What is Religious Trauma?
Published on
February 27, 2024

What is Religious Trauma?

Tyson talks with Dr. Kerry Horrell, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor College of Medicine and Clinical Psychologist at the Menninger Clinic, in Houston, TX. They discuss religious trauma, what it is, how it interacts with shame, attachment, and self-image, and what helps people who have experienced religious trauma.
Hosted by 
Tyson Conner, MA

Tyson Conner  00:10

Do you want to learn about psychological growth without sorting through the jargon? You're in the right place. This is the Relational Psych podcast. I'm your host licensed therapist, Tyson Conner. On this show, we learned about the processes and theories behind personal growth and experience a little bit of it ourselves. Join me twice a month for candid conversations about therapy and psychological concepts with real mental health professionals using understandable language and simple experiments that you can try yourself. Keep in mind this podcast does not constitute therapeutic advice, but we might help you find some. And my guest for today is Dr. Kerry Horrell. You've just told me how to say it. And then I blanked and I was freaking out.

Dr. Kerry Horrell  00:55

You nailed it.

Tyson Conner  00:57

Dr. Kerry Horrell! She is the Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor College of Medicine and clinical psychologist at the Menninger Clinic in Houston, Texas. She's also the division coordinator for the inpatient youth division and specializes in working with young adults and adolescents. Her research interests are in religion and spirituality, and gender and sexuality, particularly on how those two areas interact. She also co-hosts a podcast that comes out of the clinic called Mind Dive, which explores trending topics in the field of psychiatry and mental health in general. Dr. Horrell, thank you for coming on the podcast.

Dr. Kerry Horrell  01:37

I am so excited to be here with you and get to chat with you a bit. Thanks for having me.

Tyson Conner  01:43

Absolutely. Today, we are going to begin to answer the question, because I doubt we'll get all the way through it, "How do I recover from religious or spiritual trauma?"

Dr. Kerry Horrell  01:57

It's a big question, but I do think we can skim the surface.

Tyson Conner  02:01

Uh huh. Yeah. I mean, it seems like the best place to start would be just to define what is religious trauma, what is spiritual trauma.

Dr. Kerry Horrell 02:11

I think usually, religion and spirituality get really clumped together. You know, actually, as a small aside, I think a lot of the things I research or care about often are things that are quite different but get clump together. The other thing I'm thinking about is guilt and shame. So I actually think one of the first places to start is the difference between religion and spirituality. Because I think that's a really important piece of how to recover is thinking about those differences. And what people want in their life. Religion, as I'm sure many people listening would understand, is much more about sort of an organized set of beliefs, a way of understanding the world that is held, usually, by a community that one is a part of. Whereas spirituality, I think is far more a part of the individual kind of process, individual level, it has to do with the experience of connecting to something that you consider sort of higher than yourself, or sort of outside of yourself. And ultimately, it often encompasses the process of meaning making, and finding purpose in life. Again, spirituality, the root being spirit, it's about the human spirit, "who am I," "what's my purpose in this world," and it has a lot to do with connecting to, again, something that's bigger than yourself. Again, we'll come to this I'm sure later, but the reason why I say that is because I think when people experienced trauma in this context, there can be a desire to sort of throw the baby out with the bathwater. And I'm a big believer that, in regard to kind of optimum flourishing that we have a sense of spirituality - whatever that looks like, religious or not. And so I like to make that distinction.

Tyson Conner  04:00

It sounds like, from what you're describing, spirituality, you can think of kind of like an episode of television, it's an experience, it's a thing that happens, you engage with it, you make meaning from it, you encounter something with it. And religion would be like, the network that airs the episodes of television. It's a whole system that exists that in many ways interacts with and exists to deliver you the experience of the episode of television, and there's a lot more that goes into it. There's ads, and then there's reruns. And then there's what comes on before or after the episode of television that involves a lot of other people and a whole institution, usually, and a whole community, usually with a kind of group identity, separate from like the spiritual experience that an individual might have. 

Dr. Kerry Horrell  04:48

I love that. I think that's a great analogy, to look at the difference between those things. But when we're thinking about trauma in that context, I often like to relate it to what we know as attachment trauma, or it's more similar to attachment trauma. So of course, the word trauma has so much - for lack of better word, you know, - baggage. There's so many ideas about it. And I don't actually love this phrase. But you know, oftentimes we categorize trauma as big T Trauma and little T trauma. That meaning that there's sort of a difference between these one time very impactful types of traumas. This could be a car accident, a significant type of abuse, things like that. But we also know there is a type of trauma that's more complex - not necessarily more complex, we call it complex trauma - but it is a type that is more ongoing. And often, it is events that are happening over time in which a person begins to experience emotional turmoil. They experience a sense of questioning. And oftentimes, it's happening in the context of relationships. So I think often when we're talking about complex trauma, we're talking about attachment trauma, as in the pain someone is experiencing is happening in "how am I being known? How am I being understood? How do I understand myself? How do I process and make sense of my relationships."

