Saturday, January 30, 2010

Counter-Cult Witnessing Induced Cognitive Dissonance Part II: Thoughts About Motive

(If you haven’t already, please read Part I HERE.)
There are many resources out there about helping people who are in aberrant religious groups, but I wanted to outline my own observations and thoughts about motive (that I’ve recently considered for my own benefit!).

Before I write anything about motive, I’d like to mention something that is of the utmost importance to me. Not everyone will share my opinion on this point, but I believe strongly that the most effective resource you have in your possession when trying to help someone out of a manipulative group is that of prayer. In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he says that the words of the Bible are foolishness without the spiritual discernment of the Holy Spirit. In the same way, I believe that in addition to encouraging your friend to think for themselves again, you need to pray for them and for you. For the person in bondage, I pray that the Word will be effective and ask God to mightily show Himself faithful to His promises regarding watching over His Word to perform it, never returning to Him void. For the person to whom I am witnessing, I generally pray along the lines of Matthew, Chapter 13. For me, I pray that I will faithfully hear the Lord, faithfully speak His Word, that nothing will interfere with my hearing, and that I will be sensitive to the Holy Spirit Who I ask to guide me in all things. I don’t really like the idea of others praying my prayers or me praying theirs, but I will work on a new blog post along these lines as an encouragement for others to pray. Prayer helps you keep your motives on course while you’re working through these things with someone.

Before you get started in a counter-cult witnessing situation such as I have recently with my Mormon neighbor, you must accept the very real possibility that the person may not respond to you with an eventual rejection of their cultic or aberrant belief system. They may never respond to your message about their beliefs, and the process will be much more difficult if they do not believe that you have concern for them on a personal level.

Any motive of yours that is not healthy will make the process of witnessing and helping the spiritually abused person very difficult. If you say that you want to help someone, but the process unfolds in a way that is very different from what you want to see, that conflict will produce a great deal of dissonance for you and for the person you are trying to help. Your words will not match your actions, behaviors, expressions, etc.. This will contribute to a lack of trust in the person you are trying to help (perhaps keenly aware of what does not feel right), and it is essential that you work on fostering and building that trust. You have to create a safe place for them to heal, and you will often find that you have to abandon your expectations in order to create and protect that safe place. What is safe for you may be unsafe for them. Knowing the subculture that they are involved in will be tremendously helpful, but you must be willing to accept that the person may not meet your expectations, particularly early on in the process.

Keep in mind that the person enmeshed in a spiritually abusive system is literally restructuring their mind as they consider new ideas. They’ve been “wired” with a particular set pattern of thinking with automatic responses to all sorts of problems and issues (Cialdini’s “click...whirr”). They need time to process the ideas that you introduce. You are working to help them re-wire these well-worn patterns in their mind, and it takes time. Realize that part of this is actually neurophysiologic. It is an emotional process as much as it is a cognitive one, and emotional pain will make this process more difficult. The person will fatigue, and they will try to protect themselves and their own sense of integrity because they will find the new information personally threatening. Give them lots of room to process things, and be quick to forgive them because this is a terrible trauma for most people. Anticipate defensive responses and do not take them personally if the occasionally try to “kill the messenger.” They are in the throws of the terrible discomfort of cognitive dissonance, trying to figure out what and who they can trust. You need to create a place for them to purge, and this is not pleasant. Sometimes, people will exit the relationship or will shut down to your efforts because of the discomfort. Don’t take any of this personally, and anticipate that the process will test your motives.

Particularly when speaking to people who were brutalized in the patriarchy movement, even from respected people of note and sophistication I hear a common theme: “I never would have believed this terrible experience could be possible if it had not happened to me.” Fundamentalists, because of the nature of faith and the idealism involved, will demonstrate a higher level of resistance to ideas that are contrary to that of their group. You are battling confirmation bias, so a direct confrontation of beliefs for belief’s sake will often not help change a person’s mind about the group. For this reason, a great deal of the person’s realization and recovery will be experiential. You may have to stand by and watch them suffer some of these things before they will receive critical opinions about their group and belief system or even help from you. But you can be ready and prepared to help them. Unfortunately, many people only realize the true nature of the group through direct abuse.

