By Shahida Arabi
Spirituality can be a beautiful thing, a healing balm for the hurting trauma survivor. I believe as survivors we all have a right to our unique beliefs and faith. Yet there are some spiritual beliefs and principles that, when taken too far, can be distorted to blame or shame victims of abuse or other forms of trauma, proving harmful and limiting to the healing journey. It’s important to shed light on spiritual frameworks that may hinder or impede a survivor’s journey to authentic healing and can perpetuate a larger victim-shaming discourse in society. Here are seven spiritual philosophies that can be misused to blame the victim and enable abuse.
1. The idea that there is no separation. Spiritual gurus like to promote the idea that we are all “one.” This is true to some extent: we are all humans, having a similar experience of consciousness, living in an interconnected world. What affects one, will inevitably affect another (unless they are protected from the effects by a bubble of privilege). Yet the idea that abuser and victim are “one” tends to minimize and deny the reality of the abuser’s pathological behavior, which makes them far less united with the rest of humanity and society as a whole. The truth is, while we are all interconnected, abusers rarely have any respect for that sacred interconnectedness; they are more prone to being divisive and hateful to bolster their false sense of superiority, their selfish agendas and their lack of empathy or compassion for anyone other than themselves. They pose incredible harm to their loved ones as well as the larger society.
The abuser makes himself or herself distinct and separate from the victim by engaging in horrific acts of emotional, psychological and physical violence. When used to excuse the abuser, this philosophy outright denies the fact that some abusers have no ability to empathize or show remorse for their behavior,which is a large part of what makes us human. This philosophy can be exploited to justify horrific assaults on the victim’s identity and erosion of beliefs, urging him or her to reconcile with the abuser under the idea that we must treat the abuser like everyone else, like ourselves, rather than a perpetrator who needs to be held accountable for their actions.
2. Our pain is an illusion, created by our ‘dysfunctional’ thinking. We’ve all heard this one, especially in new age spiritual frameworks. In this scenario, we are the creators of our own pain due to erroneous thoughts, because “love is all that ever exists.” Yet true love rarely exists within an abusive relationship (unless it’s coming from the victim), and our perceptions of the abuse are not simply due to erroneous thinking – they are due to egregiously damaging acts of mental and physical violence. Whatever your spiritual beliefs on this matter may be, the idea that pain is an illusion created by separateness invented in your mind when used to refer to abuse is extremely invalidating to survivors of severe trauma, whose pain is unlikely to feel like a figment of their imaginations. It is, in fact, a form of gaslighting to tell abuse victims that their pain only exists within their own perceptions rather than in reality.
Apparently, the psychological and biochemical effects of abuse that we feel are not real at all, and reality is a rather convincing mirage that obscures the richer, deeper spiritual world where all of our trauma makes sense, where the experience of abuse fits into the larger picture – a picture that otherwise seems inexplicable to us. It’s true that we have the agency to make choices that cause us pain or lessen our pain; to some extent, we can also control our thoughts and behaviors. Therapies like CBT, for example, rely on the fact that human beings can relieve some of their suffering by changing the way they think, which can potentially affect their emotions as well as behavior.
Yet when it comes to trauma, changing our thoughts alone can be limited in healing complex trauma – it often takes healing on the level of mind, body and spirit using both traditional and alternative methods, to truly overcome the effects of abuse (and even then, healing has no set deadline). The pain of an abusive relationship is in no way illusory – it may exist within us, but it is inflicted upon us and evoked by toxic people in this world who manipulate, control and demean others until they feel worthless, until they are drained of their resources, their dreams, and their hope – all through the trauma they’ve subjected their victims to. To say pain is an illusion is a cop-out for holding abusers responsible for changing their abusive behavior; it is victim-blaming and victim-shaming, and it does nothing to improve society as a whole.
In order for survivors to feel validated in their experiences, reach out for help, and detach from their abusers, we need to acknowledge the reality of the harm that is caused to survivors of abuse. We need to let go of the myth that survivors of abuse are just holding onto a “story” that causes them pain, rather than working to address the real-life traumas that may still affect them psychologically and physiologically years after the abuse.
There are ways to reframe and rewrite our narratives without blaming ourselvesfor the abuse. That harm only becomes more exacerbated when spiritual communities encourage the survivor to look at all pain as an illusion rather than a legitimate, lived reality that affects our minds, our bodies and our spirits.
3. Forgiveness is a must in all situations, across all contexts. As I’ve written about in-depth in my article, “Should We Forgive Our Abusers?”, not every survivor finds that forgiveness is necessary to their healing or in moving forward with their lives. Premature forgiveness is also reminiscent of the behavior survivors engaged in when they excused, minimized or tried to forget their abuser’s behavior during the abuse cycle; it is not something that all survivors feel relieved by during their journey to healing – in fact, some survivors may feel empowered by not forgiving their abusers, particularly in cases of sexual abuse.
Forgiveness certainly has its benefits, but for some survivors who have been robbed of their choices, it can feel retraumatizing to forgive an abuser who shows no remorse; it is also retraumatizing to be forced or shamed by society to do so. To shame survivors about what should be a personal choice is counterproductive and often premature.
If forgiveness is truly for the survivor, not the abuser, then survivors must be permitted the choice of what feels best for them and their unique journeys.
Survivors will forgive if and when they are ready, usually after they have processed their traumas in healthy ways. Pushing them to forgive too soon or when they are unwilling due to this spiritual framework that forgiveness magically makes you a better person, actually impedes their healing process and erodes the integrity of their choices.