Tyson Conner  06:23

I think I want to slow down a little bit, because our Listeners will likely have developed some kind of sense of attachment as a category of what we mean when we talk about attachment. But just to clarify. Attachment, Listener, is a category and a way of thinking about people, and a part of how people work that has to do with how we handle intimate relationships. And a great way to think about it is like how we learn to love. And that's all kinds of love. And so when someone has attachment trauma, then oftentimes we're talking about trauma and disruption and confusion around how people love one another. What is love? What is harm? What am I supposed to expect from the people who take care of me, these sorts of things. And oftentimes, attachment trauma isn't the result of like a single incident, it's not one moment of your mom forgetting to pick you up from soccer practice. It's repeated patterns. Our attachment systems in our minds, tend to be built over long periods of time through patterns of interacting. And so when we repeatedly have these confusing, or unhelpful patterns of interacting with the people who are supposed to care for us, we can get confused about it. That's what I'm hearing you say is like, when we're talking about spiritual trauma, we're probably not talking about something like a car accident or an assault, we're talking about something that happened repeatedly over a long period of time, that kind of developed some unhelpful patterns inside of a person's mind.

Dr. Kerry Horrell  08:11

I love that. And I think you know, one other piece, I tend to throw in there around attachment trauma - I often say this when I'm introducing the concept to my own patients is, I say, of course, when we're talking about attachment, our mind goes to the experience of how we relate to others. But attachment is also inherently bound up in how we see ourself. The attachment experience is the dynamic between "how do I see myself? How do I feel worthy of connection and belonging? How do I feel about my emotional experiences? And therefore how does that also come into the picture of how do I feel in connection with other people?" And I absolutely, cosign, love, retweet what you said about the idea that when we're talking about spiritual and religious trauma, this is usually an ongoing piece. And again, I think one of the distinctions you can make between certain types of trauma and this kind of complex trauma is that it inherently has to do with identity. Whereas again, if you get in a car accident, and you're having flashbacks, you begin to develop an avoidance of the car, you begin to feel really scared of other drivers. That can at times impact identity, but it's less likely. Whereas if I'm not being picked up on my mother repeatedly. And when I feel angry in my home growing up, this is more attachment trauma than spiritual religious trauma. And I'm constantly related to my anger as if there's something wrong with me, this begins to relate to identity. And so that's why when I think about this type of traumatic experience, and for some people, even the experience of religious or spiritual abuse, I think about it in a similar vein, because it is so often related to how a person begins to understand themselves, and how they should or shouldn't relate to other people.

Tyson Conner  10:13

Yeah. So it sounds like this kind of trauma isn't the kind of trauma that you maybe would want to get, like some exposure therapy for, because it's not about a fear response to a specific trigger - which is sort of the very common way of thinking about and understanding trauma. It's about a sense of self, it's about who I am. And that our attachment relationships, we talk on this podcast a lot about the idea of what is interpersonal - between people - becomes interapsychic - within one mind. Patterns that start out as being interactions between people, we tend to take in and take in inside of our minds and how we make sense of the world and ourselves. Sounds like you're saying this kind of trauma absolutely does that, it changes how we relate not just the world outside of ourselves, but the world inside of ourselves as well.

Dr. Kerry Horrell  11:10

Absolutely. I couldn't agree more.

Tyson Conner  11:13

So does this happen a lot? This spiritual trauma stuff? Because it sounds scary.

Dr. Kerry Horrell  11:20

You know, I was kind of re looking over some of the research. And there is just tons of varying ideas about how common this is. Again, there are distinctions between abuse, specifically like sexual and physical abuse, that happens in the context of some sort of clergy based relationship. And those are more common than they should be, but less frequent than maybe some of these other experiences, where it's more about the messaging and some of the themes that come up within the religious or spiritual context. And again, while it's hard to put a label on, both from the research, and also even anecdotally from the work that I've done with people, it's quite common. You know, I think about how complicated within many different religious contexts there is kind of a common theology or idea that there is something "bad" about the self, that "who I am or what I sort of am as a person, entity, spirit is bad," and what God is - again, whoever and whatever that God might be - is what is good. And while I think that there are ways to look at that theological belief, ultimately, for many people, this is a very complicated idea. And I think this is often one of the veins in which we see why a lot of people end up with big questions about who am I and ultimately am I good or bad. And I think even about one of the most common within the evangelical kind of Christian sphere - which I should say, as a caveat, that's my main area of specialization is within kind of evangelicalism. That's where I've done my research, you know, is the song Amazing Grace. And even in the song Amazing Grace, one of the the main lyrics is "a wretch like me." We are wretched, wicked. And again, for many people, I think, learning how to integrate in that idea within a sturdy, whole, self compassionate sense of self is very difficult. So again, I think that there's a pretty large swath of people who have experienced some level of confusion, again, maybe reducing the number of some level of trauma, and then even smaller, maybe abuse within this system. But the main thing I would want to say on that point is that if you're listening to this, you've experienced some of this, you are not alone. This is something that many people have experienced, struggled with, and ultimately, many people have also healed from. So that would be my main takeaway is that people are not alone. If this is an area where they struggle.

