May 1, 2023

Healing Religious Trauma: How To Overcome Abuse In Church with Dr. Mark Karris

Welcome to the latest episode of our podcast, where we explore the topic of religious trauma and how to overcome it. Our guest speaker for this episode is Dr. Mark Karris... See show notes at:

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Welcome to the latest episode of our podcast, where we explore the topic of religious trauma and how to overcome it. Our guest speaker for this episode is Dr. Mark Karris, an experienced therapist, author, and speaker who specializes in helping people heal from abuse in church settings. 

In this episode, Mark shares his insights and strategies for healing religious trauma, drawing from his extensive experience working with survivors of spiritual abuse. He discusses the common signs and symptoms of religious trauma, as well as the unique challenges that survivors face when trying to heal from this type of trauma.

 Mark also provides practical advice and guidance for anyone who is struggling with religious trauma, including tips for finding a supportive community, identifying healthy spiritual practices, and setting boundaries with abusive individuals or institutions. 

Whether you have personally experienced religious trauma or are seeking to better understand this important issue, this episode offers valuable insights and guidance for healing and growth. Tune in now to learn more from our expert guest, Mark Karris.

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Michael:Hey! What's up, Unbroken Nation! Hope you're doing well. Welcome back to another episode with author – Dr. Mark Gregory Karris, who is a licensed marriage and family therapist and full-time private practice in San Diego, and he specializes in religious trauma and men issues. Mark, my friend, welcome to the show, how are you today?

Mark: Awesome. It's great to be here. Very excited about the conversation.

Michael: Yeah, same. You know, you and I got to touch base and spend a little bit of time together before recording this. You know, you and I are in very similar boat in terms of journeys and parallels and lots of different ways, and I think so are a lot of people who are going to listen to this episode. Before we dive in, tell us a little bit about your background.

Mark: Wow! Background. Well, I could start off when I was, I think every person's family's a little dysfunctional. I think mine was on the charts, probably pretty wild. But when I think of my background, I don't know if you want me to get into that level of background, but yeah, that's what I think of just a really wild, crazy topsy-turvy abuse drugs, violence, stepfather was in pagans, motorcycle gang, mom a drug addict drug dealer who did die of a drug overdose.

So, growing up in that milieu and then my father mental illness and abusive, and so it was a pretty wild growing up in that. So, I was pretty lost, disoriented, hopeless, I do think a saving grace was music. I did start playing the guitar was about 15 but all of that I think really shaped the trajectory of the rest of my life. So, with that, a little bit of background in our cutter and depressed and lost, I did have a profound spiritual experience that I would say was in the realm of the Christian tradition at the age of around 21. And I got out of one h*ll into another, but yeah, we could talk more about that.

Michael: Yeah, and we're certainly gonna get into that. Mark, I'm wondering, one of the things I've been curious about is if someone were to really know you, you wanna create a little context as we go deep into this and you can include any of the background of your journey, your story that has led you to today, but what is one thing that people really would need to understand about who you are to understand who you are?

Mark: Passionate. You know, there's one word, right? But I think hungry, passionate seeker, it's something that took me to this very moment of just seeking and hungering after truth, after what it means to be more whole in the world, a lot of my background, especially as I consider, I have a master's in counseling, a master's of Divinity and a doctorate in a couple and family therapy. A lot of that is just wanting to work through my own sh*t, you know? And I wouldn't change it for the world, even though it would cost a pretty penny, but I would not have changed that education and engagement with mentors and being challenged, inspired called out, you name it, it's all shaped me to this very moment.

Michael: Yeah. That a strong word, man. And I think that when you look at anyone's journey, when they're actually wanting to change something about the world, like you have to have that drive. You know, the slings and arrows and the stabs in the back that lead one down this path are things that you have to be able to navigate and move through. And I would guess that, your ability to do that, and I don't wanna put words in your mouth, probably comes from having to build resiliency based off of what I hear was just an incredibly tumultuous childhood. You know, and I resonate with you in a lot of ways as you know, my mother was a drug addict and alcoholic. My stepfather was incredibly abusive and I found myself as a kid, same moving to music and being like, okay, I can just keep these things in my ears all day long, it creates this parameter of safety. When you reflect on that and you go back into that story and that journey, I think that a lot of people don't understand that it shapes you and it makes you it. Do you think that's true?

