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Religious Trauma and High-Control Religion: An Interview with Anna Clark Miller, LPC, LMHC

Curt and Katie interview Anna Clark Miller about religious trauma. We explore what religious trauma and high-control religions are. We look at common mistakes therapists can make when working with religious trauma survivors as well as what therapy and healing can look like for these folks.


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An Interview with Anna Clark Miller, LPC, LMHC

Anna Clark Miller - headshot

Anna Clark Miller is a licensed counselor and clinical supervisor in Texas and Washington. She specializes in treating survivors of religious trauma and high-control religion. She has facilitated multiple training events for mental health professionals about religious trauma, suicide prevention, and LGBTQ+ inclusivity. She is the co-founder of Empathy Paradigm, a consulting business that offers trauma-informed professional training and coaching. Anna currently hosts a podcast on religious trauma called Martyr, She Wrote.

In this podcast episode, we talk about religious trauma and high-control religion

We were interested to learn more about how therapists can support religious trauma survivors, so we reached out to an expert, Anna Clark Miller, to share her wisdom.

What is religious trauma?

  • Complex trauma over a long period of time
  • Impacts to the nervous system
  • Traumatic beliefs about religion and the after life
  • Following rules and conforming to a religious group’s idea of how someone should live

What mistakes do therapists make when working with religious trauma survivors?

“A [religious trauma] survivor who’s coming into therapy for the first time might have it in their mind that you as the therapist are going to be their new guru, their new spiritual leader, their new authority. And that puts you in a really delicate space because you don’t want to just repeat the same patterns that they have already been abused with. [You’re]…somebody else, telling them how to think, what to believe,…how to be happier and how to live life the right way.” – Anna Clark Miller, LPC, LMHC

  • Therapists becoming the client’s new spiritual authority
  • Clients using therapy to tell them how to think and live
  • Clients need to own themselves and their own minds, not work to please the therapist

What are signs and symptoms of religious trauma?

  • Wanting to please and doing what the “leader” tell them to do (which can shift to the therapist)
  • Shame based on moral values and never being enough
  • Overworking and self-neglect
  • Rigid and binary thinking, everything is right or it is wrong
  • Overwhelming fear and terror of potential consequences described by religion
  • Suppression of identity and emotional suppression
  • Relationship dysfunction (enmeshment and trauma bonding, for example)

“High-Control Religion” versus “Cult”

  • These words are fairly synonymous
  • The important element is the “high control” element
  • “Cult” is a pretty offensive word to many folks

What does healing after leaving a “high control” religion look like?

“A lot of people…who recognize that they’re unhappy in a high control group, decide not to leave, because…there’s a whole lot to lose there.” – Anna Clark Miller, LPC, LMHC

  • The loss of so much, including social support, identity, etc.
  • Complex PTSD healing
  • How will I fit into the world? How will I talk with people?
  • Building hope for someone who is needing to completely remake their life and identity
  • The client needs to create a sense of safety within themselves
  • You can’t “rip off the Band-Aid” with leaving a high control religious group
  • Helping clients with their judgment around their emotions (starting with observation before judging if it is good or bad)
  • Working with clients to examine their beliefs (over time)

What are the considerations for therapists who want to work with religious trauma?

“Certainty is not the goal. Questioning is the goal.” – Anna Clark Miller, LPC, LMHC

  • Making sure they have done their own work
  • Therapists will need to assess their own rigid thinking (especially if they have their own religious trauma history)
  • It is important to meet the clients where they are and not overlay your own experience
  • Being comfortable with vulnerability and humanity

Special Considerations related to religious trauma for the queer community

  • One element of the trauma is a complete invalidation and erasure of one’s identity
  • Autonomy and safety must be established first due to the layering of trauma

What is included in the treatment for religious trauma survivors

  • Noticing one’s body
  • Exploring and reimagining healthy relationships
  • Identity work
  • Deconstruction of topics based on what the client is thinking, feeling, etc.
  • Addressing spiritual bypassing
  • Not just “mindfulness” due to concerns about secular psychology

How can therapists take care of themselves when they are working with religious trauma?

