breakup and recovery that a survivor has no idea which way is the ocean floor and which way is the surface. They are literally drowning in their emotions. Why? Is it because they are weak and need to just get a grip on life? No. Their entire personhood was systematically stripped down and replaced with abuse. The exact traits that your loved one exhibited that the toxic person found appealing, then became the target for destruction.

Your loved one’s self-worth and identity have been scrambled by a master manipulator.

For example, if your computer got a virus, would you just expect the computer to keep functioning like normal? Why can’t the darn thing just work like it did before?! No you wouldn’t. You would realize that your computer had been infected by malware that took over its operating system. This is what has happened to your loved one. They have been poisoned by the exact individual who they thought was their special person in the world. Their rock, their go-to person, their happily-ever-after. It is going to take time for your loved one to deprogram from the abuse; like when someone leaves a cult. Their entire way of seeing themselves and the world around them must be torn down and correctly rebuilt. Just getting out there and dating isn’t going to help your loved one at all. It actually can stunt their recovery in many ways.

It Takes As Long As It Takes:

I know you want your old loved one back. The one you remember pre-toxic relationship. I know you can see glimmers of her or him at times and then get your hopes up that this nightmare is finally behind you all. In reality, many survivors of psychological abuse develop post traumatic stress. There are triggers that bring on intense anxiety and certain times of the year that are harder than others for your loved one. This is normal. Sad, but normal. Why does the abuse cause trauma and a long recovery? Your loved one experienced systematic and repeated covert abuse. The toxic person set out to destroy your loved one. No matter how nice she or he presented to you, listen to what your loved one tells you about the true character of this person. Really listen. Educate yourself on terms like Gaslighting, Smear Campaigns, Triangulation, Flying Monkeys, Idealize/Devalue/Discard Stage and Love Bombing. Do yourself and your loved one a huge favor and read the book “Psychopath Free” by Jackson MacKenzie. It is from a survivor’s perspective and really truly excellent.

Above all, believe your loved one when they confide in you that they were abused. Forgive yourself for not noticing the abuse and come together with your loved one to move forward. The toxic person wanted to destroy your loved one and all of her or his relationships. Please do not let that plan succeed.

I wish you all the best as you support your loved one in their recovery. I truly believe better days are ahead for you both.

Keep Dreaming Big!

Shannon

 

Are We All Narcissists?

I am frustrated. I just woke up annoyed. Ever been there? The reason I have a low grade level of aggravation this fine morning is because I find some of the teaching on narcissism to be truly damaging and confusing to survivors. I know that’s not the intent of well-meaning people but the outcome is still the same.

I do a lot of reading, listening to podcasts/radio shows and in general spend time doing research on the topic of narcissism, sociopathy and psychopathy. I can tell you that there are different camps of people out there who propose a wide range of beliefs about the development of personality disorders and the spectrum of what we should expect as normal human character flaws. Narcissism seems to be the gray area where most discord bubbles up. Good ol’ Sigmund Freud tried to normalize narcissism and some folks have been jumping on the Siggy bandwagon ever since. From a modern therapeutic perspective, I find it frightening.

You see, when people speak, write and share their belief that we all have some level of “narcissism” within us, it completely waters down and minimizes the depth of trauma a survivor has experienced at the hands of a real, fully developed, clinically diagnosable Narcissist with a capital N.

We are not all narcissists.

Within any given moment, do we all have the ability to be completely self-serving, manipulative, snarky to a stranger, snap at our kids, slam doors in the middle of an adult temper-tantrum, seek our own self-preservation at the expense of someone else and so on? Sure we do! No one would argue that people can be real dirtbags at times. However, once the moment of our toddler-esque meltdown is over, we feel bad. We realize what a jerk we were and are embarrassed that we took our inner annoyance out on another person. We apologize by saying sorry, doing something nice for the other person or we just inwardly repent for being hostile towards a stranger. We come back to our baseline of being a normally decent human being and can reflect back on our ridiculous behaviors. Narcissists can not do that. Should I say it again? Narcissists can not do that. They can not, will not, don’t desire to be self-reflective, always blame others and will never ever change. So, back to the question of whether we are all a little narcissistic. No, we are not. Narcissists are narcissists and the rest of humanity have a normal range of moods and character flaws. Big huge gaping hole between the two.

