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  • Writer's pictureErin Johnson

Can Chronic Guilt Lead to Trauma?

Updated: Nov 4, 2022

The most widely accepted definition for trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape, or natural disaster. It can also be an ongoing situation like child abuse.

This is Trauma with a capital T.

I do not want to disrespect this kind of horrific trauma in any way whatsoever. For this reason, I did not face my trauma for 46 years of my life. After a year of intense personal growth, I’ve finally come to embrace that trauma extends out of those boundaries.

Trauma with a lower-case t can also cause cognitive, emotional, social, and cultural damage.

Not only can trauma stem from a major event, but it can also be an ongoing situation that causes distress, fear, or a sense of helplessness in an individual. No one even needs to be doing anything cruel or ill-intentioned to create trauma. As children, we all experience a taste of trauma on some level. It is not easy coming into this world and learning within its standards and circumstances.

This is the story of how I came to learn and grow through RTS (Religious Trauma Syndrome).

I finally caught up with a dear friend I met in junior high school about four years ago. She was often the source of my laughter, and I was drawn to her wild and jovial spirit. If you had spent time with her, you might not know that under her laughter was deep sadness and resentment for traumatic experiences she had endured under her mother's care and because of her mother’s absence. We lost touch when I went to college, and she, unfortunately, turned to drugs and theft, resulting in time spent in prison. Thankfully, this friend of mine courageously faced her strongest demons, took therapy seriously, and quit drugs for good- this created space for us to reconnect.

Over a handful of brunches, we told each other about our lives. We talked about things we didn’t talk about when we were younger, and we talked about our lives since then. I remembered how thoughtful, nonjudgemental, and open-hearted my friend was. I was amazed by her strength and commitment to living her best life. I knew that the concept of quitting drugs is not as simple as stopping in and of itself, but that she had to re-commit to her decision daily.

This friend set in motion a course change in my life. During our last conversation, before the COVID-19 pandemic, I told her that I didn’t know what was wrong with me because I had not experienced the trauma comparable to hers. I felt as if I was innately flawed and over-privileged to allow myself sadness in my circumstances.

She patiently listened to me and then looked me in the eye with all of her kindness and said, “Erin, your religious upbringing was your trauma.”

Before you begin to think that this is just my fluffy excuse as an embittered person who exited the church, you should know I was experiencing the same judgmental thoughts about myself. I know my parents made great sacrifices for me and what they felt was best for me in my life. I do not view most leaders and members within the church as ill-intentioned. On the contrary, I believe they are doing what they feel is right and true for the most part. I did not experience sexual abuse in the church, nor was I manipulated by narcissistic leaders (that I'm aware of); or beaten as a child for religious reasons (although- these appalling traumas do happen, and I do not take them lightly).

It was the way I interpreted the messages I received from my parents, from the teachings, and from experiences of judgment and shame towards others that I witnessed.

  • I remember being terrified as a tiny child that I would one day need to go in front of the congregation and confess my sins.

  • I learned early on how to walk the walk so that I would not receive that same judgment or shame from my community. I knew these people accepted me as long as I followed their rules.

  • In addition, I believed everything I was told. I didn't only follow the rule to be accepted. I followed the rules because I came to believe all the answers came from outside of me. From the church and the messages, they taught based on their interpretations of the Bible.

  • Even if I could convince everyone else that I was pure, there was no escaping God. God would always see my inner thoughts, my mistakes, and everything I did not do that I should have done.

  • I often lay awake in bed at night and thought about all the things I should’ve done differently during the day to be a better person. All the ways I had failed.

  • I only hoped that God would forgive me because I was baptized and had invited him into my heart.

  • I was terrified of going to Hell.

I carried that burden for so long. When I came back to my hometown after college, I searched for other churches outside of the one I grew up in. I watched people look at me as an outsider for the first time. I could see that they judged me before they even knew me. Still, I tried to fit in. One weekend, I watched “The Passion of Christ” in the theater all by myself. I remember feeling so isolated and alone. That movie triggered an emotional breakdown in me because I had felt myself pulling away from the church for months, if not years, and now I was overtaken by guilt at what Jesus had gone through. This movie depicts Jesus' cruel torture and crucifixion and infers that these are penalties that the rest of humanity deserves. This is the message that was instilled in me throughout my life.