  • Social support network
  • Managing case load
  • Leaning into the imperfect to take the pressure off

Resources for Modern Therapists mentioned in this Podcast Episode:

We’ve pulled together resources mentioned in this episode and put together some handy-dandy links. Please note that some of the links below may be affiliate links, so if you purchase after clicking below, we may get a little bit of cash in our pockets. We thank you in advance!

Religious Trauma Survival Guide book

Martyr She Wrote: a Religious Trauma Podcast

Instagram: @annaclarkmiller

LinkedIn: @annaclarkmiller


Judith Herman’s Stages of Trauma and Recovery

Reclamation Collective


Relevant Episodes of MTSG Podcast:

Has Therapy Become the New Religion?

How Can You Create an Ethical Faith-Based Practice? An Interview with Whitney Owens, LPC

Conspiracy Theories in Your Office

Treating Political Reactionism and the War on Science

Dissociation in Therapy: An Interview with Dr. Jamie Marich

The Balance Between Boundaries and Humanity, An Interview with Jamie Marich, Ph.D.


Who we are:

Picture of Curt Widhalm, LMFT, co-host of the Modern Therapist's Survival Guide podcast; a nice young man with a glorious beard.Curt Widhalm, LMFT

Curt Widhalm is in private practice in the Los Angeles area. He is the cofounder of the Therapy Reimagined conference, an Adjunct Professor at Pepperdine University and CSUN, a former Subject Matter Expert for the California Board of Behavioral Sciences, former CFO of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, and a loving husband and father. He is 1/2 great person, 1/2 provocateur, and 1/2 geek, in that order. He dabbles in the dark art of making “dad jokes” and usually has a half-empty cup of coffee somewhere nearby. Learn more at:

Picture of Katie Vernoy, LMFT, co-host of the Modern Therapist's Survival Guide podcastKatie Vernoy, LMFT

Katie Vernoy is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, coach, and consultant supporting leaders, visionaries, executives, and helping professionals to create sustainable careers. Katie, with Curt, has developed workshops and a conference, Therapy Reimagined, to support therapists navigating through the modern challenges of this profession. Katie is also a former President of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists. In her spare time, Katie is secretly siphoning off Curt’s youthful energy, so that she can take over the world. Learn more at:

A Quick Note:

Our opinions are our own. We are only speaking for ourselves – except when we speak for each other, or over each other. We’re working on it.

Our guests are also only speaking for themselves and have their own opinions. We aren’t trying to take their voice, and no one speaks for us either. Mostly because they don’t want to, but hey.

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Modern Therapist’s Survival Guide Creative Credits:

Voice Over by DW McCann

Music by Crystal Grooms Mangano

Transcript for this episode of the Modern Therapist’s Survival Guide podcast (Autogenerated):

Transcripts do not include advertisements just a reference to the advertising break (as such timing does not account for advertisements).

… 0:00
(Opening Advertisement)

Announcer 0:00
You’re listening to the Modern Therapist’s Survival Guide, where therapists live, breathe and practice as human beings. To support you as a whole person and a therapist, here are your hosts, Curt Widhalm and Katie Vernoy.

Curt Widhalm 0:15
Welcome back modern therapists, this is Modern Therapist’s Survival Guide. I’m Curt Widhalm, with Katie Vernoy. And this is the podcast for therapists about things that happen in our practice, the people that we serve, the things that happen in therapists lives. And I’m always happy when we come across topics that we have not been able to get to before and especially things that we are coming in with kind of very little direct experience ourselves and being able to just turn to super wonderful people to share their expertise with us. And we are getting into working with religious trauma today. And we are joined by Anna Clark Miller, LPC LMHC. And she also has, I love the name of your podcast, a wonderful podcast called Martyr She Wrote: a Religious Trauma Podcast, and author of the Religious Trauma Survival Guide. So thank you so much for joining us and sharing some time and your expertise with us.

Anna Clark Miller 1:15
Yeah, thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to be here.

Katie Vernoy 1:19
Before we begin, we’re gonna give you the question that we give to all of our guests. Who are you? And what are you putting out into the world?

