Ever feel “caught between a rock and a hard place?” Living life makes some frustrating situations unavoidable at some point, so such cliché’s develop because these “truisms” describe a universal and uncomfortable experience very well. Prince Hamlet certainly understood this saying! But if you’ve been a member or participant with an ideological group or in a relationship with a very demanding person, you definitely identify with the ongoing experience of a “no win” situation in a unique way, even though it is hard to describe sometimes. Because of human nature, we tend to cope with this kind of situational stress, interpersonal stress, and social pressure within a group in predicable ways. Just like certain physical illnesses produce specific physical symptoms, high stress relationships that place consistent pressure and demands upon people push them into predictable ways of coping with the inconsistencies that become an inevitable element of manipulation.
Even if you’ve left a manipulative group or a relationship some time ago, you may still experience the feelings and sensations that ex-members commonly experience immediately after leaving a group. They can be brief or can emerge unexpectedly as more of a lingering annoyance or problem, even after you feel as though you’ve made a lot of progress and grown beyond them in the past. Know that this is a very normal and healthy experience. The experience results from your own good brain doing what it is supposed to do – it is protecting you.
Relationships build upon some positive or beneficial experience, otherwise we would not continue to return to them, and the best type of manipulators manipulate without people ever noticing the subtle nature of the manipulation. If we perceived that we were being manipulated, we would guard against any kind of exploitation, but a person cannot guard against influence if they do not realize that they are being influenced. As time progresses, individuals become more deeply connected to others within their group as the manipulation increases gradually. Compliance with the expectations of the manipulator becomes commonplace, and most people do not consciously or readily recognize the things that don’t make sense. Particularly in early stages within a group, people find it easy to ignore inconsistencies or minor problems in favor of the benefits that they receive and the assumptions they make about the virtue and intent of the manipulator. But the frustration and discomfort does have a cumulative effect.
Groups prefer a standard, often rigid type of behavior and a model type of personality, and members find that they must suppress the elements of their own natural tendencies in order to meet this standard. The use of positive experiences and rewards for desired behavior discourages the individual’s consideration that the group might be exploiting them, but they do feel some sense of the frustration, even if it is a more intuitive or unconscious sense. Most people describe this as a sense that something is wrong, but it just seems to escape them and they can’t really find anything obvious and seemingly substantial enough to account for the discomfort. So most people will rationalize this “check” that they seem to feel because it is not something that they can wrap thoughts around and describe clearly. They dismiss any of these concerns or discomforts of cognitive dissonance as a fluke, some fault on their part, pushing the awareness into the back of their minds. Why would they have cause to be so critical about something or someone who brings so many good benefits into their lives? But the lingering feeling that “things don’t add up” persists. To combat this sense, group members generally make an even greater effort to comply with the group standard and will tune out the discomfort and thoughts that cast the group or the relationship in any negative light.
But at some point, the pressure in a manipulative relationship builds until the manipulator employs negative stimuli to enforce the standard. The authoritarian nature of the group limits the amount of positive rewards that can be used, because authoritarian systems place more emphasis on the needs and demands of leadership. The group goals and the leadership in an authoritarian system do not bend and cater to the individuals in the group by nature and by definition. By design, leaders possess much more power than do the group members, and the system therefore has a very limited capacity to allow for individual differences and unique qualities. As a consequence, in very high demand, spiritually abusive groups, the member buries his natural tendencies and personality traits along with their concerns and frustrations in order to develop a secondary personality so that they can function in the group. Because of the pressure, the secondary personality that is desired by the group becomes the primary one, but the sense of discomfort remains. Something must be done with this frustration and discomfort. This separation into two different “selves,” the natural one and the group persona, is a stress-related survival mechanism which is defined as “dissociation.”
Just like diseases have been studied to identify the hallmark symptoms that are used to arrive at a diagnosis, from nearly fifty years of studying how people respond to rigid environments, exploitation, and manipulation, we now know that people who suffer the trauma of spirirtual abuse develop high levels of dissociation. The word itself derives from the Latin “dissociare” which means “separate.” In terms of mental health and under normal circumstances, people should feel whole and function should flow naturally from that wholeness. They don’t struggle with conflict or confusion, and they can think and make decisions because their mind, emotions, and their situations give them the faculty of focus and a sense of ease in function. In dissociation, people cope with the stress created by inconsistencies by separating themselves from their situation somewhat, through varied degrees of psychological numbing. In order to protect one’s sense of self, the mind pulls aspects of the person’s consciousness away from the stress, a natural and unconscious type of “stepping back” from it. The secondary persona that a person adopts becomes a function of this “stepping back.”
