Religious Trauma and Codependency

Religious Trauma and Codependency


Marissa Esquibel recently interviewed me about religious trauma and codependency on her podcast, Codependummy


Marissa starts off the interview discussing what codependency and religious trauma are. Then we get to talking about the ways religious trauma can lead to codependency, how to recognize controlling or unhealthy groups, and how to ultimately heal yourself from these dynamics. Here’s the link – give it a listen! Below is a brief summary of what we discussed.


What is codependency?


Codependency happens when an individual becomes overly focused on caring for or catering to the needs of another person or group to the detriment of their own well-being.


I sometimes see this dynamic when working with couples. One person will become overly focused on the other’s needs, and they become resentful. Negative communication patterns of blame, criticism and defensiveness arise over time.


What is religious trauma?


Religious trauma happens when religion is used to control and manipulate behavior rather than increase love in the world.


There are plenty example of this, and Marissa mentions the documentary Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey as one story of a particularly controlling religious group and its impact on members. The Way Down on HBO Max is full of more examples of unhealthy leaders twisting religious ideas around in order to control and manipulate their followers.


How does religious trauma create codependency?


When a group or leader uses religion to control and manipulate behavior using shame and fear, people gradually learn not to speak up for themselves, think for themselves, or feel their feelings. This is a setup for becoming codependent. 


If an individual is encouraged to “toe the party line” rather than think independently, they will become overly focused on catering to or caring for others. If they get the message that it’s not OK to have all the feelings, especially feelings like anger, they won’t be able to protect themselves when someone pushes on their boundaries either.


Another way that religious trauma causes codependency happens due to hierarchical systems that oppress women. If women aren’t allowed into leadership positions in a church, for example, they are sent a very clear message that they have less power and their voices matter less. If that message gets internalized, women can have trouble asserting or protecting themselves from harm.


How can you protect yourself from controlling groups?


Be wary of groups that don’t allow women and people in the LGBTQ community into positions of leadership. That’s a good indication this religious group actually values control of behavior over love.

Find out what happens if you say “no” to the group. If you are asked to volunteer, for example, how do they respond when you decline – with respect and acceptance of your autonomy, or with pushback or shaming behaviors?

Never believe someone who tells you they have all the answers, or they have the whole truth and nobody else does.


What does healing look like?


Reclaim your mind.

It’s uncomfortable, but thinking for yourself and asking big questions like, “Who am I?” and “What is life for?” is  important. Only you can answer those questions for yourself. 


Exercise the “thinking for yourself” muscle as much as you can, and remember that nobody has all the answers.


Reclaim your feelings.

All of your feelings are OK! Even the “scratchy” ones like anger, jealousy or hate. What’s not OK is acting on those feelings by harming others. But emotions are just important information we need to pay attention to. 


Talk to a good therapist.

A therapist who makes space for you to figure out who you are and liberate yourself. In my opinion for people with religious trauma the best therapy is person-centered, existentially oriented and compassionate.


If you have experienced religious trauma, or you are a couple dealing with codependent dynamics, I would be happy to work with you. Feel free to reach out or schedule a consultation using this link.