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How to Understand the Complexity of Trauma and Spiritual Abuse

Anna Kitko is a cult and new religions specialist with Ratio Christi, where she serves as the campus apologist at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. She is also a therapist who specializes in religious trauma and exit counseling of high control groups. She has a YouTube channel where you can find lots of information on the above topics.

She recently sat down with beEmboldened to talk about how we can understand the complexity of trauma and spiritual abuse. Below are highlights from this conversation. We hope this helps shine a light on this often confusing-to-define topic.


Naomi: When an individual leaves a religiously abusive situation, they are often left feeling isolated in that experience. And yet, they’re far from alone— there are so many people out there who have similarly suffered. In your experience and from your education, how prevalent do you think this really is?

Anna: Super prevalent. I think people feel an inordinate level of shame when it has to do with spiritual trauma. I haven’t quite isolated exactly why that is, but it seems to be something folks are a bit more quiet about than they would otherwise be. It may be because they’re worried that it will impact whoever it was that they escaped. It could be that they don’t really know how to assess the theology and how bad it was, so they kind of lump it all into it being an overall bad experience and don't know how to isolate it from other traumas.

Also because therapists are interested in clinical trauma, and this isn’t clinical trauma. So people don’t seek out the help that they might normally seek out because they can’t quite identify the difference between what they would think of as medical trauma (like a typical PTSD scenario), and what they experienced (even though it is PTSD). The difference is a clinical setting that they’re not used to seeing that sort of thing in. So I think that may be part of the insolation aspect to it.

It’s also a lot of times that their religious experiences were odd so they don’t know quite how to navigate the world anymore. A lot of these groups are charismatic in their nature, so they don’t know how to talk to people about what it was that they experienced. Within that, there are often levels of false prophecies that helped get them where they are. And so the shame again there.

I really get that there is a shame element where people often aren’t really sure how to navigate what happened, so they haven't realized that they’ve been abused. Since coercive persuasion is something that is clinically analyzable, we can really break it down and talk about it. We know a lot more about coercive persuasion than people realize.

People also don’t know how to articulate what happened to them since it was mental abuse and not physical abuse. (Don’t get me wrong though, because a lot of these are more than mental abuse). In coercive persuasion cases, a guru has stolen years of their life and all of their finances, and they see what happened to them as, “Oh, well I guess I was just duped. Maybe I’m more gullible than other people, so really it’s just my fault.”

In a lot of these cases, that’s not true in the slightest.

Naomi: There’s something about this context of religious trauma and abuse (cult specifically, at times) where the stigma is still stronger than it is for other forms. Would you agree with that?

Anna: Yes. I can see that with the looseness with which those words are thrown around. Especially with the word “cult.” I have to educate others all the time that “cult” isn’t the word I’m using to describe groups that I don’t like.

We have a formalized definition of cult, so we can analyze these things with the BITE Model and see how significant the control is, what precisely are they preaching, and how is it different from whatever religion they’re claiming to be a part of. This can be really powerful in making those distinctions, and just educating people enough to realize that you can get “cult-ish” in standalone groups.

The point is the education aspect because these terms are thrown around so loosely that I think people are afraid when they’re going to talk to someone who’s a clinician that they might look dumb. I worry that people may fear that, and so they don’t get help when they need it.

Naomi: For those who are unfamiliar with the BITE Model that you just mentioned, could you explain what that is?

Anna: Absolutely. The BITE Model was developed by Steven Hassan who came out of the moonies in the 1980s. As a non-religious clinician, he was trying to formalize some way to figure out exactly how undue influence could be quantified. He studied materials from China under Mao’s control in the 1950s with prisoners of war (POWs) and how they were able to be controlled. He tried to differentiate between what they were experiencing in a brainwashing-type way.

To clarify, brainwashing exists when you know your enemy and you’re trying to get away from the pain that they are causing you so you’ll do anything that they want to get away from that pain.

Whereas coercive persuasion is when the same thing is happening to you, but you can't tell that it's an enemy doing it to you. Coercive persuasion is perceived as a friend who's doing it, so you never can escape that positive feedback loop in your mind because you never know that you're dealing with an enemy–that's coercive control.

The BITE Model comes down the middle and it analyzes a group and how someone or a group controls others in the following aspects:

B: Behavior

I: Information

T: Thoughts

E: Emotions

So we want to see just how comprehensive this group is:

  • How much liberty do you have as an individual?

  • How many things are you having to forfeit in your life in order to belong to the group; to feel secure?

  • Can you exit reasonably?

  • Have they taken control of your entire life such that even if you desire to exit, you really couldn't?

  • Do they withhold your family members from you?

All of these specifics really matter in analyzing the group. And then on top of that, people who incorporate apologetics into clinical practice look past these point and into theology as well.

In the United States, we are primarily dealing with Christian-ish groups, and so we look at how significantly they've altered theology from orthodox Christianity. That gives us a comprehensive picture of what we're dealing with.

So that's why the BITE Model is so helpful-- It removes the subjective aspects and makes it quantifiable in a way that you can teach others exactly what happened to them.

Naomi: When you're talking about high control groups, are you typically equating that with a cult in your mind when you're saying it?

Anna: Yes. High control groups are a third party and outside source that are dictating specifically how you are to behave. And these are humans who are doing the dictating, not doctrine.