Anna Clark Miller 1:25
Who am I? You know, that that is the question, right? The the existential question. So, I’m an existential therapist. I work with religious trauma, that’s my specialty. My passion is really just finding people who, like me, grew up with trauma, and are looking for the possibility of a life that is better, that has meaning, that has, you know, rest and joy. And so being a therapist is one way that I do that. But, you know, writing my book was sort of a way to hopefully give that hope to people who maybe don’t feel comfortable going to therapy, or maybe have been burned by a therapist in the past. And so, trauma recovery is really what I’m about.

Katie Vernoy 2:19
Before we jump in, I have a question because I hear religious trauma, like people talking about like, it was religious trauma, it’s religious trauma. What exactly does it mean, what is religious trauma?

Anna Clark Miller 2:30
That’s a good question. And I think it’s complex, you know, it’s literally complex trauma. Because it’s something that happens from a lot of different incidents over, you know, a long period of time. Usually, religious trauma clients don’t have one singular event. I mean, unless they got, you know, exercised or something. It’s usually repeated events. And so religious trauma is like any trauma in that it impacts the nervous system, where you’ve got all these triggers, and they come up at inconvenient times. And a lot of times with religious trauma survivors, those triggers have to do with your beliefs about the world, about the afterlife, about God. And they also typically have to do with following rules and conforming to something that, you know, a religious group, at one point told them, This is the right way to live.

Curt Widhalm 3:33
I have some thoughts that I’m going to come back to this a little bit later. But I think we’re a little bit early in the conversation on this. So, one of the other questions that we kind of start off with in a place of, of not knowing, but also a place of helping educate people. If there’s mistakes to be made in working with people who’ve had religious trauma, if we can help our listeners not make those same mistakes, like what are the kinds of things that you see people who might not be experienced working with religious trauma? What do you see them doing?

Anna Clark Miller 4:04
Yeah, I think a common dynamic that happens with religious trauma survivors is they have complicated relationships with authority figures, and a survivor who’s coming into therapy for the first time might have it in their mind that you as the therapist are going to be their new guru, their new spiritual leader, their new authority. And that puts you in a really delicate space because you don’t want to just repeat the same patterns that they have already been abused with. Which are you know, somebody else, telling them how to think, what to believe, you know, how literally someone else telling them how to be happier and how to live life the right way. And so it’s real easy, I think for therapists to inadvertently sort of slip into that role as the teacher, and forget that one of the most important elements of religious trauma recovery, is empowering them to own themselves, and to own their own minds and own their decisions, and not have that be something that they choose based on what an authority figure has told them is correct.

Curt Widhalm 5:26
Before the episode, you were mentioning that you’re a supervisor. How do you help therapists in training, kind of identify the steps that they need to take in response to being aware of that particular role that I don’t know that it’s necessarily assigned, but that they can accidentally step into.

Anna Clark Miller 5:45
You know, one of the early signs you can spot is when a client comes in, and they’ve got a notebook, and they want to take notes about every word that you have to say, and, you know, they want homework after every single session, and they kind of, it’s almost like, they want a gold star for therapy. Like, like, they’re, they want to get an A+ in therapy. And to me, that’s a hint that maybe they’ve had a lot of, you know, high achieving patterns in the past that have helped them please high control religious leaders, or maybe even a controlling deity, you know, that they believed in. And, to me, the, the real change the work of therapy has nothing to do with pleasing somebody else. And so it, it really takes a lot of like intentional work early on to just reframe from the point of this is not for you to reach a version of healthiness that I envision for you, or your family envisions for you, or your religious group envisions for you, you know, it’s to really get into your body and decide what that is for you. And so when I have a client that comes in, that seems to be really seeking my approval a whole lot. I know that I need to moderate how, how many suggestions I’m making, and be a whole lot more curious. And a whole lot more just focused on empowering them to answer their questions.

Katie Vernoy 7:26
Yeah, I like to go to the question of, and how are you going to make a decision about that? What are the things that you’re considering? You know, just like really making it very clear, I’m not going to tell you what to do.

