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Religion and childhood trauma 07 Healing and growth 1/2

Paths to Emotional Recovery and Self-Compassion

1. Introduction: religious trauma and self-help

In the “Religion and Childhood Trauma” series, we have previously explored how deeply religious beliefs and practices affect children’s early development and psychological well-being. So far, it has been about:

  1. Faith and fear
  2. Guilt and atonement
  3. Shame and the sacred
  4. Authority and autonomy
  5. Inclusion and exclusion
  6. Doubt and faith.

Religious childhood trauma arises from faith teachings, practices and communities themselves or from the abuse of religious teachings and structures by authority figures seeking to exert power and control. We have seen that traumatic experiences come from a variety of sources, all of which result in strict, dogmatic parenting that instils fear, guilt or shame to enforce good behaviour in children. Individual freedom is sacrificed to the demand for submission.

Here are some self-assessment questions to see if you have any signs of childhood trauma caused by religion. They focus on the various symptom areas that frequently occur

1. Cognitive symptoms

  • Do I have negative beliefs about my self-worth based on my faith?
  • Do I tend to think in black and white?
  • Do I tend to catastrophise?
  • Do I experience difficulties with decision-making or critical thinking?

2. Emotional symptoms

  • Do I often feel depressed or constantly restless and anxious?
  • Do I experience overwhelming feelings of anger, sadness or loneliness?
  • Do I find it difficult to find joy or meaning in life?

3. Social symptoms

  • Have I withdrawn from social networks?
  • Are there any fractures within my family that I can trace back to religious beliefs?
  • Am I experiencing difficulties in my sexuality?

4. Cultural symptoms

  • Do I feel uncomfortable or confused in a secular world?
  • Do I have difficulties developing a sense of belonging?
  • How well-informed am I in areas such as technology, modern art or music?

2. The understanding of healing and growth in the context of religious trauma

Traumatic violence threatens the child’s ego and floods it with fear to the point of dissociation. Traumatised children, therefore, often remain passive, as they have no opportunity to rebel openly anyway.

Healing and personal growth in adults who have experienced childhood trauma through religion must be approached from different angles because of the complexity of this trauma.

From a psychoanalytical perspective, recognising and integrating the inner child that has emerged as a result of childhood trauma is an essential step towards healing. It represents repressed or unwanted aspects of the personality that were split off as a result of traumatic experiences. By coming into contact with them, these repressed feelings, beliefs and traumas from childhood become accessible and can be integrated into a deeper understanding of oneself and the past. In this way, emotional wounds can heal, and the wounded child can find security and inner strength in the adult affected. You are an adult who can cut back your inner critic and comfort and defend your inner child. (You can find exercises on the “inner child” subject under this link).

Belief in a higher power or spiritual practices can also help heal religiously induced trauma in various ways. Spirituality and rituals provide comfort, hope and meaning in the face of trauma and spiritual abuse if they have not lost all value as a result of the trauma. Faith in a higher power becomes a source of confidence, from which faith exercises such as prayer, rituals, and meditation draw strength to overcome trauma.

The role of self-help in overcoming childhood trauma caused by religious abuse becomes easy to understand when one realises that the wounded inner child must – at least in part – find a parent in the adult victim to cope with the lack of love and neglect in childhood.


My religious journey

Explore the sequence of your religious experiences from childhood to the present day.


Create a timeline of your religious upbringing and faith practice.

Make a note of significant events, defining moments and turning points in your faith.

Think about how these events have influenced your view of yourself and the world.

Map of feelings

Recognise and understand the emotional impact of your religious experiences.


Think of faith practices or beliefs that have triggered strong feelings such as fear, peace, guilt or joy.

Write down these experiences and the emotions associated with them.

Examine how these feelings have influenced your decisions and your daily life.

3. Techniques for emotional healing

The most critical building block for emotional healing from childhood trauma through religion is self-compassion. It lays the foundation for all other elements of personal growth and is particularly difficult for survivors of childhood trauma who did not experience sufficient security and care as children. Therefore, we begin with a structured programme to build self-compassion.

Module 0 Preparation

Understanding self-criticism and its effects

Start by recognising that self-criticism may stem from religious teachings that emphasise perfection or moral flawlessness. Realise that although self-criticism aims for absolute moral purity, it leads to severe self-punishment that undermines self-worth with feelings of guilt and shame.

