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Spiritual Abuse

By Dr. Margaret Paul
December 31, 2006

A personal experience of Divine Love is available to each of us, so why don't more of us experienced it?

Excerpted from 'Do I Have To Give Up Me To Be Loved By God?'
By Margaret Paul, Ph.D.

SpiritualityA personal experience of Divine Love is available to each of us, so why don't more of us experienced it? Why are so many of us suffering but unable or unwilling to take the hand that reaches down to us? How did we lose our trust and faith in God? Why do we turn to food, sex, TV, overworking, drugs, alcohol - almost anything - rather than fill our emptiness with the love and grace of a Higher Power?

The immense suffering most people feel today is the result of the many generations of spiritual abuse in our culture. Let me explain. A direct, personal experience of God as Divine Love is our birthright. Therefore, anything that disconnects you from experiencing the light of God, from knowing that you are a part of that light and have that light within you, can be termed spiritual abuse. You may think that "abuse" is a harsh word to use in this instance - especially in cases where the abuse is not intentional - but as we take a look at the effect spiritual abuse has on children, I think you will find the use of this term is warranted.

From birth, many of us are treated in ways that disconnect us from a direct experience of Divine Love. If you were taken away from your mother after you were born and put into a hospital nursery or left alone to cry, you likely became terrified. You were so little and helpless, unable to take care of any of your own needs. You instinctively knew that if someone did not come to take care of you, you would die. Children often unconsciously translate being left alone by their parents as being abandoned by God. While most parents dearly love their children and have no intention to abuse them in any way, they may not realize how frightening it is to babies to be left alone feeling so helpless. This is how spiritual abuse, however unintentional, may begin.

Other modern child-care practices continue it. I was raised in the days when parents were taught that babies should be allowed to cry. "It will spoil them if you pick them up," the experts said. "Besides, it's good for their lungs." So my mother, wanting to be a good mother, gritted her teeth and allowed me to cry, denying the instincts that told her to pick me up. Not trusting herself (because she had also suffered spiritual abuse), she trusted the so-called experts instead. The result was that I inherited a substantial legacy of spiritual abuse and have had to spend years - and a great deal of money - recovering from the fear, helplessness, abandonment and ensuing feelings of shame that I experienced at being left alone when I needed to be held or fed.

Many of us felt so abandoned in infancy and childhood that, later in life, even if we do believe in God, we don't believe that God/Spirit will be there for us. That we have problems feeling Divine love and acceptance and opening to spiritual guidance is no surprise. How can we rely on God to be there for us when we could not experience our parents being there in the way we needed? Even very loving, well-intentioned parents may not know how to be there for their children in the way their children need. We may have ended up feeling alone even while knowing that our parents dearly loved us. My clients often say to me, "I know my parents really loved me, but I did not feel loved. They just didn't see me or understand what I needed."

For many adults, being left alone is still terrifying; it may feel as if our very survival is at stake. The buried memory of our infant aloneness, when we would have died if someone did not come to care for us, is deeply etched into our psyches. My clients have described it as feeling like they are lost in outer space with the tether to their spaceship cut, consigned to drifting in the infinite blackness until death claims them.

The intensity of this feeling of aloneness can be so overwhelming, it often triggers a host of dysfunctional behaviors - drinking, drug use, compulsive eating, compulsive shopping, gambling - which we turn to in unconscious desperation to distract ourselves or ease the pain.

This does not imply that leaving a child alone for a few minutes or leaving a child to cry for a short period of time is abusive. Nor does it imply that children left in loving day care will suffer the effects of spiritual abuse. Not only does each child respond differently to being left alone, but the intention to be loving to a child goes a long way to soften the effects of less than perfect situations.

Having suffered from spiritual abuse does not mean that our parents were abusers. Spiritual abuse is more often the consequence of our society's child-rearing practices than of our parents' intended abusiveness. Thus many of us ended up suffering from unintentional spiritual abuse. It is important not to blame our parents for our difficulties in maintaining a spiritual connection. Most of our parents did the very best they could, as we do with our children. It is just important to understand how our false beliefs and resulting disconnection from God may have come about.