Why do I find it damaging to survivors when people speak and write about narcissism being normal? Imagine growing up in a home with an alcoholic. For some, this sadly won’t be too hard to imagine because that’s exactly what they did. They know the palpable tension that was in the room every evening or weekend while the alcoholic became more and more drunk.  They know the embarrassment of having friends over when the alcoholic couldn’t or wouldn’t hide their intoxication and it spilled out for everyone to see. They know the terror when the alcoholic became enraged and lashed out verbally or physically, or perhaps both. An adult child of an alcoholic knows in every fiber of their being what living with a true alcoholic is like. Now, imagine people were writing books, speaking and sharing the belief that we are all a little bit of an alcoholic. Yep. Every single person who engages in drinking a beer, glass of wine or cocktail is now an official alcoholic. Seems odd right?

It should seem off because not everyone who consumes alcohol does damage while they consume alcohol nor is it a pervasive pattern of behaving. Ahhh. There’s that terminology again. Pervasive Pattern of Behaving. You see, that’s the key to determining whether a behavior is merely normal character defects or perhaps warrants a diagnoses. As a counselor, when folks talk about their relationship to alcohol and their stories start to worry me a bit, I ask them to go to a local recovery center and do an assessment with a specialist. We need to know where on the spectrum is the person regarding addiction. Some people come back to my office and say that the assessment showed they have tendencies towards alcohol addiction but their behaviors don’t currently rise to the level of an Alcoholic. Other people don’t come back to my office because they immediately entered a 28 day rehab program because their relationship to drinking was abusive. During recovery meetings, those people will have to become real comfortable saying their first name and adding “I am an alcoholic” behind it. Acknowledging they have a problem is part of the recovery. Not everyone needs to be able to say they are an alcoholic because they are not one. Same with narcissism. Not everyone behaves in ways that rise to the level of being diagnosed as a Narcissist.

Now, let’s pause here and clear the air on an important matter. I am from the school of thought that we don’t call someone a Narcissist unless they are a narcissist as defined by the Narcissistic Personality Disorder criteria. This belief is not unlike that of determining whether someone drinks alcohol in a normal manner or rises to the level of an addiction and now the term Alcoholic fits. There isn’t “Narcissistic Personality Disorder” and then “Narcissist Junior”; as if Narcissist Junior is some watered down version of Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

To all those people who choose to use the term Narcissist loosely, please and for the love of all that is good and wise, stop calling normal people Narcissists. Please. I am begging you.

If you are not a licensed mental health professional and trained in the criteria for diagnosing Narcissism (Narcissistic Personality Disorder), then do your research and start by looking up the DSM 5’s criteria.

We all know that language and word choices play a key part within any group or culture. In the recovery community of psychological abuse, we must pick our language carefully and with intent. Our purpose should be to highlight the incredible fraud that is being perpetrated against victims and to highlight the road to recovery and healing. By watering down the word “Narcissist’ to include any 2 year old child who selfishly wants a toy is harmful not only to the toddler, but to society as a whole. Do some people propose that even kids are narcissists? Yes. That’s the level of misguided thinking that permeates the conversation on this topic.

For you survivors, I strongly encourage you to find a set of beliefs within the recovery community that fit you and your view of your own experiences with a narcissist. Dialogue on the topic is wonderful and I think a wide range of views help survivors find where they fit best in the recovery community. Until scientific discovery finds that magical moment or spot in the brain that can definitively tell us how or why narcissists exist, we will continue to seek answers and that’s a great thing.