Tyson Conner  14:11

Yeah, yeah. So it sounds like part of what I'm hearing you say that's so complex about all this is that the like, unhelpful or even harmful worldview can sometimes grow out of an explicit theological statement that gets -- that can be explicitly taught directly from a pulpit or from a Sunday school classroom or whatever else, from a guru. But also gets acted out in sort of subtler patterns of interaction built within these communities that then get taken in to mean very particular things. I suppose part of what I'm hearing is I'm trying to walk a line where we're not like denigrating entire theological traditions. But, and part of what I'm imagining is that, for some people, when they hear the phrase "that saved a wretch like me," there's a kind of freedom from the need to be perfect. Right? I think about Martin Luther a lot with that, who was a guy who was like, oh, man, probably had OCD. I mean, we don't diagnose people from history, but like, religious scrupulosity, he had that for sure. And so for him to be able to say, like, 'No, there's no way I can be perfect. And yet God still embraces and loves me' is freedom from his own internal oppression, right? But for someone else, those exact same words, said slightly differently or said in a different context, might actually be really harmful. And I think that's part of what's so messy about these kinds of discussions is because two different people can approach the same spiritual tradition - can approach the same religious community - and one can find freedom, and grace and peace and emotional health. And the other can find oppression, and suffering and loss, and pain and sorrow. Kind of depends on how we make sense of it, and what we do with it, and what the people around us do with it.

Dr. Kerry Horrell  16:45

I think that, again, just really appreciating everything you just said, and especially I think that last component, because I think it takes a particular level of sophistication. And I hope that doesn't sound critical, but to be able to hold those pieces in mind - that I am, at the same time -- again, if this is the theological tradition that you might follow, and again, it's very common among multiple religious communities -- that something is inherently sinful about me. And I am created by a God who loves me within his own image. And so the bringing of those two pieces together requires a level of sophistication. And I think especially -- and I love that you mentioned this in the intro, I work a lot with young people, adolescents and young adults, that -- how they're able to integrate that in, in regard to developing a healthy sense of self depends on how they're taught it. It depends on the gentleness, the kindness and sort of the sophistication in which those around in the community bring that idea, and how we bring it. And again, I think for many people who've experienced trauma in this form, there is an over-emphasis, or a pretty strong emphasis on the part of 'there's something really bad about you, there's something really bad about who you are,' and even like, you know, different parts of our identity. You know, my research is specifically on gender, and both in regard to masculinity and femininity, but also in regard to just our experience of gender identity. And then also in sexuality, whether that be how we are just sexual people, and what sexuality looks like. And then also in regard to sexual orientation. So, you know, that's my major sphere. So when I think about even, like, as a woman growing up in the church, a lot of how this got imparted to me was that as a woman, I had specific stumbling blocks that I would need to look out for, that I would be a gossip - a strong possibility, I could be a gossip. And I really needed to watch what I wore and how I dress so that I wouldn't make my brothers stumble, you know, all these things in which the major focus being on 'something's really wrong, bad, broken about you, and you should kind of be afraid of it,' rather than there being that freedom of actually, that means that you are just promised that you are not gonna be perfect, and that's okay. Instead, again, underlying message of, 'we're going to say that that's okay, but also like, really try to hold that together.'

Tyson Conner  19:27

Yeah. I'm thinking about a couple of different things. One is a lot of the things that you're saying are making me think about Twitter threads I've read - I haven't read the guy's book yet. It's, you know, I would say that it's on my nightstand, but the fact that my nightstand is made of a pile of books I have yet to read. So one element of my nightstand is Crispin Mayfield's 'Attached to God.' Are you familiar with this book? And a lot of his Twitter threads around it and some of the interviews he's done about it, he talks about shame based spirituality. And a lot of the stuff that he says has made me think about this. Can you speak a little about shame? And how that fits into all this, what we're talking about? You said it's different from guilt. So we know that much.

