All imaged by Cindy Kunsman of Under Much Grace used with permission
In the previous post, we explored a couple of ways a person can work on their own to develop better Emotional Self-Regulation after exiting or after growing up in a high demand group. Healthy internal dialogue and building self concept provide individuals with a good opportunity to do a great deal of healing and growth on their own.
The concept of “Locus of Control” comes from the study of the psychology of personality and is viewed as another important aspect or component of self concept. It refers to the amount of control that a person believes that they have over what happens to them. Like everything else, we human beings need a sense of balance in this aspect of life to be healthy and to connect socially with others.
When we feel empty inside or have low self esteem, it is natural to feel powerless. We can believe that we have control over nothing in our lives. Or we can compensate to protect ourselves from feelings of true helplessness by pretending and believing that we are more powerful than we really are, running roughshod over people. Both of these unbalanced approaches ultimately harm us and harm others.
In high demand groups, members are forced into an acceptance of an external locus of control. Cliques within groups and leadership bestow success and personhood upon members when approval has been adequately merited, teaching members that they must work to gain worth. An individual member seems to be able to make choices for themselves, but to remain a part of the group, their choices are quite limited by what the group will accept and reward.
Members learn to look at the world as though they are subject to others and whatever life hands them. Those who grew up in a high demand group may never have been given any autonomy and may have no experience with personal power and self-determination. If they demonstrated any, they likely were shamed for their efforts if those autonomous choices didn’t meet the approval of the leaders.
When some members exit, they can become intoxicated with the sense of power that they’ve never had before, and that too requires some practice and skill to regulate. The work of developing healthy boundaries goes hand in hand with that process, as it is likely that the former member lacks realization of how their new found sense of power and the use of it can affect others. They need to learn how to negotiate and to be sensitive to others while also mastering their own wants and needs. The process can be very stressful and lessons are usually learned through hard experience.
When anyone leaves a high demand group, they don’t just flip a switch and turn on a healthy perspective about self to fit appropriately (respectfully and functionally) into the world. They must go about the hard work of learning about and then building healthy, balanced self esteem, self-efficacy, boundaries, and reasonable/realistic expectations for themselves and others.
Cultic systems make boundaries seem very fluid, and any boundaries that do exist can often be unhealthy. A former member must work to learn a healthy style of interdependency, as they’ve previously lived and observed a mishmash of a boundary mess of extremes. No one can really have a private, inner life, but at the same time, they may also learn that they can overstep the privacy and ownership of other members.
As the former member works to learn what is healthy and functional outside of their group, they learn to identify skewed ways of thinking about self and others. High demand groups focus on inflating the worth of members by demeaning those outside of their group, they can project a sense of entitlement because of that special status, and that can contribute to arrogance. Sadly, arrogance is likely the last thing that the former member wishes to project, but it can also be the path of least resistance as the former member struggles to cope with a more healthy life outside their group.
In contrast, high demand systems scapegoat hard times or pain onto noncompliant members or on malicious outside forces. In an attempt to displace responsibility in this same way because of what they saw modeled by others in their group, the former member learns that scapegoating and rigid rules as an easy way to diffuse their own personal discomfort. Unfortunately, many will not realize that doing so displaces their personal responsibility and shows a lack of respect for others. They’re taught to be dependent victims, and though they hate the way that feels, it is often what comes most naturally as they seek to cope with the natural difficulties and tensions in everyday life. Their former system gave them the expectation of living a life without the natural tensions and pain that life imposes on us all, and it deprives members of practice and ability to cope with tension and difficulty.
Abandoning Illusions of Power
When a member leaves a group, if they don’t take a look at and work at developing a healthy sense of control, they end up repeating the constricted control that they lived in their group. Some remain collapsed like victims. Some emerge in anger and learn to use anger, control, and manipulation as a means of coping in the larger world. It is all they know unless they make themselves vulnerable enough to learn how to live and adapt in healthier ways.
Totalist ideological systems oversimplify reality and reduce dynamic people into objects which are then forced into static pigeon holes. They also perpetuate their system by making empty promises which purport to make life easier and less painful. But when the former member leaves, a residual sense that one can find a better way of taking a short cut around tension and interpersonal conflict can remain. They may try again again to build that place of fantasy that they pursued for so long while in their group.
They must learn that there is enough personal power to go around for everyone, and that if someone finds their voice and their power, it doesn’t mean that there will be less for them to enjoy and live out. Learning how to share power or to give others room to work out their lives in their own sense of autonomy can be painful and difficult. Giving up on the fantasy of uniformity requires us to learn toleration of diversity – and hopefully to eventually celebrate it.
But how does one go about that? Stop back to read the next post.
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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