I’ve been in a number of high-demand, high-control religious environments. Some of them I was a part of for many years. It’s taken me some time to heal, and I’ve still fallen for folks who ended up being unsafe for me from time to time… but it didn’t take as long to see it or get out as it did before. As you dive into this article, I invite you to take a moment to ground or center yourself if you need to, as this can be a difficult topic to discuss. Please take care of you and get support if this content is triggering!
It usually took about a year before I really put it all together, and sometimes it took even longer to actually get out. I tended to see the signs almost immediately, but because the leaders had so much control (they were my pastors, my bosses, my landlords, or even my family) and I was not in a position of equal power, it took time for me to create a safe exit strategy.
Are You in a High-Control Religious Environment?
High-control religious environments (or, HCREs for short) can be hard to identify. Usually there is a spiritual focus of these groups, such as one might see in a church, Bible study group, intentional community house, homeschool group, full moon circle, or yoga studio. Some people would be utterly and completely shocked to hear that someone even considered them to be problematic or toxic environments. “There hasn’t been a sex scandal, there hasn’t been embezzlement, nobody is being physically assaulted. Can it really be a bad place?!” YES. Yes, it can.
When you bring a group of people together for any purpose, but especially religious or spiritual purposes, there is a potential for abuses of power and for controlling, toxic environments to develop and thrive. Because true spirituality always involves an element of vulnerability, it can be hard to detect a HCRE from the outside looking in. And you should not feel ashamed if you have gotten roped into a HCRE. Usually, they look amazing from the outside. They often have an exciting vision or mission that you feel passionate about, and they are looking for good, authentic people like you. It’s not your fault they are deceptive, controlling, or abusive, and it’s not your fault for “not seeing it sooner.” They’re good at covering it all up, and some of them have had decades of practice in lying!
They often have an exciting vision or mission that you feel passionate about, and they are looking for good, authentic people like you. It’s not your fault they are deceptive, controlling, or abusive, and it’s not your fault for “not seeing it sooner.” They’re good at covering it all up, and some of them have had decades of practice!
If you think you might be in a HCRE, here are some questions to consider:
Does your body feel safe there? Do you feel worried that you can’t really be yourself, or that you have to hide some things about who you are or what you think? Does it sometimes feel familiar, but in a bad way that you can’t exactly pinpoint? Or does it seem so incredibly new you’ve never experienced anything like it? Do you find yourself experiencing really high highs and/or really low lows when you’re with these folks? Have any physical symptoms appeared or gotten worse since you became a part of the group? If you aren’t sure what it feels like to have a regulated nervous system these may be difficult questions to answer. But if any part of you feels unsafe or anxious at ANY point in time, it is worth considering whether you’re in a safe environment, and what you might want to do.
How do you know if you’re “in” the group? Is there a special class, training, or ceremony involved? Does it cost money (whether explicitly such as through dues or just implied/encouraged)? Can everyone access the financial records? How do you “get out” of the group? Is there a pathway for those who want to leave, and if so, what does that look like? What are grounds for being dismissed from the group, and what does that process look like? Often none of these things are clearly communicated in a HCRE, but sometimes they are.
What financial accountability and transparency exists? Can everyone access financial records, and if so, how? Is there a legal business or nonprofit structure in place for the organization? Is there pressure to donate financially to the organization or to buy products from the leaders or other members? Is there a way to verify how the funds are used?
Is there a specific way group members are expected to behave, believe, dress, eat, parent, work, or spend (whether it is officially communicated or not)? Is there room for personal choice? What happens to those who choose to do things differently from the rest of the group?
Does everyone seem to fawn over the people in charge? Are they kind of like celebrities, even if just in your circles? Maybe they seem like the absolute kindest, least threatening people. Can they do no wrong in most of the group members’ eyes? Do the leaders do a lot on social media that feels performative, as in, “look at all the great things I’m doing here”? Do the leaders tend to take all the credit for anything good that is happening, or deny responsibility for anything negative? Do they frequently get asked for interviews, sought out for conferences, asked to lead workshops away from the group (this isn’t always the case but can be common)?