Dr. Kerry Horrell  20:13

Yeah, let's talk a little bit about that. Because I think you're right, such a critical part of this conversation. So when I think about shame, and I pull a lot from Brene Brown's work. Her work in regard to that. She has a curriculum called The Daring Way. Also a lot of Kristin Neff's work on self compassion, just to plug a couple places you can look more into this if you're interested. But shame ultimately has to do with the self. So both guilt and shame are painful, and intense affects, emotions, that have to do with an evaluation. But guilt tends to be an evaluation of something we do. It's an evaluation of an action or behavior. Whereas shame is an evaluation of the self. That typically is a negative global evaluation. So this is overly simplified, but I often teach it like this - guilt is I did something bad, and shame is I am bad. And you can swap out bad for all sorts of unworthy, stupid, you know, any sort of thing. And people have different flavors of their shame. But ultimately -- and one of the questions that we don't have time for in this podcast episode that I'm very fascinated by, is the utility of shame, can shame ever be useful? And I have lots of thoughts about that. And there's more research and a little bit more of a sturdy argument for guilt. If we were all guiltless, that would not be good. Guilt can help us start towards changing our behavior when it's outside of our values. But is there a utility and how, you know, seeing ourselves is bad. The piece that I always think about to help me really ground myself in this is trait-based shame. So we're all going to have shame, shame is an emotional experience that if you have the capacity to be in relationship with other people, and you're not a sociopath, or a psychopath, you will experience shame in your life. And so when we can know that, and we know how to process it, then shame doesn't become a central part of our identity. But where I think shame becomes the most problematic in regard to not only mental health outcomes, how we live our life, how we connect to other people, is when shame becomes very rooted in our identity. This is how we know ourselves. It drives how we understand ourselves, connect to others, and then kind of our attachment experiences. So that's sort of my definition, or how I try to make sense of shame, especially when I'm trying to say this is something we should really target. We should really work through and I'd encourage people to work through it when it becomes really connected to the self.

Tyson Conner  23:02

Yeah, so part of what I'm hearing you say - or some thoughts that are connecting in my mind, let me know if I'm hearing you correctly - is that like, the big difference between guilt and shame is guilt - I did bad. Shame, I am bad. And that shame, that trait-based shame, it could be like, 'this part of me is bad.' But like, it's still about that identity piece. Right? It's not, 'it's bad for me to steal a candy bar.' It's 'the part of me that wants that candy bar is bad.' Which is kind of maybe a space that we want to be curious about. Like maybe it's okay to want a candy bar, but it is also bad to take it without paying for it, for instance. Or maybe it's okay to want a candy bar. And maybe it's not okay to eat it if you're diabetic and haven't you know, dosed your insulin appropriately for the candy bar, right. So it gets more complex in there. But you know, a diabetic is not bad for wanting a candy bar that will kill them. 

Dr. Kerry Horrell  24:10

if I were to even kind of tweak that a little more, so let's say someone does steal a candy bar from the store. And in fact, there are many young kids or early adolescents who do this. Guilt would be 'I shouldn't have done that, I'm not supposed to take things without paying for it. That's not in line with how I want to be as a person, in line with my values. I don't want to do that again. That didn't feel good and I even want to make amends for it.' Typically, guilt is more related to pro social behavior. Now shame might look like 'Ah, what's wrong with me? Why did I do that? That did not feel -- I am actually just such a shh--- bad person (I was about to use a different word) I am such a person who's no good --'

Tyson Conner  24:55

You can use that word, that's allowed.

Dr. Kerry Horrell  24:59

'This is a reflection of who I am at my core.' Now, this is where it diverges. Because if that person recognizes that they experienced emotional shame, but they say, 'I want to talk to someone about this, that doesn't feel good. I don't know that that's actually true of me. I'm not a bad person, even though that's how I kind of feel right now.' And they're able to move through it. That's again, just someone experiencing the emotion of shame. But what is often common with shame is that that person might say, 'Yes, this is a reflection of who I am, I'm bad. I'm just no good.' And they might then say, 'I need to hide this, I can't let anybody know, people cannot know that I'm this terrible person. And I'm going to now lie about and steal that candy. I'm going to become very critical of myself, I am not going to let people get close to me. So they don't see what I feel like they would see if they got close to me.' And that's where it becomes a really problematic psychological phenomenon.

Tyson Conner  25:59

So as is true for many emotions, and many affective states, it causes trouble when it gets stuck. Causes trouble when we can't integrate it. Listener if you're listening, if you're hearing echoes of my recent conversation with Brian Pendergast, yes, listener, if you haven't listened to that episode on multiplicity of self go back. 

Dr. Kerry Horrell  26:21

Sounds like a great episode. 

