Part 8: Hypervigilance in the Wider World – Adventures in Ambiguity

Part 8: Hypervigilance in the Wider World – Adventures in Ambiguity January 29, 2016

AA Uniformityby Cindy Kunsman cross posted from her blog Under Much Grace

All images by Cindy Kunsman and used with permission from Under Much Grace

High demand groups manage tension and pain which arise from natural and healthy disagreements and differences by forcing uniformity. Again, we come back to the fact of life that we human beings are very dynamic and diverse, something that a group purports to “correct” for the member, giving the illusion that they’ve resolved that healthy tension. Anyone who espouses beliefs that are different from the group are discounted or demonized which further galvanizes the control that they hold over a member. In doing so, they force and reinforce the idea that the wider world outside of the group is very unsafe.

So what happens when a person exits a group? They lose their support systems (family and those associated with the group), they are in a state of hypervigilance because of the trauma of burying their identity, their critical thinking skills have been lulled to sleep in order to survive in the group which does their thinking for them, and the group has alienated them from their own autonomy. For those who have grown up in the group, they may never have experienced autonomy. There is no switch to flip that causes a person to reset and reboot. Whether they like it or not and on top of having to learn how to deal with the realities of life outside of their group, they find themselves saddled with a tremendous amount of personal development to do as they recover from their experience.

AA What they Want cat in boxDeveloping Healthy Tolerance

As noted in the previous post, individuals need to find a place of dynamic balance concerning power as they learn where and how they fit into the world. High demand groups force extremism on the member, so as the individual recovers after exiting, but the unspoken rules of how to live in balance differ greatly from those that the former member lived out in the group. The group’s allegedly protective rules for enforced uniformity and tightly controlled milieu of communication and experience exemplify an external locus of control.

In the wider world, life is full of ambiguity and diversity, but the rules for coping with the natural and healthy tension that arises from these contrasts prove to be much different. Remember that groups employ control and chaos, but in the wider world, tension and diversity drive personal growth. The world is not a fair place and can be dangerous, but the ideas about it and the ways that members cope with threat while in a group don’t work well in life outside of their group. Former members have been isolated from or were never taught the two primary, healthy means of coping with interpersonal diversity: boundaries and locus of control.

AA Intact boundaries internal locusProtective Boundaries and Locus of Control

To give a picture to boundaries, imagine that your own sense of worth is a sphere. In a “good enough” family or group, your heart is full and you have all of the confidence and personal sense of peace that you need to live a happy, healthy adult life. Boundaries come along with that to help you weather difficulties in life over which you have no control. You have the power to choose what you leave into your heart and mind (an external boundary), and you have control over what you choose to say and do when with and communicating with other people (an internal boundary).
Pia Mellody describes boundaries using the image of the starting posture in Tai Chi. One hand is extended AA Body Postureforward (filtering out threats and danger), and the other hand is placed on the chest (expressing the power and discipline of self-containment) as noted on this book cover. Some of the descriptions of Tai Chi posture found here are lovely when considering the task of affirming self.

When your understand self worth and acceptance of the diversity as something good that is not an automatic threat (an element of an external boundary), and when this works in concert with balance of focus on those things which are squarely in your own power (internal locus of control), diversity no longer seems like a threat. Both of these concepts and attitudes about self create a sense of safety and strength.

Life on the Outside without Healthy Boundaries and an Internal Locus

Imagine that all you know about how to get along with others came from an unhealthy, manipulative, high demand group. The boundaries that you have are weak at best, and you’ve learned to earn your worth through performance. Peace and safety are vested outside of yourself, and you have no barriers to protect you from an unfamiliar world. You know conformity, and while you know how painfully difficult it feels to fit into a demeaning box that doesn’t accommodate you, uniformity makes things much easier. And you need something that’s a bit easy when you have so many other pressures that push and pull you. You’ve got plenty about which to feel angry and uncomfortable, and you are in the throws of learning what you should have learned when you were a child. You’re tired, frustrated, and everything feels different to you. Diversity feels painful.

AA Vulnerability Hypervig

AA Uniformity vs Unity with DiversityWithout any protection, diversity and freedom feel good to you to experience, but when faced with the consequences or the ideas of others who are different from you as they freely express themselves, they feel like a threat. Most of what you know from your experience involves a code of conformity which served to protect you. You don’t know how to filter out things that might feel painful to you. You’ve had little experience with thinking outside of a black and white style, though you understand all too painfully how it can hurt when directed at you. And when threatened, you will very likely go back into the default mode of experience – and that which you saw modeled for you. It takes time and energy to learn other ways of doing things, and your world was kept intentionally small.

And though you may have internal boundaries that are quite strong in terms of practice because you had to conform to a rigid standard of behavior, in other areas of life, it can be difficult to use the same constraint when you feel as though you’ve been targeted and attacked. Trauma, pain, and inexperience make us less resilient emotionally, especially when we are juggling so many new things and ideas, along with the struggles of life which are generally plenty. What do you do when you feel wounded and overwhelmed in your effort to regain a sense of safety and peace when you lack so much emotional self-regulation?
Read more about boundaries HERE.


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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