Mark: Well, I do think that's true. I also think that the research certainly bears it out that what happens to us when we're younger has incredible ramifications for the shaping of our nervous system, our attitudes, our mindsets. But there's an interesting piece of my family dynamic ‘cause I have a twin brother and a younger brother, but younger brother is diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and he will be in prison for the rest of his life, for murder. But in our relational dynamics, I was the older brother, even though I was a twin by two minutes. And I think that older brother needing to protect, I mean, I got right in the middle when my stepfather was trying to beat the sh*t out of my younger brother I was right there when I heard the pounding of the flesh of my stepfather beating my mom, I tried to this little kid, you know, trying to get in. So, this sort of protector, this wanting to take care of. You know, it's interesting that even that piece within my family dynamics, well, look what I'm doing. I'm a therapist trying to help others and dedicated my life to this. And so, it's so interesting that even that piece shaped me in a lot of ways too.

Michael: Yeah. And I resonate with that obviously. You know what, being a trauma coach and helping people around the world literally just came from the same thing. It was like, and I remember once I was having a conversation with two of my younger brothers just about the way that I kind of navigate the world and I think natively as men, we are generally speaking, fixers, I think that when you come from traumatic background, you're always looking for solutions and trying to create parameters and frameworks of safety. And with them constantly be like, yo, this is the way that you do this, this is how you navigate the world. And one of them said to me one day, something that was really powerful, they were like, we're fine. We went through the same sh*t, they were like, we went through the same sh*t you went through, you don't always have to try to save us. I was like, oh, that's really interesting, and it made me think about how much I don't know if it was shame or guilt or whatever it was that carried with me, but it led to this place where I was like, oh yeah, I don't actually have to try to help people. But I do it; I do it because it's so fulfilling to know that we can create this change, that we can be the change in the world that we wish to see.

One of the difficult things about change Mark is when we look at change as a whole, especially in the spectrum of the society that we live in, so much of it is indoctrination. Right. If you really get down into the baseline of what it is that is the western human experience in the world that we live and the day that we live, a lot of it is indoctrination and a lot of that indoctrination starts with religion. And so, I would love to go into a little bit deeper about your background and what has led you through this path, please, with great detail, because I wanna understand this, how does one start helping people with religious trauma?

Mark: Well, I think, first if it's okay, I'll start with how I got into this whole thing.

Michael: Yeah, absolutely.

Mark: But the helping could be another piece after. But I think so, you know, I had that deeply profound spiritual experience and it was this Damascus Rhodes. You know, so to go back a little bit, my twin brother became a Christian. He was in what's called one is Pentecostalism and very fundamentalist rigid controlling was a very high controlled church kind of environment. But he would tell me about Jesus and I'd be like, you know, I was at in my own mind, a rockstar back then, you know, coming back from shows, I was in a progressive metal hardcore band. I'd be like, you know, like, I don't wanna hear that sh*t. I don't want to hear about Jesus and all this love and not. But some interesting experiences started happening even in like my dreams, I had some pretty weird wild experiences, something was drawing me. And I just remember, you know, after some time being in a field all by myself, it was around the age of 21 and I said the last words, I said sort of BC Before Christ, if you will. I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired, if you're real, show yourself to me. And all I know is I consider myself a master deconstructionist, I have deconstructed every facet of my early religious experiences, but it's hard to deconstruct that one. I just was enveloped by a love that was transcendent that I didn't muster up, there was no fog machine, there was no smoke, there was no community, you know, rallying me to anything, it would just be me by myself and that just changed the rest of my life. But then I got into that one is Pentecostal Church and that was on one level I felt love, but on another level, I couldn't hang out with people who believe differently, I couldn't have long hair because there's some passage in, I think Corinthians where it talks about, don't you know that it's a shame from man to long, have long hair. Women in that particular denomination couldn't even cut their hair because if they did, they would be in danger of h*llfire like it was this very fear-based, constricted controlled, authoritarian, coercive, manipulative environment, mixed in with doses of love, ‘cuz that's a part of it, right? We're a community and you know, we're seeing each other three, four times a week.

So that really shifted and changed a lot within me. But it also created such, I would call it bondage and this may sound weird to some listeners, but I got so rigid in myself with anxiety and fear of a punitive, angry God that I was afraid of drinking soda because I thought soda would defile the temple of the Holy Spirit. And it's so sad to even look back, like if I listened to heavy metal, I thought like I would go to hell or you know, I would like walk down the street and God would angrily punish me. So, that's sort of where a lot of my religious trauma came and then subsequently other experiences. And yeah, so that's a little bit about what got me in this whole spiritual, religious, then eventually come into contact with my own religious trauma. And then my clients, then people groups and Facebook groups and social media, like something is going on. Now, one of the biggest studies on religious trauma just came out from a global center of religious research about two weeks ago and then we have other groups that are formulating particular definitions of religious trauma so we can get into the academic and maybe the DSM, the sort of psychologist Bible, so to speak, to really, you know, give voice to this phenomenon that's really hurting a lot of people.