Tyson Conner  26:22

I enjoyed it. But one of the themes in that episode is this idea of certain feeling states, affective states, self states, getting stuck, and not being able to sort of connect to the rest of the parts of the self. Sounds like shame might not be all that harmful, so long as we can work through it, and return back to the sense of completeness and wholeness. And it sounds like what I'm hearing you say is that shame becomes a lot more harmful when that part of us gets separated out and put in a corner and hidden away. And we do our best to pretend it's not there. Which goes back again to that conversation, we referenced Freud's three essays on human sexuality. And he talks about the guy acting up in the lecture hall, right? If there's a part of us that we try to exile out into the hallway, it screams and bangs on the door and causes trouble. And the thing that helps us to be able to bring that part of us in and work through what are they yelling about? How does this work? How does someone go about doing that? If I'm a listener, and I'm realizing in this conversation, ' Oh, yeah, I've got a lot of really like, shame based parts of myself. And it is connected to my religious upbringing. It is connected to my spirituality, and it is causing trouble.' What... Oh, boy, this is dramatic. what hope is there for that listener?

Dr. Kerry Horrell  28:00

There's so much hope. When we're talking about 'how do I heal from religious spiritual trauma,' the very first step is acknowledging that there has been some level of trauma or even just painful experiences that have happened. You know, there is this profound connection between shame and this particular type of trauma, I think, one of the best ways that we can know you might have experienced some trauma in this context of your life, because of some of the beliefs that you've begun to hold very closely to your sense of self. And so like many things, we can't heal from it, we can't move forward and begin that process of getting unstuck, until we can begin to name it. We can begin to bring it into a level of acknowledgement that, 'wow, I really do seem to have some pain here that is influencing how I relate to people, have closeness in my life.' As a researcher, particularly of a sexual shame, religious sexual shame, it's a good example -- I think, to try to make it a bit more concrete. You know, especially women who grew up in religious communities often received a message that something about their body is dangerous. It can cause other people to stumble and be sinful, and the onus of sexual sin and lust gets placed on women, especially in regard to their bodies. And so as an adult, you know, a woman might say to themselves, like, 'I feel really embarrassed about my body, or I really don't want anyone to kind of be looking at me, especially like, in any sort of way that would feel sexual. And then even in my own relationship with a sexual partner or a spouse, that I feel really uncomfortable with sex. I feel really uncomfortable with sexual pleasure. I feel really guilty.' Just feeling a constant sense of like, 'this is bad, I am bad for wanting this.' So beginning to recognize, 'well, I'm not really enjoying this part of my life. When we think about shame, some of the major things to look for are, do you feel like you need to hide? Do you feel like you need to lie? And are you being judgmental both of yourself and others in regard to certain parts of identity? And so when we can begin to acknowledge all that's happening, to me, that's absolutely the first step.

Tyson Conner  30:31

That's a very interesting checklist. Do you need to hide? Do you need to lie? And are you being judgmental of self and other? If those three things are true about a thing, then there's a chance that there's some shame involved there? And I'm thinking about ways that sort of, we've culturally normalized certain elements of shame. And I'm realizing my candy bar example earlier, I feel like is relevant, because I feel like there's a lot of shame around food and eating.

Dr. Kerry Horrell  31:00

Yes, 100%, 

Tyson Conner  31:02

Where we feel like we need to hide and lie, and we judge people for their diets or for their bodies. And then that segues into sexuality, we do that there, too. That's interesting. And I imagine that there are places all over the place where people feel that way that are more specific than cultural, I guess. This might be outside of the breadth or scope of this conversation. But I think I'm realizing in this conversation, just how like, almost sociological shame is? Shame is an experience - is an aspect of experience and emotional experience - that exists mostly in terms of one's relationship to their community. It's not even about the relationship necessarily with a person. Because I'll -- you know, my partner will come downstairs when I've had a long day. And she'll see me sitting there playing video games with my t-shirt pulled up to my belly, and I'm eating a bowl of ice cream, and like, whatever it's cool, she loves me, I love her, we're good. But if that image were all of a sudden going to be live-streamed to my neighbors, I'd be mortified. And a little bit ashamed.

Dr. Kerry Horrell  32:26

You're again, you're totally nailing -- this is a conversation for another day in regard to how much we could get into it. But one piece about shame that I usually introduce when I'm talking about it when I lead a group on shame, is that it's evolutionary in nature. The reason why this affect exists, is becaus it's how we used to stay connected to the pack. It is a very intense emotion for the sake of our survival. And so there is a very clear element of it that is about community, and staying connected to not just individuals, but our community in general. And actually this is one of the arguments as to why shame can be a useful thing, because it does teach us how to be prosocial, it gives us how we should kind of stay within the bounds of what's acceptable within society.

