I’ve been spending a lot of my summer this year sitting by the ocean and reading. My favorite book of the year, by far, has been Reba Riley’s
memoir, Post Traumatic Church Syndrome. ‘Cause if there’s one syndrome I have, it’s definitely that one.
The book is ridiculously funny and captivating– a memoir about trying 30 religions before Reba’s 30th birthday in hopes to find healing from her past church trauma. (Psssst… you can get your own copy by clicking on the book cover —->
In a gentle and nonthreatening way, the book has invited me to re-engage my own journey of dealing with past church trauma… trauma that continues to plague my brain during sleepless New England nights, and causes heart palpitations when visiting a new church or hearing something that feels church-y.
While reading this book I began jotting down some of my own thoughts on dealing with Post Traumatic Church Syndrome. Since I know so many of you in internet land have the same diagnosis as Reba and myself, I wanted to pass along my top 10 ways you too, can begin dealing with your church trauma:
10. Give yourself permission to set up healthy boundaries.
This one should be the most obvious, but it’s also the one we’re quick to overlook or feel guilty for doing. However, one cannot heal while they are being actively re-injured. You wouldn’t expect a broken arm to heal if every weekend you did the same activity that fractured your arm in the first place, would you? It’s not only good but necessary to set up healthy boundaries between yourself and the people who continue to injure you. (And don’t forget, sometimes “unfriend” and “block” can be a really healthy choice.)
9. Invest in a season of counseling.
I am convinced that everyone needs a counselor. You’re going to need a season of processing everything that happened, so settle into the office of a good therapist and stay as long as you need in order to work through some of this stuff. Once you do, you might wonder why you waited so long– if you embrace therapy there’s a great deal of freedom to be found.
8. Be honest with yourself about what happened.
Most cases of church trauma are legitimate cases of trauma, injustice and the like. However, there are also cases where churches did the right thing– confronting bullies, holding people accountable for abandoning their families, etc. If your trauma isn’t so much trauma as it is a story of how others tried to stop you from being a bully, or held you accountable for causing harm to others, own it and learn from it.
7. Own your crap about “before.”
If you go through the process of individual therapy, you’re going to realize that your church trauma actually brought up a lot of crap from “before.” Whether it was your childhood or other past experiences, trauma has the tendency to bring up a lot of junk from the past. Part of healing is owning that crap, and asserting your power over it instead of its power over you. Until you acknowledge it and own it however, your junk may be driving the car and you might just be a passenger.
6. Find something healthy that pours into you, and do it.
Dealing with church trauma is a marathon, not a sprint. More than that, most people begin this journey already depleted, feeling beat up, and with little gas in the tank. If you’re going to make it to the other side (and I believe you can!) you’ve gotta find a way to put gas in your tank. Just make sure this life-giving thing you do isn’t actually self-destructive and merely disguised as life-giving.
5. Daily practice the release of anger, bitterness, and any other emotion that’s eating you alive (or has the potential to).
This isn’t to say the anger, bitterness or whatever else you’re feeling is wrong or less than totally legitimate… it’s just that holding onto those emotions only hurt one person– ourselves. As justified as these emotions may be, they are corrosive in nature and dangerous to keep around for an extended period. The only way to beat them is to practice, practice, practice setting them aside and letting them go.
4. Stop listening to those old tapes in your head.
Bad church experiences end up becoming tapes with messages about ourselves that replay in our minds in the most unhelpful ways. This is because church trauma usually send us very specific messages about worth and identity that we internalize: you are bad, you will never measure up, God is angry with you, you are not good enough to be one of us, you will never be accepted, etc. These harmful messages end up replaying in our minds in new situations, and can keep driving the point home for a lifetime. We must learn to recognize when this record plays, and make the conscious decision to reject the message it is broadcasting.
3. Remember that those who harmed you are really broken people too.
This isn’t to give a free pass to abusers, and it doesn’t mean we reconcile with those who would again harm us or re-abandon us, but it is important to remember they are broken people too– even if they can’t see it, acknowledge it, or will never deal with it. They have old tapes that play in their mind too, and sometimes it’s helpful for us to remember that.
2. Work at believing that those who harmed you didn’t speak for Jesus and weren’t acting on his behalf.
Too often we actually make a strange idol out of people who have harmed us in church. This happens when we functionally allow their words and actions towards us hold more weight than what Jesus said or what Jesus did. We must remember that Jesus speaks for Jesus, and they are not his mouthpiece.
1. Take a chance in new relationships.
This last one is the most difficult, but the most important of all. As scary as it may be, here’s why you need to take a risk: since our trauma happened in the context of relationships, the only way we will find ultimate healing and freedom is in the context of relationships. It’s hard and risky, I know– I’m there too. But I also have discovered the only things that have truly begun to put balm over my church wounds, have been in the context of new relationships.
Church trauma sucks, there’s no way around that. My hope and prayer– both for myself and for those of you out there– is that church trauma will come to simply mark one of the stops on our journey, instead of marking our final landing place.
(But wait– how do you define Post Traumatic Church Syndrome, you ask? Here’s Reba in her own words:)