As we look at the process of taking care of ourselves with these cult-created triggers, it is important to remember cults deliberately work to dismantle people’s will and personality. If you are born-in, you have never had the chance to explore who you are. If you converted, then you have had your personality deconstructed and a cult personality implanted on top of who you are authentically.
Recovery may well be a lifelong process, especially for those born-in. The goal we are talking about is not to completely get over your cult experience. The goal is to be able to recover enough so you are able to feel you have your own life and your own sense of self.
Doing the Work
Heading into this conversation remember to keep at the heart of your self-care, be kind to yourself. It is often lengthy and challenging work to undo a cult personality. Be kind to yourself. You have likely been shamed, blamed, punished, perhaps shunned. Be kind to yourself.
Be aware of the temptation to return to your group because of despair, pain, and hopelessness about recovery. That is what high control groups and cults want you to feel. You can counter that training by being curious, willing to explore, and gentle with yourself.
Remember to validate your courage and normalize this process of recovery. Validate, or acknowledge, your triggers and the difficulty you are experiencing as part of the recovery process. These problems are not mental aberrations or individual problems. They are cult created belief systems. It is not shocking that you believe it. It is your training.
Once you have left, there often remains a sense of connection, belonging, or loyalty that lingers. You also may have severed relationships with family and friends not in the cult as part of the indoctrination process. You may have joined the cult because of dysfunctions in your family of origin. You may have had a lack of community and joined the cult to fill that need. Therefore you may not have much to go back to when you leave the cult.
Even when your family and friends are welcoming and happy to have you back, it can be hard to undo the brain-washing that taught you to separate from them. It can also be difficult to explain to them what you have been through and how to help you in your recovery. Finding support group(s) on-line or in person can be very helpful in this learning curve, for you, your family, and friends that care about you.
It is especially hard to break the bonds of these relationships within the high-control group when you were born-in and are now leaving. Given the separation and isolation that is common in cults, it is likely, most or all of the people you knew when you were growing up were part of the group.
Agreement and Emotions
Think about the things you like, or agree with, and the connections you may still feel with the cult’s beliefs. Let yourself appreciate what worked for you about the group you were in. If you were converted, there are things that appealed to you about the group’s beliefs or you would not have joined. Few things are all bad and if you were brought up in it there are likely things that you agree with. Finding those things can help you make peace with what you believe and where you came from.
Give yourself room to grieve what you have lost without judging what you might feel about your experiences in the group and your life outside of it. Your emotions may include being sad, angry, guilty, ashamed, afraid, excited, passionate, or happy. Feel your feelings, let them be whatever they are, and try not to shame yourself for having them. Remember, your emotions are what they are, judging those feelings is not helpful.
Notice the tendency to blame and shame yourself such as statements like, “How could I have believed that? That is ridiculous.” Notice how offering assurances to yourself can be problematic. “It is fine” or “It doesn’t matter” often don’t help because they are dismissive and minimize your feelings.
When you are looking at outside information about the cult, it is often most helpful for the source to present the information in a balanced manner without being angry or hostile. Frequently, it is more helpful for the information to be clear, factual, and neutral in tone. Direct or harsh condemnation can be triggering to (ex-)members’ thought-stopping stories, especially in the beginning.
That said, the anger that people often feel when they realize they were in a cult needs ways to be expressed. Groups where people talk openly about their anger can be very cathartic. There are many healthy and helpful ways to express your anger. It is telling you something about the hurts you experienced and witnessed. Get help to do that processing in a safe way so that anger doesn’t lash out in self-harm or harming others.
Also be aware of how long you spend focusing on that anger. It can become a place where people get stuck. Finding ways to process and move through anger and transition into living your post-cult life is an important step in a recovery process. You may always be angry about what happened to you and others. You do not have to sacrifice your present joy by continuing to live tangled in that anger.
Trusting Support People and Therapy
One critical thing for self-care is to have a support system. If the first people you approach, whether a therapist, a friend/family member, or a cult support group doesn’t feel safe for you, don’t give up. The support is crucial and not everyone is a good fit to be that support. A good trauma-informed therapist or someone who specializes in cult recovery can be especially helpful.
A therapist might say to someone, “You’ve been taught not to trust a psychotherapist because you’ve been taught not to trust your own mind. Psychotherapists work to help people trust their own minds.” So a therapist could say, “It must be scary to be here with me knowing that my goals are the opposite of what you’ve been taught. I hope that when you get scared of doing this, you will let me know rather than just leaving. It’s so hard to go against what you’ve been taught. It takes so much courage to do what you’re doing and I really appreciate that.”
It Takes Time
Give yourself the gift of time. Agree not to join anything for a good long while (at least for a year or better yet longer). You have been mind controlled so giving yourself time to decide what is true for you without buying into anyone else’s belief system can be very helpful.
Remember cult trained thought-stopping is woven with circular logic and emotional manipulation. In order to change this type of thought-stopping beliefs, it is necessary to deal with both your mind and your emotions.
Even if you have changed your thoughts, you will be vulnerable to going back to the cult until you are able to process and transform your emotions. When emotions are triggered, the pull is very powerful. Generally thoughts change before emotions do and until both shift they are likely to remain a trigger point that will activate when touched.
There are many resources available with ideas about how to support yourself during trauma recovery. See Resource List for some places to start.
A few additional things that I personally have found helpful. Art and writing have been powerful ways to vent my emotions and thoughts. Pulling these stories, thoughts, emotions, and experiences out of my body and putting them in some physical form whether written or visual has been incredibly helpful for me.
Whether you are writing, playing, listening, or dancing to it, music has great powers of catharsis. It also has an amazing capacity to shift and influence emotions.
When you are in a trigger, or flooded with painful emotions, try playing music that reflects how you are feeling right now. Immerse yourself in your emotions and the music. Sing or dance these emotions with intensity, letting the sound vibrate your emotions through and out of your body.
Then, when you are ready, play some music that shifts your emotions to a different state. Find something that is perhaps beautiful, passionate, or calming. Something to help yourself move towards healing, peace, or creativity. Or maybe you want to shift from, say anger to sadness, and on to acceptance or creative passion.
You can also do this type of shift with carefully chosen books, movies, podcasts etc. that resonate with how you are feeling right now, and when you feel ready, find something to help you emotionally shift gears.
Spending time in nature, with plants, or animals can be very nurturing to your body and emotional state. Exercise, swimming, or immersing yourself in water can be helpful in releasing and shifting triggers and painful flooding feelings. When in an intense trigger running cold water over your wrist(s) or holding an ice cube can be very grounding.
Using the methods that work for you, and at your own pace, process your grief, pain, and anger make your way through ‘the transit zone’* of cult recovery and move into allowing yourself to live and enjoy your passions and live your authentic life.
Try one or several of the above ideas or use other techniques you find helpful. Whatever method you use, find what speaks to you and notice its power to support your healing process.
As you are doing all of this work remember this core point…be kind to yourself, be kind to yourself, be kind to yourself.
*The Transit Zone as coined by Robert Crompton www.robcrompton.org describes the process of leaving a cult and then doing the recovery work to transition out of ‘the transit zone’ and into the outside world.