Tyson Conner  33:12

Hmm. That's interesting. I'm thinking about how when in parenting classes, and when you're trying to get like positive parenting type things. And the idea of when you say 'don't do X,' it's more energy, because you've put the idea of doing X in your head. So one of the things that they'll recommend parents do, like, if a kid is having a hard time staying seated at the dinner table, right? They'll say, 'we sit to eat', right? You create this group identity, and you say, 'this is what we do. We sit to eat, right? We use our words and our fists when we're upset. We keep our voices down in the library. We buckle our seatbelts before we go anywhere.' These are all important things to communicate to a child. And I'm seeing how somewhere in there is the possibility of shame. If I'm a kid, and I'm told 'we keep our voices down in the library,' but I get excited and I yell, then I remember, 'Oh, we keep our voices down in the library. I feel ashamed to feel like oh, no, I did -- I'm bad.'

Dr. Kerry Horrell  34:20

And this is where again, I think there's the aspect of how shame gets used. One of the things we might notice about shame is that shame is incredibly effective. It changes behavior, lickety split. So if you have a child, and you're trying to do gentle parenting, and you're saying 'we sit while we eat, hey you're standing, we sit." And you kind of bring it back to that I actually don't think that's shaming. But if you take a child who you know, that's the rule, 'what is wrong with you? Can you not listen? Are you stupid? If you can't sit to eat, then you don't get to eat at all.' It just some of the messaging that can be chronic around shame. And this is when it becomes internalized and so much part of the identity. People will change their behavior quickly in regard to shame. But ultimately, it can become really problematic when it's more about, 'I no longer feel like I do belong, and I have to hide who I am.' What goes on inside of my mind and my internal world to stay connected. I think to me, that's why it's so comes back to why shame is such a part of religious/spiritual trauma, because the idea is 'I need to put on the good, pure, worthy, whatever we want to say kind of facade so that I stay belonging to the church.' Many people in their own individual lives are just reeling with these questions of like, 'I'm not like everybody else in this building. I do not feel good enough.' And one part again, that we probably don't have time to get into, is the relationship between shame and compulsive behavior. One area that I'm really interested in is pornography use. And ultimately, I don't think pornography is inherently bad. But I think many, many people begin to use it compulsively, in a way that don't feel in line with their values. And even if they feel deeply, 'I don't want this,' it becomes a spiral and a cycle that's so related to shame, which is, 'there's no hope for me. Because it isn't just about my pornography use as far as what I'm doing as a behavior. It's about who I am. And I am a disgusting, perverted, horrible, bad person. And since there's no hope that that's actually going to change, I begin to continue to do a behavior that doesn't feel good to me.'

Tyson Conner  36:33

Yeah, the behaviors that come from that shameful place, because shame kind of stays in the dark, shame doesn't want to be seen, shame doesn't want to be felt, shamed doesn't want to be touched, we definitely don't want other people to see it. But we don't want to see it ourselves. There can be a tendency to, when we engage in behaviors that bring us shame, to enter into this shame corner, where nothing is real, where nothing matters, we're just bad. So it's fine, we can do whatever. And then all that connection to the rest of ourselves and to the rest of our community, and the rest of our values just kind of disappears. And I've heard people talk about how that happens in like gambling addiction, for instance, or other addictions, as well. Where you get into this state of mind, where you're totally disconnected from the rest of your life. There's a part of you that says, 'well, if I'm just gonna be a pile of garbage, who sits here at the slot machine all day pulling the thing, at least I'm getting dopamine. So whatever, I guess I'll accept I'm disconnected from the rest of my values in life. I'm here getting the pleasure that seems to soothe something.'

Dr. Kerry Horrell  37:43

Its a beautiful example. Because again, you're right, one of the things that the dopamine suits is the experience of shame. It's a very messy relationship. And that's why I don't take for granted that that first piece is actually quite a challenging one, which is acknowledging that 'I have some level of shame.' Because when we think about shame, you know, we often imagine ourselves like hiding and crying and feeling bad. But actually, shame can look like a judgment towards other people, it can look like a level of self importance or self righteousness. It can look like the sense of of hiding yourself in the closet after something's been stirred up in you. And just feeling and totally beating yourself up. It can take on all sorts of different ways. And it's all again, our minds protective strategy, of wanting to feel a sense of belonging and not wanting to lose that. And so it can be like you said, there's such a pull to leave shame in the dark, in the cave, just away. And so it's actually I think, a lot of work. And this is where I think a lot of people can benefit from getting some help, whether that's from a therapist, or even from a spiritual director, who might be in line with your faith based tradition. But really having that sense of 'this is really tough. And I have some psychological mechanisms that are even trying to keep me from acknowledging this shame,' but putting words to it. That is such a huge part of this work of healing.

Tyson Conner  39:07

So acknowledging it, processing through it, talking about it, taking the part of you that wants so badly to stay in the dark. And although it's painful, feeling the pain of bringing it into the light, if only internally within yourself. That's that's a huge, big step. Once that's been done, what else helps? What else is important for working through this kind of a shame based religious, spiritual trauma?