Anna Clark Miller 7:37
Yeah, yeah. Yeah. Well, and I love engaging in a in a pros and cons, you know, discussion. Like, okay, what are some of the things that might g well, if you do that decision? What are the things that might not go well? And so like, I don’t mind engaging in that, I’m certainly not going to just abandon them to, you know, figure everything out on their own. But I’m not going to lead. I’m not the lead, you know, I’m not taking the lead. And I think your religious trauma clients will often make you feel pressured a little bit to take the lead. And that’s a sign that you need to resist that urge.

Katie Vernoy 8:17
It can be hard, though. What are some of the other signs and symptoms of religious trauma?

Anna Clark Miller 8:24
There are several pretty hallmark symptoms. The first one is shame. So, shame, as we know, is something that impacts people who have religious trauma and don’t have religious trauma. But when it comes to high control religion, there is a whole lot of moralizing around not just behaviors, but personality traits, thoughts, you know, normal actions that every human does. And because there’s so much moralizing and judgment, it is really, really easy to slip into a mindset of I’m never enough, I’m never good enough. I’m never doing enough to please my deity or please my religious group leaders. And that becomes a self defeating pattern of, you know, learned helplessness, an external locus of control, of perfectionism that is, you know, just never ever going to be enough. And so there’s a lot of overworking and self neglect. And so that shame piece is a big one. Another big hallmark symptom of religious trauma is rigid thinking. This this one makes a lot of sense. If you think about having a high control group tell you what to believe and telling you what is right and wrong repeatedly. You, you basically groom your brain into thinking and in binary, everything is right or it’s wrong, everything is either good, or it’s bad. Someone is either in my group or they’re not in my group. And there’s not a lot of room for nuance, there’s not a lot of room for curiosity and exploration. And that could be for anything, whether it’s, you know, ethical topics or personal identity. You know, there are just a lot of things that get really segmented into rigid categories. And that is, honestly, probably the hardest element of religious trauma recovery is getting out of that rigid thinking. Another symptom is fear, just a lot of overwhelming fear and terror. And you see this, particularly in groups that talk about the consequences of not being in that religious group. So, you know, hell is a great example of, you know, the most horrible imaginable thing that we can conjure up where you’re, you’re not only separated from all of your loved ones, but you’re being tortured for eternity. That terror is visceral for a lot of folks with religious trauma. You know, I know people who have nightmares frequently about, you know, the rapture happens, and they’ve been left behind. But not only is that fear, you know, about the afterlife, but it can also be about things like spiritual forces here, present day. You know, there’s a lot of superstition among religious groups, if you, if you do this certain thing, or you save this certain sin, or even you think, a particular thought that is wrong, you might be attacked by an evil spirit, you might be possessed, or God himself or themselves might, you know, smite you with a disease. There’s a lot of terror that comes from this very mystical consequence system that is in a lot of high control beliefs. The last couple of symptoms that I keep an eye out for are suppression of identity, and emotional suppression, because that’s based on conformity. And then the last one is relationship dysfunction. You know, we know cults, high control religious groups, they do enmeshment really well. And and, you know, there’s there’s a lot of trauma bonding, there’s a lot of authority dysfunction that goes with that. And so that’s also a big element.

… 12:51
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Katie Vernoy 12:53
I was going to ask about whether it’s high control religious groups or cults? Are there differences that you see? Or is this kind of all the same pot of folks?

Anna Clark Miller 13:02
You know, there’s, you can ask a lot of different religious trauma therapists, and they probably all have different answers. To me, those two words are very synonymous. I think I prefer using high control religion, just because cult is, frankly, an offensive word to a lot of people. But high control religion is more of a descriptor that specifies it’s not religion itself, that is the problem. It’s the high control part of religion. And that’s really what a cult is, is a high control religion. The only place where that terminology gets a little sticky is with groups, like, you know, like Scientology, for example, which many would call a high control religion, but also they don’t consider it to be a religion, it’s more of an ideology. The high control is really the point. But when we think of a cult, we think of an insulated group with lots of rules with, you know, rigid expectations. And that’s exactly what I mean, when I say high control religion.

