Unpacking Religious Trauma

In order to begin to unpack religious trauma, practitioners, as well as clients, must understand three key terms or stages. The emotions associated with these phases can vary, depending on your stance on the issue of organized religion. Here is a basic overview:


  • The person begins questioning the teachings and doctrines of the organization.
  • One may continue to attend religious services, but experiences anxiety and distress (usually prompted by cognitive dissonance).
  • The person will probably still continue to identify publicly as a member of their faith but may express doubts to trusted or safe people.


For some people, deconstruction leads to deconversion. This occurs when the loose threads are pulled at so much, the entire piece starts to unravel. Sometimes, this occurs because of the reaction of others around them to the deconstruction process.

For example, if I am told that I cannot ask any questions or have any doubts, I am likely to leave the conversation entirely when my questions reach a critical mass. (I even hesitate to use the word ‘conversation,’ because conversation implies that there is a back-and-forth discussion, which cannot happen when one party shuts down the other one completely.)

In deconversion, people often experience:

  • A profound sense of loss (of community, ritual, and/or relationships), usually prompted by people in their faith rejecting them.
  • Anger or hostility toward their particular denomination, themselves, or religion in general.
  • Searching for another community or practice to replace the lost community and practice.


For others, deconstruction leads to reconstruction. Essentially, this is when the person takes the part of their faith experience that works for them and rejects the parts of their religion that have been harmful. In the training I have completed, practitioners are told that a potential pitfall of reconstruction is going from one controlling, abusive religious group to another. That’s why it’s very important that during the process of deconstruction and reconstruction, people are given appropriate skills to assess the health of any organization, religion, or faith community they consider joining, as well as the skills to build up the disconnect between self-esteem and self-worth.