4. The ego must be eradicated completely to achieve happiness. While we all want to steer away from letting our egos, the part of ourselves most associated with fear and physicality, run our lives, the truth is that what many spiritual communities call our “ego” consist of authentic human emotions that are incredibly important to acknowledge, validate, process and channel into healthier outlets. For example, it is actually their righteous anger and outrage towards mistreatment and injustice that allows survivors to detach from their abusers, to fight against societal ills and motivates them to rebuild their lives.
While the ego is often denigrated as the root of all evil, the truth is that the emotions associated with the “ego” actually has indispensable roots in the process of healing, and can be used to cultivate emotional freedom. Acknowledging emotions associated with the spiritual definition of “ego” can be liberating for the abuse survivor who has been taught that their needs, feelings and basic rights do not matter.
Many spiritual communities degrade the “fear-based thinking” of the ego, but the fact of the matter is, we need fear sometimes in order to gauge our intuitive gut feeling about someone’s intentions; we need anger to remind us when we are being treated unfairly. To dismiss anything that is not “love” as ego, and to say it is always harmful, is false and counterproductive.
These emotions can also be signals, and while they don’t have to be acted upon destructively, they should be heeded for self-care and self-protection.
Consider that this philosophy also encourages us to desensitize ourselves to the multiple layers of grieving that are involved in healing from trauma, rather than confronting them and processing them in constructive ways. It dismisses the fact that many abuse survivors can suffer from symptoms of PTSD or Complex PTSD, which contains a plethora of the same traits that is traditionally known as “ego.” Spiritually, there should be a balance between validating our emotions and allowing ourselves to heal. We ultimately cannot work to recover from what we do not even allow to come to the surface.
5. What you see in another exists in yourself. Occasionally, this is true, but it just doesn’t cut it when it comes to the abuse survivor community as a whole. It is, in essence, a false equivalency that compares abuser to victim in harmful ways and refocuses the attention on the qualities of the victim, rather than the perpetrator. It is true that we may at times subconsciously gravitate towards people who represent what spiritual and psychological communities call our ‘shadow selves’, parts of our identities we have concealed or sublimated. Every human being at some point has also projected qualities onto others at some point or seen themselves disliking qualities in others that they see in themselves.
However, this philosophy is used far too often to fabricate similarities between abuser and victim where there are none, to divert the focus from the abuser and to instead hold the victim responsible for qualities that do not exist.
A compassionate victim, for example, actually considers the abuser’s feelings even during incidents of horrific abuse; many find that fear, obligation and guiltabout leaving their abuser plays a role in staying far too long in the relationship. The abuser, on the other hand, has no consideration for how he or she affects others or the harm they commit.
You could not find two more different, distinct human beings in interaction with one another in an abusive relationship. One seeks basic decency and respect, shows tremendous empathy, has a desire for a loving relationship – while the other seeks to exploit that desire to fulfill their malicious agenda.
6. We “attracted” the abuser so we have to take responsibility for being abused. While I am a big believer in agency and empowerment, I simply cannot stomach the victim-shaming idea that the abuse is in any way a survivor’s fault. Abusers manipulate, demean and belittle others regardless of who they are. Independent or codependent, wealthy or just barely surviving, outgoing or introverted, happy or depressed – they target victims due to their capacity for empathy, not because of their personal deficiencies, shortcomings or character traits. If the victim did have past traumas that ‘programmed’ or ‘primed’ the victim for abuse, it still does not justify the abuse; in fact, it makes the abuser all the more sick for retraumatizing a victim who has already been victimized.
7. We are never victims – we create everything. Don’t get me wrong: I like the idea that survivors can create a new reality for themselves, empower themselves and rebuild their lives, more victorious than ever. I encourage survivors to use all the tools they have at their disposal to achieve their goals and dreams (including a life of freedom away from their abusers), in both traditional and alternative ways. If the principles of manifestation helps you to achieve a new reality, go for it. There is nothing wrong with envisioning yourself in a brighter future and taking the steps to achieve your goals. You are worthy of the best life possible.
Yet when this idea is used to blame the victim for an abuser’s actions, it becomes extremely problematic. When society is focused on asking the victim what he or she “did” to create this situation, rather than showing compassion for their situation and thinking about which resources they could use to help them, we have more and more survivors remaining silent about the abuse they’re enduring (believing it is their fault), more survivors who feed into toxic self-blame and shame for a burden they never asked for. Victims are already told by their abuser that the abuse is all their fault – the last thing they need is for society to agree with them.
No one ever asks for or ever consciously creates for themselves an abusive relationship; survivors do not desire the traumas that come with an abusive relationship or the potentially lifelong impact. Victimhood is not a role abuse survivors play, either: it is a legitimate reality. Instead of placing the blame where it really belongs (on the perpetrator), this philosophy dismisses the fact that most victims do not see an abuser’s real self until they are already invested, minimizes the impact of chronic abuse on a survivor’s self-esteem, their agency and their capacity to leave an abuser with whom they develop a trauma bond.
Regardless of what your spiritual beliefs are, let’s put them to good use. Let’s extend the idea of interconnectedness to help victims who suffer every day from the realities of verbal, emotional, physical and sexual abuse. Let’s stop letting abusers off the hook and enabling their behavior – it is not good for either the victim OR the abuser, and it is possible to show compassion from a distance. Let’s stop desensitizing ourselves to the traumatic impact of abuse and policing survivors who speak the truth about it.
There is nothing more compassionate and authentically spiritual than helping those who truly need it. There is nothing more compassionate and empathicthan holding people accountable for changing the behavior that destroys lives. Let’s practice authentic spirituality – the type that celebrates empathy for those abused, that permits survivors to have their own unique healing journey on their own terms, and creates a safer world for all.