It must be asked. Why do some people return to the source of their spiritual abuse? After being kicked out, or voluntarily leaving, a certain number of people, who exited, return. If we can figure out why, we can figure out how to support their transition into freedom. Whether it is a cult, high control group, or evangelical fundamentalist group, the issues will be similar.
People return because the mental coercion still exists. They have been primed to feel shame for being outside the circle. There have been Scriptures used against them. Certain verses are used to produce the shame. A favorite used among the Jehovah’s Witnesses compares people who have left, to a dog that returns to its vomit. (2 Peter 2:22) Believers have been taught to fear being on the outside because that is where the wicked are, those who will be left behind, or those who God will kill.
The antidote is to break the power of the coercion by undermining the authority of the group and/or its teachers. I think of the Wizard of Oz. Once the curtain is pulled back, the weakness is exposed, and there is less fear. Frequently, learning of the lies and deception of the leaders is enough to break the mental grip.
People return because they cannot clearly see a future outside of the group. They have been taught to fear nearly everything outside of the group. Again, Scriptures have been misused as a means of isolating the member. It only takes one verse to instill a fear, for example, using the verse where the disciples ask, “Where would we go? You have teachings of life.” (John 6:68)
The antidote is to help the person see how life could be different and good outside of the group. When a person has been booted out or chosen to leave, they have valid doubts about the group; for example, how could they treat people this way? Where is the love? This question is a perfect place to being thinking about what kind of relationships the person wants. What would it look like to be part of a group that was loving and accepting, and not policing its members or telling them exactly how to think? How would life be different if there was no pressure to perform? What qualities would they look for in a meaningful faith? Are there other Scriptures that hold more weight, such as “by this they will know you are my disciples, by your love?” (John 13:35) If unconditional love is what you need, you cannot find it by returning to the group you left. What steps can you take to identify a loving community or a sincere, non-abusive faith?
In therapy, this style of questioning is called “Motivational Interviewing.” It gets the person to talk about the changes they would like to see and what conditions they need to thrive. The more they visualize, the more they see how they can change the conditions of their life that bring unhappiness and addiction. By getting them to talk about changes that brings them happiness, they move toward new behaviors and conditions that do bring happiness. "Change talk" leads to changes.
People return because they lack the resources to stay away. Resources can be financial. If a person leaves, and loses his or her family, he or she may lose monetary resources that contribute to stability. Additionally, many spiritually abusive groups pride themselves in a lack of education. This lack of education makes it difficult to be financially independent. It may be easier to return than to soldier on. People will also lose human capital. In a sense, the abusive religion holds members hostage via their relationships. If they leave, they lose their relationships.
The antidote is to help the person access resources. There are many public resources to help a person with housing, energy assistance, and food. The person may also volunteer at a food bank or shelter, and meet other volunteers.[i] This will begin a new form of networking, which may lead to other resources.
The person also needs to be pointed in the direction of mentors and caring people who do not have an agenda; that is another reason why I recommended volunteering. Additionally, websites and Facebook provide opportunities to meet others who have experienced spiritual abuse and will understand. A person who has exited many years ago can serve as a mentor for a newly exiting person. A mentor of this type can remind the leaver of their worth, show him or her research, provide encouragement and a listening ear. They are distanced enough to model the happiness and benefits that come from not returning. They may have also navigated getting a higher education and provide tips about how to enroll and succeed. They empathize as the person negotiates a whole new world.
[i] I will be describing these resources in a future blog.
My blogs take on all topics related to recovery, including commentary on the intersection of spiritual abuse and current events.
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