Episode 2: Trauma is Descriptive, Not Prescriptive


Stories impact who we are and how we understand the world. What we mean by this is that our narratives hold our unique context, biology, identity, history, generational impact, and experience which shape who we are and how we experience the world. People are unique because of this beautiful and messy diversity. No single life story will be exactly the same.

In the same way, trauma is descriptive. Not prescriptive.

What one person may find to be harmful or healing is not a prescription for how others do or should experience their reality. This is the inherent challenge when communities try to hold one narrative as the truth — it coerces others to fit into that experience. And oftentimes, the experience that is held as “redemption,” as “truth” is what is most acceptable and/or understandable to those with most leverage and power. Rather than fully engaging in the complexity of our stories, we’d rather sit in our safe assurances and abstract antidotes for difference.

It would be foolish for us not to name the immense heartbreak and suffering that is currently being caused by the current conversation in large evangelical churches and their initiatives of highlighting people who have ‘overcome’ same-sex desires. These stories are treated as prescriptive of all people and therefore coerce, traumatize, and inflict real harm on people who do not experience wellbeing in the same way. This can overwhelm an individual’s sense of meaning-making and capacity to cope. I (Michael) currently struggle to find the words to adequately process through my own wounds that have been exposed in recent days through these conversations. Even more so, therefore, I believe this conversation on spiritual and religious trauma is so profound and important.

In this week’s episode, we discuss the clinical definition of trauma (and its limitations), the spectrum of harm, and the unique impacts of traumatization within faith contexts. While we did not record this episode specifically on the topic of conversion therapy and practices, we find it to be extremely timely to the current heartbreak. Within the mental health profession, we so often focus on curing symptoms rather than addressing sources of harm and fully healing and transforming our wounds. The Bearing Witness Project hopes to provide both a space to heal and to address the systems of traumatization.

Intro Music: Alumroot by Isaac Joel

Transition Music (8:30): Lights Burning by Alsever Lake

Transition Music (19:51): Drift by Scott Holmes

Outro Music (26:45): Atlantic by Acreage

Image: Photo by Eneida Hoti on Unsplash


SAMHSA’s definition of trauma

Dr. Judith Herman’s definition of trauma

Public Policy approach to violence-informed and trauma-informed systems

SAMHSA Trauma-Informed Care and Services Guide — Variability of Interpretation of traumatic experience (p. 51)

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Episode 1: Introducing The Bearing Witness Project

To preface the first podcast episode, Michael shares a little about his story and why The Bearing Witness Project exists. This is a copy of the same Medium article. The embedded podcast is below.


I remember that evening well. I was lying on my bed with a knot in my stomach. My body felt heavy with my mind racing in a thousand different directions. Only six hours earlier I had a conversation with a pastor at my church. I initiated the contact because I had some questions about how they explain their theology given my life experiences and story. A genuine and relatively unthreatening question, I naively presumed. Unfortunately, the conversation with this leader morphed into a rapid-fire interrogation session where my faith, upbringing, relationships, and life story were questioned and I was told I needed to let go of control and sacrifice the apparent selfishness and confusion to God. I left the conversation feeling like I couldn’t trust myself, my body in particular, and that I was selfish and needed to submit to authority. Whenever I tried to process this memory, I’d struggle to remember details, further exacerbating my anxiety and panic that I was overdramatic. That evening, I turned to the only sanctuary I knew to calm my mind — music. I experienced this cycle of panic and music for several years following this incident.

It wasn’t until I considered becoming a social worker that I started developing language for what happened — spiritual trauma. I was resistant, even defiant, to use such language. I was in close proximity to survivors of trauma in most of my work for the past several years so it felt selfish to use that description for myself. It was easy to minimize my suffering because I was not abused by my parents nor did I experience sexual harm — this is not uncommon for many of us. Meanwhile, I had several incredible therapists who helped me process through these experiences of religious and spiritual trauma and empower me with language to understand what happened. I was a step closer to integrating these aspects of myself into my story and moving towards healing. I noticed how my pain would spill out in cynicism, passive-aggressiveness, and distrust towards people I love and my faith. I had to lean into the hurt even more:

If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it.
- Father Richard Rohr

I found the courage to write a paper on the topic of religious and spiritual trauma for one of my final courses in graduate school and discovered that the topic is very under-researched and ignored. When I started talking to friends who identified with that language, they described experiences of their faith communities attempting to silence their voices, of mental health professionals telling them “to just leave their faith” as if that were easy to do, and loved ones who simply did not know how to respond.

Sometimes painful stories threaten our sense of control and assuredness about the world. I believe this is why many people are being silenced when they attempt to tell the truth of their wounds. Survivors need people who bear witness to their grief and take action to prevent further harm and restore relationships that heal. This is why The Bearing Witness Project exists. Our platform is unique and will take many different forms — including blog posts and accompanying podcast episodes. We hope it provides the needed container to start this conversation in faith communities and among mental health professionals. Not through a lens of cynicism, but a genuine curiosity and authenticity to the experiences of survivors.

In part 1 of our introductory episode, Gabes and Michael share a little about their personal and professional backgrounds and what leads them to this work, discuss the spectrum of harm and traumatization, and their current understanding of religion and spirituality.

We hope you join us for part 2 of the introductory episode where we discuss the definitions of trauma and the unique impacts of traumatization within the religious context. Please check out our website and follow us on Medium, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter!

The podcast is already available on Google Music and Spotify and is in process of being released on Apple Podcasts. Stay tuned for announcements and please review and subscribe!

Intro Music: Alumroot by Isaac Joel

Transition Music (18:30): Hello Love by Glenn Campagna

Outro Music: Lights Burning by Alsever Lake

Image: Jordan Bauer on Unsplash

If you are seeking mental health support, please check out our resources on the website or call emergency services in the case of a crisis.