Michael: Yeah. And I wanna go in a little bit deeper and define this in just a moment. But before then, ‘cuz I want to create a little bit more depth of context. When I was young, so I grew up Mormon, which I grew up Mormon in the hood, which is a really weird experience, and Mormon in the hood with a mother who's a drug addict and alcoholic. Right. So, you had to start all these layers. I didn't know anything different. Right. And this tends to be the case scenario for many people I've had conversations with many people, both in person and publicly about religious trauma because I was impacted incredibly negatively in fact, I walked away from the church at only 12 years old when I read a passage in the Book of Mormon that says; he with the dark skin will not be let through the gates of heaven. And I was like, oh, that's f*cking stupid, because I'm pretty sure I'm brown, so this isn't gonna end well for me either way. And I went to war with my family over this lots of pain and suffering and abuse because it was like you'll take me to church, but I promise you I'm going kicking and screaming and sometimes bloodied and I stood by that, I still stand by that to this day. What I'm wondering, and what I'm sure other people are wondering is how at 21 years old, Mark, do you find yourself in this situation? Like what was it this thing where you felt like there was nothing else to hold onto? Were you just at a rock bottom and you were taking the first ladder that falls into the ocean to pull you out? Like, and I don't want this to come off the wrong way, but I sit across from me, I go, this is an incredibly studious, intelligent human being, how could this happen?

Mark: Right. Like I said, I literally, I felt lost, I would cut myself because I thought the pain was so great within myself. I'm even like thinking about my younger version of myself that I would try to, I would just cut myself, I would take razor blades and just cut myself as a way to like symbolize the pain I was feeling on the inside, you know? And it sorts of culminated into this may again sound strange, but at the age of 21, a little bit before I tried to kill myself by sleeping with somebody who I thought had aids. So, I know, this is strange, but like my mindset was I just want to die a slow death and at the time I knew a woman who was a wild, crazy story and was suffice to say I didn't have aids, but that was my mindset. It probably was a couple of weeks later along with this profound, now I've deconstructed and there's a phenomenon called sleep paralysis. But at the time there was this experience where I was in my bed, and I couldn't move and I couldn't speak and I saw these like manifestations they were red, freaking the h*ll out. I didn't know what was going on. I tried to call out to my brother. I like was calling out to Jesus ‘cuz my brother was talking about Jesus and it was still there and I'm like, this isn't working. All I know is I woke up and I just broke down in tears, I felt traumatized. So, with the depressed, lost, cutting that experience and then trying to kill myself, it was in that season of my life where I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired. And that's where something shifted, something happened. And I look back and I can't deconstruct that in a way because there was no one manipulating me, it was just me alone. But then I was thrown into that religious toxic environment. I didn't know it at the time, this would take years later of then realizing and then in experience that I had where I ran away from that cult into a college ‘cause I wasn't allowed to go to college. Like that's how authoritarian this pastor was being because he wanted me to be quote his armor bearer, which there's a verse in the Old Testament about you know, these armor bearers, taking care of the priests, the big royalty of God's agents.

So, he just wanted me to be his, like, go-to, what do you need, Pastor? Oh, well I think, you know, this would be helpful. Okay, you got it. But then eventually there was an incident of him having an affair in the church with somebody. I was, and I remember this so vividly, he was arguing in with his wife in front of me. I remember a snap, a literal physical snap in my chest, and I said, I gotta get the f*ck outta here. And I knew somebody at college at the time, and it must have been a few weeks later, I talked to somebody at the college and I was there, and in college, the first few months, man, there was times where I was on the floor in a fetal position thinking I was going f*cking insane because I didn't know what truth was, I didn't know what was real or what wasn't real. And so, I had some panic attacks, it was very, extremely disorienting.