Does it seem like the leaders try to control what information you can access about something? Is a certain viewpoint discouraged from even exploring? Are there other leaders, pastors, gurus, etc. outside of your group who are routinely vilified or mocked? What happens if you present an opposing viewpoint about something, or access information from an undesired source?
When a decision needs to be made, is it a group discussion and put to some kind of vote for consensus? If this voting or forum opportunity is presented, is it genuine or is it a sham theater to convince everyone they have a voice when they don’t? What are the checks and balances in place for decision making? If this information is not offered freely to all group members, this is a big problem. Is everyone’s voice heard, or only a select few?
How do the leaders speak about other group members when they aren’t around? Do they say things like, “I shouldn’t be telling you this” or “I shouldn’t have said that” a lot? Do the leaders try to pull you to their side in arguments with others or do they try to persuade you to view people a certain way? It can be hard to tell when we’re being manipulated, especially when we want to believe the best of all these folks.
Is there an expectation of unpaid labor through volunteering? Are those expectations clearly communicated and agreed upon by everyone involved? Does it feel fair? What happens to those who cannot volunteer? Are they treated differently? Are certain benefits of group membership denied to them, whether that’s communicated ahead of time or not? (For instance, if someone can’t serve in the nursery at church, are they passive aggressively left out of the invitation to lunch after service?)
Do the group leaders or other members monitor the activities of other group members, such as their spending, internet usage, clothing or eating choices, leisure activities, medical treatments, or parenting decisions? Is this monitoring done equally across all group members AND LEADERS, and if so, how is it justified, documented, and measured? Who can access all that information? Personally, if I discovered this kind monitoring existed among adults in any group, I would try to get out as soon as possible for this reason alone.
Is there a lot of comparison, judgment, and jealousy within the group? How do people behave when someone has success or has a milestone in their lives? Is it truly celebrated, or are there comments on the side? Are group members’ personal achievements expected to be credited to the group or a deity, instead of to their own efforts or work?
What happens when someone struggles, is sick, or has a major setback in life? Is it basically blamed on them for not having enough faith or doing the right things? Is there toxic positivity and spiritual bypassing, “just be grateful and look on the bright side”? Does the community come together to support the people who need it? What is expected of the people who are needing support? Are there a million hoops to jump through in order to get help, or are they trusted and taken at their word? Is help provided in a timely manner?
Do you ever feel like you’re on trial, but not sure for what? Are there lines of questioning that feel strange or invasive? Do the “rules” or expectations seem to change without warning or clear communication? Does it feel like you’re always shooting for a moving target?
What happens when you communicate your boundaries? Are they respected, or are they questioned, dismissed, or pushed? Have you observed coercive behavior when someone else tries to communicate their boundaries, to the leadership especially? Folks in HCREs, leaders and members alike, frequently try to talk each other out of their boundaries, and often gaslight each other into doubting their own intuition or ways of seeing things in an effort to keep everything under control. In many HCREs, having personal boundaries is a totally foreign concept or even discouraged.
It may take some time to answer these questions, and it can take time for you to see these patterns of behavior within a HCRE. For me, it usually took about a year before I really put it all together, and sometimes it took even longer than that to actually get out. I tended to see the signs almost immediately, but because the leaders had so much control (they were my pastors, my bosses, my landlords, or even family) and I was not in a position of equal power, it took time for me to create a safe exit strategy.
If you suspect you might be in a HCRE and it’s safe for you to do so, please get in touch with local resources such as a domestic violence shelter, a YWCA, or reach out to me and let’s see what we can do. You are not alone!!
Disclaimer: While most clients find our time together therapeutic, I am not a licensed mental health care practitioner and do not provide psychotherapy or mental health treatment. During your intake process and subsequent plan we develop together, I will refer you to therapies, counseling, coaching, legal, and/or medical help as necessary.
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