This response of the body and mind to the sense of personal threat and discomfort manifests as a self-protective measure. Though dissociation occurs and is somewhat predictable, individuals experience it in unique ways and to different degrees. At lesser degrees of dissociation, the powerlessness of the individual renders them feeling as though they are merely watching themselves instead of feeling fully in the moment. Some people describe this as the same feeling they get while watching a movie – they are there, but there are aspects of things that seem “unreal” or not quite real to them. The late Dr. Paul Martin, (when he exited from the same the cultic group into which Vision Forum's Geoffrey and Victory Botkin were first recruited), explains that he felt “foggy,” believing that he had developed allergies. After his tests came back negative for allergy, he understood later that his symptoms were not physical illness but were rather the protective response of his own good mind in its natural effort to protect him from the intense stress of manipulation that he experienced in the cult. Other people describe a pervasive sense of apathy, fatigue, and a loss of interest in activities that used to give them pleasure, the very same response seen in depression.
Just as a person who has left a manipulative group feels “foggy” or “dull,” they also tend to feel as though they are not themselves. On the outside, they feel somewhat removed from their environment and their experience of life, but on the inside, they feel disconnected from their true self and their identity to some extent. They usually describe the feeling of not even knowing or being able to tell who they really are. Generally, people feel a high level of anxiety because of this sense, as if one should be able to know anything, they should know who they are. This is true in trauma and depression, but for those who have been in a cultic religion, this particular element can feel even more intense because they actually displaced their identity intentionally to mimic what the group demanded. Such groups require members to displace their own traits to such a degree that it does produce anxiety for them to the point of distress and confusion on some level. The group dictated the required personality for individuals, and those individuals had to compartmentalize themselves, dissociating from their identities.
When members get away from the pressure and manipulation of the group, they must work through the anxiety they experience as they reconnect to their former and natural identity. When they abandon the group identity that they adopted, they are left with intense feelings of emptiness and confusion. Usually, groups encourage members to lay this sense of self on God’s altar of sacrifice by requiring the giving of the total self to God by giving oneself to the group. Under the guise of surrendering negative character traits unto God, groups often require certain good individual character traits which are an integral part of the person that do not correspond with the group ideal be sacrificed and renounced along with notably negative traits. For example, along with repentance from traits like jealousy or rage, groups also demand that traits such as healthy assertiveness and self-reliance be forfeited as well, because these positive traits render the individual with a sense of personal power. That power competes with the power of leadership over the group, so the group redefines any and all manifestations of these character traits as negative or evil to discourage a member’s sense of self-direction. Other aspects of manipulative systems reinforce this abandonment, including “Doctrine over Person.” Individuals who have exited a group will have some anxiety until they reconnect to their sense of self and personal liberty. The process takes time and requires soul searching regarding true personal beliefs and desires, and it develops through positive affirmation in the context of healthy relationships.
Emotional healing never occurs as a linear process, meaning that a person does a great deal of jumping around between states of positive progress and states of distress until they get to a place of deeper healing. Generally, people feel very good when they first leave a manipulative group, but the find themselves suddenly feeling depressed or apathetic, even years later. Dissociative states subside when a person begins to heal from a traumatic experience, but these states can reappear at any time, even years after a person feels that they have recovered. The nature of spiritual abuse is so overwhelming, people cannot process everything required for their healing immediately and all at once, and the mind and the Spirit gently filter out and protect a person from more intensity than they can handle at one time. As the person is ready, the mind allows a new element of the unresolved issues related to the group to surface, and the healing also creates a recalling of the dissociation experienced in the group. It may seem to the person that they are backtracking, but they are actually moving forward into deeper healing.
If you find this happening to you, encourage yourself and remind yourself that it is a good sign that you are no longer strongly controlled by someone else and that you are making good progress.
In upcoming posts, I plan to address other aspects of this type of healing and more ways that dissociation can manifest, as well as other practical problems experienced by ex-members. But before I do…
Hamlet’s lament over his own powerlessness and depression expresses aspects of dissociation, as he also experiences the confusion of cognitive dissonance. His rightful place of succession has been displaced, and those around him aren’t behaving like most other people behave after the death of a loved one. He becomes the fulcrum for the stress of the strange behavior all around him. He struggles with the confusion he feels about whether he should act and how he should respond, and he expresses alienation from his sense of self-trust. The world has suddenly become insane as everyone around him follows some agenda that he doesn’t understand. He struggles with the stress as well as the sense of hopelessness and powerlessness, all while ironically holding one of the highest positions of power in
. He expresses a desire to escape the situation, but he realizes that his own situation is a “no win” one, and that he is caught “between a rock and a hard place.” Listen to his "To Be or Not To Be" lament to see if you can identify with what he has to say. I think that his experience also applies very well to the existential confusion that many feel after spiritual abuse, and I hope you will consider it, because I still find it helpful to me. (For those of you who are not familiar with the language used in this scene in Hamlet, read more in a more modern English translation HERE.) Denmark