20 Signs of Spiritual Abuse

winter forest illustration

No one plans to join a cult.

A common misconception about victims of spiritual abuse is that only conformist “followers” who are insecure, unintelligent or weak-minded are vulnerable to spiritually abusive environments. Nothing could be further from the truth. You can be an extremely intelligent and independent thinker and still fall prey to spiritual abuse. 

To read my more in-depth blog about Spiritual Abuse click here.

Here are 20 Signs of Spiritual Abuse:

  1. Leaders practice a high degree of control, manipulation, coercion, exploitation and/or abuse by warping concepts of God or the Divine.
  2. Leaders enforce black and white rules and demand strict adherence and obedience to authority. Love is not unconditional and is either earned or lost by adherence to set expectations.
  3. Leaders motivate and punish by shunning, fear, shame, control or public ridicule.
  4. Leaders value outward appearance and performance over inward integrity, character, and authenticity.
  5. There is a code of silence in the group. Members learn that to voice concerns, question authority or giving constructive feedback is not welcome and in some cases will lead to punitive measures.
  6. Personal boundaries are not respected and leaders meddle in personal matters like relationships and finances. Saying “no” means being labeled “disobedient” or “rebellious.”
  7. Members feel confusion and cognitive dissonance due to the community’s contradictory beliefs and behaviors.  For example, freedom is promised yet members feel enslaved. Love is “unconditional,” yet members experience withheld love when they’re not performing as expected. Leaders claim they have the truth but are unwilling to deal with the truth. Moral standards are preached but leaders consistently do not practice what they preach.
  8. Leaders are passive-aggressive and do not practice direct communication for conflict resolution. Triangulation and gossip are rampant. Triangulation is a manipulation tactic where one person will not communicate directly with another person. Instead, they use a third person to relay communication to the second, thus forming a triangle. 
  9. Members who leave the community are shunned and their reputations are tarnished within the community.
  10. No freedom of speech or freedom of thought.
  11. Leaders control information like books read and movies watched. Young people are not encouraged to pursue higher education or careers and instead devote their lives to the community.
  12. Leaders are not open to external scrutiny and are not accountable to anyone who can check their power.
  13. The group claims they have a special revelation or mission that no one else has.
  14. The group elevates a person or a mission above God.
  15. The group especially targets the lonely, college students, anyone who has recently suffered a devastating loss or who is new to an area and in need of support.
  16. The group requires excessive levels of time, money or other resources.
  17. The group isolates itself and discourages association with outsiders or the seeking of support from anyone outside the group (ie. professional counselors, family or friends who are not a part of the community).
  18. The group claims it is the only place of safety for some sort of impending doom or threat.
  19. Even though these are toxic environments, it’s possible to experience genuinely powerful, supernatural, and mystical spiritual experiences.
  20. Excessive blame shifting. Leaders rarely take responsibility or apologize when they’ve made a mistake. Though they freely prescribe correction and point out the flaws of others, they are not willing to admit there own.

To read my more in-depth blog about Spiritual Abuse click here.




Spiritual Abuse, a perpetual winter


Spiritual Abuse (or religious abuse) is when a cult and/or spiritual leader attempts to control, in the same way that physical abuse is an attempt to control. The difference is that the spiritual abuser does not use physical acts of violence. Rather, the perpetrator of spiritual abuse warps concepts of God or the Divine, spiritual authority, religion or spirituality as the weapon of choice.

Spiritual abuse can result in crippling emotional and psychological trauma for victims. According to psychotherapist and former cult member Daniel Shaw, “Experts in this field are careful about what we call ‘cults’ because it’s a very subjective term. One man’s cult is another man’s religion.” Shaw prefers to define “cult” when speaking about any group in which there is a high degree of control, manipulation, coercion, exploitation, and/or abuse.

I am a survivor of spiritual abuse.

My reflections on this subject are personal and draw from over 10+ years of having personally experienced the abuse or having witnessed it inflicted upon others. Though devastating, my experiences are not unique in that the signs of spiritually abusive behavior are predictable, universal, and all too common. Today there are thousands of cults around the world (many of which are not even established religions) and therefore there are countless victims.

Most victims suffer in silence.

When it comes to victims, there is a common misconception that only conformist “followers” who are insecure, unintelligent or weak-minded are vulnerable to spiritually abusive systems. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is an issue that affects the poor and nameless to the rich and famous and everything in between. Oftentimes, even years after having left (and in some cases escaped) spiritually abusive environments, victims express feeling baffled and ashamed that they could have allowed themselves to be controlled, manipulated and entangled in such a way.

No one plans to join a cult.