Michael:Yeah, I can only imagine. I mean, if you go from one extreme to another extreme to another extreme, the human organism is in fight or flight mode, freaking out entirely, trying to figure how to navigate that. And what's so interesting about what I believe, and this is just I'll speak from my own first-person experience. Coming out of religion and trying to navigate the world felt insurmountable because the only thing that I had known was if you don't operate in this spectrum, you are going to burn for eternity and I couldn't help but think, and I recall this in my late teens and even in my early twenties, just thinking to myself like, why would you want to associate with this concept of idea of the fear of God? Right? And to me, like sitting in that, it's like we should live not in fear of whatever is add in the afterlife, which none of us know. But instead go, okay, maybe if I can be a good person, you know, this'll work out. And I often think to myself, Mark, I go, I am not religious, I am agnostic at best, I'm spiritual, I go, universe, guide me, please, whatever. Right? And maybe that is in some facet a deeper spirituality, it's something I'll always be working through and trying to understand. And I've come to the conclusion like, if I get through and there are the gates of heaven, and here we are with the saints and God stands there and he's like, I f*cking told you. So, I'm like, cool. Great. Right. But so many people are in this scenario where you were, and they feel trapped, and they feel stuck, and they fill that snap of the chest and they're like, I have to get the f*ck out of here and yet they're so paralyzed. Right? They're so paralyzed of the unknown. And so, I would love for you to not only define religious trauma. Let's go into this a little bit more. But let's talk about how people get indoctrinated and then what they do in the event that they're in this place where like, I want to go to what's next.

Mark: Yeah. So, I'm gonna go with their Religious Trauma Institute and Reclamation collective really came together to kind of have a succinct definition of religious trauma. So, I want to share that because I think it's very precise.

So religious trauma is the physical, emotional, or psychological response to religious beliefs, practices, or structures that is experienced by an individual as overwhelming or disruptive and has lasting adverse effects on a person's physical, mental, social, emotional, or spiritual wellbeing. So religious trauma, it's just, you know, trauma is just sh*t you can't get over, that your nervous system and other facets is just, it has lasting adverse effects. So, these are effects that were experienced in a religious context, and for me they were the suffocating beliefs, the oppressive behaviors, the constricting rules, the confining structures, and they had a serious impact. And in my book, part one kind of flushes that out between the debilitating anxiety, the effects on the body, and understanding of the body and pleasure, toxic shame, nagging self-criticism, betrayal, trauma, which is an interesting thing, and just rejection from the community, which I mean that in itself, you know, being that we are tribal creatures and we have evolved from that sort of scenario, being away from the tribe was a death sentence. So, our brains still carry that over like so to leave our community feels like a death sentence, you know, from our nervous system perspective, and it's feels very dangerous and the rejection, what, how could you deconstruct that? How can you not believe that? And then you're thrown with, well, maybe you're hanging out with Satan. You know, maybe Satan's clouding your mind and then there it goes Mark, you're in danger of h*ll fire. So, the title of my book is The Diabolical Trinity: Healing Religious Trauma from a Wrathful God, Tormenting Hell, and a Sinful Self.

For me, that is one trifecta of beliefs that many of us are indoctrinated with because you can't have a tormenting h*ll without wrath of God to put you there. And you can't have the h*ll without evil, sinful people to be put at there. So, the notion of original sin or the depravity of humankind or the sinfulness and primarily evil nature of humans, which was pounded in pulverizing to me with every church service and then the idea of a punitive raffle God, if you don't do the right thing, like just think about that, like this omnipotent, all-powerful God who had a snap of a finger. And you read stories in the Old Testament, some in the new, if you don't do what God says, he's gonna open a can of whoop a*s and you know, he burned people alive, I mean kids were reading like the Noah is flood and stuff, and it's a very traumatic story, right? When you read in Noah's ark and like, I think of like grandma's being drowned and little babies being drowned and all these animals, like, that's not a good story to teach kids, but it's sort of a fun story that's talked about, you know, God saved a few. But it's traumatic, it's like we're giving this image of a God who uses violent, physical punishment to discipline. It's not okay, it's toxic, it's traumatizing, and there's plenty of research on what I'm talking about right now.

Michael: Yeah. And you know, I think often also especially when it comes to the written scriptures, it's like you have to realize like a lot of that's hyperbole, right? I don't know of any living human being, whoever survived living inside of a well, it's like that's not a thing, right? And so can we take this with a grain of soul and sit in it and take it for what it is. And it's not to say there aren't like powerful things in scripture like, thou shall not kill, like don't covet thy neighbor's wife, like, yeah, we get that. Right? Like those things make sense and they're a great guide and maybe even a pillar or concept for life, but the fear that comes along with that, which you pointed to and the research along with it as well is something that I think people need to understand at a little bit more depth because I would say from my perspective. And again, and this is if you're religious, like we're not sh*tting on religion. Right. I just wanna be clear about that, that's not what this conversation is. This conversation's about exposing the reality of what it can be for many, many people. And what I'm wondering is to go a little bit further into the depths of this for those who have this feeling, these sensations of like, this doesn't feel right, this feels like pain, indoctrination, punishment, hurt, torment, loss, not community, not love, not joy, not the things that you felt in that moment when you're like, this is what I need to step into but instead, the opposite, they're in constant fear of damnation and even though they follow all the rules, it's so toxic, which is a word I really don't like to use but in this case scenario, I agree with. It's so toxic that they feel like they would much rather for many people be dead than be in the religion any longer like how does one remove themselves from this in a safe and healthy way if that is even a possibility?

