Newsletter #4: how spiritual manipulation works

The bi-weekly newsletter: spiritual manipulation, creative writing workshops, helping Afghans in need, a Black Catholic graphic novel, and more!

I love The Crown. The show has provided me an opportunity to learn more about the twentieth century British royal family (albeit, in a somewhat fictionalized account). I especially loved exploring Prince Philip’s background, how he was a member of the exiled royal family of Greece, and how his mother (Princess Alice of Battenberg) founded a community of Orthodox nuns.

But before there was Prince Philip of Greece, there was the mythical Prince Giles of Athens. Legend has it that Giles was born to King Theodore and Queen Pelagia of Athens in 650. He would have become king, but he left royalty behind, fled to the woods for a life of prayer, survived off the milk that a friendly deer provided to him, got accidentally shot in the leg by a hunter, and became a revered hermit with a limp. Among other things, he’s the patron saint of those breastfeeding and those with disabilities. He was often invoked for protection against the Black Death, so he may have some intercessory relevance today. Today is his feast day.

Weird dude, but fairly standard for Catholic legends. Other than St. Giles, here’s what’s in the newsletter today:

  • How spiritual manipulation works

  • The creative writing workshop

  • Helping Afghan families in need

  • Who gets to complain in a pandemic?

  • What I’m reading: a Black Catholic graphic novel

  • What I’m watching: Too Hot to Handle

Spiritual manipulation: how it works

If you’ve been part of a religious community, chances are high that you’ve been subject to spiritual manipulation at some point. Psychological manipulation can be understood as “the exercise of undue influence through mental distortion and emotional exploitation, with the intention to seize power, control, benefits, and privileges at the victim’s expense.” Spiritual manipulation works within these dynamics, often operating like gaslighting. It usually gets someone to question their reality and to abandon critical thinking by suggesting that they are spiritually “not good enough.”

Jonathan Trotter identifies four key accusations that are used as the tools of a spiritual manipulator against their target. The spiritual manipulator accuses the target of disrespect, gossip, pride, or having a “blind spot.”

  1. The accusation of disrespect arises when the manipulator “senses any sort of disagreement or eroding influence… hoping the target will apologize quickly and stop whatever action is ‘disrespectful.’”

  2. The accusation of gossip involves labeling any negative talk as “gossip,” in the hopes that the target will never speak negatively of the manipulator or their community.

  3. The accusation of pride occurs when the target is told that “a more humble person would see the correctness and rightness of the manipulator.”

  4. And, finally, the accusation of the blind spot is “the manipulator’s perfect tool.” When all else fails, the manipulator will just accuse the target of “having blind spots.”

The goal of the spiritual manipulator, whether they realize it or not, is to get the target to abandon critical thinking and their own knowledge and experience as foundations for understanding. Once this occurs, the manipulator can then pressure the target to do or think what the manipulator wants. What distinguishes spiritual from emotional manipulation is that the spiritual manipulator draws on pastoral relationships or spiritual texts, values, or beliefs to make this happen.

A sort of combination of the first and third accusations (disrespect and pride) has come up across Christian communities over the course of the pandemic. Many have leveled accusations of fear, and a failure to respect the power of God, when Christians have decided not to attend in-person church services (Mass for Catholics). Often, the accusation is subtle, by just saying that the decision to go to church in the midst of the pandemic is “the courageous choice.” Implicit in this statement is the position that the decision not to attend church is a decision that comes out of a lack of courage. That is, people who skip church are lacking in virtue. Concerns for safety, whether for oneself or for one’s community, aren’t deemed relevant.

This mode of spiritual manipulation tries to shame Christians into doing something: going to church during the pandemic. It clouds out all other considerations by framing the issue as one of courage (or a lack of it). Even if shame is not intended, this is the foreseeable impact. This manipulation convinces Christians that concerns for safety are failures of courage, and thus it precludes Christians from considering safety concerns at all. Rather than inviting or encouraging Christians to try to attend church in a way that cares for the safety of others, it shames Christians to stop thinking holistically and to put themselves and others at risk. It says, “If you don’t forsake all safety concerns to get to church, you are unfaithful.” It’s textbook spiritual manipulation, at times with deadly consequences.

I recently was the recipient of another attempted spiritual manipulation on a public forum. I had posted about how Cardinal Burke had irresponsibly spread conspiracy theories about the COVID vaccines. In response, a woman—I’ll call her Linda—argued that Catholics should not take the vaccines. Things took a turn when Linda said Catholics don’t have to follow Pope Francis’ insistence to get vaccinated. The ensuing conversation with Linda went something like this…

Me: You don’t seem to be responding to my actual post. My immediate concerns were Catholics giving voice to conspiracy theories and not being attentive to the health and well-being of the community.

Linda: I would encourage you to pray the rosary every day. Then you will not have so much uncertainty in your life. Go to Our Blessed Mother with a humble heart, and she will help you.

Me: That response seems like a deflection, though praying the rosary more often would probably be good for me.

Linda: You say that because you don’t understand the promises of the rosary. One of which is you will not be deceived. Pray the rosary for one month, in a state of grace, after confession, and commit no mortal sin, and you and I can have another conversation.

Me: The problem with that response is that there’s no way to respond to it. It shuts down conversation by being spiritually manipulative. I don't need to prove to you that my prayer life is "good enough" in order for me to think critically about these questions and to have a rational conversation. If your response is to accuse me of not praying enough, you're not engaging in dialogue. You're trying to engage in manipulation.