Keep Dreaming Big! – Shannon

 

 

A Measuring Stick of Change

personal growth

To know me is to know that I have a few favorite sayings. Over the last eight years of chatting with clients in a private practice setting, one of my favorites is that personal growth is like a measuring stick. When we want to make changes in our lives, we are not typically going to go from one inch to twelve inches overnight but instead we are on the little black lines of change. I have even asked clients to go buy a measuring stick or put a picture of one on their phones. This can serve as a reminder that we are not expected to become different overnight. What an incredible burden that would be. Yet, it’s how many of us were raised or came to believe as adults. Do it better and do it better now! Let’s all say a collective NO to that sort of internal pressure. Because guess what? It usually backfires and we end up not changing at all for fear of not doing it fast enough and without enough “perfection.”

The measuring stick approach is much more gentle and kinder to ourselves. Like the saying goes, if we are not nice to ourselves, who’s going to be? When we are not nice to ourselves, it’s funny too how we end up magically attracting people into our lives who are also not very nice to us either. Ever notice that? I sure have; both as a therapist working with people and as a woman with my own history of love and friendships.

Why is the measuring stick a good visual for folks? I think it works well because it nicely illustrates that small changes do get us somewhere and the stick shows that to be true. It may be slow and it may be small changes, but eventually we would end up from one inch to twelve inches and isn’t that super, duper, amazingly fantastic?! It’s also a whole lot less overwhelming when we make small incremental progress, rather than turn-your-life-upside-down changes. Sometimes I like to call those “snow globe moments.” We take our life snow globe, shake it all up and wait for the dust to settle. That sounds remarkably un-fun to me. I don’t think un-fun is a word but you get my point.

What kind of changes can we make using the measuring stick idea? Any change! That’s the fabulous thing about it. It works with all personal growth. Try it out. What goal would you like to achieve? Consider that your twelve inch mark. Now back track all the little steps it would and will take to reach the goal.

Next, we write those steps down and start working from one inch, which is today and where we are in the process (or lack thereof) in reaching our goal. We often have to break down goals into even smaller sizes to fit the small black lines on the measuring stick. That’s the point. Small, small, small changes.

For instance, some of you know and some of you don’t, that since my twenties I have lost over 125 lbs. Yes, it’s true. I lost a whole skinny person.  It’s still very weird for me to get an off glance in the mirror and see a size 4 rather than a size 24. For me, losing weight has been a life changing experience for the better. I am not saying that everyone who is a size 24 should lose a small person of weight and poof, they will be happy. I am saying that for me, it revolutionized my life. I think it was because the weight was symbolic of other healing that needed to happen for me and when I truly dealt with those issues, the weight naturally came off.

I have previously written about my journey of weight loss and you can read them at “112 lbs and Going”  “Sabotage Weight” and “Our Relationship with Food”  In the 112 lbs, you even get to see my Before pictures. Now you want to go click on it, don’t you? It’s okay. I put them out there for the world to see, so go ahead and peek.

The measuring stick worked for me regarding weight because I gave myself very small, very doable goals. The little black lines of change goals. Things like “only order two Whoppers at Burger King, instead of three” or “do ten push ups against the wall tonight.” Eventually, those black lines of change became “run 10 miles in prep for the half marathon that’s in a few weeks away.” Did I start out running 10 miles? HA! I don’t even think I have to answer that, do I? Even training for the one and only half marathon I ever did and probably will ever do (check off Bucket List item), it was a lesson in the measuring stick practice.

To train for a ridiculously long run, you break down those runs into small growth in distance over several weeks. That way you gradually condition yourself to the mileage and your body adjusts to what you are asking it to do. Same theory goes for all personal growth.

What if your twelve inch goal is to have a happier and healthier relationship? Well, then, take some time to visualize what you would like that to look like at its best and then back track the small changes that would get you to the goal. See how the measuring stick works for at least the two types of growth of weight loss and improved relationships? I promise it works for all life goals.

What twelve inch goal would you like to reach? Write it down. What are the really (really) small steps to get there? Write those down too. Be realistic that it won’t be done perfectly and that’s perfectly okay. But if you keep moving forward, it will be done eventually. All the growth along the way feels really good too; not just the end of the measuring stick. As you see your hopes and dreams come into focus, the entire journey of growth is amazing.

