The eighth technique used in spiritual abuse is using coercion to control people’s thoughts and behaviors. Coercion is accomplished through teaching and actions that take away or squelch an individual’s independent thinking. There is pressure to comply, pressure to obey. Bullying and intimidation create an atmosphere where group members feel compelled to monitor and report other member’s behavior.
Many abusive groups coerce behaviors through teaching that creates fear. They preach of constant threats and claim that safety is only found in their group. Preaching about an imminent Armageddon or eternal damnation creates a fear of outsiders and a fear of leaving. This kind of teaching is an effective form of control because it pressures members to be all in. It presents a one-sided world view where members adopt a particular lens built on judging others and denying the good that exists. When all outsiders are presented as ignorant and condemned, it makes insiders feel special, superior, knowledgeable, and righteous.
Coercion occurs when information is controlled so that group members are cut off from information or people with different opinions are silenced. Abusive groups take extreme measures to silence their critics. Questioning is not allowed. Materials from the group are promoted as the one source of spiritual nourishment. Language is loaded to identify outsiders as the enemy. If someone explores forbidden materials, coercion is used to shut them down, expel them, or punish them in a way that temporarily separates them from the group.
In some groups, coercion is used to get members to do illegal or unethical things. By identifying the world outside the group as the enemy, it sets up a slippery slope where spiritual warfare trumps all. Once this mentality is adopted, members can be coerced into not reporting the sexual abuse of children, lying to governmental authorities because “they don’t have the right to know,” or even committing fraudulent financial transactions.
Coercion occurs at the most basic level. Teaching that God will destroy all non-believers, infidels, or apostates, coerces people into following the group more closely so that they are not identified as a non-believer, infidel, or apostate. Pressure is applied so that members give up relationships with friends and family members. What’s at stake is the member’s own salvation. They are coerced into having a narrower set of associates and beliefs.
Coercion and threats are used to get people to abandon their own conscience. They make choices they would rather not make in order to keep their positive status in the group. For example, rather than going to a friend and saying, “I am concerned about your choice…” they will feel compelled to turn them into leadership. They squelch their own common sense and damage relationships because nothing matters except that the group is uniform and clean. At the extreme, such groups may tell members to obey the leaders, even if it makes no sense. This, combined with teaching about the external enemies, is how the people of Jonestown came to drink the Kool-Aid.
Parents are unable to raise their own children in the way that they would. Where corporal punishment is expected, parents receive teaching and pressure to comply. Where parents are expected to not do holidays, they are pressured into compliance, even when their children are ridiculed at school for not participating. Parents can be pressured into abandoning lesbian, gay, or transgender children. Parents can be pressured to giving their underage daughters into plural marriages.
To heal from spiritual abuse that involved threats and coercion, it can be helpful to identify the treats and coercion. Naming something for what it is, is very liberating. It is liberating to come to the realization that you were not weak or disobedient. It is liberating to see that the group used specific techniques to coerce behavior and shut down your choices and relationships.
On the other hand, it can be devastating to acknowledge how your response to the coercion and threats influenced you. You may have hurt your children, spouse, or best friend. It is important to talk about this with someone you trust. If possible, it can be very healing to apologize. At some point you have to choose to stop beating yourself up, and let what you did go.
I write this as someone who shunned my mother for almost ten years because my religion said to. After I woke up and left the group, I kept apologizing to her. Finally, she said, “Stop apologizing.” It helped me give up my guilt and shame. Then I focused on making every minute with her count.
It is also healing to speak out about the group that spiritually abused you. It may be a stage of healing or a lifelong work. It may also be enough for you to just sit back and figure out what you believe. In the absence of a world full or threats and enemies and impending destruction, what do you observe about life and others? Is the world full of strife, hatred, and enemies, or are most people just busy caring for their families and loving their friends? Once you know how you feel, you will not be swayed by others. Is it important to find the truth, or is it important to try to walk toward the light?
My blogs take on all topics related to recovery, including commentary on the intersection of spiritual abuse and current events.
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