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.
My blogs take on all topics related to recovery, including commentary on the intersection of spiritual abuse and current events.
Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1(800) 273-8255