Post-Traumatic Growth

 

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If you are a survivor of undue influence, coercive-control, cult abuse, political or spiritual brainwashing, etc. you have been subjected to emotional trauma. The trauma can be devastating and the recovery process is full of challenges, stress and pain. And yet it is not uncommon to hear people who survive and recover from such traumatic situations say things like:

  • In retrospect, it was the best thing that ever happened to me!
  • So many opportunities, never previously imagined, resulted from the traumatic situation and its aftermath!
  • I have learned and matured so much from surviving that crisis!

If you are caught up right now in the midst of the worst of the stress and suffering after experiencing the trauma of deception, manipulation, control or abuse, you may understandably scoff at such seemingly pollyanna-esque pronouncements. However, testimonies from victims of a variety of life crises, and recent psychological research in the field of trauma and recovery reveal that this is the case for many. It can be the case for you too.

Neurologist, psychiatrist and existential thinker, Victor Frankl suggested this years ago in his seminal work “Man’s Search for Meaning”, when he explained that once we can identify underlying significance in a crisis situation, when we can make meaning out of life’s miseries, it lessens the distress, makes the entire experience more bearable and makes it less psychologically stressful or damaging.

In the mid-nineties psychologists and researchers Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun named the phenomenon of finding meaning in misery, “post-traumatic growth”. Tedeschi and Calhoun were not simply talking about developing resilience in the face of suffering, but about an awareness on the part of the victim of growth, renewal and good in the midst of their recovery. They studied victims who, post trauma, felt the struggle with abuse and the feeling of being shattered by it became a springboard for positive change and exciting transformation.

Tedeschi and Calhoun’s research went on to identify five areas where post-traumatic growth is possible. These areas are:

  1. Personal strength – feeling more empowered, confident and able to deal with how life unfolds
  2. Interpersonal relationships – allowing empathy and compassion, emerging from the experience of trauma, to enhance relationships
  3. Increased Life Appreciation – developing the intention to make the most of the life we have, while we have it
  4. Recognition of New Possibilities in Life – breaking open to see options and opportunities we were unable to see before
  5. Spiritual or Existential Maturation – developing self-worth, maturity, integrity and dignity as a result of the entire experience of trauma and recovery

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Kasley Killam, referencing the work of Tedeschi and Calhoun in the article “How to Find Meaning in Suffering”[1] adds, “By focusing on one or more of these five areas, we have an opportunity to turn suffering into personal development. In particular, several factors can facilitate this process. One is receiving care; it is important to seek out emotional and practical support from loved ones or community members following trauma. Another is approaching rather than avoiding the task of coping by accepting the tragedy as irreversible and embracing the grief process. A final factor is recognizing that we are in charge of how we move forward, and thereby perceiving control over our recovery.” (Bold added)

Imagine! The above five areas of personal growth can emerge as a result of the trauma and suffering you are experiencing now. Or perhaps your traumatic experience is now behind you, but you have never stopped to consider how you may have actually benefited and matured from the pain and suffering. Take a moment and take stock of how much you have learned, changed and grown due to your experience of undue influence or coercive control and your efforts to survive and recover.

It is encouraging to know that there is not just post-trauma stress after crises, but that there can be positive effects and a positive legacy that can result from traumatic experiences – post-trauma growth.

While post-traumatic growth cannot be forced and while grief and healing must run their uniquely individual course, once on the road to recovery we can consciously turn our focus to:

  • recognizing and owning our intrinsic strength and resilience
  • fully appreciating life with all its mystery, beauty and rewards
  • recognizing that while trauma and loss close many doors, others may open
  • using our increased empathy and compassion due to the suffering to build interpersonal connections
  • consciously navigating existential crises which help one re-consider values, make changes to imposed or inherited beliefs that never really fit, and develop a whole new purpose for our life.

If you were deceived, exploited and abused due to coercive controls and are now in the middle of the suffering that ensues once free, please find hope and solace in the fact that there is a body of research and a wealth of anecdotal reports demonstrating that this very trauma and suffering can initiate possibilities and personal transformation that you might never have thought attainable.

The traumas that break us open make space for new understanding and opportunities, and as they say, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Ernest Hemingway articulated it best when he said, “The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.”

Take time to take stock of your entire traumatic experience. We have to own the victimization. We have to own the losses. We have to own the pain. We must not forget to claim and own the growth that is possible post-trauma.