I can’t wait to hear about what goals you have set for yourself. Enjoy the process of change.

– Shannon

 

Spiritual Abuse is…

My counseling business name is Southlake Christian Counseling. As you can imagine, I get all sorts of inquiries about what exactly does the Christian part of my business really mean. People wonder, and more often worry, that they are going to get yet another heavy dose of religious guilt by seeing a counselor with the word Christian in the business name.  One of the best compliments I get is when clients say that they were nervous to see a Christian counselor but have had a great experience and never, not once, felt like I was finger waving at them in shame.

Why is it that a lot of people are cautious about things that have to do with Christianity, even Christian counseling? Well, I think it’s because there are far too many pastors and church/ministry leaders out there running amok in the name of God and doing a lot of harm in the process. Harm to people who are trying to find God in the blur of modern life and harm to the terms Christianity and Christian. Now let me pause here and make sure every reader knows that I am not saying all pastors or church leaders are awful. I am saying that some, if not many, are miserable examples of the wonderful character qualities of Jesus. How do I know this to be true? I have been in the culture of Christiandom for twenty-one years and I have seen a lot. A lot.

I have been on church staff, I have been on ministry staff, I have been a member of churches and I have been a member of ministries. I have witnessed the best of Christianity and the worst. For the last eight years, I have been counseling under the umbrella of Christian counseling. I truly think this season has taught me the most about what works beautifully within churches and ministries and what qualifies as spiritual abuse.

Yes, men and women are being abused in some churches and ministries. More light needs to shed on this area not so that embarrassment can come to the collective Church but so that healing can come and no one again experiences abuse in the name of God.

What qualifies as spiritual abuse? Good question!  I recently did a five day series on social media highlighting some of the major forms of abuse that are happening:

1) Spiritual Abuse: When scripture on forgiveness is distorted to keep someone from setting healthy boundaries with a toxic person.

Boy, isn’t this a doozy of a one. I see more clients, men and women, who have sought solace and help from a pastor or ministry leader regarding an abusive/toxic relationship and instead, the survivor was given a long lecture about forgiveness and extending grace to the abuser. Ultimately, will any survivor have to walk through the process of healing and in doing so, qualities like forgiveness and grace will surface? Absolutely. But I assure you, that when a survivor initially seeks guidance from a christian leader, they need help setting healthy boundaries with an active abuser. They do NOT need a leader reinforcing the concept that the abuse is the survivor’s fault. That is precisely what happens when instead of teaching boundaries, the leader lectures the survivor to take more abuse but under the guise of misapplied forgiveness and grace.

2) Spiritual Abuse: Using religious guilt to keep a person in a toxic relationship when the offending person shows no true attempt in changing their behavior.

Here’s how this form of abuse works in a practical sense: Let’s say a couple shows up at a pastor’s office for marital “counseling.” By the way, I have a hard time calling it counseling when the work is done by leaders that are not trained mental health professionals. We wouldn’t expect a pastor not trained in dentistry to perform a root canal right? I wrote on this topic if you should wish to peruse it: I Got A Root Canal At Church.

Anyway, back to the couple and the pastor/leader offering marital help. When one spouse isn’t really interested in changing his or her ways, they often do a wonderful job of deflecting responsibility and they might also be highly skilled manipulators. If this is the case, then not much authentic change will come from that person. Pastors and leaders will then need to focus their attention somewhere else in the room and that usually ends up on the spouse who is willing and able to be self-reflective and capable of personal growth. You can probably guess what happens next. The victim of abuse becomes the identified asset of change and religious guilt is used to keep that person trying harder to make an abusive relationship not abusive. At that point, a truly vicious cycle has begun.

3) Spiritual Abuse: When wives are religiously shamed for not praying enough for their toxic husbands, but the men are held to a lower standard.

