Whenever I talk to people who have exited a spiritually abusive group, I usually ask them about what I have come to describe as the “epiphany moment” – the moment when circumstances force them to acknowledge that there is something desperately wrong, and they find themselves no longer able to make excuses for what they observe or experience. Everyone who has walked through the process knows that moment well when they felt the foundations of their trust fail. It's a point at which the the pain necessary to maintain group membership suddenly, significantly, and painfully outweighs any benefit and gain. I believe that people who remain in a group often have such moments, too, but they choose to ignore the conflict so that they can remain a part of their group.
Upon reading my account of my experience with my pastor, one might think that this relationship served as the epicenter of my dissatisfaction with the church. I would say that it was the “last straw” after countless seemingly small problems or perhaps the first “nail in the coffin.” My understanding of how my church abandoned and blamed wives for domestic abuse under gender hierarchy unfolded over time, finally culminating in the painful realization that my pastor abandoned a woman who called him for help from a locked basement. This was really just a metaphor for the authoritarian rule and leader privilege/preference within the group which I knew prevailed but did not want to acknowledge or admit. That tension accumulated over time.
My pastor's response to the woman in the basement was just my epiphany moment – the peak of the crescendo in the mounting cognitive dissonance. For my husband, his moment came when he was summoned to an elder's meeting where he was interrogated and falsely accused of challenging the authority of the elders. (He'd actually written to them to address what he believed was a critical need within the congregation and to offer help.)
In hindsight however, when my husband and I were able to step back from the group and learned about spiritual abuse, we realized that we really “awakened” to the true nature of the group gradually. We finally became willing to entertain doubts and confusion that we experienced and suppressed once we'd exited the Honeymoon Phase and entered the Tension Phase of our tenure there. (Read more about the cycle of spiritually abusive groups HERE.)
The Splinter In Your Mind
When the “honeymoon phase” ends, a member begins to notice irregularities in their group experience that don't quite make sense to them. Because things have been very positive up until that point, it seems to be reasonable (and is much easier) to attribute these irregularities and poorly explained situations to chance because of confirmation bias. That bias is something of a “mental shortcut” for us, shaped by what we already believe and want to keep believing.
One of my own favorite descriptions of what this feels like can be found in The Matrix film in the scene wherein Morpheus offers Neo the choice between the blue and the red pill. You feel that there is something wrong with your church, but you have no substantive evidence or time or opportunity to think through the matter at hand. You just have a pervasive sense that things are just wrong. Morpheus describes this feeling of dissonance when he talks about the “world that has been pulled down over [Neo's] eyes to blind [him] from the truth.” You know that there's something wrong, but you don't know how or where to begin to understand it. You don't know that there are predictable dynamics in manipulative groups, and you don't have the language to describe them. The feeling of dissonance is the “splinter in your mind.”
In the film, Morpheus seeks out Neo and presents him with a moral choice. Does he want to stay in a dream world, or does he want to see the truth? In spiritually abusive groups, tension, painful circumstances, and open conflict push the member to a similar place of choice.
The Shelf of Dissonance
I recently attended a lecture which gave an overview of the process of recruitment and exit from spiritually abusive groups, and the offered this analogy that a former member offered to describe this crescendo of confusion (cognitive dissonance) that culminates in that moment of epiphany.
Think of each moment of the confusion created by cognitive dissonance as an object that can be placed on a shelf. Because the group uses so much deception and manipulation, those items accumulate over time. The more serious moral matters end up weighing more, too. The death, demise, or resignation of a beloved group leader becomes a very heavy item.
Eventually, that shelf breaks, and the member of a spiritually abusive system must come to terms with the accumulation of so many instances of inconsistencies, deception, and mistreatment of self and others. At this point, the person must make their own moral choice about whether they want to exit the group (picking up and re-examining and interpreting the past events with discernment). This is the point where people will start seeking information about spiritual abuse so that they can make sense out of what happened to them. Some people make the moral choice to stay in dream land. Instead of using a shelf to hold their dissonance, they abandon the shelf and convert it to a heap on the floor.
Waiting for the Epiphany Moment
If you have concerns about a loved one who has joined a spiritually abusive group, it is very unlikely that they will leave before they've had a painful epiphany. If they are enthralled in the honeymoon phase of their experience with the group and its leader, they will not be willing to entertain doubts. Think of an infatuation when someone has started to fall in love. That person will not listen to anything negative about their love interest. But approach a wife who has been battered a few times or a husband with a wife who has cheated on him, and they will likely be more willing to hear about your concerns. You must wait for the person's willingness to see the truth. They will first need to accumulate a few weightier items on the shelf of avoidance in their mind to have reason to listen to you. Their own pain as they progress through the cycle of abuse will prepare them to hear what you have to say. In the meanwhile, prepare to help them by learning about the dynamics of spiritual abuse and thought reform. This will also help them heal when they are ready. Remember that most people walk away from spiritual abuse on their own (after their mental shelf of doubt breaks).