I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the term “secondary wounding,” used to describe the pain – and sometimes further trauma – inflicted when someone denies or dismisses your experience.

Have you ever felt worse after telling someone about the trauma of your religious experience? You are far from alone. Sometimes people respond in ways that can be called “secondary wounding.” Consider some of these ideas from the book, I Can’t Get Over It: A Handbook for Trauma Survivors by Matsakis. They were created to deal with responses to rape and assault, but can be applied to Religious Trauma Syndrome, too.

A couple important excerpts from this book are:

PTSD & Secondary Wounding

“As important to the healing process as other people are, it’s an unfortunate truth that often people do more harm than good. Strangers who don’t understand your situation can be unintentionally cruel, but so can those who should know better: family, friends, and helping professionals. Instead of being supported, you have been made to feel ashamed of having been a part of the traumatic event in the first place, of your reactions to the event, or the symptoms you have developed as a result, or even for asking for help.

“Secondary wounding occurs when the people, the institutions, caregivers, and others to whom the survivor turns for emotional, legal, financial, medical, or other assistance respond in one of the following ways:

1. Disbelief:
Commonly, people will deny or disbelieve the trauma survivor’s account of the trauma. Or they will minimize or discount the magnitude of the event (s), its meaning to the victim, its impact on the victim’s life.

2. Blaming the Victim:
On some level, people may blame the victim for the traumatic event, thereby increasing the victim’s sense of self-blame and low self-esteem.

3. Stigmatization:
Stigmatization occurs when others judge the victim negatively for normal reactions to the traumatic event or for any long-term symptoms he or she may suffer.

4. Denial of Assistance:
Trauma survivors are sometimes denied promised or unexpected services on the basis that they do not need or are not entitled to such services or compensation.


Causes of Secondary Wounding

“In essence, secondary wounding occurs because people who have never been hurt or traumatized have difficulty understanding and being patient with people who have been hurt. Secondary wounding also occurs because people who have never been confronted with human tragedy are sometimes unable to comprehend the lives of those in occupations that involve dealing with human suffering or mass casualties on a daily basis.

In addition, some people simply are not strong enough to accept the negatives in life. They prefer to ignore the fact that sadness, injustice and loss are just as much a part of life as joy and goodness. When such individuals confront a trauma survivor, they may reject, depreciate or ridicule the survivor because that individual represents the parts of life they have chosen to deny.”

Explains Matsakis, “From my personal experiences, I have been through those exact frustrations relating to everything mentioned above. The worst part is the betrayal felt when you realize how much it hurt you, and you hit rock bottom as a result. That pain has caused a lot of additional pain and friction in many of my relationships. And the closer you are to the person, the more it can hurt.

“Here are some of the good, the bad, and the horrific responses that can be given to a victim. These are quotes from actual experiences – for your situations, you may need to adapt them a little. And please remember: anger, fear and snap judgments are no one’s friend in these cases.

In my (Marlene’s) view, secondary wounding also applies to Religious Trauma Syndrome in particular ways. There is an assumption in society that religion is mostly good for you or at least harmless, so it can be difficult for people to understand the harm at all. Your listeners may disregard or minimize the harm, or even blame you by saying:

“Religion does help a lot of people though.”
“I wonder why you reacted so strongly.”
“I think most religious people are well-intended.”
“Don’t you think most of the harm is because religion is misunderstood?”
“Maybe you should concentrate on the good parts, like what Jesus taught.”
“I think you should try a different church.”
“I don’t think you really knew Jesus (or had a real testimony, etc.)”
“Telling your parents (or other people) could really hurt them.”
“I went to church as a kid. It doesn’t really bother me now.”
“How could you believe all that crap?”
“How about forgiving them and moving on?”

If you’ve experienced any of these responses, you have had secondary wounding and it can be very painful. You probably felt hurt, angry, and betrayed. It can be hard because it is very confusing. There are multiple issues in religious trauma. For example, religious experience is mixed; there are positives like community, music, comfort in life and for the afterlife, etc. People can be well-intended and still cause harm. There are also individual differences in the way people respond to harmful aspects of religious indoctrination such as teachings of basic depravity (original sin) or going to hell. But just like other kinds of trauma, your particular response needs to be honored and understood as real.

So – how can you handle secondary wounding?

  1. Comprehend the societal context. In our present culture generally, religion is not considered trauma in the way people view sexual or physical trauma. (In fact, atheists are discriminated against but it is not recognized in the same way as racism, sexism, or homophobia.) There are multiple pseudo-scientific and misleading studies that say religion is good for you, without examining all the component factors. Don’t let these things make you think religious trauma is not real.
  2. Be careful who you open up to. You are not alone, but it can seem that way. It can be hard to find and connect to people who have been through similar trauma. The people who you know who are still religious cannot really hear your pain because they want to get you back. They might try to deny the reality of your personal religious experience in the first place. Secondly, the secular people in your life may have no idea what you are talking about and be unable to imagine it like they do with other kinds of trauma. You might be able to share a little but protect yourself by considering your audience and not over-sharing. Give your inner child some love and explain the situation to your child privately.
  3. When someone is reacting badly, don’t argue but realize their limitations are not your fault. If you are explaining yourself and it’s not going well, you might want to end the conversation or change the subject. You can have some empathy for the other person’s experience. Just don’t take it on.
  4. Write your story down as if talking to a sympathetic ear. Tell everything about what you’ve been through, including all of your feelings. It helps to talk about yourself in the third person, using your name instead of “I.” This will help you gain perspective and compassion.
  5. Write a love letter to your inner child, expressing your continuing love and loyalty. Tell them you will believe them and support them when no one else does.
  6. Find support among like-minded people. You can read books, articles, and listen to podcasts with people who know about RTS. There are online communities you can join, forums you can participate in, and in-person events. Look for and value the people who do understand what you are talking about. Church is not the only community.
At Journey Free, we make every effort to honor your individual experience of Religious Trauma Syndrome. Whether in one-on-one individual sessions with a religious recovery coach, in the support group where we have ongoing forums and multiple Zoom sessions, or at a recovery retreat, we try to make sure your story is heard and respected. We strive to create a safe place where you can relax, feel loved, and know that your experience is real.

On the subject of comfort and safety, you might also ask: is Journey Free safe for queer folks? Yes. We strive to use pronouns as appropriate and gender-neutral language. We recognize language is constantly evolving and we will sometimes unintentionally get it wrong. When this happens, we’ll apologize and rectify our mistake. We take responsibility for continuing to educate ourselves.

We welcome all reclaimers and treat everyone with respect, regardless of their socio-economic backgrounds, sexualities, disabilities, ethnicities, races or genders.

Racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, and any other forms of discrimination or harassment are not tolerated on any of our platforms.  At the retreat, we will have a discussion early on about handling all these issues – using assertiveness, boundaries, consent, and more.  We will have mechanisms for dealing with microaggressions.  With all the Journey Free services, we take safety seriously and work to keep communication open about all these issues.

For support in your healing of secondary wounding, you can come to one of our online support groups, seek counseling, or attend our upcoming retreat.
If you’re not sure which might be the best fit for you, just ask – we’re here to help support you and your needs.