Curt Widhalm 14:12
As I’m sitting here, listening to you go through all of these descriptions, I immediately see where you’re like, Yes, this is complex PTSD. It’s just, I mean, I’m just going through, oh, this is how this has showed up in my office, minus the religious piece. This is how this has shown up. And so I don’t want to be like, oh, all religious trauma is just c PTSD, because the question that I was thinking about earlier is also, there’s probably also a tremendous social impact and social change, especially if this is the entire community that surrounds somebody. This is not just dealing with the trauma, but this is also potentially uprooting every social relationship that somebody has.

Anna Clark Miller 14:56
Absolutely. You know, early in my career, I worked with domestic violence survivors. And it’s it’s striking to me how similar the dynamics are of leaving a partner who is abusive and leaving a high control religious group. Because especially if you rely financially and socially on that partner or that group, there are so many reasons to stay stuck. And one of them absolutely is that a lot of folks who leave high control religion lose everything. They lose their family, they lose their closest friends, many of them lose their marriages, they lose, you know, the foundation of what they’ve kind of built their worldview around. A lot of people rethink their identity. It is it is completely excruciating. And it definitely, I think, is a reason why a lot of people who are, who recognize that they’re unhappy in a high control group, decide not to leave, because there’s, there’s a whole lot to lose there. And that’s why religious trauma therapy is so important, because we need to create hope that there is life beyond that group. You can have intimate relationships beyond that group that are safe. You know, you can have a belief system and a philosophy of life that isn’t just that one that has been taught to you. But you’re right, that the implications are a lot beyond just the flashbacks, and you know, hyper vigilance of complex PTSD. But it’s it’s the social aspect of how am I going to fit into the world? How do I even talk to people? You know, when I have only ever framed my social interactions around religious conversations. It’s tough.

Katie Vernoy 17:02
You talk about building hope. And that makes so much sense. And I’m trying to sort through how do you support someone that has to completely remake their life, completely remake their worldview? Like, what does treatment actually look like, for these folks?

Anna Clark Miller 17:20
Well, one of the first things that I, you know, we’ll do with the client is find out where they are on that journey. You know, have they already left? Or are they still in the group and thinking about it? If they’re still in the group, I know this is going to be a long haul, this is going to be a long process, because if you try to do it, rip off the band aid style, that is going to absolutely create a crisis. And, and none of us want that. You know, if you’ve ever read Judith Herman’s ‘Trauma and Recovery’, she talks about the three stages of trauma recovery. The first one is establishing safety. And I think that is where I start with religious trauma as well. And it’s establishing a sense of safety within your own self. Because it’s a lot easier to tackle those bigger challenges, like how do I talk to my family? How do I, you know, what do I do with my week evenings now that I’m not volunteering all the time? Those are all easier to do if you feel safe in trusting yourself, to know what you feel, to know what you want and need, and feel empowered to advocate for yourself. So that’s kind of the first step.

Curt Widhalm 18:43
A lot of the work that we talked about as far as therapists and this is also kind of the person of the therapist, how we enter into a lot of this. And I imagine that there’s a lot of balancing out just kind of our own relationships with religion. And whether it comes from our own experiences of being in high controlled religions or people who have healthy relationships with their religion. I guess I’m looking for what kind of guidance do you have for therapists as far as being able to kind of set that piece of themselves into working in this kind of a treatment type setting?