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Further Reading on Post-Traumatic Growth:

The Posttraumatic Growth Workbook: Coming Through Trauma Wiser, Stronger, and More Resilient”, Richard G. Tedeschi, Ph.D., Bret A. Moore, 2016

What Doesn’t Kill Us: The New Psychology of Posttraumatic Growth”, Stephen Joseph, 2013

Upside: The New Science of Post-Traumatic Growth”, Jim Rendon, 2016

Posttraumatic Growth in Clinical Practice”, Lawrence G. Calhoun, Richard G. Tedeschi, 2012

 

[1] Scientific American, December 15, 2015

 

 

Pushing Past Presumed Limits

Ellen J. Langer, author of “Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility” says: “The hefty price for accepting information uncritically is that we go through life unaware that what we’ve accepted as impossible may in fact be quite possible.”

In another of Ellen J. Langer’s books, entitled, “Mindfulness” she says: “If something is presented as an accepted truth, alternative ways of thinking do not even come up for consideration.”

In the same book, “Mindfulness”, Langer adds: “The more we realize that most of our views of ourselves, of others, and of presumed limits regarding our talents, our health, and our happiness were mindlessly accepted by us at an earlier time in our lives, the more we open up to the realization that these too can change. And all we need do to begin the process is to be mindful.”

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If you lived for years in the confined, repressive milieu of a high-control group – especially if your ‘captivity’ included your childhood years – once out, you may still be operating under a set of erroneous assumptions about the world and about yourself.

In many high-demand groups there are controls and limits put on our access to information, reading materials, associations, education, our freedom to explore the world and our freedom to explore our own talents and inclinations. Having now liberated yourself from such undue repression, it is imperative that you question any premature assumptions you were forced into making about how the world operates and about the scope of your own aptitudes, abilities, capacities and latent talents.

Having spent the first thirty years of my life in a pseudo-religious cult, I experienced all the controls and repression that that cult imposed on its members. Immersed in their sea of rules and dogma, it never occurred to me that I possessed talents which I had never had the opportunity or the encouragement to explore. Even once out of the cult I assumed that the adult I was, with the competencies I was aware of, constituted the range of my skills and abilities. Fortunately, an innate need for expression and the interventions of kind, not-so-encumbered mentors eventually helped me push past my “presumed limits” and discover worlds and possibilities I had never dreamed of.

Are you too, unknowingly placing limits on what you believe might be possible for you? Are you still, unknowingly living by the constraints and controls forced upon you in the high-control situation? Have you made assumptions or accepted statements about yourself that now mean exciting options or possibilities do not even come up for consideration?

Once out of the high-control group, we not only have to work at clearing our mind of the ideology and fears instilled while serving someone else’s agenda, but we also have to clear our minds of assumptive limits about who we are and what we are capable of.

If you notice yourself thinking or saying things like, “Oh, I would love to be able to do that, but I don’t have that kind of talent”, or “Some people have all the talent”, or “I’d just make a fool of myself if I tried to do that” or “There’s no point in exploring that, surely I would know by now if I had the ability to do that”, etc. etc. CHALLENGE THOSE THOUGHTS!

You were carefully groomed to not believe you had any abilities that could take you away from service to the high-control group. PUSH PAST YOUR ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT PRESUMED LIMITS OF YOUR ABILITIES. Reach out to learn. Claim your right to explore. Dare to test your presumed limits. Of course, you will not discover aptitudes in every area you explore, but you may find one that brings tremendous meaning, joy and delight to your life. The discovery of latent talents may not bring wild success, acclaim or riches but will absolutely enhance your sense of self, your ability to fully express all that you are, and your ability to add meaning and joy to your life.

I remember once out of the high-control group, both admiring and envying people who could write. I recall saying to my husband that I could not imagine a more idyllic life than that of being a writer. But my old assumptions about who I was and about what I was capable of immediately dismissed the possibility for myself. It was only once in university and writing term papers and my thesis that I began to notice that I often received positive feedback about my writing skills. Then, many years later when a series of opportunities converged, when I saw a need in a niche population, I stepped out of my old, cult-designed constraints and dared to think of writing a book. It seemed like a huge presumption due to old, mainly unconscious assumptions about myself. It felt like a huge risk. It was hard work, but I discovered that I loved the process. There was joy in allowing myself to try to develop a talent.