Mark:Yeah. So first, just to address your point about religious you know, I'm not into bashing religion either, I think there are wonderful churches out there doing incredible and great things. This is just a particular form of theology that is discussed in such a way by preachers frothing at the mouth with venom and anger and not working through their own trauma and their own pain and hurt people, hurt people, and they're not dealing with the wounded exiles within themselves. And so yeah, that's where it's coming from but there's definitely healthy spirituality, there's other people who can read the biblical text and look at the different genres, can look at the Adam and Eve story and glean things from that for our own context without needing to read it in a hyper, literal framework so, that's one point. But as far as people getting out of this, it's so layered because there's different people like I work with people, let's say, who are pastors and leaders in the church now, when your paycheck is tied to maintaining status quo, but within your heart, you know that it's incongruent with your current value system, that's so tricky to get out of that. So, I'm thinking like that's one group but as someone who's just a congregant member or someone in there trying to get out, it's so painful. It's not an overnight experience, it took me years, it's sort of these splinters that over time becomes so, deep within your skin that it starts to puss and get so red that you can't stay in any longer. So, it's a very tricky to get out because the pain of to a greater good that you don't know, it is so disorienting, it's so anxiety provoking, but it takes a village. And typically, you know, if anyone gets out of it, they could sometimes do it by themselves, but to have compassion witnesses being with them on the journey to help them to be part of their unholy huddle, those group of people who are in their corner, helping them wrestle through all those things that other people in the church might call unholy. So, it takes a community sometimes to get out and sometimes you could do it alone, but to do it well, it definitely takes a village.

Michael: Yeah, it certainly does. And one of the things I was thinking as you were going through that just now is how often people will take that step, they'll remove themselves or family, and then be completely and utterly ostracized. Right. You know, that is a part of this, unfortunately. And I wonder, like in your case now, heading into this space of college and being on the floor, having the panic attacks, what were the steps that you took in your personal life at the beginning, like the day one steps?

Mark: Yeah. You know, it just so happened that while I was on the floor, I went to actually a Christian college, but it wasn’t sort of a fundamental, so sort of the middle of the road, sort of evangelical not too sort of, well, it wasn't condemning much at all, but within that, I had a roommate who, gosh, there it was people, I mean, that's the paradox, it was people who hurt me the most, yet it was people who took me by the hand as I was on the floor. And then some mentors, people who believed in me and spoke life into me and called those things, which weren't as though they were, and it was those people who, yeah, just took me by the hand and led me to greener pastures within myself that were very spiritually oriented and not so much religiously oriented. So, I'm so much in debt to those people and as an avid reader, they were my mentors too, you know, I so passionate, so hungry, you know? So, I think back on some books that were just transformative for me that were mentors from afar. So, it was people, it was other people and then hearing their experiences, podcasts and stuff weren't so big at the time, I don't even think that was a thing. I'm kind of old now, but that was those were some things that really instrumental.

Michael:I know the question people would want me to ask would be, what were some of those books?

Mark:Oh gosh. Back in the day there was the ragga muffin gospel, there was just this old wacky Brendan Manning, that was one book like, f*ck religion, grace, grace, grace, grace. I remember that book was like, oh my goodness, this was healing to my soul. There's a book by Henri Nouwen the Prodigal Son, which was pretty powerful for me too. There again, it's just these mystics, the spiritual people, the writers that were pretty profound for me. Of course, much more books later on.

Michael: Yeah. I've come to find the same in my journey where it's like, whether they're near nor far, like find a mentor, find somebody who has the experience that you are having, who have been able to overcome it, to move through it and like, if you leverage that in the same way as you've written this incredible book, it's like there's something there, there's potential for people who are looking for it. I wanna go into a little bit deeper, you mentioned the diabolical trinity. And I wanna go a little bit deeper in that and talk about the relation of that concept and how it correlates with the trauma of religion.