Dr. Kerry Horrell  39:37

I'm, again, going to be pulling from some of Brene Brown's work here. I teach a group on shame resiliency so its forefront on my mind. And I think it's so apt for this conversation, which is that if we do acknowledge that shame is a part of life, it's an aspect that if you can have capacity for relationships you will feel, then we have to know we can't just get rid of it. We don't shame terminate or shame extinguish, what we want to do is build resiliency to shame so that it becomes disconnected from our identity, and actually just becomes a normal part of human emotional experiences. And it always strikes me as sounding relatively simple. But the major ways that we combat shame, or we begin to challenge that feeling of wanting to hide, lie and be critical, is through self compassion, developing relationships, where we experienced empathy, and working on vulnerability, and that those are some of the major ways in which shame loses its power over us. And ultimately, we begin to free up space in our mind, to look at our whole self. And this is actually you know, myself personally, as a spiritual person. And as a somewhat religious person - I still grapple that area - but for me, the theology of sinful and also beautifully created in the image of God actually begins to match on to my psychology, that ultimately, I think we are whole people. That we are not perfect, that we are people who have the capacity to do things that are against our values. But we have defenses that lead us into things where we don't act like very "good" people. And I also think that every person has the capacity to do good, has the capacity to have a beautiful, experience of their self. And so, you know, the work of shame resiliency, is to develop not an overly idealistic view of self, but a whole view of self.  As a quick example of that, Kristin Neff, who is one of the most prolific researchers on self compassion, when she breaks down even what is self compassion, it is not a pat on the back, it's not even just a set of affirming yourself - it is acknowledging that you are suffering, just allowing yourself to acknowledge it, recognize that you are not alone, that the part of the human condition is that we suffer, and then allowing yourself to move through it mindfully rather than get stuck in it. And so again, I come back to this idea that as we work on shame resiliency, one of the beautiful parts is that we end up being able to hold ourselves as complex people who have weaknesses and strengths all at the same time. One thing I'm very passionate about, especially a psychologist who is in this realm of research is that it can be from maybe a psychological place of like, 'okay, so if you've been hurt by a religious community, just get away from that community,' and again, throw the baby out the bathwater in regard to spirituality. On the other hand, there can be a real skepticism of psychology and therapy in the world of religious and spiritual communities. And this is where, to me there is a very sacred balance to be found. I think that for many people, there can be such importance in not only their religious and faith tradition, but I think specifically in spirituality. Religious or not, just having a sense of, 'I want to connect to something that is sacred to me, whether that is the concept of love, or that's nature, whether that is connection, whether that is to a god or higher power, or even to my best version of myself.' I really encouraged people to, if they've had some sort of trauma or abuse or pain in this area of their life, to heal and work through it, so that they can come back to a place of working on a sense of spirituality, meaning and purpose in their life. Again, not that that's the only route, but I think it's a really important one.

Tyson Conner  43:37

Yeah. I feel like we could talk about this for at least another three hours. And I want to be aware of your time and respect it. So, thank you, Dr. Horrell for coming onto this podcast episode. Before we wrap up, we like to offer our listeners an experiment, something that they can practice at home to get some experience of what we've talked about today. You run groups around this sort of thing. So I imagine you maybe have a lot of potential homework items. Is there something simple that you think that a listener would be able to practice that might help them get some experience of some of what we've been talking about today?

Dr. Kerry Horrell  44:23

I think so much of the work in what we're talking about comes down to the concept of mindfulness, as in allowing yourself space to turn toward different parts of your internal experience, and doing so non judgmentally. And doing so with the ability to move through it rather than get stuck. So I would encourage people - this is a practice called the self compassion break. And again, it was developed by Kristin Neff, you can find it on her website, selfcompassion.org. But when you experience, sometime in the next week, just a painful emotional experience. If you were to take 30 seconds to do this practice... It is where you acknowledge first, that you are in a moment of suffering, this can even just look like 'Ouch, that hurts. I'm in pain,' you allow yourself to turn towards it, you connect to your common humanity with other people that 'this is a part of life, I'm not alone in this, I'm not the first person or the last person to feel this pain.' And then you allow yourself a few minutes to take a breath, to recognize that this is something that you will move through. And that's the mindful aspect. It can look as simple as 'somebody didn't say hi to me in the morning, and I felt sort of rejected' that I said, 'Oh, I feel sort of rejected. And that makes me feel sad, that hurts.' Feeling that sort of sadness, and having moments where 'I feel rejected, that's as a part of life does not define who I am. Going to take a breath I'm going to acknowledge that feeling through it.' So that would be my -- because I think when we develop the self compassion skills, some dominoes begin to fall in place for the rest of these sorts of practices.

