All images in the piece by Cindy Kunsman and used with permission.
And the territory is definitely not the map.
This saying came from a scientist and philosopher named Alfred Korzybski who launched the study of how human understanding and the nervous system intersected, particularly concerning how language shapes our perceptions. He was a Polish-born Russian who served in World War I as an intelligence officer, but he became a citizen of the U.S. In 1940.
The original phrase that Korzybski coined in 1933 illustrates the problem of mistaking an abstraction of something for the genuine article. Another wise friend in the discussion where I first learned of this phenomenon pointed out that this is actually an informal logical fallacy called reificationor concretism,a subset of fallacies in thinking that fall under ambiguity.
Keep in mind that any kind of generalization about people who share things in common never truly matches the individual. Individuals always deviate, and some of us are more deviant than others.
When a former member first exits a group, especially if they are a Second Generation Adult (SGA) who was raised in that group, they may struggle with generalizations. But consider that they’re used to oversimplification because of how groups treat their members. People are treated like objects by the leadership who sees the member as a means to an end, and those objects get shoved into pigeon holes. Though the lofty endpoint of the cult might aim to help people, somewhere along the way, the individual member of the group becomes insignificant and expendable in the effort to meet the group’s goal. A former member might not readily remember what it’s like to be respected as an individual. An SGA may never have been honored as an individual.
Trauma Makes it Worse
Mark Twain once said that a cat who jumps up on a hot stove will not readily do so again any time soon thereafter – but they won’t sit on a cold stove either. The cat not only recalls the pain of their wounds, but the stove itself – whether it has an active fire in it or not – comes to remind that cat of the pain and represent the memory of that pain. The fire in the stove created the source of harm, but the stove contained it. Both will be rejected by the cat. It describes an element of human nature so well that someone alone the way borrowed the phrase to create and coin the “Mark Twain Hot Stove Rule.”
It’s actually a very fitting analogy, because cats’ primary brain wave pattern is that of fight or flight – the same state of consciousness that we humans experience when we are emotionally aroused and the way that a part of us remains when we are hypervigilant. This is a good thing immediately after a trauma, because this mechanism serves to keep us safe, but it can also deter our healing if we seek too much comfort for too long of a time. Cultic groups often have a talent for inconsistency, and there may seem like there was no rhyme or reason at all to how leaders may have responded. Whether the group experience was intense enough to produce learned helplessness in the former member or not (it’s strongly associated with erratic responses), the Hot Stove Rule can still apply. These experiences in a high demand group make trust, risk, and growth for the former member a challenging if not terrifying process.
It Feels the Same
When a person who suffers the hypervigilance of PTSD encounters something that feels similar to the conditions or the experiences that they endured in their trauma, it often triggers the full force of their trauma response. If a man in a blue shirt used to beat them, and much later in life, they find themselves subject in some way to someone else in a blue shirt, it may be very uncomfortable for them. Everyone is unique and different, and even subtle or secondary elements of the trauma may trigger their sense of fear and self-preservation.
I think that those of us who have exited high demand parenting within a high demand religion hate the feeling of being plugged into a paradigm. Personally, I felt as though my life was not my own – but it wasn’t for religious reasons. It felt that it was my parents’ privilege to just treat me like a pet. I was never able to solicit their respect for me as an adult who was separate from our family, and that experience became more intense for me as time wore on after I moved away from home. They spent time recollecting who I was as a child, and I grew and changed. Marrying and living half way across the country fostered even more changes, and even in benign things like preferred foods that I didn’t eat as a kid were seen as a defection. I know well the pain of being shoved into that pigeon hole, despite my protest that I was no longer a five year old. In fact, I found that experience to be quite terrifying.
While hypervigilant, we experience knee-jerk reactions to those things which remind us of what it felt like when we were threatened — evem the sutble ones. The problem is that, long after we no longer need that protective response, it kicks in and we start kicking again when we don’t really need to do so. We have a hair trigger and we are loaded for bear! But we can learn how to disable that knee-jerk reaction over time and with some good work as we move through our past traumas.
Just Remember that the Map is not the Territory
I can’t help but think of the Gospels where Jesus said that the Sabbath was made for man and that man wasn’t made for the Sabbath. If someone was sick on the Sabbath, Jesus would heal them, though the Pharisees criticized His action as a work that violated the rule.
I think that the same can be said of conceptual models and the predictability of human nature. Conceptual models and theories serve man as an aid to help us understand behavior so that we can help one another live more fully. They don’t exist to reduce people to objects and rob them of the chance to develop, grow and heal.
Bureaucracies and totalistic systems destroy transcendence, but used responsibly, a map (or a model or theory) helps us find transcendence. But there are elements of both that may feel the same to us.
Your experience is the territory, and it is unique from all others — save in the helpful ways that it proves to be the same. Differences create tension, and people who exit high demand groups don’t handle tension very well, as cults try to eliminate natural tension through control. The trick in healing is not learning how to squelch and eliminate all tension. It’s all about learning how to experience tension and regulate emotions that you feel in response to that tension. Hypervigilance makes this task much more difficult, though it serves a vital purpose which helped you to survive.
The “helps” that exist to aid you in your recovery from trauma and the ways in which others make sense of their own experience are simply maps. They were made for man, not man for them. Though it is important to strive to have an accurate map to help facilitate our use of them, the map is never paramount to the territory.
Cindy is a member of the Spiritual Abuse Survivor Blogs Network.
Cynthia Mullen Kunsman is a nurse (BSN), naturopath (ND) and seminary graduate (MMin) with a wide variety of training and over 20 years of clinical experience. She has used her training in Complementary and Alternative Medicine as a lecturer and liaison to professional scientific and medical groups, in both academic and traditional clinical healthcare settings. She also completed additional studies in the field of thought reform, hypnotherapy for pain management, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that is often associated with cultic group involvement. Her nursing experience ranges from intensive care, the training of critical care nurses, hospice care, case management and quality management, though she currently limits her practice to forensic medical record review and evaluation. Most of her current professional efforts concern the study of manipulative and coercive evangelical Christian groups and the recovery process from both thought reform and PTSD.
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