Pete Walker’s book is a great tool for ideas about dealing with trauma. Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD) is “a learned set of responses and a failure to complete numerous developmental tasks.” (p.1) It is a severe form of post-traumatic stress disorder, with five main features: emotional flashbacks, toxic shame, self-abandonment, a vicious inner critic, and social anxiety. (p.3)
Pete Walker acknowledges that C-PTSD is most often caused by parents when there is child abuse, neglect, and abandonment, but also notes that C-PTSD can occur from being in a cult. He talks about the ways parents show contempt for their children and the shame that occurs.
Walker notes that “Cult leaders also use contempt to shrink their followers into absolute submission after luring them in with brief phases of unconditional love.” While reading the book, I frequently found myself substituting the word “cult,” in the place of the word “parents” and nodding in agreement with the author’s assessment of the techniques and damage caused by abuse.
The author speaks of four f-type responses that children learn to use, to help them cope with ongoing abuse. The child can continue to bring these four responses into their adult life. They are maladaptive responses when used in every situation: fight, flight, freeze or fawn. How this might look for the survivor of a cult, he does not directly say. The general characteristics of the four f-type defenses are as follows (See pages 105-128):
Because much of the trauma results from criticism from parents (or, I would suggest in the case of a cult, the authorities within the group), the victim must learn to talk better to to him or herself and stop repeating the verbal tapes they have in their heads. For example, a cult might make a list of sins and teach its members to judge others as good or bad. At some point, they (parents or cult leaders) can stop saying the abusive things, and the person will repeat them to him or herself (about him or herself). This is the inner critic that can be stopped with practice. Walker suggests literally saying, “stop.” When the mind says, “You’re doomed, stupid, damned, or hopeless” etc. Say “Stop. That is not true,” and replace it with something kind or true. In a manner, the job is to re-parent your inner child. Walker offers 14 ways to address the inner critic in Chapter 14. He gives ways to change perfectionism, black or white thinking, worrying, comparisons, guilt, and saying, “I should.”
Anyone who has been in a cult would benefit from using these though stopping techniques to overcome the indoctrination. Walker notes that cult leaders demand absolute loyalty to the leader’s authority and belief system. (p. 180) He speaks of abusive families as mini cults and recommends a healthy rage for the ways that self-loyalty and self-individuation were destroyed by the abusive system.
An especially helpful section, teaches ways to help children manage flashbacks from traumatizing families. For people who were in cults and have left, there are often feelings of helplessness about how they’ve raised their kids. You may have got the child out, but the damage is not done yet. The child will continue to carry the message within, as an inner critic.
Walker’s list will be helpful for parents who raised children in a cult, but who have since left. Among the ideas, are to help the children realize that sometimes they feel in danger but are not in danger. “Aim to become the child’s first safe relationship.” (p 164) Guide the child back into her body to reduce hyper-vigilance or flashbacks. Help the child shrink the inner critic. Teach the child thought stopping techniques. Help the child to talk so he or she can release pain and fear.
Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving is not a quick read, but if you absorb a little at a time, it is full of idea that can be applied to help heal from complex trauma. The book closes with six toolboxes to help identify personal strengths and resources, resolve conflicts lovingly, deal with the inner critic, and manage flashbacks. I recommend it for anyone interested in learning more about Complex PTSD.
(Note: Only a qualified professional can diagnose C-PTSD; the ideas in this blog are not a replacement for professional help in dealing with trauma, but are presented to demonstrate that healing is possible and that practical steps can be taken to overcome spiritual abuse.)
Pete Walker, offers this as an example of thought stopping and thought substitution on Page 318 of Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving.
For many who've endured spiritual abuse, reminders of their former religion can be triggering. Even in a new setting, a reference to scripture can cause their heart to race.
Controlling groups malign people who leave them. Scorn and shame are used to try to bring the individual or family back into compliance. It is an attempt to shut them up, squash their legitimate criticisms, and minimize the damage among stayers (that is caused by the truth leavers speak).
Depending on how closed the group is, and the number of years of participation in the group, the leaver is faced with many tasks to accomplish on the way to reclaiming his or her life. For some people, this journey takes them completely out of religion, and into the secularism. Marlene Winell describes these steps, in the 2016, Oxford Handbook of Secularism.
There are many misconceptions about people who leave religion, and do not take up a new one. There is the assumption that they quit too soon. They quit before god could help them fully heal. They stopped because they wanted to sin. They quit because the devil got ahold of them, or they were too lazy to seek more information.
For people who were enmeshed in an abusive group, the path to secularism is often one made after due diligence, careful study of evidence, and maybe even after lots of prayer and reflection.
Winell describes the paradigm shift that it takes to totally leave religion behind: the exploration of a new culture and the personal development it takes to get through this crisis. She suggests that people who become secular, following their time of being deeply religious, have advanced in their moral thinking. They are no longer living out of fear of punishment, or living up to social expectations, or maintaining social order out of duty or fear of authority.
Leavers have residual effects of having been extremely religious, Winell identifies Religious Trauma Syndrome. There can be fear of punishment, developmental delays, and Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But healing and growth also occur. As Winell writes:
"The former believer now living in the secular world is not without hope. The traumas and liabilities may be real but new opportunities are just as present. Without the strict rules and authoritarianism of a religious group, former believers can explore freely and exercise their own cognitive and emotional capacities. New friends, connections, and activities are available. This is all exciting despite being daunting." (http://bit.ly/2iX3aWG)
Whether you consider yourself secular or not, part of reclaiming life will be coping with triggers. When a trigger occurs, it is helpful to pay attention to your breathing, focus on where you are in the moment. Look around the room you are in, listen, smell, and breath. This can help ground you in the present, reminding you that you are safe.
If certain words trigger you, can you reframe them? Look them up in a dictionary, use the word with its proper meaning, not the twisted meaning of the group you left. If certain verses were repeated over and over to control your behavior, explore their context and see if they were plucked out of context and misused.
Avoidance does not help you overcome triggers. Exposure to triggers can help you overcome triggers. Because exposing yourself to a trigger can be frightening, it is best to explore this option with a professional, such as a licensed counselor or therapist who understands trauma.
Don’t be afraid to follow your questions wherever they lead you. One question that has led many into secularism is how to reconcile science with religion, for example, what to do with evolution.
A deep study of church history, can lead to questions of the church’s authority. If the history is this, what does it mean for me? If god is silent in the face of suffering, does god exist? If this is how doctrine came to be, is this how god would do it. or is this human-made? If other cultures taught these stories before Christianity, what does this mean?
It takes courage to ask questions and to accept the answers, but doing so can bring a freedom you never expected. As Winell’s article concludes, “Despite all the struggles, former believers gradually discover that the secular world is not the empty, meaningless wasteland they were led to believe. While still having challenges, it is full of joy and meaning, and this is such a huge relief after all the fear. Personal identities are reformed and lives are rebuilt on new terms. With maturity, the newly secular person willingly lets go of promises for existence by and by for a real life here and now.”
My blogs take on all topics related to recovery, including commentary on the intersection of spiritual abuse and current events.
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