Mark: Ah, yeah. So, then the sort of, the question is what I'm hearing, it's almost like, Mark, how does belief in an angry wrathful God in an afterlife that could be like eternal torment, like not a hundred years, a thousand, 10,000, like a billion zillion. I mean, you can't even, which is unfathomable, but that's what people teach. So, and then a view of self that is primarily sinful, where in our tradition, what I was getting fed just about every Sunday, our righteousness is as filthy rags, there's nothing good within us. Literally we're like, this is what we were told, your desires are fleshly and sinful. Emotions are bad. All that is good is your spiritual life. This also gets into issues around environment, who cares about what happens here? But pastor, the homeless there, I want to be Mark, what matters most is their soul, they could be fed and be full and go to hell for eternity. So, all these beliefs have major ramifications. I think, you know, one is definitely on the nervous system. So, this gets into the trauma and the impact on the nervous system, this hypervigilance, this constant fear. I mean, it even gets deeper with me in the sense of, in our tradition, this isn't every Christian tradition, but they believed in demons, and demons were behind every bush. And I was told before I went into my English class to plead the blood of Jesus on the doorway so demons couldn't enter, you know, so it was this like hyper-vigilant state where demons can get me, where God can get me, where I wasn't safe, where my loved ones could go to h*ll, and like if they died, I would be crushed and so fearful. So, fear for breakfast, fear for lunch, fear for dinner, and that is gonna create a nervous system that is hypervigilant, that is just scared in the world, not very confident, not a very high view of self. So, connect that to original sin, which says I'm primarily evil and there's a passage in the Old Testament where they say, you know, the heart is deceitfully, wicked above all else, I was probably told that many, many hundreds of times, and so many of other people and sort of the fundamentalist traditions. But then that gets into the infusion of shame and we know that shame is one of the biggest foundations for, I mean, if you believe you're a piece of sh*t, you do what pieces of sh*t do. I mean, if you have a low view of self-that’s gonna affect you in your life, in your relationship with self, in others.

And so, I had the confidence of a pinhead, I was very low view of self. I hated myself. Which is ironic because in the Hebrew and Christian tradition, you know, Jesus said, hey, he was asked, what's the greatest commandment? And to love God, to love your neighbor as yourself, but the loving of oneself, I've never, in all my years as a Christian, ever heard a sermon on. Yeah. Let's talk about the three points of how to love yourself well. You know, I got the love of self from the Buddhist tradition, from the Eastern tradition. Thank goodness it changed my life. And that gets into, you know, how to heal this crap, but the shame you're no good, which then leads to the inner critic ‘cuz the more shame you have, the more fuel that gives your inner critic. So again, you know, hey Mark, God hates you. Mark, if you do that, God's gonna punish you with violence. Hey, Mark, if you don't do that then, you know, maybe God will curse you or just withdraw his presence or Mark, you know, oh, you're such a f*cking loser. You know, like all these different, so the shame and the fear and the self-criticism. So yeah, it has deleterious effects for sure, and it's all spelled out in the qualitative literature too, in the research. And then, you know, I'm not a member of the LGBTQ community, but then so much in that community, just think of what it would be like to be gay and to be told that you are destined to h*ll because of what you believe is so intrinsic to who you are. Right? So, much of that in the literature as well.

Michael: Yeah. And I mean, the way that you phrased it diabolical, I mean, I cannot think of a better way to phrase it. It's like, walking into something that you perceive as freeing and beautiful and safe while getting punched in the face. Right. Like that to me is very diabolical. And I know the impact of this shame, especially around relationships and sexuality and identity, and it leads you to this place where you're constantly questioning validity like, honestly, Mark, it's still something to this day I deal with and in a therapy session, not that too far in the distant past, like I sat and I talked, I was like, you know, growing up in the LDS church, we weren't in a polygamous sect, we were, you know, standard and being baptized at eight years old and being told only save yourself for your wife and this and that. Created so many elements of shame in my life that like most normal human beings losing my virginity prior to marriage, even through the work, being a trauma coach for almost a decade, 13 years of this, I was like, f*ck man like there are still these moments where I can't even get connected intimately because of the shame and indoctrination of something that happened to me 30 years ago. Right. And so, you think about the implications of this and like, thank God for therapy, thank God for coaching and books and literature and, and research studies. But it's still like those little seeds get buried in you, this is why I always tell my clients, Mark, I tell every person I've ever coached, like, just trust me when I say that this is a rest of your life journey because I promise you, I've read enough to have five f*cking PhDs, man. I've gone to my 400,000 hours of, of f*ucking therapy and I am still doing the work. And I try to remind people that is a part of this game, like you're still going no matter how much you go. A new layer will be uncovered almost in an ironic way this thought comes to mind. There's an incredible preacher Bishop TD Jakes, and he says; “new levels, new devils”

And I cannot help but think about that in this moment, that as you get deeper into this journey, you hit a new level, there will be something new that is exposed. And now this is where the guidance comes into play. Where do people start the healing journey on this? Like if you were to give, if you were lay out, maybe not a full and complete guide, ‘cuz obviously you want people to, to read the book and go into depth there but if you were to hit us two, three things, where do you start, man? This is heavy.

