Monday, March 26, 2012

Questions About the Hot Seat/Star Chamber: Do I Really See Spiritual Abuse All Around Me?

 Question #1: I just read your blog, and I realize that I've seen other people use these same dynamics outside of a religious setting.  I'm starting to see these patterns everywhere, and I'm really freaked out.  What does it mean?

Seeing thought reform everywhere or just single elements of it after you've been to the “hot seat” or in a “star chamber” is part of recognizing that you were traumatized – that something terrible happened to you in those sessions. 

Seeing the same patterns elsewhere is a part of your brain's effort to keep you safe.

For a time after I was exit counseled, every time I saw any kind of manipulation, I thought of thought reform. I became especially sensitive to any manipulation in any area of my life. I like to think of the analogy of an unhealed wound resulting from the experience. Just like a physical wound, pressing on it or bumping that affected area of your body on something causes pain, and people will guard that wound until it heals. In effect, anything that resembles the trauma you experienced will cause direct pain by reminding you of all of those aspects of the painful experience that have not yet had an opportunity to heal.

I felt very unsafe for a long time after we left our group, but looking back, I was in the throws of trauma and the protective feature of survival called hypervigilance. This is a very common experience for people after they leave a spiritually abusive group because abusive leaders employ terrible psychological harassment methods which group members find difficult to avoid, resist, or halt. Because of a past experience that was harmful or threatening, a person will be “extra vigilant” about anything that resembles a threat, especially a threat that directly or indirectly reminds them of the specific harm they suffered in the past. If you've just been beat up and left for dead in a dark alley, anything that reminds you of the dark alley or getting beat up takes you back to that experience and those “active,” traumatic memories as a means of keeping you safe.  Your brain realizes that "the last time this happened, I suffered terribly," so it mobilizes all of your defenses and readiness for a similar situation so that you can be ready, in an instant, to protect yourself.

After some healing through time and distance from a trauma, reminders of the experience can be more subtle and less obvious than a hurting, sore wound. When you feel safe from continued threat, your mind will naturally start to put the experience into perspective, and you'll start to have nagging questions and feelings of doubt about what happened to you. This emotional mechanism that happens apart from things making sense logically.

Think of when when your car starts making a new and funny noise, and your attention gets fixated on it every time you drive the car. Probably because you once had a similar experience with a similar car noise in the past, your brain is subconsciously and automatically pulls all that related memory together for you without your conscious choice to listen, and you experience that as a feeling of something seeming wrong.  That's one of the wonderful things that the right side of the brain and the survival system in the brain working together do for us without us realizing it.  That process makes you more alert and attentive to things because "it feels like" something you remember from the past.  The right side of the brain speaks in analogy, feeling, and experience apart from categories and linear progression which brings up reasons why the nebulous sense of realization should or shouldn't make logical sense. Threat and survival aren't process of logic.

Soon after learning about thought reform, I looked at all sorts of situations and behaviors of others all over the place, and I could see where they were like aspects of what Robert Lifton described.  I found myself asking, "Is everything mind control?"  Before I worked through that trauma and started to heal, the right side of my brain rightfully identified the single elements of control, manipulation, influence, and undue influence.  At that point, all of those things set off my warning system as a potential threat because I was still in "red alert" mode because I was not yet truly well (so the experience was still ultimately serving or was trying to best protect me). In outright PTSD wherein disturbing symptoms and preoccupation with the experience lasts for months without improvement, that whole survival process and hypervigilence doesn't shut down very readily. It kicks in when it's not really needed, identifying immediate threats when no true threat exist.

Attention and Learning

If you're seeing similarities without the trauma response kicking in, it means that your right cerebral
hemisphere is busy doing exactly what it's supposed to do, and it's enhancing your personal wisdom and mastery. You're likely having one of those right brain epiphanies as your brain pulls up all of the similar things that you remember about a similar situation from your own past.

I also think that there's something about the learning curve at play in this, too.  When you first learn a new principle, before it gets integrated as a part of your memory, it catches your attention. Your conscious realization of how the principle works and examples of the principle help to work the new concept into your memory and are part of the process. Think again of the noises in the car, a process of gaining experience which becomes its own type of teacher. Knowledge plus experience takes you from the status as a novice into the realm of experienced worker and mastery. The first couple of times you perform an important task or encounter a specific event, they tend to be memorable. Later experiences fade out of your conscious memory because you no longer have to deliberately think about the process.

If you've never thought about confrontations like this as a little systematic and predictable, and it's a new idea like Lifton's criteria once were to me, until you integrate that into your own reference bank in your head, you tend to notice it more. It's especially true if you're actively thinking about it because your mind is trying to figure out where it wants to file it away or what true significance it has for you. Not only is it catching your attention like the sound of a brake pad on your car wearing thin, aspects of it have created questions that you consider consciously, just like the thoughts that seem spontaneous when you suddenly and consciously wonder about the last time someone performed break service on your car. That's a good brain, doing exactly what design intended.

Tomorrow's Question:   
Do you think my pastor could have deliberately used thought reform? 


Additional Questions to follow:  
  • Did my pastor learn and study thought reform, believing that it was something else?
    • (He's so good at it, and it fits the list of dynamics too well.)
  •   How could they have not known what they were doing? 
  • What if you work for your church?