Religious life, hassle and spiritual growth

Dr. Anke Bisschops

More | Reflective articles

Religious life, hassle and spiritual growth

Dr. Anke Bisschops

More | Reflective articles

Life in a religious community is not always easy. Where in the past rules and hierarchy used to create clarity – “this is how we do it” – in today’s communities we often see discussion and disagreement about everything. A major bottleneck often concerns the course to be followed in these times of decline. A complicating factor is that such content issues almost always lead to relational hassle. This relational aspect then becomes a major stumbling block. Whenever people have differences of opinion, set different priorities or have different needs, ideally they agree to disagree. In that case they make a proper distinction between problem and person. However, this does not always work. Usually we blame the other person for wanting or thinking something different from us; we then make issues personal.


In the past decades I supervised various religious communities, pastoral teams, individual religious, pastors and spiritual caretakers. I was asked for reflection days, team counselling, community development and for supervision, therapy and coaching. In almost all of these counselling sessions the central issue was communication. Living together, working together and the accompanying communication – it’s not easy and sometimes requires a lot from a person.


In the first instance, when thinking of communication, we primarily think of communication between people. But in fact there are always three levels of communication, which are closely interrelated: the communication with ourselves, the communication with the other and the communication with the Other – God, the mystery, the ground of our existence – whatever terms we use for it.

Grün (2000) speaks in this context of the triple love. Wicks (1986) also states that the relationships with ourselves, with the other and with God are inextricably linked. He shows how being available to others is only possible if we are available to ourselves and know ourselves to some extent. Putting ourselves in prayer before God, opens us to the truth about ourselves, about others and about God. We cannot feel accepted by God when we do not fundamentally accept ourselves and vice versa. Thus, true spiritual development implies all three domains. In other words: whether we are working on the contact with ourselves, with the other or with the Other: in all cases this means working on our further spiritual development.


Primarily we humans are confronted with communication with others. Mutual friction, hassle, discord, etc. may arise. Conflicts of interest and differences of opinion are taken personally and the resulting conflicts can take place either underground or above ground. The underground variant occurs above all, where religious ideals such as ‘availability’, ‘selflessness’ and ‘charity’ come into play. People then swallow their negative emotions. But that happens at a price. Either it becomes internalised and people become grumpy, depressed, bitter, etc., or the blood crawls where it can’t go and sooner or later there is a sudden explosion, a lashing out or at least some form of passive aggression, which ruins the atmosphere.

A more extreme form of taking things personally, we see in people with so-called ‘long toes’. The slightest thing can lead to a great deal of hurt, anger or stress in them – often without the other person intending anything bad.


In situations like this, counselling can bring relief, whether by a coach, therapist, supervisor, pastor or spiritual counsellor. Just the unconditional acceptance, the attention and the listening of the counsellor bring a lot of good. People may become calmer, see better what is actually going on and hopefully gain more confidence – in themselves, in others and in God/life.

But sometimes more is needed. We all have become a little damaged somewhere in the course of our lives, resulting in damaged trust in ourselves, in others and in life. Maybe we were once falsely accused, raised with fear of punishment, maybe a brother or sister was strongly favoured or we had a parent with psychiatric problems or unpredictable outbursts of anger.

Things that can happen in a child’s life sometimes leave deep traces. In order to deal with it as well as we could, as a child we developed certain survival mechanisms, which can vary greatly from individual to individual. For example, some of us always prefer to keep in the background, others do everything to stand out, avoid large groups, try to prove themselves everywhere and always, resist the authorities in advance, become excessively compliant, etc. etc. Such behaviour patterns do not necessarily have to interfere in later life, but usually do in practice.

Especially where serious abuse has occurred in our past, such as emotional neglect and physical or sexual abuse, the consequences are considerable. Nicolaï (2011) describes the devastating consequences and the deep traces this type of trauma leaves behind – on stress regulation, on the sense of security, on self-confidence and on the development of cognitive and emotional skills. All this can lead to a greatly reduced ability to cope with later life experiences. See also Bisschops (2011).


Certain damaging experiences and their consequences therefore require more than just attention, recognition and a listening ear. Processing old traumas and reprogramming childhood survival mechanisms are then necessary.

What strikes me about the ‘religious staff’ I mainly work with is that they too have usually had their share of misery in their lives. Bullying at school, emotional neglect, a seriously ill parent – such things are all examples of things that can make us sensitive to the hardships of life. It can result in a feeling of a vocation to want to help others, to dedicate oneself to religious life, to others/the world. This phenomenon is also sometimes referred to as the ‘wounded healer’. When our own wounds have healed well, we can indeed become a good healer for others.

But it is important that those wounds are at least a bit healed, that the old traumas are processed to a certain extent, so that they no longer disturb. Otherwise, the old reality and past experiences continue to cloud our perception of the present.