The purpose of this article is primarily to provide validation and hope for victims and survivors who have experienced the utter confusion, inner turmoil and identity disorientation of spiritual abuse. Identity disorientation as I define it is when you lose track of your very essence and self. Your true self doesn’t go away, rather, it’s suppressed by a false identity. Victims create this false identity as a coping mechanism to survive, to “fit in” and to be safe. 

Victims are often unable to “come to their senses” and identify spiritual violations on their own. This is because they not been taught boundaries and have not been allowed to question or think critically. To even voice concerns in spiritually abusive environments is to potentially face public ridicule. Questioning authority is shunned or dismissed. At worst, victims who speak up are labeled “rebellious” and can be “disciplined” as such. 

To all victims: It is okay to talk about this

You’re not lost, you’re found.

I also write to address our religious and spiritual leaders who have been slow or even unwilling to acknowledge the detrimental impacts of spiritual abuse and how it has harmed some of our most valuable yet vulnerable truth seekers. My reflections are not an attack on any one man or woman, one organization or one religion. This is not an attempt to denigrate any spiritual leaders who earnestly dedicate their lives to the service of others. I have not lost hope in communities of faith and I personally know healthy spiritual leaders who do not abuse. These leaders are often unknown men and women whose sincere devotion has come at a great personal cost because they have given their entire lives to serving the most vulnerable.

Faith leaders must never underestimate the power of admitting wrong, asking for forgiveness and making amends.

When faith leaders take responsibility for wrongdoing, they positively and powerfully affect not only their communities but society at large. I recall the day during the 2015 Baltimore protests after the death of Freddie Gray when more than 100 of Baltimore’s clergy leaders banded together to march against the riots and violence that had erupted. As they marched, they also knelt down in prayer, apologizing and taking responsibility for their part in failing the Baltimore community. From that moment, Baltimore residents, police and press were all positively impacted. Citizens joined them in prayer and peaceful marching. Baltimore police followed the clergy’s lead in their common effort to defuse the violence in the city. In reaction to that powerful scene, longtime news anchor for WBAL-TV Deborah Weiner reported, “I must say, I do feel safe with all this religion here.”

The solution for spiritual abuse isn’t shaming faith leaders or ridding ourselves of religion. However, perpetrators do need to be held accountable for renouncing and deconstructing spiritually abusive practices, systems, and behaviors within their communities. In biblical scriptures, Jesus is portrayed as a gentle lamb except for when he encountered abusive leadership. Jesus reserved his most aggressive and challenging statements for leaders who refused to acknowledge their abuses of power. 

To all faith leaders: It is ok to talk about this. Do not be afraid. It is always the right time to speak the truth, acknowledge others’ hurts and admit wrong.

When choosing an image for the topic of spiritual abuse, the trees pictured above came to mind. The effects of the cold harsh elements are expansive and go farther than our eyes can see. Each tree symbolic of a victim who is stuck in a perpetual season of winter. Even if they manage to physically uproot themselves from the communities that have harmed them, they can remain psychologically imprisoned by fear, shame, and guilt. They struggle to recover from the wounds of the spirit or navigate the web of lies they have learned about who they are and who God is. In some cases, their true self cannot fully emerge without the help of trusted friends and family, support groups, a new emotionally healthy faith community or professional help. Recovery can be slow but it is possible.

The cold winter season will come to an end when there is restorative justice. Here’s how globally recognized ecumenical teacher Fr. Richard Rohr explains restorative justice:

What humanity really needs is an honest exposure of the truth and accountability for what has happened. Only then can human beings move ahead with dignity. Hurt needs to be spoken and heard. It does not just go away on its own. This can then lead to “restorative justice,” which is exemplified in Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) and throughout his healing ministry. We lose that and we lose the Gospel itself. As any good therapist will tell you, you cannot heal what you do not acknowledge. 

Will victims tell their stories and begin to speak their truth?

Will faith leaders listen?

coffee cup notebook pen

Wanna Read More?

Here are 20 Signs of Spiritual Abuse

5 Books to Read in 2018 to help you navigate Spiritual Abuse and Recovery:

  1. The Emotionally Healthy Church by Peter Scazzero
  2. The Emotionally Healthy Leader by Peter Scazzero
  3. Boundaries by Dr. Henry & Dr. John Townsend
  4. Letting Go of the Need to be Right: What’s So Wrong with Being Wrong Anyway? by Jeff Dollar
  5. Spiritual Abuse Recovery: Dynamic Research on Finding a Place of Wholeness by Barbara M. Orlowski

My 2011 Interview with Cupcake Queen, Hollis Wilder

In her latest action adventure drama starring herself, Hollis Wilder gives an award-winning performance of a lifetime in her role as…Miss Holly, founder of Sweet! By Holly a majorly successful cupcake and confection shop in Orlando, Florida thoughtfully preparing thousands of decadent cupcake minis each day. With piping bag and Kitchen Aid mixer at the ready, Hollis sets off on yet another adventure to face the perilous world of cupcake-eating humans and to champion the dangerous trenches of Food Network’s Cupcake Wars. In pursuit of introducing the world to her cupcakes through the simple flavors of her childhood, she tantalizes our taste buds and courageously inspires others to escape the evils of dullness of life-as-usual.