Anna Clark Miller 19:18
You know, I think most therapists who work with trauma have some kind of trauma in their own history. So, it certainly doesn’t disqualify you. But I think the the most important element for a therapist to work through on their own prior to working with religious trauma clients is that rigid thinking piece. Because it is really easy to not recognize something as a personal bias if the way that you’ve been framing it in your head is well, this is just right, and that’s wrong. Or this is healthy and that is unhealthy. You know, whenever we start putting things in binary categories like that, we run a really high risk of shaming our clients, or of missing the context that completely explains why they are thinking and acting the way they are. And so that was a big challenge for me, when I first started working with religious trauma clients, because I was looking at it through the lens of my own experience. And, you know, getting real mad about the stuff that made me mad, you know, in my experience. But that may not have been where the client was. And I think I, you know, inadvertently alienated some clients that way. And I just realized, like, I need to take two steps back with my judgments, with my, you know, automatic assumptions about what’s right and wrong, what’s healthy and unhealthy, what’s codependent and not codependent. And focus on what the client is experiencing. What are they feeling in their body? Because if it is unhealthy, they’re going to figure that out by listening to themself. They don’t need me to say it. So, I think I think that’s, that’s probably the biggest thing to set aside. But, you know, I also think it really does a lot to verbalize with religious trauma clients: “I don’t know the answer to that. I’m learning too.” That normalize this to them that it’s okay to change what you believe. It’s okay to decide that you think something different. In fact, I’m doing that right now too, you know.

Curt Widhalm 21:40
Really being able to model that piece that just kind of like it’s okay to not be in this dichotomous kind of thinking space here. And that’s part of the growth.

Anna Clark Miller 21:49
Yeah, yes, certainty is not the goal. Questioning is the goal.

Katie Vernoy 21:55
I guess for me, that is something I’d like to go deeper into, because there’s your own work. And there’s kind of looking at how do you get more curious? How do you go beyond binary or, or certainty or those types of things. Maybe a little bit more to the work that you do to help clients with rigid thinking, because that gets so frustrating for me when someone is so caught in their own little tiny perspective of the world. And sometimes I’m able to hang with it and get going with it. And other times, I feel like I’m banging my head against the wall.

Anna Clark Miller 22:29
Yeah, yeah.

… 22:33
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Anna Clark Miller 22:34
Uh, something that I like to focus on early on is judging emotions. And so a lot of times, you know, clients will come in, then this is religious trauma, or not any client will come in with sort of automatic judgments about what they’re feeling, and why it’s either a good thing or a bad thing. And when I can, you know, say, Okay, well, we slow down, let’s notice that feeling. And before you judge it as good or bad, let’s just observe it. Let’s just be a scientist for a second and gather some data. And then we can look at the data, and then decide, you know, okay, is this helping or not helping. And then once we kind of talk about emotions that way, then we can start to talk about beliefs. Beliefs are thoughts mixed with emotions, right? And so beliefs are harder to not judge immediately. But we need to get in that same habit of noticing a framework, and then saying, hang on, before I make a determination of whether that’s true or not true, or unhealthy or healthy. Let’s take a step back. And let’s just investigate. Let’s just examine the implications. Let’s examine how that belief impacts you. Let’s examine how it’s impacted people you know and love. Let’s examine, you know, the, what the research has to say. And then it’s sort of like by suspending that judgment, you get to actually let yourself think out of the rigid box that you’ve been trapped in. So, it’s mostly a lot of talking about exploring with non judgement.

Curt Widhalm 24:25
Are there special considerations in how this may disproportionately affects the LGBTQ plus community. That I imagine that, I don’t know being around institutions that argue against one’s very existence in the first place might affect them even more so than other people.

Anna Clark Miller 24:45
Yeah. Shocking, right, that it does impact them a whole whole lot. You know, conversion therapy is a major driver of LGBTQ suicide rates. And conversion practices, by the way are you know, any effort to force somebody to change who they are, whether that is their sexuality, or their gender identity, or, you know, even aspects of their personality that don’t fit in with a high control group’s ideals. But yeah, the the queer community for a long time has been deprived in religion of even the ability to name themselves. You know, growing up, I was not allowed to use the word gay because my parents told me that’s not a thing. And that erasure is so painful for folks in the queer community. And it’s so important to validate their existence, and create that safety and autonomy before you start diving into all the other work of trauma. Because there, there needs to be a whole lot of autonomy, and safety felt first.

Katie Vernoy 26:08
Seems like so much of this is identity work, curiosity, opening up, you know, kind of perspectives, getting really creative in kind of looking at the world and trying to help them to get out of very rigid, self denying types of mindset. As we’re running low on time, I’d love to kind of hear maybe a little bit more of an overview of what the full arc of the treatment might look like for someone that comes in specifically looking at addressing their religious trauma.

