Common Terminology Definitions

Terminology Defined:

Abuse will be used in this definition to indicate that is inflicted upon an individual by a person as a pattern of control that one person exercises over another person which physically harms, induces fear, prevents a person form doing what they wish, or forced to perform in ways they do not want to. Abuses include: verbal, psychological, emotional, financial, physical, sexual or spiritual attacks.

Spiritual abuse is a manipulation that damages a person’s relationship to God or his/her core self. Spiritual abuse has been reported in mainstream religious organizations as well as non-mainstream groups, such as cult. Often the individual perpetrating the harm is a person in a position of religious influence. The terms psychological abuse or emotional abuse refer to harms that overlap those associated with both conceptualizations of spiritual abuse. These harms include but are not limited to: damaged self-esteem, induced dependency, impaired capacity to trust, and emotional reactions such as anger, anxiety, and depression. In some cases, one’s faith in God may also be shaken.

Psychological abuse and emotional abuse are terms that are often used interchangeably. Both terms may refer to behavior that causes anxiety, chronic depression, or trauma in a person usually in a state of lower power compared to the abuser. Parents, teachers, therapists, pastors, spouses and others may be at risk of abusing those over whom they wield various levels of power. The adage, “power tends to corrupt,” sets the stage for a risk of abuse, with the level of risk depending upon the maturity of the power holder.

Psychological abuse can also include: dismissing one’s reality and experiences, “remembering” things that didn’t happen or never remembering anything (a.k.a gaslighting), making up rules that others “should have know” and creating an atmosphere in which others begin to doubt their own reality.

Emotional abuse can also include: ignoring your feelings, ridiculing your beliefs, withholding approval, threats, manipulating with lies, preventing you from going to school or work, isolating you from family or friends and threatening suicide if you don’t…

Verbal abuse: yelling, name-calling, constant complaining, criticizing, blaming, humiliating, using sarcasm, dominating conversations, teasing others about things in which they are sensitive, mumbling then denying speaking, or employing total silence as punishment.

Financial abuse: demanding money, or attaching financial giving to one’s eternity.

Physical abuse: pushing, scratching, slapping, hitting, punching, choking, kicking, holding, biting, throwing, locking a person in a room or the house, threatening with a weapon, abandonment in dangerous places, and refusal to help when sick or injured.

Sexual abuse: insisting that the individual dress in an uncomfortable sexy way, calling the person sexual names like “whore or bitch”, forcing a person to strip, forcing unwanted sexual acts, withholding sex as punishment, criticizing sexually, insisting upon sex when the person doesn’t want it or using pictures or intimate knowledge to humiliate.


  • An all-encompassing movement to which members devote a majority of time and energy.
  • It is headed by a created or self-appointed leader who proclaims to be in contact with a supernatural being or has supernatural powers.
  • It is organized around members’ devotion to the leader and to the organization itself.
  • The leader of the group tells members (directly or indirectly) to lose relationships with those outside including family and friends.
  • The outside world is viewed as inferior.
  • The group, its leaders, and its members cause any of its members harm (be it, physically, socially, or emotionally).
  • It is an organization where members spend time together on a daily basis. (Singer, 2003.)

Thought Reform:

  • Milieu Control – The group controls information and communication between the group and the environment, which results in individuals being isolated from society at large.
  • Mystical Manipulation – Experiences are manipulated by leaders to demonstrate spiritual advancement or divine authority of the leader. These experiences appear to be spontaneous but are in fact orchestrated by the leader and/or group.
  • Demand for Purity – The group/leader demands for perfection. The world is seen in terms of black and white. Guilt and/or shame are utilized to control individuals.
  • Confession – Indiscretions, or sins, as defined by the group are to be confessed either privately or publicly to the group. Members’ sins are discussed and exploited by leaders. Confidentiality is not a factor.
  • Sacred Science – The doctrine of the group is purported to be the ultimate truth and can only be found in the group. The leader is a spokesperson for God.
  • Loading the Language – The group uses words in ways that are unique to the group. This promotes thought-terminating clichés and serves to alter group members’ thinking to the group’s way of thinking.
  • Doctrine over person – Personal experiences are subordinated and interpreted to fit the ideology of the group.
  • Dispensing of existence – The group has the right to determine who can and cannot be a part of the group. The outside world is seen as unenlightened and not saved. To not join the group means an individual loses a chance at enlightenment, being saved, or salvation. The group can also control when/if members must leave the group to join the outside world. (Lifton, 1961)

References: and counseling pages on Pinterest.