This movie is rated:

Super Yum !

What the critics are saying…

“awe inspiring…this cupcake just sings!” Candace Nelson, (Founder of the world’s first cupcake bakery Sprinkles Cupcakes, and judge on the Food Network’s Cupcake Wars)

“I’m speechless…this is one of the best cupcakes I’ve ever had on the show!” (Florian Bellanger, Owner of Mad Mac’s Chefs, and former executive pastry chef at the world-renowned Fauchon, and judge on the Food Network’s Cupcake Wars)

“Hollis gives a dazzling and fearless performance by simply being herself. Her dirty-blond hair is wild from adventure and you wonder from whence she came. Yet, she displays stunning vulnerability. It doesn’t take much for her striking water-blue eyes to well up into tears. Her humanity translates onscreen and off resonating with audiences everywhere.” (Marisha Rodriguez, Rekindle Magazine)

Though the life of Hollis Wilder is not literally a blockbuster movie, at least not yet, one might think so when reading her life story. A wife and mother of two, self-taught chef with nearly 30 years experience, caterer for world-famous Hollywood celebs and politicians including The Jacksons, Tom Cruise, and Jay Leno to name a few, founder of her own company Sweet! By Holly, and now two-time winner of one of The Food Network’s number one rated show Cupcake Wars…and you get the feeling she’s only just begun.

I interviewed Hollis on the phone Feb 24, 2011:

A Chef Serves Her Way to Hollywood

Rishy: Was a career in food a no brainer for you, or did you consider other careers?

Hollis: I really wanted to be an actress and that was not happening. I think it had a lot to do with the fact that I didn’t know myself. Now I know who I am. I’m not afraid of who I am. I thought I had to change who I was when I moved [from LA] to Florida, and I decided I needed to completely embrace who I am. The things [about myself] I thought perhaps were not working are exactly the things I am being embraced for right now; my vulnerability, my ability to jump in and out of my emotional self and at the same time be a business person, be focused, get the job done, tell the truth. The reason I’m so emotional is because it’s a life-long journey and not knowing where it’s going to end up.

Rishy: Was letting go of the dream of becoming an actress a sort of surrendering?

Hollis: I let go of the grandiose idea; the grandiosity of wanting my face on a big huge billboard on Sunset Boulevard. I wanted to be the next “it” girl. I let go of my idea of being seen on the other side of the camera, because my job was clearly to be of service. At the end of the day, I’m in a position to be of service, and that’s it! My job is to give back by doing what I’m supposed to do [with whatever is] in front of me to do, and that’s how I say, “thank you.”

Rishy: Did giving up the “grandiose idea” happen in one moment or was it a process?

Hollis: There was a sort of big bang. I went to a party and realized I would have to sell myself, sell my soul almost, do things I wouldn’t want to do in the direction of what I wanted to build in my character. Through irony really, the food is the one that has driven me, has saved me, given me direction, and has centered me as a person.

Rishy: You were an experienced chef in LA long before you became known for the cupcake in Florida. What was life like in LA?

Hollis: I met [television producer] Max Mutchnick and he called me and said, “I need a chef.” I went and made this outrageous lunch for Max and all of his writers. That was the beginning of it…it blew up. What I created along with Max was for the writers and creators of the television shows to be treated as family. They worked sixteen to eighteen hour days and they often got food that was from drive-thrus. I replaced that with sit-down buffet, pressed linen napkins, china, silverware, and food like you would have at a wonderful party, something warm and welcoming for them. I did that for nearly ten years.

Rishy: You’ve had a very impressive line-up of clients; Celebrities like Demi and Bruce, Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Annette Bening and Warren Beatty, Jay Leno, The Jacksons, The Rolling Stones and Mikhail Gorbachev. Who has been your most memorable client and why?

Hollis: I would say the relationship I developed with Max. Through that relationship I developed all the other relationships that I had. One relationship that was most genuine and loving was probably Jay Leno. His wife was lovely; they were just great, really down to earth, really wonderful people.