Anna Clark Miller 26:42
We will often, you know, talk about symptoms first. And that’s, that’s kind of for me to get a gauge of how self aware they are. And then oftentimes, we’ll spend a lot of focus on connecting with body. If you’re familiar with the term spiritual bypassing that sort of a habit of using spiritual terminology to just skip past uncomfortable ideas or feelings. And religious trauma survivors have an uncanny ability to just push aside uncomfortable things. And, you know, uncomfortable body sensations even that are really important information that they need to know in order to start recovering. And so we’ll do a lot of work on noticing in what your body is feeling. Trusting your body, rather than, you know, saying, Nope, it’s bad. It’s tempting me. It’s evil. It’s like, No, you can, you can listen to that. That’s real information. Another, you know, treatment thing that we do is focusing on what healthy relationships with other people can look like. And a lot of times that’s reimagining what close relationships look like where it’s not all about enmeshment. And you don’t have to be in full agreement with someone else in order to be close with them. You don’t have to completely have all of the same opinions on like, every politics, everything. You can still know someone and have your own separate identity. That’s a big part of recovery. And then you know, we do deconstruction. It depends on the client. But if a client is more of a cognitive person, and they are able to connect cognitive ideas with emotional, then a lot of times we will talk about deconstruction, sort of like, you know, the topic of hell would be an example. And I’ll say, Okay, I hear what you’re thinking about that. Now, tell me what you’re feeling about that. What does it feel like when you talk about the idea of hell or when you think about it. And a lot of times, that’s where that spiritual bypassing gets sort of taken out of the equation. And now we have to actually think about the discomfort. It’s not fun. But it actually helps them make a lot of progress pretty quickly. Because now it’s like, we can’t just move over and ignore it.

Curt Widhalm 29:21
Sounds like there’s a tremendous amount of mindfulness that you introduce. And I’m wondering how direct you are as far as just being like, mindfulness. This is the skill that we’re we’re just going to work on to get to some of these goals.

Anna Clark Miller 29:36
So, that’s a tricky one. Because with this population, a lot of folks who, especially who grow up in high control religion are warned about the dangers of secular psychology, of, you know, mindfulness, of meditation, yoga, you know. These are all things that are villainized in some religious groups. So I do have to be really careful about labeling it with words that are maybe more mainstream. Because I don’t want that to scare them. Like, this is what my mom warned me about, you know. But if it is a client that I can tell has kind of, you know, they’re on TiTok. Like, they they know what those words really mean, then yeah, I’ll mention that. But it’s it’s a slow ushering in.

Katie Vernoy 30:31
That’s so interesting, because I think there’s so many different places that our clients are coming in with ideas from and so a lot of this, I feel like there is the old therapist phrase, it depends, meet your client where they are, and all of those things. But it seems like this work is very, very intense isn’t quite the right word, but I’ll use it. It’s just it seems like there’s so much that is impacted by this type of trauma and this type of lifestyle that pulling, you know, kind of pulling someone out of that. And that’s the wrong word to because, you know, of course, they’re coming out, and you’re just helping them to have a container to figure it all out. But it just it seems like there’s so many opportunities to potentially cause harm. You know, overstepping and telling somebody what to do, or invalidating, or judging or, or getting frustrated because of the rigidity of their thinking. Like, how do you take care of yourself as a therapist in working with this population? Because it seems like there is definitely opportunities to have burnout or exhaustion lead you down the wrong road?