All Abuse Is Spiritual Abuse

Spiritual abuse is more than just not holding children when they need it. It is also holding or touching them with an intent other than to love them, such as:

* To get love from them

* To control them

* To physically abuse them

* To sexually abuse them

In fact, all abuse is ultimately spiritual abuse, because it undermines your sense of self and your relationship with God. Giving children anything other than love and compassion is spiritual abuse because all unloving behavior toward children creates an ongoing problem in their relationship with God. Any behavior that teaches children that they must be different (smarter, more polite, more obedient) in order be loved by God - or by their parents - is spiritual abuse. Any behavior by an adult that disconnects a child from God within is spiritual abuse. And any behavior that undermines a child's belief in God as an infinite source of love, compassion and wisdom that is always available to that child is spiritual abuse.

Parents are supposed to be instruments of love, bringing the love that is God to their children. Unless you felt safe in the arms of your parents, you may not know that you can safely rest in Divine Love. Unless you felt unconditionally loved as a child, you may not be able to experience being unconditionally loved by God - at least, not until you heal from your spiritual abuse.

When parents are needy and use their children to get something from them - love, security, attention, energy, a sense of power over them - children learn that they are unworthy of receiving love, that they are just objects to be used by others. They may come to believe that their worth is either in giving to others and sacrificing themselves, or in accomplishing something. If the only time they receive attention or approval is when they are "good" or they accomplish something, they come to believe their worth is in what they do rather than in who they are. And when they feel unworthy of receiving love for who they are from their parents - their personal demigods - they feel unworthy of receiving love from God.

Many of my clients have told me that they hated being held by their mother or father. It felt to them as if the very life was being sucked out of them. Many were shamed for crying when they didn't want to be held or touched, derided with words like, "What's the matter with you? You're such a cold person." Often they have carried the mistaken belief that there was something wrong with them for not wanting to be held. As they heal, they are relieved to recognize that they had good reasons for detesting their mother's or father's touch. It was a touch that took love, not gave it.

Parents are supposed to make sure their children are safe and healthy by setting loving boundaries, such as preventing a child from running into the street or burning a hand on a hot stove. Parents are also supposed to help their children learn to trust themselves. They do this by showing their own trust of their children's ability to know what they want and don't want, as well as what feels good and doesn't feel good (when safety and health are not at issue, of course).

When parents control their children through verbal abuse (shaming, judging, criticizing, discounting, threatening) or physical abuse (hitting, beating, any violence to the body) instead of setting loving boundaries and trusting the child, children learn to feel inadequate and to distrust themselves. When children feel inadequate, they feel unworthy of God's love. When they learn to distrust themselves, they learn to distrust others and God. Trying to control a child through verbal or physical abuse is spiritual abuse.

Sexual abuse is also spiritual abuse. When parents or other adults abuse children sexually, they teach children that they are objects to be used. Sexual abuse deeply violates not only the body but the soul, instilling shame, fear and powerlessness, and robbing children of any feeling that they are worthy of love. When adults, who are supposed to make sure children are safe, betray them by hurting and using them, children may decide that God either doesn't exist or has betrayed them.

I have heard about a few advanced souls who come into this life remembering that the spark of God exists within them, but the rest of us had no way of knowing we were worthy of being loved by God if our parents did not bring God's love through to us. If, as we grew up, we had been able to remember who we really are - that we each have the light of God within - we would not have traded our true Selves for the bulletproof vests and steel helmets of the false self.

But we were taught that the adults around us knew better than we did about who we are. We thought that if we were lovable and worthy, we would receive love from our caregivers. We believed that if we were good enough, they would not use us or shame us or leave us alone with the deadly lost-in-outer-space feeling. We had no way of knowing that our parents were also wounded, that they may not have known how to love themselves any better than they knew how to love us.

As a result of our spiritual abuse, we are left without a direct, personal experience of God, crying alone in the night.


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