These are humans who have had their own specific version of how they want to see things operate, how they want you to look, how they want you to feel, and how they want you to spend your time. All these things are being dictated to you. That is a high control group, and they're very common. They normally start out as standalone groups–somebody wanted to plant a church somewhere and that person maybe wasn't trained as much in theology. And so they get bogged down in the difference between justification and sanctification and the sanctification went haywire, for example.

Then they start having like really nuanced opinions that you can't find scripture for and those opinions trickle down. Before you know it, you've got a pyramid-like building with the guru at the top and their main guys who follow them and then all of their spouses and it gets really weird really fast. And then all of a sudden your new group is called the Remnants and there's going to be a compound in the woods. It goes crazy quickly, very often, but sometimes it's not as obvious. Sometimes it's just a ton of social pressure. And so you get into the group and all of a sudden you're looking around and there's a lot of social engineering that's happening in the religious services.

Naomi: What common challenges have you seen individuals face as they step into healing and (in many ways) start a new life? It’s not an easy decision, because there are very real, substantial consequences that come from it. And I don't necessarily mean consequences always being negative. They can be good or bad. It's not as simple as one may think who hasn't lived it themselves.

Anna: Yeah, you have to be prepared. We warn our clients all the time that they are going to have to deconstruct what was built incorrectly. I mean deconstruction not in the philosophical and kind of loose way it's being thrown around culturally right now. I mean, literally in a psychological deconstruction of belief, where they're having to challenge things that they thought were a set pillars their entire lives to really make sure that it's truthful. And the deconstruction process can lead to intense bitterness, cynicism, and depression.

The hard part is if they're still around others who are in the group but they've stepped away. The panic that ensues in their group, their life, their families, and their friends when they start really challenging pivotal parts of their faith that sound like they might be becoming more agnostic than Christian for a minute.

I have warned clients that this is a personal process:

  • Be patient and kind for all of the people who love you who are going to start panicking as you start challenging all these things.

  • Try not to lash out.

  • We're in a growing season, but let's go ahead and take a sledgehammer to everything that's false and then we'll see what remains and rebuild from there.

The Lord doesn't build on idols. Sometimes you have to knock down a whole lot of stuff to get back to brass tacks. Sometimes you find out there was no foundation at all so the foundation still has to be laid. So that can be very scary. But as far as anticipating as clinicians, helping people anticipate what this is going to look like is helpful. And then if they step in and face the unknown and what could be a complete and total tragedy, they are voluntarily doing so.

So in them doing that, that's prolonged exposure therapy already that they're doing for themselves, which is making them braver and that's precisely the type of therapy we want to do anyway. So anticipating and making sure that the expectations are real I think is really powerful.

It's also playing the long game [not that this is a game, but it takes a long time]. Don't get me wrong, but that's the game you want to play here because you're dealing with truth. So they'll get there. The emotions on the way may get complicated, but that's okay.

Naomi: Religious abuse, religious trauma, spiritual abuse… All these can be used semi-interchangeably. They're not necessarily all exactly the same, but generally speaking, there's confusion around this term. So sometimes it gets confused with "discipline" or "conviction" or simply not liking what was heard. We can see that in the greater church at large, the big "C" church, so that gets in the way of providing them the necessary support that someone needs who has suffered genuine abuse. So how would you respond to this? How can someone distinguish between these two?

Anna: So this is not going to be a comprehensive definition, because I'm still working on it, but one of the things you can make a distinction between is: did the person make a statement you didn't like, solely, or are they getting anything out of it for themselves? Are they repeating a doctrine that is actually established or are they saying something new for their own benefit?

Doctrine that you can look at historically and they're just pointing at a doctrine, you're like, oh, I don't like that. Because that's different than if they're saying something to you using spiritual terminology or pressure. That is also something that they're getting out of it. Like, are they pressuring you in such a way spiritually, to have sex with them? Are they pressuring you in such a way spiritually, to get you to give them money? Are they pressuring you in such a way to gain power over you in a way that can actually be pointed at?

It's more than just, "This made me uncomfortable for a minute." That an actionable thing was achieved by the person doing the pressuring. So I've noticed that there's a distinction there about outcome. And then on top of that, like conviction, internal conviction, that's something that's between you and the spiritual realm. It's not between you and the person in front of you. So let's assume that the guru in these cases.

(I use guru in a loose sense, like the spiritual leader that is informing you of something that you need or you think you need, that could be a preacher, that could be shaman. It could be anything, really).

This person who is claiming to have some type of spiritual knowledge that's special, that you don't have access to, that's the person that you want to focus on. What's the purpose of them claiming that, and what are they doing with it? Because in Christianity, there is no special knowledge. You have access to all of the same knowledge as all of the teachers who are called to teach (that is, the Bible). There's no secret. So if you're outside of Christian circles, we can deal with that context a little bit differently. But since most of the religious trauma cases that I'm dealing with are all the Christian-oriented ones, that's the first red flag: any type of secret knowledge that could be used to gain XYZ over you and they're pursuing it.

So then past that, we can get more nuanced. This is why the details matter so much. When people text or email me about a group that breaks with orthodox Christianity, that would be a theological cult versus maybe another form of cult–that's where that BITE Model comes in. Sometimes it can be both, sometimes it can be neither. So the details really do matter in these scenarios.

You can listen to Naomi and Anna’s full conversation here.

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