Don’t be surprised if their honesty stirs up cognitive dissonance for you! Religions in general and spiritually abusive systems offer answers that help us transcend the most painful problems in life – about life, the universe, and everything. Though spiritually abusive systems offer oversimplified solutions to complex and difficult problems, those problems of life in an imperfect and sometimes cruel world still exist. If you haven’t thought through your own belief system on your own terms beforehand, and if your faith has been vicarious in some areas (if you were a crash test dummy for someone and never dealt with it), you will find yourself asking questions right along with the person you are trying to help. Know that lots of these questions have no “proof” outside of faith, and that is okay, for the both of you. I know that this is an uncomfortable place to be, but it is actually a very good one for you. This will push you into some cognitive dissonance of your own as you validate your own faith and beliefs. Anticipate this if you can. (Since I believe that truth is transcendent and that the Holy Spirit leads and guides us into all truth, I have great faith in this idea which dispels fear for me. I believe that the truth can take it.)

Witnessing one-on-one builds upon friendship and a certain degree of mutual respect. You invest real time, energy, and care in an individual when you help them, and this will have a significant cost for you. Please be honest about the cost you are willing to pay in order to help this person, then set limits and boundaries ahead of time. Relationships get “messy” rather quickly, and if a person is involved in spiritual abuse, this creates even more “mess.” Sometimes, there are lots of logistical problems for people as they start to leave a group, particularly if they are shunned for listening to an “apostate” (someone who views their group as a cult or a former member), voicing opinions contrary to their group, or leaving itself. What can you offer to this person if you are their primary contact or their primary encouragement to leave? Be prepared to answer specific questions. (In the past, I’ve been called upon to help people with financial burdens as they relocated from patriarchal homes in crisis. In retrospect, the process would have been easier if I’d been better prepared for this stressor ahead of time.)

If you want to help and you inadvertently promise more than you can conceivably offer on a practical level (be it money or time or emotional support), this can also be a problem. You must “count the cost.” In my own recovery experience, I approached a friend and explained how much I needed friendship and counsel because I felt so abandoned. Though I was disappointed that they were not available to me, this woman sat down with me and explained the many pressures and a very consuming crisis in her own life related to one of her children. I didn’t know about any of these things, and I was glad for and grateful to her for her honesty with me. I understood that she was not available but that it was not personal. Be honest with yourself about what you are willing to give and what you can conceivably offer. Be willing to clearly communicate this.

Because you are “giving” of yourself in many ways into a relationship with the person, be very aware of your own expectations! In keeping with the caution that the person my never renounce their belief system, if you are giving in order to get some return (such as complete conversion), this will create relationship problems. We live in culture of entitlement, and people in crisis often cannot reciprocate. Depending on the situation, they may have been low functioning in terms of relationship skills to start with, and they certainly will not be at their best when they exit a group. Once they are out and established somewhat, they may stop coming around because they might associate you with the pain of their leaving. In some ways, this is a positive thing, because they desire to move on from their pain. Don’t be offended if this happens with a relationship you’ve worked to build with someone in need. Don’t set yourself up for heartache and place extra strain on your relationship because of a sense of your own entitlement. In other words, your efforts to help them should never be about you but should be motivated by your desire to do right by them and for them for the right reasons (either for the sake of altruism in general or out of Christian love).

I do not speak for everyone, but I believe that whenever I give, whatever it is (time, money, practical help, etc.); I have learned that it is best to give without any expectation of return. The catch phrase in Christianity is that we should “give as unto the Lord.” My motive for giving should come from my love for Him, expressed in love for others. If I give with the idea that I am actually ministering to Jesus, then I should also expect my “return” to come from Him, perhaps in ways that I do not anticipate. I give, and though I endeavor to give wisely, I do not “keep score.”