I needed to aim to be perfect like him, but- since it's impossible- I should constantly ask for forgiveness so that his blood would cover my sins.

I went home and destroyed or gave away every nonreligious music cd to my sister while blabbering through tears. She was reasonably confused and worried about me. That same weekend, I went back to the church I was currently attending. The leader asked us to stand up and say hello to those on our left and right. I was feeling open and ready to join this community and turned to greet others but was met with half-hearted replies. I attempted conversation, yet they had already moved on to the comfort of those they knew.

Something inside of me broke from the church that day.

I could not live with superficial relationships that were based on false identities that stayed within the comfort of rules without reaching toward something more loving and accepting. I realized that I never felt unconditionally loved by the church. I was only embraced by the people in the church I grew up in as long as I followed their rules. Now, outside of the comfort of familiarity, I was tolerated, yet definitely not embraced. I was not angry at those people, but church left me feeling hollow and numb. I never once questioned God’s existence, but I could no longer live in a conditional relationship with him.

I didn’t know how to have any different kind of relationship, so I just didn’t for a while.

Even though I stopped going to church, I carried those feelings of being damaged and ashamed with me. I’m sure I chose my career of over 20 years to help teens with severe trauma because of my need to fill my lack of worthiness with self-sacrifice. Still, I continued my nightly ritual of laying in bed and mentally whipping myself because of my daily missteps- which I felt were many. I read “The Scarlet Letter” with my students for the first time because I had not read it in high school at the Christian school I attended. It struck me that the character I most related with was Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, who was highly respected amongst his flock, yet his guilt ultimately destroyed him.

I cried when he used the whip to flog himself in private because I knew I had been mentally doing that to myself since I could remember.

I hit another challenge that sent me plummeting into depression during the COVID-19 quarantine. To be more specific, it was during the racial reckoning summer of 2020. I saw the fragility in myself as a white person who could not handle the heaviness of race-based stress, and I felt lost in how to be the perfect anti-racist and unlearn all my unconscious bias and implicit racism. I just wanted someone to give me all the rules that I should follow to be a good person and friend, and I was being told not to ask my black friends. I needed to research and decipher the answers within myself.

That’s when I broke. I didn’t know who I was.

I knew I no longer believed in or trusted myself if I ever did. I was drowning at that point, and I had to choose whether or not I was going to sink or swim. Even though it was outside of our family budget, I found a therapist who essentially talked me off the cliff of my downward spiral. I even began taking prescribed antidepressant medication. Both of these resources immensely helped me out of a dark night of my soul.

After eight months of therapy, I realized that I was ready to continue on my own. As those eight months passed, I meditated and opened up to my spiritual awakening. My big epiphany – which came into my mind as a spiritual download- was this realization:

I am made of God, as is every other human, which meant that I could no longer view myself as innately flawed.

God is love, and every soul is made of that love. We are inherently connected to love, so now I choose to practice Loving Awareness, something I learned from Ram Dass three years ago when I watched the movie Becoming Nobody.

I’ve taken small, consistent steps towards positive growth, which has resulted in significant changes. I was no longer working against myself by embracing myself as I was: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Thus far, I’ve lost 45 pounds, and I am becoming a more peaceful parent. I enjoy meditation and talking with my spiritual guides, including God. I am much less afraid of death. I continue to expand myself and my growth mindset. I am much less reactive to stressful situations. I look outward for answers with discernment, and I look inward with confidence. I’ve become a Women’s Empowerment Coach through Empowering Women Platinum Coach & Facilitator Certification.

Before holding myself in loving awareness, I often stepped into the habit of blaming myself and my circumstances for why life was the way it was. And that it was usually something I felt like I was doing wrong, that I needed to clear something from the core of my being. I could look at it like it’s a personal flaw and that I somehow needed to get it out of my own way in order to be any good for myself or anybody else in my life.

By focusing on my goodness, learning to embrace the circumstances in my life that I didn’t like, seeing my innate beauty, taking notice of my small steps in the direction I desperately wanted to go, and celebrating those small victories,

I was finally able to begin to raise my vibration and to see spirituality as a more uplifting and intimate support system rather than a punitive and isolating one.

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