Mark: Yeah. This is so heavy. You know, part three of the book is helping people heal this stuff out, out from the nervous system. So, I dedicate a hundred round, 120 pages on practical, psychological, neuroscience-based ways to help heal the nervous system. But listen, I appreciate your honesty because I don't wanna be a snake oil salesperson, I think I share this in a book, like, this is a journey. You know, I'm not saying like, yeah, let me give you the five principles of healing and you'll be set to go. You know, just follow this. It is a f*cking journey and there's so many different layers, and so I just want to invite that as you do sort of that compassion upon ourselves, it's not our faults. You know, we have brains and nervous systems that are just, it does the best that it can do, and our trauma responses are really initially trying to help us, and they just become so overactive and overworked and sort of the on twitch becomes on too often it just has so many harmful effects but there's ways to heal. And I wouldn't say, yeah, I'm more of a, well, how did I put it into my book? I'm gonna share things that will promote healing, but I don't believe in a static state of healing.

So, let me name a few things that really stick out for you.

First, community

I remember being so hungry and desperate.

I said, f*ck, like caring about what people thought, I need help like it gets to a point where, listen, you gotta do what you gotta do to get help. You know, I know it's painful, I know it's hard. There's a lot of fear. I got rejected. Mark, I don't have time. Mark, that's not an issue that I really specialize in. Mark, your stuff is bringing up too much within me, maybe, you know, talk to a liberal kind of folk who. But I'm a real proponent on healing in community. So, finding one or two people, if you can, is so important.

But let me share one of the biggest pathways to healing for the shame.

And I think it's a subversive middle finger to religion and to a punitive, angry God who hates us and you know what that is? That is the fine art of self-compassion.

As I alluded to, it changed my life. There are hundreds and hundreds of research studies at this point. Every positive experience that a human can have been correlated with self-compassion at this point. So, it's like pointless to do self-compassion studies ‘cuz it's only a good thing. So, what does that mean? That means in a simple form, treating yourself as you would a dear friend who was suffering, right? You know how, if you thought about a nephew, if you thought about a child, if you thought about someone you cared about and their suffering and they have anxiety or self-critical thoughts or kicking their a*s, you wouldn't beat them up.

You know, so this whole idea of self-compassion, Kristin Neff researcher huge work on self-compassion, but she breaks it down into three components. Mindfulness, being aware this is a moment of suffering. Second is common humanity. I'm not alone in what I'm experiencing right now because when we're suffering, sometimes we feel like we're the only ones. So, that second piece of common humanity is really powerful, it was for me. And then third is now that I'm aware, now that I know that I am interconnected with many religious trauma survivors and trauma survivors in general, how can I extend compassion to myself in this moment? And it could be as simple as like, I feel I’m doing it sort of organically, putting my hand to my heart and just saying, I noticed this is a moment of suffering. Mark, may you be kind to yourself. May you be well, may you know that you will get through this. Just taking a moment of pause, a few minutes out of your day, putting your hand to your heart, tapping into the inner pharmacy, maybe a little hit of oxytocin, the 10 going into the tendon befriend system within your nervous system there. And just being kind to yourself. Right. That just changed my life. That also gets into how I talk to myself, right? So, this gets into working with the inner critic. So, in my work, working with clients, helping them befriend their inner critic, which was so paradoxical because even in some religious traditions, they thought they were told that was Satan.