More thoughts on expectation. We are programmed with a sense of reciprocity, and
we will have to face this in any friendship – and most friendships and associations have a degree of functional pragmatism. They involve an exchange and mutual respect, and if we are witnessing, we are establishing some level of friendship with the person as a person that will involve an expectation of reciprocity. Awareness, assessment of our expectations and good boundaries also protect both parties in the relationship. “Giving to get” disrupts this respectful balance and sets the scene for dysfunction. Boundaries will also protect you from getting too committed so that you will not end up getting “used” by the person coming out of spiritual abuse. They will have many needs and they have been in an environment that encouraged them to have NO boundaries. You will likely have to be the more mature party, because the other person may likely be unable to set boundaries themselves. (But if you “counted the cost” at the outset of your relationship, your boundaries have already been framed out fairly well.)

If you approach witnessing to someone with the sole motive of seeing them become converts, be very aware of the tendency to turn that person into an object. This can be very subtle and can happen for religious and for personal reasons. In spiritually abusive systems, people are objectified – they become objects that are used by the group to achieve its desired end. As the end justifies the means as a group gets further off course, the follower loses their personhood.

Be very careful that you keep your motive to “counter heresy,” for example, separate from your desire and motive to help individuals. If you go out to witness to Mormons because the statistics say that ten members of your own denomination convert to the LDS every day, AND you are not also operating out of true concern for individuals when you interact with them, you have turned the people you intend to help into objects in a way that is similar to their abusers. Make sure you keep mindful of your motives and keep tabs on why you do what you do. This is an easy trap to fall into and one that the church growth movement has encouraged in many cases. Motive is very important, even though it is subtle. If you are witnessing to people and winning converts to prove something to yourself in some way that boosts your own ego, this is also going to create dissonance and will affect your witnessing work.

As a teenager, I now realize that I was championing truth by defending my faith, but I didn’t understand all of my own motives. I was getting psychological benefit out of it through the reward of the respect and admiration of other people for succeeding in such a lofty endeavor at a young age. But as I stated in the previous post, I failed to understand that despite the offensiveness of the doctrine, the rank and file members with whom I contended wanted to do the best thing in life as unto God as they understood Him and to live a life that meant something. Because of my motives, understandable as they may be, I inadvertently objectified these people somewhat. Avoid this by properly honoring and respecting them.

Along those same lines, if you are involved in a church that rewards witnessing and conversion through evangelism, keep your motives in check. We should aspire to do the right things for the right reasons. Be careful that your motives do not become selfish, because this is a great temptation if you are successful at motivating and persuading others. Again, remember that helping to get someone out of spiritual abuse pertains to them and you are just an instrument to help them, even if your focus is limited only to doctrine. Don’t allow it to be about you, making sure that you do not let new converts or potential converts become objects. It is an easy and subtle pattern into which many leaders can slip.

Though my Evangelical friends may disagree with me, I will summarize by stating that I have two separate motives when I encourage and support someone’s exit from a spiritually abusive group. I discussed these separate objectives in this recent post, but I would like to briefly reiterate.

My first objective involves getting the person out of the manipulative group. Many times, the person is not in any kind of mental shape to choose where to go to church, if they even want to go to church at all. I could not tolerate much regular attendance during the first year or so after my own exit. I experienced a great deal of fear and panic, as did my husband. You tend to wait for the next shoe to drop. Again, the person must feel safe, and a traditional church setting may be the most unsafe environment for them. They must feel comfortable in order to start their recovery.

As a Christian, I hope that the person exiting the group would choose Christianity, but I must be careful to allow that choice to be their own, something that is between them and God. If I coerce a vulnerable person or use undue influence to achieve my own ends before they are ready to make their own choices, I am behaving no differently than their abuser, in some sense. So my desire to see people seek Christ and an Evangelical perspective that is similar to my own, I must consider that this is a secondary motive. I am not out to sell hell insurance, I want to see people healed and whole. I am responsible to provide reasons for why I believe what I believe with meekness and patience. It is the responsibility of the person to choose what to believe, and that choice rests between them and God.

More to come….