Most therapists are used to helping their clients navigate the upheaval of ending relationships, whether it’s with friends, spouses, parents, or substances. It usually requires working through tight knots of grief, ambivalence, and anger. Fortunately, the tangles are often laced with pockets of hope and promises of new beginnings. As therapists, we understand well that humans are relational at our core, and that our relationships can shape large parts of who we are. But there’s one type of relationship that can be so all-encompassing, many therapists aren’t prepared to help their clients end it. This relationship can feel foundational to a person’s identity, family connections, and belief systems, including how they think about their own mind, body, sexuality, and self-worth. It influences how they perceive others, the world around them, and their future—even beyond death. When someone shifts out of this relationship, the change is seismic. Most of the time, every aspect of their life is destabilized.
If you’re a therapist long enough, there’s a good chance a client who’s looking to end, or change, this kind of relationship will walk into your office. Maybe one already has. Maybe you’ve heard something like “I’m questioning my faith,” or “I no longer want to be a part of my church” when you’ve asked somebody what brought them to therapy. For some churchgoers, this might be a relatively easy shift in their lives. But for others, particularly if they’re coming from what’s sometimes referred to as a high-demand, high-control religion, it can require a therapist to attend to all facets of their history, development, social attachments, and sense of self—all without losing sight of their presenting problem.
I know how easy it is to misunderstand what’s going on for individuals looking to transition out of this kind of religion because I’ve been through it myself. And as a therapist who often works with this population, I know how many people looking to leave insular religious communities turn to therapists for support.
A high-demand, high-control religion is a faith community that requires obedience; discourages its members from questioning its rules, principles, and practices; expects subservience and loyalty; discourages trusting relationships outside the group; perpetuates the notion that those within the group are right and superior to those outside of it; promotes extreme or polarizing beliefs; and expects its members to suppress their authentic selves in exchange for the sense of belonging and security the group offers. Even if you haven’t been part of a religion that fits this profile, you’ve probably encountered groups characterized by some of these elements, whether in the form of a family system, a couple struggling with domestic violence, or a political group.
The difference between a religion and other groups exhibiting high-demand, high-control characteristics is often a matter of breadth and degree. When you’ve grown up in a community saturated in rigid or extreme beliefs that permeate all aspects of your life, social networks, and identity, transitioning out of it doesn’t mean changing one thing. It may mean changing everything. As a result, the simple act of seeking help from someone outside the group is a huge, radical, and often terrifying step. Clients who take it need support not just in leaving a way of life that no longer suits them, but in rebuilding their lives from the ground up.
Fire and Brimstone
When I was 11 years old, I was officially baptized into a conservative, high-control, high-demand religion after an exceptionally emotional sermon full of references to fire and brimstone. Our minister, a young guy my dad’s age, was my best friend’s father. He described Hell to our small, rural congregation in a blistering fashion. I didn’t know what brimstone was or smelled like, but the image he painted of sinners who spent all of eternity weeping and gnashing their teeth struck a chord.
In my short life, I was no stranger to weeping and feeling helpless. My father suffered from a mostly untreated bipolar disorder. Sometimes, he’d think he was a prophet, or that God was speaking directly to him. He wouldn’t sleep for days, which was often the first sign that a full-blown manic episode was coming. As a child, I was terrified to witness my father unable to control his mind. I wondered if God would let the same thing happen to me.
The morning of my baptism, the minister sat down beside me and asked if I was ready to give my life to Jesus. For years, I’d been told God was watching me, reading my thoughts, and assessing my motives, while Satan prowled around in the shadows. I monitored myself constantly: Don’t think a bad thought. Don’t want too much. Don’t be too loud. I was scared all the time.
“Yes,” I responded to the minister as I began crying. I’d been living with so much anxiety for so long that the prospect of finding some relief unleashed a wave of emotion.
I wanted to be “right with God,” a phrase people in the denomination I was raised in use a lot. It means giving yourself completely to a life of service, devotion, and unquestioning loyalty to the faith, but I later learned that it actually meant outsourcing all your emotional coping skills to God. I didn’t have to learn to handle anxiety, because I was supposed to be “anxious for nothing,” as the New Testament says. Easy, right? Not at all. I was terrified of going to Hell, and my highly anxious preteen self was determined to do whatever it took to make sure that didn’t happen.
Taking my hand, the minister led me toward the front of the church. As I shuffled down the mustard-gold carpet to the front pew in my pinstriped dress, wiping away tears and struggling to breathe, my feet may as well have weighed a hundred pounds. I didn’t know what a panic attack was, but in hindsight, I was definitely having one. My chest heaving as I sobbed in front of my family and the handful of other people who constituted the congregation, I confessed I was a sinner who wanted to be baptized so I could go to Heaven. My parents came to the front and sat with me. A few minutes later, after changing out of my dress and into a baptismal garment, my dad baptized me into the church. But that wasn’t the end of my anxiety: in many ways, it was just the beginning.