A small example. I myself – as the youngest of the class – during puberty was once excluded in a nasty way in a group of which I was a member. Before I realised as an adult how painful that had been for me at the time, I always tried hard to include everyone who seemed to be a bit outside of the group. Even if that someone preferred the position at the edge of the group… My own unprocessed pain caused me to unconsciously project my own situation from the past onto the other; therefore I could not perceive the present objectively. Only after I had ‘visited’ that old experience again, my emotional brain could distinguish between past and present and the old pattern no longer disturbed me. I got out of its grip and could tune in better to others, without my own feelings and experiences getting in the way.


When hassle arises in a group and emotions run high, we tend to make each other responsible for the negative feelings it evokes. Ideally we realize that we are overreacting and go into conclave with ourselves to find out what exactly makes us react so angry, suspicious, scared, hurt, etc. Ideally we then discover that there are painful strings from the past in our reactions to the present and we start working with those experiences from the past. This means that we stop focusing on the (faults of the) other and instead turn inwards to feel/ discover what is really going on with us.

Unfortunately, most of us do not have the required emotional intelligence to do so. After all, at such a moment we really believe that the other person cannot be trusted, wants to exercise power over us, deliberately treats us unfairly, is of bad will, etc. etc. We really believe that the other person cannot be trusted. Our egos become entangled in each other and a power struggle arises, in which in the end it is no longer about understanding each other and getting closer to each other, but about who is/will be right.

How to deal with such malfunctioning communication?

As said before, ideally people turn inward and seek psychotherapeutic counselling where necessary to deal with old traumas, so that they can react more adequately and maturely in situations that resemble the old reality. However, this seldom happens. Usually we believe that it is not I who is (a part of) the problem, but that the other is the problem.


Group supervision is then an option. Under expert guidance difficult issues can be more peacefully discussed.  Assumptions about why the other person does or says certain things can be dismantled. There can also be a greater understanding of what motivates the other person. Sometimes people in the group discover that it is actually quite special that they themselves always react so strongly to this or that, while other people clearly don’t have such a problem with it. “So that must say something about me…”

Such group counselling ultimately aims to help people stop sending ‘you-messages’. With you-messages, the finger is pointed at the other person. After all, he or she is the culprit. People do not realize that the actual message hardly comes across, or even does not come across at all. Of course formulated in this way the message is very difficult for the ‘evildoer’ to hear. He or she can no longer really listen and will mainly be defending himself or herself against the accusations. In other words: we want attention to how things are for us and we create the opposite: that the other is mainly concerned with himself.

So it is about learning to treat the other person respectfully; that implies that we learn to take responsibility for our own feelings and express them in such a way that the other person can hear what we actually want to say. So not: “You are always so dominating”, but: “I feel little space”. Not: “You always get angry so quickly”, but: “I’m scared when you say that”. Not: “You think you can control everything”, but “I’d like to give my opinion”, etcetera.


It helps if people are used to practice self-reflection, are willing to look inside themselves and are to some extent aware of what is going on inside them. The prayer life, silence and meditation, which are an important part of life in religious communities, are certainly helpful here.

If all goes well, a process arises in the group guidance, in which we start to understand ourselves and each other better. We become more free from destructive behaviour patterns, which originate from our past. And when the ego feels less threatened, the love that is present in all of us can flow more freely, there is more mutual understanding and cooperation and not only psychological growth, but ultimately and especially spiritual growth takes place.

End notes / Literature list

  1. Bisschops, A. (2011). Seksueel misbruik van kinderen en seksueel misbruik in pastorale relaties binnen de rooms-katholieke kerk. In Geerts, H. & H. Morssinkhof (Eds), Grensoverschrijdingen geduid. Over seksueel misbruik in katholieke instellingen. Valkhof Pers, Nijmegen, p. 103-115.
  2. Grün, A. (2002). Im Haus der Liebe wohnen. Kreuz, Stuttgard.
  3. Nicolai, N. (2011). De consequenties van seksueel misbruik van minderjarigen. In Wim Deetman e.a. Seksueel Misbruik van Minderjarigen in de Rooms-Katholieke Kerk, deel 2, p. 241-259. Balans, Amsterdam.
  4. Wicks, R. (1986). Availability: The problem & the gift. Paulist, New York.

About the author

Dr. Anke Bisschops

Anke Bisschops is a psychologist who worked for 37 years as a teacher and supervisor in the academic training of (future) pastors. In 2009 she started her own business, assisting and advising religious, pastors, volunteers in church-related settings. She gave a number of guest lectures on sexual (child) abuse in a couple of Dutch seminaries and faculties of theology and assisted in the contacts between religious superiors and victims of sexual abuse. She also gave trainings on “Effective communication” and on “Leadership”. In her text she focusses on spiritual life, “trouble” and spiritual growth.