 

Now, a few years down the road, I have written six books about recovery from manipulation, exploitation and thought-control that have thousands of grateful readers. I would never have believed that possible if I had not been willing to take the risk to push past old “accepted truths” about myself, learned in a controlling group.

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Because, as Langer says, I took things I learned about myself in the cult “as an accepted truth, alternative ways of thinking (did) not even come up for consideration”. I had to challenge and push past the limiting assumptions I had made about myself as a child of high-control abuse. I had to be willing to take risks, test my abilities, make a fool of myself, and perhaps experience disappointment in order to discover if abilities I admired in others were also possible for me.

Another example: As a child in school, I always received good marks on art projects, but I compared myself to young artists in my class who could draw exact representations of a horse or a human face. I could not, so I jumped to the conclusion that I could never be an artist – besides such a goal would be summarily dismissed in the cult. I ignored the fact that nothing excited me more than blank pages and colored pencils. I thought it was just me desiring something that was not possible.

Once out of the cult, a few people began to compliment me on my design and décor. Psychologist colleagues who rented consultation rooms in my offices and loved the decor said on more than one occasion, “You should have been a designer!” I found the remark amusing and did not let it burn through my long-standing, limited assumptions about myself.

Once while at a dinner party, the hostess brought out some paintings she had just finished in an art class. Something in me thought, “I could do that – and I want to do that.” This time I listened to myself and went out and purchased some canvases and art supplies. Still not convinced I could paint, I began to tentatively create collages using tissue paper and glue. As my family saw the work I was doing, they expressed their admiration. That positive feedback emboldened me to begin to try to paint textured abstracts on large canvases. Whether anyone found them worthy, or not, whether they had any artistic merit, or not, I had just discovered the most exciting form of personal expression I had ever known!

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What joy! What satisfaction!

The point of sharing these personal stories with you is that to become or enjoy anything that I now value – being a psychotherapist, becoming a writer, enjoying painting abstract acrylics – I had to push past “accepted truths” and imbedded assumptions about myself and what I was capable of.

What assumptions have you made about yourself? What assumptions encouraged in a high-control group are limiting you? What might you discover if you pushed past any “presumed limits regarding (y)our talents” and opened up “to the realization that these too can change”? As Langer says, “… all we need do to begin the process is to be mindful”. Pay attention to clues that you have made erroneous assumptions about the limits of your potential. Do not allow the high-control group to continue to control your life and your potential with their old, repressive beliefs.

Be mindful now about skills you notice that you admire or envy in others. What information, for example, might be contained in simple thoughts such as “I’ve always wondered what it would be like to play bass guitar in a band” or “I’ve always admired jewelry designers” or “I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be a teacher” or “I’ve always been curious about urban design” or “I’ve always envied people who lead a contemplative life”, etc. etc. Take such thoughts or statements as a possible nudge from your unconscious about hidden talents or abilities waiting to be explored. Challenge your assumptions, groomed by a controlling, repressive group that did not want you to have your own goals or work on your own projects which would take you away from service to their goals.

Sometimes a certain ennui with life, a recurring depression, feelings of despair, anxiety, or hopelessness can be sourced in not living up to our full potential. Are you plagued by unexplained, seemingly unwarranted anxiety? Consider that it could be due to unexplored talents or abilities yearning for expression.

What assumptions are you still carrying from your experience in a high-control group that are limiting the full and meaningful expression of all that you are? How are old, outdated beliefs about yourself limiting your potential and enjoyment of life now as a free person? As Ellen J. Langer says, “… what we’ve accepted as impossible, may in fact, be quite possible.”

 

Recovery Requires an Open Mind

Recovery from Coercive-Control Abuse Requires an Open Mind

Nurturing an open mind is a means to inoculate people against undue influence and exploitation. However, people who have recently exited coercive groups also need to open their minds to new information, to new ways of thinking and being – and to release their minds from constricted worldviews – if they wish to recover.

In exploitative environments, individuals are carefully and persistently manipulated into narrowing their vision – of the world, of people, of good and evil, of life, of themselves. Such narrow perspectives limit vision, understanding, curiosity and make it easier for the manipulative group to continue to indoctrinate and exploit its recruits.

We leave coercive groups with a mind that has been insidiously closed to new ideas, to other points of view, to learning, etc. The closed, limited, insular experience in the cult-like group can make the recruit feel sheltered and safe.

