Two elements of spiritual abuse are
1) exploitation/betrayal of trust (conscious or unconscious)
2) causing spiritual harm
In exploitation a person uses a position of authority or a relationship where there is some kind of dependency and trust to take advantage of another. This may be a deliberate thing, although it’s believed that most who abuse in this way do not recognize that they are doing it.
It might be taking advantage financially, sexually, or to meet practical or emotional needs (e.g. having a spiritual student do housekeeping tasks or provide emotional comfort).
It is similar to incest where a person in a caretaking position takes advantage of a child to meet the perpetrator’s sexual needs. In spiritual abuse, a person uses a position of spiritual authority (even if self-assigned) to meet needs which really should not be part of this relationship.
When a trusted other uses another in this way, it is a betrayal of trust, and these tend to leave deep scars. There is clearly psychological harm. In isolated spiritual communities, people often lose their sense of self, their critical faculties, their connection with the world.
Our spirituality is a very precious part of us; it is where we connect with the innermost nature of our being and with the divine (or ultimate nature of reality).
There is spiritual harm when spirituality has become so twisted and painful that it causes us to turn away completely (as a sexual abuse survivor may turn away from sexual relationship or even emotional intimacy).
There is spiritual harm when an ideology or powerful figure takes over so completely that a person loses his or her own spiritual compass, capacity for discernment, or trust in their own experience.
There is spiritual harm when people are shamed, disempowered, or made to feel undeserving, as these will make it harder to then feel their own light.
These are only a few examples of spiritual harm.
Healing from Spiritual Abuse
In my experience, Spirit will find some way to “throw us a rope,” to help us recover when we’ve experienced some type of abuse. There are various resources available for those recovering from spiritual abuse, including books, blog sites and networks, counselors. Some are oriented to people in a particular religious tradition; others are more general.
The first step in healing from abuse is to recognize that something is not right. Perhaps abuse feels like too strong a word for your experience. You might start by asking yourself, “Is there anything that happened that I don’t feel good about?”
Another good question is “Is there anything I would rather not expose?” As with other kinds of abuse, our sense of loyalty provides some of the cover for questionable behavior. The “abuser” has often been a source of comfort and care at some point or is credited with our spiritual growth.
Finding a safe and trusted person to talk with about it may be your next step. It doesn’t need to be a professional, although it may be.