It Will All Make Sense in Heaven Someday
When I work with clients who come to me with religious trauma, here’s what I don’t do. I don’t try to talk them out of being a believer. I don’t force my conclusions on them or make them feel silly if they want to continue to be part of a faith community. And despite similarities in our religious experiences, I don’t make the mistake of assuming I know how they feel. Instead, I’ve learned to always remain open and curious. This is particularly important with clients who’ve already spent many years being pressured to do what’s “right” by others.
I didn’t have to learn to handle anxiety, because I was supposed to be “anxious for nothing,” as the New Testament says.
My client Roger, for example, came to me at his wife’s urging, because after she’d stopped attending their church and started working with a therapist, they’d started having conflicts. She’d become increasingly dissatisfied with their marriage and accused Roger of being phony and uninteresting. Roger had been raised in a denomination where being unkind or impolite meant you were bad. He was devastated by her critiques of him and scared of losing their marriage and falling out of favor in his church. His belief system comforted him, and he couldn’t imagine life without it.
In my work with Roger, I was careful to avoid swaying him in one direction or the other regarding following in his wife’s footsteps and leaving the church, especially after learning how much we had in common. Given our upbringings in our respective high-demand, high-control religions, we’d both learned to be excellent codependents, have low self-worth, and distrust our intuition and decision-making abilities. Believing “this world isn’t my home” and “it will all make sense in Heaven someday” had interfered with developing healthy coping skills for dealing with anxiety, criticism, rejection, and emotional pain.
Yet the ways we’d learned to cope were different. As a teen, Roger had learned to distract himself by becoming an avid consumer of pornography, for which he felt a great deal of shame. I, in contrast, had developed trichotillomania, an impulse-control disorder caused by untreated anxiety. At 13, I started pulling strands of hair out of my scalp at night before bed. Since I was a “good Christian girl” who couldn’t drink or smoke or sleep around, I’d found something else to do with my pent-up feelings. The repetitiveness of this secret ritual soothed me, but because my hair was fine, I quickly developed bald spots. People started asking if I was going through chemotherapy. Not knowing my secret, my parents took me to medical appointments. I judged myself for needing to do this to feel soothed. Why couldn’t I trust God to keep me safe from hard things in my family and life? Each morning, I gathered up the hair lying on the floor next to my bed and flushed it down the toilet.
Purity culture—the expectation that you remain a virgin until marriage—had left its mark on both of us. Roger felt guilty about having sexual thoughts and took the verse about lusting being equal to adultery very seriously. Although he’d judged himself for his porn use, he’d come up with a variety of compensatory activities that helped reduce his guilt, such as doing volunteer work on the weekends. Although I, too, had tried to be “pure” by avoiding sexual thoughts, feelings, and situations, I’d never felt the need to do penance for it. I’d also desperately wished someone would want to be impure with me. When you grow up in a high-demand religion, everything feels desperate and intense. Because I didn’t feel attractive, I threw myself into academics to bolster my rock-bottom self-esteem. My senior year, I was student body president, valedictorian, and yearbook editor. This was a way for me to feel virtuous, like I mattered, and to reassure myself that God was happy with me.
When I graduated from a Christian university and began my adult life, I felt defective. I began wearing a wig to cover my damaged scalp. If you’re a woman in the denomination in which I was raised and still unmarried by the time you graduate from a Christian university—where you’re supposed to have a “ring by spring”—you’re viewed as a pariah of sorts. So I married the first person who asked, a part-time minister whose family attended the same denomination as mine.
Roger, too, had married in his early 20s—mostly, he admitted, because he’d wanted to have sex. Gradually, Roger had weaned himself from his pornography habit, and he and his wife had managed to develop a warm bond that included sex. But when his wife left the church, she’d pulled away sexually, telling Roger she wasn’t interested in having sex unless they could be more genuine and playful. “You act like a robot sometimes,” she’d told him. Her requests had confused him, because he didn’t know how to be any other way than the way he was. In therapy, he began to connect with, name, and trust his emotions more. The day he was able to express that he was angry at his wife for making a sarcastic comment about his faith, he’d come into our session exhilarated.
“I felt my anger!” he said as though he’d won the lottery. “I expressed it!”
For him, this was a big step.
In my work with Roger, I’d focused on providing a safe, nonjudgmental space for him to identify his relationship with his faith and religious community separate from his wife. This meant being mindful of the differences between his experiences and mine and supporting his choice to remain active in his faith community despite his fear of losing his wife. By developing some basic emotional regulation skills and experiencing feelings he’d previously suppressed and judged, Roger showed up with more authenticity in his marriage, which helped his wife feel hopeful about remaining together. Their challenges weren’t solved, but a bridge of connection spanned their two distinct paths.
Buried Under Little Debbie Snacks
Six years into my marriage, my life unraveled. I was babysitting my newborn niece, sitting in a rocking chair in my living room waiting for my then-husband and our two adopted sons to come home. On the surface, I had everything I was supposed to have to be happy: the husband, the family, the house, and the tight-knit church community. But instead of being happy, I was miserable. For years, I’d tried to will myself to love my husband, but no matter what I did, I didn’t feel close to him. I shut down my sexuality—which I’d always been told was “unladylike” and “worldly.” I was exhausted from working so hard to be a good preacher’s wife, presenting a happy, hospitable, caring façade to others. Food was my only comfort, and I’d gained a lot of weight, burying my hopes and dreams under a mountain of Little Debbie snacks, sometimes eating a whole box in one sitting and then hiding the evidence.
