It is shocking when someone leaves a spiritually abusive group, and former friends in the group abandon and gossip about them. Sadly, this abandonment and gossip is part of the dynamics of control within an abusive group. Without the exclusion and slander, people could come and go freely.
In Pete Walker’s book, Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving, he talks of two times in a person’s life when they should receive unconditional love. From birth to two, babies need unconditional love. This is the time to bond and feel safe in the world. After two the child begins to learn boundaries (and safety rules). He or she learns that there are limits to their “original entitlement.” The “toddler has to begin to learn that human love comes with some conditions.” (page 58). The second time in a person’s life that she or he can expect unconditional love, is in therapy sessions. A counselor of therapist should be a safe place for a person to discuss hopes, dreams, losses, anger, and any aspect of their life that needs healing.
A lot of people who leave or are expelled from spiritually abusive groups will state, “They talk about unconditional love but they do not have any.” I would suggest that what the group promotes is anything but unconditional love. What they offer is a very manipulative and conditional love.
Abusive groups promote the idea that they are the most loving group in the world. They teach this falsehood in two main ways. First, they encourage the formation of instant relationships by loving-bombing new members during the recruitment process. Seemingly they accept a person. Come as you are. But over time, this fades away and the person is pressured to conform.
They may promote a façade of love, and say that they having loving families, but hidden in the background instead of love there may be fear. They quote scriptures and say, “They will know us by our love,” but this love is conditional and scripted, built upon the shaky foundation of group identity. It is not built on years of shared memories, and respect for the individual boundaries that help build trust. Family life is built upon strict gender roles and promotes power imbalances which can contribute to domestic abuse. They may appear to have love, but behind closed doors it may be entirely different, but because they are told “we are the most loving group,” members are afraid to talk to each other about the difficulties they are facing.
The second way they promote the idea of being a loving group, is by villainizing people outside the group. They quote scriptures to explain how outsiders will be. They say outsiders will be “having no natural affection,” and by identifying all the sins that people supposedly engage in daily: lying, stealing, murder, incest, etc. The abusive group may prohibit experiences that strengthen families and create shared memories, like holidays or birthday celebrations. By vilifying the family life of outsiders, the group makes their families seem ideal.
If you have lost the conditional “love” of an abusive group, it can be helpful to list the conditions of that love. For example, to maintain membership you may have had to:
All love may be conditional, to some extent, because boundaries teach others what we expect, and what we accept. For example, we expect our friends to let us grow and learn, and make mistakes; we work through things together. We do not accept people who abuse us or our children. We do not accept people who steal our belongings. Boundaries help us stay safe. If someone sexually abused our child, we would no longer let them have access. We would likely report it to the police. (In an abusive group, we may have been denied this boundary and this option.)
Some positives that may follow the exit of an abusive group, include the following:
Steven Hassan’s book, Freedom of Mind is about “helping loved ones leave controlling people, cults and beliefs.” The thirteen chapters guide the readers in understanding how controlling groups operate, and how it affects the person under their influence, and offers a method of reaching the person to help get them out. The book offers helpful strategies for families and friends, and suggests an intervention model that utilizes a unified team approach.
To help the team understand what their loved one is experiencing, several theories of social control are introduced, along with Hassan’s BITE Model. BITE indicates control of Behavior, control of Information, control of Thoughts, control of Emotions. Control over these elements leads to “control over a person’s identity” and “promotes dependency and obedience to some leader or cause.” (Pages 23-33 explains this in detail.) Hassan suggests that this control results in the person having their authentic identity suppressed and their cult identity strengthened. The job of helpers is to connect with the person’s pre-cult or authentic identity.
Team members must be well informed so they do not accidentally strengthen the cult identity. Team members are chosen carefully and have specific tasks to do. For example, they should accept invitations to attend events with the loved one; it gains the trust of others in the group, and helps disarm the loved one. If the helper were to attack the group, the person would retreat further into the group. The other main job of a helper is to get the loved one to recall life outside of the group. This breaks through the distorted view the cult has given of life outside of the group, and helps the individual reconnect with their authentic self. The helper should help the loved one to recall happy times, accomplishments, and relationships. This breaks through the all or nothing, black or white thinking the group promotes. The third task of a helper is to plant seeds of doubt by asking a well-planned question, here and there. This must be done without reinforcing cult doctrine.
The advantage of a team approach is helpers have moral support. They can utilize a former member of the group as consultant to help them understand what the loved one is learning and they can anticipate common missteps. This team approach is Hassan’s “Strategic Interactive Approach.” The goal is to get the individual to eventually agree to meet with someone outside of the group who is an ex member of the group or a similar group.
Hassan recommends that family members do their own self-improvement work before approaching their loved one. If they are not working through their mistakes, addictions, or bad habits, the loved one can remain judgmental and entrenched. If the family is working with a therapist, they can ask the loved one to attend a session and express their hurts and needs. If the family is working to improve itself, the individual has one less barrier to returning.
This book provides a good baseline understanding of undue influence and how cults and controlling people operate. I recommend it as a must-read book for anyone who wants to help a loved one who is caught up in a controlling group. Having a loved one lost inside of the group can be debilitating and feels hopeless. This book offers specific, research-based steps to take, to help your loved one leave the group on their own volition.
My blogs take on all topics related to recovery, including commentary on the intersection of spiritual abuse and current events.
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