If you’ve experienced any measure of religious/cult trauma or trauma resulting from being in an oppressive-type group, you are not alone. This article is for you.
The modern day definition of the word ‘cult’ is now expansive; it includes anyone who has been in an oppressive or restricted community/high control group, including religious, the human or sex trafficking industry and even types of military. Most textbook definitions are rather simple, ie: “a small religious group that is not part of a larger and more accepted religion and that has beliefs regarded by many people as extreme or dangerous.” (The Britannica Dictionary) Dangerous is right; a simple definition does not encumber the amount of emotional, social, psychological and even physical damage a cult does to a human being. Also, you do not need to have been in a stereotypical cult to experience religious trauma. With that in mind, the definition of a cult for this article includes the above mentioned group categories and applies to anyone who resonates with them.
As an introduction to my Beyond Beliefs series, I have compiled 3 simple sections of guidance to provide relief for such survivors. And yes, you are a survivor. This list is designed for quick digestion. My secondary reason for creating this article is to further educate those who are not familiar with the aftermath of such trauma.
These are gems of information that I wish I knew when I was transitioning out.
You have not wasted nor are you running out of time. “How could I have been in that for so long?” “I have wasted years on nothing.” These thoughts are understandable. They are rooted in fear, like most unwanted thoughts and behaviors, and serve to protect us even when we feel we are working against fear. Our brain likes to keep to its status quo, so any changes, even if it’s deemed healthier, will be an uncomfortable adjustment. Normalize having such thoughts and the sting of the associated emotion will be manageable with time and effort and may even transform completely. Cults eradicate autonomy, restrict emotions and utilize thought control, thereby keeping us in the loop of policing our own thoughts.
I completely believed that my thoughts were my identity and had absolute weight. I was taught to be careful of my own thoughts as thoughts could lead to sin; this teaching is deceitful. This teaching trains us to not trust ourselves. I did not know how to see thoughts as simply objects that we experience as I believed they were ‘me.’ As soon as I could step back from them, I found a sense of freedom. By watching my thoughts, I was able to regulate my emotions and finally understand that I have agency. I highly recommend the practice of separating thoughts from identity that is commonly taught in meditation and cognitive behavioral therapy. Once in this practice, the phrases that generate in our head as a result of our exit will become infrequent and/or quieter.
Feeling confused, overwhelmed, angry and uncertain? Let them be; do not judge any emotions you feel. Emotions are not ‘good’ nor ‘bad,’ they just are. Be careful of the idea that you ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ feel a certain way. Exiting a belief system is exiting what feels like a completely different world, therefore, to feel any sort of existential dread is natural. Cult members are typically taught that certain emotions are sinful which produces maladaptive coping skills. Hence, a cult survivor may feel out of place due to the disparity of processing information, including emotions, if compared to someone who has never been in a cult. Please don’t be discouraged and instead instill practices that focus on the positive aspects of building a new life even through uncomfortable feelings.
I really wish I had given myself full permission to feel my feelings. I was so used to stuffing them down that the concept of sitting in pure sadness or anger was foreign to me. My emotions, in turn, ruled me because I didn’t know how to manage them.
Leaving your community produces a social and perhaps a familial void and needs to be replaced. It can feel daunting to think about, which is why I suggest to start small. Depending on how restrictive the group is will determine on where to start. For example, if you were able to go to school or have a job, you might start with befriending someone there. Another idea would be to try out a hobby and join those events. If this a step ahead or you were not able to be a part of society at all, I suggest exploring whatever is at your disposal. For example, if you escaped and are staying with people that are safe, stick close to them. If you are working with a professional, such as a social worker or therapist, confide in them and they can not only provide you resources but also suggestions based on your unique situation. Finding solace in another survivor is also an important mention. If you feel you are completely on your own, remember that you are not. In our moments of despair, that piece of advice may not mentally register, however from an objective viewpoint, there is almost always someone that can support you. Please do not isolate yourself; it may feel safer at the time however we truly need others, especially at such an incredibly difficult time.
When I left the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses, I was fortunate to have support from the people I worked with. Without them, I’m not sure how my journey would have gone. They helped me to become stable and thereafter I was able to try out a dream of mine, acting. Joining the acting studio exposed me to a community of people that at the time became like a family to me. We are taught that chasing a dream and becoming a part of another community will end in misery. There are so many examples that prove that this is not the case! You too, now, have the chance to try a dream and also find your chosen family.
There is an incredible amount of information I wish to share on these topics because they are far more complex than a few paragraphs. Every piece of ourselves after leaving a cult becomes refined multiple times. Every topic I mentioned above will cycle through until our psyches are ready to consume what we need. Our brains are wonderful, they are not only able to withstand one of the most painful experiences of our lives, but they can also create a beautiful, new life for us.
As always, be kind to yourself.