Tyson Conner  44:58

Yeah, absolutely. And we'll include -- we'll find a link to that. And we'll include that in the show notes for sure. If someone is hearing this conversation is like 'yes, go for three more hours, please.' They're like eating it up. Do you have recommendations for further learning, books or podcasts or things that people can engage with to keep developing along these lines that we've opened up today?

Dr. Kerry Horrell  46:27

My favorite recommendation is a book called 'Sacred Wounds, a path to healing from spiritual trauma" by Teresa Pasquale. And it is a really nondenominational look at spiritual trauma, understanding what it is and how to heal through it. I also have some specific - this is because of my work within evangelical Christianity in this way - but a couple of books that I think are really useful, if you want to dive more specifically into it, "Jesus and John Wayne" by Kristin Kobes Du Mez . "Healing Spiritual Wounds, reconnecting with a loving God after experiencing a hurtful church" by Carol Howard Merritt. And then specifically, we touched a little bit on purity culture, but it's an area I care a lot about, the book "Pure" by Linda Kay Klein is another good one. Finally, especially if you're interested in learning some of those more tangible practices to work on self compassion skills, the "Mindful Self-compassion Workbook" by Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer is a good place, a good workbook style resource. There's a lot of podcasts out there, quite frankly. And I would totally encourage people to look up one that aligns with their faith tradition. Because ultimately I think there's a lot of people who are beginning to talk about this. I don't have a specific one in mind, that would be kind of a catch all.

Tyson Conner  47:50

And that that feels important. Because even within your specific patient tradition, it might be important for you to find one -- if you're trying to figure out how to process through your spiritual and religious trauma while remaining within that faith tradition, you might want a different podcast. As opposed to someone who's left a particular faith tradition, because there are different podcasts out there for each of those situations.

Dr. Kerry Horrell  48:16

And as a final tiny note on that, and I loved your guys's episode on -- your first like, how to find a therapist and first therapy appointments. I think it's so important that people feel empowered to ask their therapist questions they're beginning to work on. So if you go to therapy, and you want to work on some of this, just ask! "What is your approach to working with spiritual or religious trauma? Do you have any experience in this?" Or "what's your approach to working on shame?" I always want people to feel so empowered, so they can ask those sort of questions, so that they know they're getting into a relationship that's the right fit for them to work on that part of their healing.

Tyson Conner  48:53

For sure, absolutely agree. And oftentimes, I think when therapists are defensive or don't want to answer those questions, I interpret that as a kind of lack of awareness of why it's important. Cuz it really is sometimes. And if people don't answer the question, it usually means they don't have the context to get why. Or they have a particular modality that is all about stuff that I think is silly, but, yeah. We won't crap on whole spiritual traditions, but other modalities? Absolutely. Haha. And finally, I want to make sure to plug your podcast Mind Dive, which we will absolutely link to in the show notes as well.

Dr. Kerry Horrell  49:42

And I should say Mind Dive is specifically geared towards mental health professionals. I think lots of people who are not in the field, where patients themselves still find it interesting, but especially trending topics for people who are treating mental health conditions. That's sort of the gist of what we do.

Tyson Conner  50:00

Cool. So Listener, if you're a fellow professional, you'll love that podcast. And if you're not, you might find it very interesting as well. So check it out. Well, thank you so much for coming on the show Kerry. We really appreciate it.

Dr. Kerry Horrell  50:12

It was an absolute pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Tyson Conner  50:16

Special thanks to Dr. Kerry Horrell. In the shownotes you will find links to all the things that we mentioned there towards the end of this episode, the various books that Dr. Horrell mentioned, as well as the exercise for this episode, the experiment the self compassion break, and also where links to Dr. Horrell's own podcast Mind Dive, which we also mentioned there at the end. The Relational Psych Podcast is a production of Relational Psych, a mental health clinic providing depth oriented psychotherapy and psychological testing in person in Seattle and virtually throughout Washington state. If you are interested in psychotherapy or psychological testing for yourself or a family member, links to our contact information are in the show notes. If you're a psychotherapist and would like to be a guest on the show or a listener with a suggestion for someone you'd like us to interview, you can contact me at podcast@relationalpsych.group. The Relational Psych podcast is hosted and produced by me, Tyson Conner, Carly Claney is our executive producer with technical support by Sam Claney and Ally Raye. Our music is by Ben Lewis. We love you buddy Great, we did it!

Dr. Kerry Horrell  51:42

Okay! I'm gonna click stop


The Self-Compassion Break

Further Learning: 

Jesus and John Wayne by Kristin Kobes Du Mez

Healing Spiritual Wounds by Carol Howard Merritt

Pure by Linda Kay Klein

The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook by Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer

Dr. Kerry Horrell’s podcast Mind Dive