Anna Clark Miller 31:37
Well, something that I figured out a long time ago was that it takes pressure off of me to be perfect. If I can, say something short to a client and say, how did that impact you just now? What did you feel when I said that? And that way, I can let them tell me if I did something that was triggering inadvertently. And I don’t have to constantly be second guessing if, you know, I’m saying the perfect words. But also, I you know, out of therapy, when it’s my personal time, I have a lot of friends and family that I can talk very frankly with about my opinions on this. I can vent, you know, and that gives me the opportunity to not feel like I’m just holding in all of my personal emotions. I have an outlet for it, I have a place where I can express my opinions, even if they’re wrong, you know, and I don’t need to worry that I’m leading someone astray. I think it’s, it’s a balance. And any trauma therapist will tell you, you got to play it by ear, you know, one week, I’ll feel like, Oh, I’ve got a good balance of the number of clients I’m seeing and all that. And then the next week, I’m like, I am on the brink of burnout, I need to pull way back, you know, and it’s just every week, it’s kind of like time to reassess and just listen to your body. And, you know, do what takes care of you.

Curt Widhalm 33:08
I just have one last question from my end here is in working with populations like this where there is kind of that expectation of perfection, are you being a guru? And kind of balancing this idea that you’re not going to be perfect? How upfront are you about that idea that, Hey, I’m probably going to not meet your expectation, I’m probably going to be a disappointment to you in somehow.

Anna Clark Miller 33:40

Curt Widhalm 33:41
How are you with that?

Anna Clark Miller 33:43
I don’t know that I’ve ever said I’m probably going to disappoint you. But I definitely have said I am not the expert here. And the I am not here to tell you what to do or what’s going to make you happy. You know, and I’ve even told clients, like there’s a good chance that I will say something or recommend something that is going to rub you the wrong way. And you’re gonna have some feelings about it. And I want you to tell me that because I my ego is not so fragile that I can’t get that feedback and hear it and not take it personally, you know. And so yeah, I’m pretty explicit about that, especially if they do seem to be wanting to create that, you know, authority sort of dynamic.

Katie Vernoy 34:30
But not like Curt type saying, I’m going to disappoint you.

Curt Widhalm 34:33
You’re horribly disappointed at some point. And that’s part of your growth. Like…

Anna Clark Miller 34:37
You should go ahead and leave therapy now because you can’t trust me.

Katie Vernoy 34:42
I will fail you so many times.

Curt Widhalm 34:46
Can you tell us more about the book that you wrote?

Anna Clark Miller 34:49
Yeah. Yeah, so the ‘Religious Trauma Survival Guide.’ It’s called ‘education recovery tools for survivors and professionals.’ So it is for survivors of religious trauma and therapists working with them, or church leaders who are working with survivors. And it’s all you know, the first half of the book is education about What is religious trauma? What are high control dynamics that create religious trauma? What are some of the biggest patterns that we see in this field? And then the second half is all about recovery tools. And it has a lot of self guided reflection prompts for people going through the book to think through and answer. It has a lot of inventories, you know, you can check off like, what are some of the different shame based beliefs that I’ve taken away from my experience in high control religion. So really, the purpose of this book is to bring self awareness and encourage those early stages of healing that can be done either while in therapy, or even if you’re not in therapy, you also get to heal.

Katie Vernoy 36:04
For therapists who want to dig deeper into this, what kinds of trainings would you recommend?

Anna Clark Miller 36:10
So I offer a three hour therapist training through my consulting company Empathy Paradigm. So feel free to check that out on my website. And then I know there are a lot of other folks out there who are working on creating religious trauma content right now. It’s it’s such a booming niche, which I’m so excited about. A website that I would definitely encourage you to check check out is the Reclamation Collective. They have a a way to search for therapists who are religious trauma therapists, but they also have a bunch of resources, both for clients and therapists of support groups, trainings, consultations, things like that. And so yeah, there’s definitely a building archive of resources out there.

Curt Widhalm 37:04
And where can people find out more about you and your practice and all of the projects that you have?

Anna Clark Miller 37:10
Yeah, yeah. If you want to learn more about me, visit my website,, or my consulting business I mentioned that does the trainings. That’s And if you want to read my book, it’s on Amazon. You can get it ebook or printed, and it’s the Religious Trauma Survival Guide.

Curt Widhalm 37:34
And we will include links to all of that in our show notes over at And follow us on our social media, join our Facebook group, the Modern Therapists Group to continue on this conversation. And until next time, I’m Curt Widhalm. With Katie Vernoy and Anna Clark Miller.

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