Let’s continue with the same couple as above and now make the wife the survivor and the husband the abuser. Pastors and leaders who spiritually abuse in this way do so by placing the responsibility on the wives for praying their husband into the godly man he was created to be. She is expected to have the patience of a saint, constantly be turning the other cheek and endure abuse in one or more of its forms (psychological, sexual, emotional, physical, financial). What is the husband expected to do? Not much. Oh sure, there may be discussions about actions the husband needs to take but things don’t really change. While in the pastor/leader’s office, the husband may even wholeheartedly agree that he has areas to improve. But no actually repentance and lasting behavioral changes occur in the husband. Yet the wife is religiously shamed when she brings the double standard up or heaven forbid, she starts to speak about not wanting to take the abuse any longer.

4) Spiritual Abuse: When good men are held to an unreasonable religious standard of personal responsibility for being in and fixing a toxic relationship.

When a good man is in a toxic relationship, he is often told that as the head of the household and the spiritual leader it is his duty to continue to serve his abusive/toxic wife. Is it possible for women to be abusive? Absolutely. Some are physical by punching, pinching, slapping, pushing and other aggressive physical contact. Good men don’t want to be that guy who fights back and rather, many will attempt to defuse a volatile wife through humor or distraction. Good men want to shield their children from physical combativeness. Our culture seems to downplay the impact that verbal abuse can have on people and especially when the perpetrator is a woman. The hurtful, stinging words of toxic women harm those around them just as much as if they were spoken by a man. A good man also wants to shield himself and his children from a psychologically and emotionally abusive wife and mother. Unreasonable religious standards are often placed on men to keep the family together at all cost and love their abusive wives as Christ loved the church. Wow. What a religious burden to place on a man who truly wants what’s best for himself and his children. Sometimes getting away from an abuser is the only way to be safe physically and emotionally.

5) Spiritual Abuse: When church leaders refuse to recognize relational abuse in all its forms and further the abuse by falsely blaming and shaming the victim. 

Now here is where the true issue comes to light. There are many trained mental health professionals who struggle to initially recognize insidious relational abuse. As a therapist, it’s hard sometimes to truly sort through the issues that a couple or family present. We have the education and spiritual discernment to help us and it’s still a challenge at times. As mental health professionals, we are trained to know the full depth of relational issues and yet, we can miss the early signs of some forms of abuse. Hopefully, as counseling continues, we hone in on the true core issues. If a narcissist, sociopath or psychopath is a party to the counseling, the entire dynamic shifts and we have to fight to sort through the layers of chaos and confusion intentionally spun by the toxic person.

Many pastors and ministry leaders do not have adequate training to spot relational abuse and therefore, in their ignorance, re-victimize the victim. Other times, a pastor or ministry leader may simply not believe that abuse comes in forms other than physical. If this is the case, that pastor or leader is going to do extensive amounts of harm to a victim who is suffering behind closed doors. Imagine the intense isolation a victim must feel when they are abused at home or from an extended relative and are told by their religious leaders that the abuse does not exist. It will leave a victim feeling “crazy” and desperately alone. Where was God and His leaders when the victim needed both?

Whew.  That’s a whole lot to take in, isn’t it? Those are the five main areas of spiritual abuse that as a counselor I see from my specific perspective. Are there more? Most definitely. But I wanted to share at least the ones that seem to be happening the most within churches and ministries at this time in our culture.

What should you do if you or someone you love is being spiritually abused? Keep seeking a safe place to talk about what is happening both in the church or ministry and the original issue of being in a toxic relationship. I often say that people go into a pastor/leader’s office with one problem (an abusive relationship) and end up coming out with two problems (abusive relationship and now spiritually abused). That simply must stop.

Again, I want to say that there are amazing pastors and ministries doing really excellent pastoral care. There are people being incredibly strengthened and encouraged by the spiritual leaders in their lives. That should always be the norm. Until it is, folks like myself and others will continue to shed a spotlight on an area of life as a Christian that needs to change. The change will better reflect the character of Jesus and better reflect living with true love, hope, joy and peace.

– Shannon Thomas, LCSW-S