Friday, January 15, 2016

Emotional Self-Regulation: Adventures in Ambiguity (Part II)

In the previous post, we explored the problem created by the black and white thinking that was forced upon us in a high demand religious group. This is especially difficult if we grew up in an ideological group, because we likely didn't see anyone model moderation or another way of thinking. We end up adopting the strategy that if one thing is bad and unsafe, it's extreme opposite is likely the best safe alternative.

High demand groups don't tolerate uniqueness, and they make the mistake of defining uniformity as a type of unity. They don't tolerate much of anything that falls outside whatever their group defines as appropriate under their black and white rules. When we exit such a world of black and white thinking, we can't just flip a switch to make ourselves more tolerant, putting to rest the impulse to think in black and white. We have to go through the hard work of critical thinking first as we get some experience being flexible.

If we don't do some introspection, we often just draw on what we know and have lived before. But – what if all we know or remember involves enforced uniformity? Uniformity and milieu control definitely suppress conflict, but they also destroy transcendence and rob us of freedom and liberty. We have to surrender our judgment and critical thinking to a code outside of ourselves to accomplish uniformity. We have to work to learn the difference between uniformity and the unity that we hope to find and create after we exit.

Absent Modeling of Self-Regulation

What do we do when a high demand group failed to provide for our needs as children? Groups don't give children raised in them everything that they need to survive in a healthy way after they leave, and it's up to the individual to backtrack to give to themselves what they denied. High demand groups foster lifetime dependency, while a healthy family prepares its children for independence in life, and individual families can also foster their own type of dependency. On top of everything else, the emerging adult who has exited such a system must learn the skills they missed as a child, and it is not easy.

One thing that children need and need to see modeled is emotional self-regulation by mature adults who cope well with pain, disappointment, and problems in life. From the cradle, a parent creates and models a safe place for their infant. The parent is the example from which the child learns, and the parent is also the safe mirror in which the child sees themselves until they can figure out who they are and how to “be” safely in the world. What if that parent never had that skill for themselves, and what if a high demand group didn't tolerate that skill? How can they give that to their child?

As explored in a previous post and a series on developmental deficits that prime children for victimization, the vital skill of emotional self-regulation gets missed in the process. High demand groups force members to derive their sense of comfort and safety from the controlled milieu within the group, and it deprives members of learning how to sit with the natural and healthy discomfort that comes from conflict by either forbidding independence of individual members or by scapegoating conflict and painful events as some type of righteous persecution from a demonic force.

What results when a person begins to express their individuality, and what happens when they express too much distress? This summary is by no means comprehensive, but several predictable things happen:
  • Authenticity and honesty result in shame
  • Love and acceptance can only be merited through conformity
  • Children become performance oriented adults (to earn love and acceptance)
  • They exist in either the constricted control or the chaos that was modeled for them
  • They may also learn patterns of living that swing between control and chaos

Primarily, the characteristics that the children develop in the home as children intensify in adulthood. Difficulty with moderation and outright avoidance of moderation emerges as a core symptom and problem experienced by adults who were raised in homes where their lack of maturity was not tolerated and anticipated.

These adults have difficulty with the routine experience and expression of mature, adult behavior, understanding balance as lack of passion or lack of life because the chaos and drama in their family of origin raises the bar on the level of stimulation they need.

The trauma experienced by the loss of the spontaneous experience of being a child creates a sense of deadness and numbness, a way of coping with pain and grief which seems impossible to comprehend.

As adults, we end up swinging like a pendulum because that is all that we know. We often fail to see until later in life that we're just repeating the maladaptive ways of living we saw modeled in our group or in our dysfunctional family. We do this to survive the pain of living, failing to realize that there are much better and healthier ways of controlling our emotions.

Sitting with Discomfort

If we grew up in group, we derive our worth and our good feelings about ourselves from acceptance by others, pleasing the right people, and what we thought was evidence of the success of our formulaic way of living. We end up adopting beliefs about ourselves and how the world works, and often, these beliefs aren't realistic.

  • A common one is that “Life is fair.” Well, life isn't fair. If we believe this and base our expectations on this idea, we are destined for disappointment.

  • If I work hard enough and am good/smart enough, I'll avoid pain and harm.” This might be the case sometimes, but it's not a universal rule. Our group may have made such promises, and we might be searching for the “better way” of achieving this end of safety, but the truth is that the world is a very unsafe place, and we have no guarantees in life. From the child who ate organic all their life who gets cancer or the wealthy who lost everything in a ponzi scheme, life forces on us many examples to the contrary.

Learning to Change Our Dynamics

When we leave a group and a view of the world that made empty promises to us and our parents, if we want to learn how to transcend conflict without resorting on the techniques used to manipulate us in our high demand group, we have to relearn how to do things.  Sometimes it feels like relearning everything.  What we did in the past should be honored, for those means of coping kept us going and have brought us to where we find ourselves today.

Yet in order to grow and to rise above where we were and grow through and beyond our experiences, we have to learn about the unhealthy dynamics that we lived in our group. And this is very hard and very intimidating when it is all that we know. We have to keep moving forward with our good motives in tow, and we have to find healthier ways of doing things that honor others without reducing them to objects just like we once were.  It's the only way of avoiding the Survivor Wars.

(That process involves much grieving, and a healthy part of grieving is anger. And most of us don't know how to self-regulate our emotions, so this is something we must work to learn in the process. How can I be angry, but how can I also do that without hurting others – especially remembering how I was so deeply crushed myself?  Most of us have to learn how to make peace with discomfort, and then we have to learn and practice balanced ways of regulating and expressing those emotions in ways that do no harm.  One of the worst things that we can do is employ control to accomplish that end, because we become exactly like those who harmed us.)

Because without looking into the dynamics of manipulation, learning how to identify them, and then taking honest stock of who we are and how we have learned to adapt to survive, we will surely end up repeating what we lived in the constricted control of the cult. But once we step back a bit to care for ourselves and learn about where we've been, we learn see those dynamics and avoid them. It takes some practice and some soul searching, but it is well worth the liberation on the other end of the journey. 

On the other side of recovery we can truly live our own lives in liberty and freedom, and we can do far better than just surviving.