It’s a week before Thanksgiving holiday in the United States, and for anyone who is newly estranged from their family due to spiritual abuse, I have some advice. Do not spend the day alone. Make your plans now. Ask someone to join them or go ahead and host your own gathering.
I acknowledge that Thanksgiving is a painful time for many. For indigenous people Thanksgiving represents a time of betrayal, theft of lands, and genocide. This is the historical reality for which I grieve. My friend lost her mother to pancreatic cancer this time of year. Soldiers are separated from their families. Thanksgiving can be a very solitary day.
For the person who is newly shunned or estranged from family and friends because their belief has changed, Thanksgiving has the potential to feel very lonely. But doesn’t have to be that way.
I’ve been out 25 years now, but I remember the confusion of the early years. I was fortunate to get invited to Thanksgiving when I couldn’t be with my family. (You might recall, I gained back part of my family, and lost the other half, when I exited my childhood religion. However, I started college and couldn’t always travel home.)
In those early years, I saw the other half of holidays- not a pagan holiday, or only an act of betrayal toward native people, nor a fake day of being thankful, since we should be thankful every day. I saw the power of spending time with people you love, and the joy of making of new friends.
In the early years, I ate Thanksgiving at several tables, and yes, I sometimes had to initiate an invitation. I gathered around various tables and ate foods I never had before. I laughed, watched football, told and heard stories. Each time it was one big love fest.
I had to be honest enough to trust someone else and say, “May I join you?” I felt vulnerable admitting I had nowhere to go, but no one ever turned me down.
As time went on, I created a family of my own. It includes my family but also a few key people I couldn’t imagine celebrating without. I also invite stray people.
Thanksgiving is a great day to think about what you still have. It’s easy to get stuck on losses. But to break free from a controlling mindset, you will have to change your thinking.[i] Cults teach people to be anxious and see threats. Thanksgiving is about the good in life.
When I first left my childhood faith, I was anxious and depressed. Things changed for me when I changed how I talked. I started to tell myself, “Five minutes of today was rough, but the rest went well.” Thanksgiving is a day to intentionally note what is good. That’s why I say, be with others. In our family we ask, “What are you thankful for?” We listen to each other’s answers and it draws us together.
Ask people about their plans, and if they are inviting friends over, ask if they have room for you. Ask if you can bring anything. If they say no, still bring something. I have found flowers go over well. Send a thank you note.
Ask, because the cult is punishing you. They want you to be alone, so that you come running back to them. Don’t fall for it. Go spend time with others, and discover the generosity and the kindness that is said to not exist outside of the cult. It’s a lie that there is no where else to go. There is always room for more at a table built by love.
You’ve got less than a week to ask.[ii] Now get to it.
[i] Bonnie Zieman’s book, Cracking the cult Code for Therapists, talks about the indoctrination and control process. Cults need to create anxiety in order to convince the adherent that safety is only found in the group.
[ii] If this is not your style, see if you can volunteer to help feed the homeless. I volunteered this way several times and my assignment was to take the meal to seniors who are shut in. We spent time and brought their meal to their home. There is nothing like helping others to help increase your own gratitude.
I got angry and embarrassed this week while reading about the recruitment process for a high control group (cult) or cult-like group.[i] I am embarrassed because I served as a recruiter. I did the love bombing; I showed the keen interest in the visitor. I am angry because when I escaped from one controlling group, I fell under the sway of another group, who also love bombed me and recruited me.
Love bombing refers to the high amount of attention that is shown to a potential recruit, and the limited information given the recruit, that is designed to pressure them to cross the line from curiosity to group membership. Love bombing is literally being overly friendly, feigning friendship, for the sole purpose of recruitment. Love bombing is conditional love and conditional interest. If the potential recruit expresses doubt or disinterest, they will be pressured with more information or abandoned as a threat.
I love bombed people. We were told how to respond to people who visited. We would talk with our friends and tell them, I am bringing someone new. Then when I did, my friends lavished special interest. We were taught to warn newbies that outsiders would tell lies about us, and that this was proof we were god’s people. The potential recruit was warned that their family would not be happy to hear they were studying with us. It was also designed to hide less desirable facts, and to be emotionally attractive while overriding the thinking part of a person.
After I left my childhood faith, I was vulnerable due to recently losing my family and friends. I was recruited my first day on campus. I was called. People spent time with me. One hundred people told me they were praying for me. At the time, I felt very flattered. The people told me that what I left was a cult, and that what they offered was a “relationship” not a religion. At times, I felt like I was an animal at a zoo, that my cult past was exotic, and that was why people were curious. Looking back, there was a lot of effort put into getting me to attend my first bible study and then mid-week service. The purpose was to get me to say the sinner's prayer, If I had not done it, I am positive the attention would have faded.
In both cases, the love bombing was the first step in the recruitment process. At University, I had to be separated from others before I could become entrenched in the group. Once I made that commitment, the group started indoctrination. They started applying pressure to conform. It was an erasure of my individuality. My self-esteem obliterated through teaching and bible verses. I was trained to use the language of the group, use only the bible verses the group focused on, and mold myself into conformity. It was as if the group’s tentacles started wrapping around me, squeezing, until less and less of me showed.
I curbed my own thoughts. Stopped asking questions. Used the language of the group, and hid the areas where I disagreed. I listened to them, followed their call on my life. I moved hundreds of miles to serve where need was greater. Left my home to go to seminary. I dressed like they did, talked about God, spent money and time on group activities. I pretended everything the group said and did was reasonable, but it was not.
Secretly, I kept asking questions and I started awakening. After leaving seminary, I had to start from square one. Who was I without the cult of my childhood? Who was I without evangelical Christianity? What did I believe? I lost two groups of friends over the course of a decade. It was gut wrenching and all consuming. I had to work with therapists for quite a while for my authentic self to emerge. It took a long time to make new friends.
Reading about the indoctrination and recruitment process reminds me that I was victimized by people with ulterior motives. Most of them abandoned me as l worked to reclaim my life.
Some areas of healing I have worked through are:
Determining what I value
Build up my self-esteem; love myself.
Setting my own life goals
Picking a career that is meaningful to me
Using my time as I want to; filling up time after the regimented schedule required by the group
Learning to deal with fears and anxiety; learning to self sooth, developing coping skills
Learning how to create relationships based on trust and mutual respect
Learning to voice my opinion and not be subservient
If you have made your break from a controlling, cult-like group, it helps to spend time being curious and getting to know yourself. Remind yourself that your rights were violated and taking time to heal is necessary. Read about how cults influence people; you can avoid further recruitment, but also understand how you were manipulated. You can learn to spot the techniques and teachings that harmed you. Understanding the manipulation makes it easier to let go of toxic beliefs. It took a while to be indoctrinated and captive; it will take a while to heal. Be patient. It does get better. Invest as much in your healing, as the group made you invest in them. It’s your life and you are worth it.
[i] A group of us are reading Bonnie Zieman’s book, Cracking the Cult Code for Therapists: What every cult victim wants their therapist to know. In Chapters 1-7 we explored the recruitment process and how people get indoctrinated. It opened my eyes in a new way as to recruitment and indoctrination. Ms. Zieman also has books on how to heal from cults and other controlling groups.
My blogs take on all topics related to recovery, including commentary on the intersection of spiritual abuse and current events.
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