Start with the cognitive distortions and basic beliefs (schemas) about yourself, others and the world that are common in trauma victims

1. Mental filter

Definition: You focus exclusively on the negative aspects of a situation and ignore all positive aspects.

Exercise: Keep a gratitude diary in which you specifically write down positive experiences and aspects of your day. That helps you recognise the positive things mental filters could overlook actively.

2. Black and white thinking

Definition: Viewing situations in only two categories instead of on a spectrum (nothing is perfect or a total disaster).

Exercise: Identify scenarios or thoughts that cause polarising thinking and consciously find the “grey areas”. Use a diary to document situations where you can recognise the complexity rather than the absolutes.

3. Generalisations

Definition: Broad generalisations based on a single event or piece of evidence.

Exercise: Challenge yourself to find exceptions. List past cases in which the generalised statement was not true.

4. Jumping to conclusions

Definition: To make a negative interpretation or prediction even though no clear facts convincingly support the conclusion.

Exercise: Establish a “fact-checking” habit where you gather evidence before acting on a thought.

5. Catastrophising

Definition: The expectation that something terrible will happen, whereby even a merely unfavourable outcome is regarded as a catastrophe.

Exercise: Practice looking at the worst possible outcome and also plan steps to deal with it to reduce the fear of perceived disasters.

6 False responsibility

Definition: The belief that one is responsible for events beyond one’s control.

Exercise: Think objectively about events and identify external factors that may have influenced the results.

7. Erroneous Control beliefs

Definition: Believing that you have to exercise control over events and occurrences and, therefore, feeling overly responsible for these events around you.

Exercise: Distinguish between what you can control and what you cannot control. To do this, write actions or events in a circle labelled “under my control” and “not under my control”.

8. Sensitivity

Definition: Being overly concerned with fairness and resentful when you feel you have been treated unfairly – or the opposite: resigning in such situations.

Exercise: Write down the situation and try to look at it from several perspectives.

9. Accusations

Definition: Blaming others for your emotional pain, or conversely, blaming yourself for any problem.

Exercise: Check your responsibility by differentiating your role in the results and thinking about different influencing factors and alternative courses of action.

10. Rigid rules

Definition: You have a rigid code of behaviour that dictates how you should behave. You feel guilty if you break these rules.

Exercise: Replace “should” statements with “could” to focus on possibilities rather than obligations.

11. Emotional evidence

Definition: The belief that what you feel must automatically be true. For example, if you feel stupid and boring, then you must also be stupid and boring.

Exercise: Document feelings and facts in a diary and scrutinise the evidence for your feelings.

12. Condemnation

Definition: Generalisation of one or two characteristics in an overall negative judgement.

Exercise: If you catch yourself or others being judgmental, specifically list causal actions or behaviours, but be sure also to list those that disprove the labelling.

13. Self-doubt

Definition: Feeling constantly under scrutiny and having to prove that you have done nothing wrong.

Exercise: Systematically uncover your self-doubts, check their validity, and, if possible, rephrase them into positive self-affirmations. Visualise your success regularly with these affirmations.

14. Salvation fantasy

Definition: The expectation that others will change and everything will be fine if you put enough pressure or effort on yourself.

Exercise: Remain realistic with your expectations of rewards and results and focus on your efforts, your own successes and growth and find out what you want and can and want to contribute to this. You can rarely fix others’ problems if you have unfinished business yourself.

Such exercises require regularity in order to effectively shake cognitive distortions and gradually replace them with more balanced and rational thought patterns.

Module 1 Cultivating self-compassion

Inner critic

The inner critic refers to an inner voice that condemns, attacks or humiliates you, regardless of whether the self-criticism is objectively justified or not. It is a superego gone wild. It causes considerable emotional pain and leads to feelings of inadequacy, guilt or doubt that hinder personal development. If it is projected outwards, the result is unjustified criticism, suspicion and judgement of others


Self-compassion, on the other hand, means being kind and understanding to yourself when you experience pain or failure rather than harshly attacking yourself for it. It has various components, including:

Self-love: Treat yourself gently and understandingly instead of aggressively and judgementally.

Mindfulness: A balanced approach to negative emotions so that feelings are neither suppressed nor exaggerated.

Self-compassion is crucial for regulating emotions and building resilience by fostering a kind, compassionate attitude towards oneself and one’s experiences.


Letting go of thought balloons

Visualise negative self-criticism as balloons you can release into the air to let them go symbolically.