Suddenly, as I looked into my niece’s big blue trusting eyes, I realized that one day she might see my marriage as normal and think she was destined for the same thing. I imagined her marrying someone she didn’t love to please God. That was the moment I decided to leave.
Divorce itself in my church was frowned upon, but divorcing a minister was a special blend of hell on earth. I started sneaking into the back of the sanctuary at the start of services and sneaking out during the altar call song to avoid the stares of my community. I’ll never forget the day a church elder got nose-to-nose with me and demanded I justify my actions and make repairs in my marriage. I remember the sensation of his hot breath on my face and can picture the resolve in his eyes. At one point, I was made to sit in a small room, in front of a panel of church leaders, and tell my side of the story. When I refused to reconcile with my ex-husband, the church staff were civil but cold, and things were never
the same between my religion and me. Something broke inside me that could never be repaired—and part of me knew I didn’t want it to be.
As I began my deconversion journey, I saw several experienced, nonreligious therapists. I knew I had a lot to purge emotionally and reconcile in my own heart. Some well-meaning clinicians downplayed the effects of my religious background—which felt invalidating. One therapist told me she wasn’t religious, and I later discovered she was—which made me feel hurt and betrayed. It took time to find someone compassionate who validated that what I’d experienced was traumatic and harmful. Now, validating my clients’ experiences and seeking to understand the level of harm they’ve endured is one of the cornerstones of my practice.
When I began speaking about my experiences with a high-demand, high-control religion on social media as a mental health professional, I couldn’t have foreseen how many people would resonate with my posts or reach out to share. They connected with me in droves on TikTok and Facebook, and I’ve garnered more than 100,000 followers over both platforms. In turn, I’ve expanded my case load. I ended up developing a therapy niche working with clients coming out of these types of religions.
My client Ava found me on social media while she was leaving her faith as a Jehovah’s Witness. She told me that she was angry at her parents for indoctrinating her against her will into a belief system that she felt had harmed her. As a kid, whenever she’d looked longingly at birthday cakes, or stopped to stare at presents in storefront windows in December, they’d insinuated that God would punish her for envying people who celebrated birthdays and holidays like Christmas and Hanukkah. She also told me she wasn’t sure she’d ever be able to forgive her parents for refusing to let her receive a blood transfusion after she’d been injured as a teenager on a bike ride and lost a lot of blood. “That could have killed me,” she said.
In my work with Ava, although I was often angry on her behalf, I was mindful to keep my countertransference in check so she could go through her own emotional process. Many cases of religious trauma deal with clients feeling pressured to forgive either an individual abuser or a particular church in its entirety. In my work as a therapist, I don’t promote forgiveness toward people clients feel have harmed them; instead, I encourage acceptance. Forgiveness is tricky, and the word itself can be triggering for those of us who were taught to forgive things that were truly unforgiveable so we could be viewed as good. I prefer the term acceptance because it helps us let go of the things we’re not responsible for, like the environments we were born into, and own what’s ours to own, like how we relate to ourselves and our past.
Like me, Ava had a lot of issues related to sexuality. Her struggle was that she felt she’d always been bisexual but had been prohibited from exploring this part of herself lest someone in the church find out. Our work together began with rebuilding her foundation of self, figuring out who she was and who she wasn’t, and helping her fill the emotional void left by the loss of her family, who saw her as dead to them. Over time, she transformed into a person who trusted her own intuition, relied on others who loved her unconditionally and reciprocally, and set firm boundaries with those whose love remained contingent on her returning to her old faith. She’s happy in a new relationship with her girlfriend.
A few years after my divorce, I met a man online who lived three hours away and was going through his own divorce. Once we committed to being together as a couple, I moved closer to him and started my graduate work to become a therapist in the evenings while working full-time in a medical office.
It’s been healing to be in a relationship with someone who loves me without an agenda, who doesn’t hold me to an impossible religious standard, and who’s been by my side, without judging me, throughout my deconversion journey. These days, I’ve greatly reduced my baseline level of anxiety, I sleep soundly, I no longer pull out my hair, and when I look in the mirror, I’m proud of the person I see. I feel worthy of love, whether I’m giving or receiving it. Today, I consider myself agnostic.
My deconversion journey has required me to do hard, emotionally challenging work, including developing compassion for my younger self. I don’t think anyone in my past intended to harm me. I believe their attempts to control me were done out of love and concern about my eternal fate. But I didn’t need to be loved in that way, and I most definitely didn’t need saving. It’s a dichotomy I’ve learned to live with, knowing that many of the people I love didn’t intend to hurt me, and yet I was still hurt.
When I’m able to meet my clients where they are spiritually, hold space for them while they process heavy, life-altering questions, and support them through a challenging transition into greater self-love, acceptance, and trust, it’s powerful. For me, the process itself is sacred.
Editor's Note: This article has been updated from the print edition.
Photo Credit iStock/BOONYACHOAT
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