Food Network’s Cupcake Wars

On her latest Cupcake Wars appearance, Hollis had judges Candace Nelson and Florian Bellanger literally swooning over her cupcake triple threat: a ginger cupcake with a lime butter cream zested with fresh lime and topped off with fresh mint and opal basil, the next, an almond cupcake in a raspberry glaze topped with Swiss meringue and a stack of two almond sponge cakes also drizzled with a raspberry glaze, and finally, a gluten-free chocolate scented with cardamom, chocolate butter cream dusted with dark chocolate, and then a spun sugar handmade bird’s nest with a jewel encrusted bird’s egg. We were all swooning.

Rishy: How did you hear about the opportunity to be on Cupcake Wars?

Hollis: The Food Network called me. The way that it works is whenever The Food Network comes up with a new concept they do searches on internet. For instance, they [search] Orlando and say, “cupcake companies” and whatever pops up that strikes their fancy, they call. They asked me to send in a tape. I said to them, “I was a chef and had my own company and worked for most of the celebrities in LA for 20 years and now you’re calling me…when I live in Florida?” How random is that?! It was bizarre!!

Rishy: How did you prepare yourself for the show?

Hollis: When I knew I was going to do the competition, I really ramped up working out with my trainer. What I would do when I was working out with him was put the competitors in front of me, thinking about them the entire time working out, and how I was going to just win…with a smile on my face, but completely focused. It‘s also really important to take away as much drama as you can out of your life.

Rishy: Did you know you’d win both times?

Hollis: No, I didn’t know I was going to [win], I’ll tell you that! But I knew I certainly wasn’t coming home not winning! There’s no way!

Rishy: What do you think set you apart from the other competitors?

Hollis: I think it was very helpful that I have a savory background, I really know flavors and food…I think I have a really good tongue! The other thing is that I think I have a really good ability to listen. When the judges say this is what they want, I really listened. It wasn’t about here I am on television, how cute I can be, what am I going to wear…it was about what do they want. It went back to being of service. If [your client] wants turkey roasted breast, that doesn’t mean that you go to the deli and buy roasted turkey breast. That means that you roast the turkey in your oven, and you slice it, and then you deliver it to the client. That’s what my job is. When I was a chef in LA working for all those industry people, my job was not to have an ulterior motive so that I could be an extra or face in one of their shows. If my motivation was that, I would never have gotten as far as I did. I just did my job. I would hire people to help me and I would say to them, if you give [my client] a script or ask for a job, I will fire you on the spot. And I did it with two people!

Rishy: What did you learn about yourself being on the show?

Hollis: The funniest thing is that when I was little, I was not competitive. I wasn’t a risk taker. I found out I am very competitive. That word can be negative, but the drive [for me] is really I’m the only me that there will ever be. So my job is to get very busy being the best person I can be. So…why not me? Why not you?


Rishy: Why did you move to Florida to start your company Sweet! By Holly after so much success in LA?

Hollis: [In Florida] I can be a part of a community that’s building something, it’s a community that has so much more opportunity to show and shine itself. Los Angeles is fabulous and I love it, and miss it, and would love to live there again. However, in a community like Orlando, Florida where I am being recognized in this way it’s really incredible…I wouldn’t be recognized this way in LA because I’d be just another pretty face with a cupcake shop.

Rishy: What’s uniquely special about your cupcakes at Sweet!By Holly?

Hollis: When I started out my company they were Texas Jumbos and classic size, but now 85% of my business is the mini cupcake; that is a two-and-a-half bite cupcake. Three minis is the size of a classic cupcake but what I’ve really gotten there are three different flavors. They are thoughtfully created because they’re made with olive oil and egg whites instead of butter and whole eggs. When I got busy creating the flavors, I didn’t say, “Oh well I can’t afford to do that so I’m not going to use it.” I didn’t even think about the cost. We make thirty-eight flavors a day and those flavors and quantities are consistently there, regardless of whether or not the people come.

Rishy: What’s next?

Hollis: I’m working on a book that I’ve been asked to do. It’s a huge project; it’s going to be great!

Rishy: After cupcakes, what do you predict will be the next food trend?

Hollis: It’s going to be savory cupcakes.

(Since our 2011 interview, Hollis went on to win a third time on Food Network’s Cupcake Wars officially deeming her “The Cupcake Queen.” Her cookbook Savory Bites : Meals You Can Make in Your Cupcake Pan published in the Spring of 2013 and is available wherever books are sold. She opened a second Sweet! By Holly shop in Jacksonville, Florida.)

For more information about Hollis Wilder visit her website:


To watch more Hollis Wilder videos, visit my YouTube channel RishyCup TV