Oh, you're a loser, you won't amount to anything. Listen, you better not leave religion ‘cuz you know you're gonna be in danger of going to hell, you know, or whatever it is. You call yourself spiritual, gimme a, Oh, that's Satan. No, it's not Satan. It's not. And I know this may ruffle some feathers, some people may believe in demons and Satan. That's cool. It's not where I'm at. But we do know from neuroscience that there is a part of us that we call the inner critic that is trying to be hard on ourselves, but its motivation is trying to help us avoid pain, and that's the paradox. So, helping people be kind to their inner critic know it's motivation, befriend it. And then what would self-compassion talk be in this moment? You were so hard on yourself and don't you know sh*t on yourself doing that, but what would it be like if your brother was going through the same thing? What would you say to him? How could you say that to yourself at this moment? So that kind of self-compassion work. And let me point to one more piece in the self-compassion work, Kristin Neff talks about the yin and yang of self-compassion. There is sort of this motherly nurturing self-compassion, which is beautiful, but sometimes there's the firefighter compassion going into a burning building and doing what you gotta do to take care of business and sometimes we need to do that for ourselves. What would be the most kind thing to do for myself? Hey, listen, I'm not gonna take your ridicule of me in this moment, some people have parents who are throwing religion down their throat, telling them about hell. And listen, mom, dad, I appreciate your trying to do what you think is in my best interest, but I'm not okay with you bringing it up anymore, it doesn't make me feel good, it affects our relationship, so I would appreciate it if you didn't do that. That would be the yang form of self-compassion where you're setting healthy boundaries for yourself. So that's what I love, that self-compassion, self-love stuff, and I just didn't hear much of that in the Christian tradition at all.

Michael: Yeah. For me, one of the things that has become a cornerstone of my journey is kindness. You know, kindness for self, kindness for others. You know, if you grow up in the way that I and many people who are consuming this content grow up kindness, might as well be f*cking planet Pluto, you know what I mean? I guess Planet Pluto's technically not a planet anymore, so whatever., you get my point, whoever's gonna email me about Pluto, it's fine. But, you know, I think about that frequently where it's like kindness above all. Like it really, truly, because that compassion is often the very thing that we were denied. And you will find in this journey, the thing that you denied is the very thing that you most desperately need, right? And you find that as you step deeper into it, and even in my own journey, the willingness, Mark, the f*cking most uncomfortable thing that I deal with on a day-to-day basis in my life as a human being is kindness, but it is also the most predominant thing that I make a requirement. And so it's very much that firefighter thing that you just laid out, because sometimes the hardest thing that you can do, and it sounds counterintuitive, is like, be nice to yourself. Support yourself. Pull yourself up. Force, I'm literally gonna use this word, force yourself into doing the thing that you know you need to do. And my hope is that people do that through compassion knowing that on the backside of those actions and decisions, it's the right thing to do. It's not doing it through pain, but doing it because you know, on the other side, you're going to reap the benefit of actually doing what you need. Mark this conversation's been really incredible, man. Before I ask you my last question, please tell everyone where they can find you.

Mark: Sure. Well, on my website, I am a social media dinosaur, so Facebook is gonna be where most people can find me and interact and chat with me and stuff. And then of course my books are online and Amazon and all that good stuff.

Michael: Yeah, and we'll put all the links in this show notes. Guys, go to Look up Mark and we will have all the links to this content, the books and more right there My last question for you, my friend, what does it mean to you to be unbroken?

Mark: For me to be unbroken is to come to realize that I don't even f*cking like the word broken. I'm not a car, you know, I'm not broken because to be human, to live in the world that we do is to experience some level of dis-ease. I find that those who have no disease, I wonder if they are the mentally ill because you have to split off such a huge part of your experience to not see the chaos in the hatred and the murder and the racism and every other kind of ism that's going out there. Like I said, we have makeups, we have a nervous system, we are not something that could be easily fixed that way. So, for me to be unbroken is just to be okay with being human and to be human means to be not okay sometimes, and I'm okay with that.

Michael: Yeah. The being okay with not being okay. It's like you're a human, it's fine. At the end, it's all gonna work out the same for all of us. Right? And thank you again for being here.

Unbroken Nation, thank you for listening.

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So, my friends, thank you for being here.

And Until Next Time.

Be Unbroken.

I'll See Ya.

Mark KarrisProfile Photo

Mark Karris

Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist/Best-Selling Author/Musician

Dr. Mark Gregory Karris is a licensed marriage and family therapist in full-time private practice in San Diego, California. He specializes in religious trauma, men’s issues, and couples therapy. Mark is the author of the best-selling books Divine Echoes: Reconciling Prayer with the Uncontrolling Love of God and his brand new work "The Diabolical Trinity: Healing Religious Trauma from A Wrathful God, Tormenting Hell, and Sinful Self." You can find out more about him at

Michael UnbrokenProfile Photo

Michael Unbroken


Michael is an entrepreneur, best-selling author, speaker, coach, and advocate for adult survivors of childhood trauma.