Write your self-critical thoughts on pieces of paper and imagine each piece of paper as a balloon.

Release these balloons one by one in your mind’s eye and imagine them floating away, carrying your critical thoughts with them.

As you release each balloon, consciously let go of the negativity associated with the thought and focus on feeling lighter and unburdened.

Thought log

Question negative automatic thoughts, check their validity and replace them with more positive and realistic thoughts.


Identify a situation that has caused negative self-evaluation and write it down.

Draw a table with three columns

Write down the automatic thoughts associated with the situation in the first column.

In the second column, list the feelings triggered by these thoughts and rate their intensity.

Question these thoughts in the third column by noting cognitive distortions and questioning their accuracy.

If you write down more favourable and appropriate mental evaluations under the table, has your belief in the negative thought decreased?

Module 2 developing mindfulness

Mindfulness is a state of conscious attention and presence in which you are aware of your thoughts, feelings and physical sensations from moment to moment without making judgements. Mindfulness is about accepting the present experience as it is without judging it or trying to change it. It promotes self-awareness and helps to break automatic reaction patterns that lead to stress and emotional difficulties.

Systematically, become aware of your emotions without identifying with them too much. Breathing exercises or grounding help deal with intense emotions that are associated with emotional flashbacks, triggers, brain fog or the processing of trauma in general. Learn to observe your feelings and thoughts without immediately judging or reacting.

Mindfulness exercise

Take a few minutes of your time. Establish a state of mindful awareness. That will make you aware of your inner experiences without judgment.


Find a quiet place where you can sit or lie down comfortably without being interrupted.

Close your eyes and, breathe in deeply and concentrate on the feeling of the air flowing in and out of your body.

Observe all thoughts, feelings and physical sensations that arise. Most importantly, you notice these experiences without trying to change or judge them.

If you realise that your thoughts are wandering, take note of this without criticism and focus your attention on your breathing again.

Module 3 implementation of self-care


Self-care encompasses everything we do to reduce stress and maintain and improve our short- and long-term health and well-being. Self-care is, therefore, a highly personalised package that considers physical, emotional, social and spiritual needs for a balanced life. These include adequate sleep, nutrition, physical activity, nurturing social connections and spiritual or emotional growth. Develop a self-care plan that includes regular exercise, healthy eating, and necessary breaks. A daily or weekly checklist will help with any elements, such as yoga, journaling or spiritual reflection, that align with your new belief system.


Meditation of loving kindness

This meditation (Metta or Loving Kindness) stimulates a feeling of kindness and well-being towards oneself and others.


Sit comfortably, close your eyes and concentrate on your breathing.

Silently repeat phrases such as “May I find peace, may I be healthy, may I be happy” to yourself.

Also, direct these wishes to others, from loved ones to neutral people and even to those with whom you have difficulties.

Self-compassion break

During the day, consciously take time out of stress or discomfort to build self-compassion instead. That will help you develop the habit of responding to personal discomfort with kindness and understanding rather than self-criticism.


In a moment of stress or discomfort, pause and recognise your feelings. Allow yourself to recognise the discomfort without judging.

Speak words of comfort and understanding to yourself as you would to a friend.

3. Self-care vision board

Create a vision board of your own self-care goals and efforts. It inspires and reminds you of the importance of regular self-care and personal goals.


Gather magazines, printouts and other materials that align with your vision of self-care.

Cut out images and phrases that align with your self-care needs and goals.

Stick them on a board to remind yourself of your daily self-care goals.

In order to grow and combat the negative effects of past trauma, any long-term strategy must be based on self-compassion. Through self-compassion, those affected learn to accept negative emotions without judging themselves. It promotes psychological flexibility and the ability to face challenges more calmly.

The conscious examination of one’s own experiences consolidates self-compassion techniques and makes one aware of one’s own progress in personal growth.

In order to maintain a connection to therapeutic resources, be it professional counselling or supportive communities, it is important to stay in constant contact. That may mean attending regular therapy sessions, participating in support groups or talking to trusted individuals about one’s challenges. A stable connection to therapeutic resources can support and promote the healing process by providing a safe space for sharing thoughts and feelings and ensuring additional support during difficult times.

The complete collection of self-help exercises for dealing with childhood trauma through religion would be too extensive for a single post. Therefore, this post will follow with a continuation of the topic.


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