In terms of the tools of the spiritual manipulator, Linda tried to use accusations of pride and “blind spots,” in order to get me to feel like I wasn’t spiritually “good enough” so I would back down. Without saying it explicitly, since she couldn’t get me to agree with her through dialogue, she tried to overpower me emotionally and spiritually by making me feel spiritually inferior. Certainly, the practice of prayer is required to have a deepening of certain types of knowledge. And it’s fair at times to expect someone to do their homework before entering into certain conversations, such as conversations about race with BIPOC persons. But one does not need to pray to understand how viruses and conspiracies spread, and how to mitigate this. And, for all she knows, I already engage in those practices of prayer. Because of my position, she made unfounded assumptions about my prayer life and tried to use those assumptions to overpower me in the interaction.

In most cases, you can’t get a spiritual manipulator to admit what they’re doing. They’ll just respond that they didn’t intend to spiritually manipulate. This may be true, but on one level it doesn’t matter because that’s what happened.

But even if you can’t convince the manipulator, it’s still important to point out the manipulation. This way, others can also see what’s happening and know how to call it out themselves. Don’t let others turn their insecurities into feelings of spiritual inferiority on your part. You have a mind, you have feelings, and it’s good for you to use them to make sense of reality.

The Creative Writing Workshop

If you’re in the Twin Cities, I’d love for you to join my creative writing workshop! Named after the opening lines of Dante’s Commedia, The Mezzo Consortium helps Twin Cities writers develop works of fiction, poetry, and literary nonfiction, whether the works are written with the goal of publishing or just for fun. We’re in our fifth year now, and I’m really proud of our accomplishments:

  • We’ve worked with more than 30 writers, who have submitted more than 2000 pages of writing to the workshop.

  • We’ve read drafts for more than 10 novels, 15 short stories, 45 poems, 12 works of narrative nonfiction (including a memoir), and a play.

Our first goal is to just have a space where writers feel encouraged and inspired to write creative works. In introductions, I ask each person to share, “What genre(s) you enjoy writing in, whether you think you’re good at it or not.” From there, we help one another workshop stories and develop our craft. We want to ultimately have high-quality work, whether the work is for ourselves, for our friends and family, or for the sake of publication.

If you (or a friend) are interested in joining, reach out here!

If you don’t live in the Twin Cities but want to do creative writing, I’d highly recommend starting your own workshop! I started mine when a friend wanted to develop her novel with other Catholics, and I’ve grown a lot from hearing how others respond to my writing.

I also love when timid new members join us. They sometimes plan on just participating in discussion, but eventually they feel a little inspired and submit works themselves. They often don’t realize what they’re good at, so a big part of what the workshop offers them is a space where we can help them discover and prioritize their strengths. If you have any questions about what it’s like to start up a workshop, feel free to share them in the comments!

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Helping Afghan families in need

If you’re looking for ways to help Afghan families, both those coming to the United States and those still in their home country, I’ve been compiling a list of Catholic organizations and ways you can assist here. In addition, through the month of September, all profits from subscribers to this Substack will be donated to Afghan individuals and families.

Who gets to complain in a pandemic?

Last week, I shared how a nurse friend was experiencing exhaustion and compassion fatigue. She agreed with one doctor, that “it’s getting more and more difficult to have empathy for the incredibly sick covid pts coming in because they are almost always unvaccinated.” My nurse friend was then accused of being emotionally manipulative and told she should take a different approach to her messaging. The accusation struck me as inappropriate, given how close my friend and other healthcare workers are to the crisis of the pandemic. Ring Theory can help us here.

Ring Theory is a practice that helps us understand how to respond to people in a crisis. It works like this. You draw a small circle, and inside you write the name of the person (or group of people) at the center of the crisis. Then you draw rings around that circle, each time putting within them the name of the person (or group of people) next closest to the crisis. The rings determine appropriate expectations for each group. The inner rings should be able to “dump out” emotions to the outer rings. The outer rings are responsible for providing comfort to the inner rings.

You can read more about Ring Theory and what it has to do with our healthcare professionals in the pandemic here.

What I’m Reading: A Black Catholic graphic novel

Follow Black Saints Matter on Instagram and Twitter! It’s a graphic novel-in-progress by Caribbean artist Ambrose Jozefzoon. Through the graphic novel, Jozefzoon highlights the stories of black Catholic Saints. The account has been posting new additions almost daily. I’m not sure when you’ll be able to buy a copy in book form, but I’ll let you know when it comes out!

You can also follow along with my current reads at Goodreads.


What I’m Watching: Too Hot to Handle

Ok, so I don’t feel that I can really in good conscience recommend Netflix’s Too Hot to Handle. This show could only be a very guilty pleasure. But for those of you who are curious, this is how it works: Ten men and ten women are brought to a resort for three weeks. They’ve been selected for the show because they engage in a lot of casual sex and are bad at forming “real relationships.” After twelve hours at the resort, they learn that they have a chance to win $100,000 at the end of their stay, but only if none of them engage in any sexual contact. They lose money if they engage in kissing, “heavy petting,” sexual activity, or “self-gratification.”

I recently watched the first episode of season 2. About half the contestants hear the rules and respond: “I want that money. I’m not going to do anything, and the others better not either.” The other half respond: “Well, kissing is only $3,000, which is not that much money, and I don’t really care what the others think, because I really want to kiss X person right now.” After 24 hours, the group loses $21,000.

Everyone who exercised self-restraint is furious. Those who lost money fall into two groups. One group regrets what they did. The other group responds: “Well, that kiss was worth it for me, so no regrets.” But the whole group loses a chance at the money.

The show is really just an analogy for COVID in America.

(Did you know that, over the course of the pandemic, mask mandates have correlated with increased consumer spending and other benefits to the economy?)

Follow Along

And that’s all I have for you today! If you’re on social media, you’re welcome to also follow me at Twitter and on my Facebook page!