Emerging from the coercive group after awakening could incite one to ‘close down’ even more, to prevent further intrusions, interference, control, and manipulation. This self-protective impulse, however, will not help with recovery from the after-effects of being used and abused.

The newly-free ex-member of a high-control group needs to make a concerted effort to loosen and discard the constraints on their mind and their thinking. There is a wealth of information that has been denied them and there is much to learn to reclaim the right to freedom of thought and action.

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One way to reclaim their mind and allow it to open is to challenge (question, re-examine and reconsider) specific beliefs and patterns of thinking acquired in the group. When automatic beliefs are challenged, it is like opening a curtain and letting in the light. With the fresh perspective that light allows, one may very well decide that they want to keep a certain belief – but will do so knowing that it was after careful consideration of other views. They will have applied their own ‘light’, perspective, critical thinking, judgment, and made their own choice.

Here are some things you may want to re-examine and reconsider in order to open your mind after leaving a high-control group:

  1. Challenge automatic thoughts that arrive unbidden and originate with the group
  2. Re-consider erroneous beliefs about yourself, instilled by the group, that cause you to doubt yourself for daring to leave the group
  3. Challenge fears instilled in the group that insinuate you are now doomed or damned
  4. Re-examine suggestions that you are incapable of functioning on your own, outside of the closed, seemingly protective group
  5. Reconsider any closed stance developed about psychology and psychotherapy
  6. Challenge the suggestions you will never find such a family outside of the group
  7. Challenge fears that you cannot cope with being disconnected from the group or ostracized by it
  8. Re-examine the belief that everyone outside of the group is evil, immoral, a bad influence, out to hurt or corrupt you
  9. Reconsider the cult-sourced distrust of the outside world and its many resources
  10. Challenge beliefs that you cannot move past feelings of being a victim of the group
  11. Challenge beliefs that only that group has “the truth” or knows “the way
  12. Reconsider any cult-sourced thoughts telling you that you cannot cope with all the learning and changes required to move forward with your life
  13. Challenge belief you will never be free of the after-effects of this episode of your life
  14. Challenge any vestiges of fear of reading new materials, doing your own research, entertaining alternative views
  15. Re-examine patterns learned in the group of excluding and isolating yourself
  16. Re-consider the thinking that says you have lost too much time and cannot rebuild your life
  17. Challenge fears that you will never recover from what you experienced in the group
  18. Re-examine and re-consider long-standing stories you have constructed about your life, your possibilities, your limitations, your past
  19. Challenge the idea that there must be something ‘wrong’ with a person who joined a high-control group or cult
  20. Challenge any beliefs that a full, rewarding, happy life is no longer available to you

 

Each time you challenge, question or re-consider old, cult-sourced thoughts or patterns of thought, you release a notch on the belt of constrictions that were tightened around you in the group. You open your mind from their imposed constraints and discover you can finally breathe and live freely again.

It is important that you not try to reclaim your identity and rebuild your new, free life based on the constrictions and limitations of the close-minded mentality learned in the group. Open your mind enough to keep what is good, release what is false and what limits you, and make room for new information and fresh inspiration.

 

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After practicing opening to new ideas, perspectives and patterns of thought (decided upon by you), you can then move a step further and open yourself to new ways of doing things, new ways of functioning in the world, and even open yourself to inviting new people into your life. Truly exciting possibilities!

To help develop an open mind, consider using silent affirmations, such as:

Open … an open, discriminating mind is the best guide to reconstructing my life”, or “Open … it is an open, questioning, critical-thinking mind that is my best friend now”, or construct a phrase you like and use it often! It takes diligent practice to re-open a mind closed by thought-reform, deception, coercion and manipulation.

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Instead of living in a narrow limited way, as was required in a manipulative group, open yourself to life and its many wonderful possibilities. Invite yourself to fully explore and enjoy all that is available to you on this glorious planet. Allow yourself to entertain new ideas, new options, and new ways of proceeding – while retaining your right to question, research or reject anything that does not feel right, appropriate, or safe…for you.

The goal is to be open to explore and embrace all that life has to offer – not gullible and accepting of every idea or option put before you. You want to be open and discriminating – able to distinguish and tell the difference between what you desire for yourself and what someone else might want to impose upon you. Open to examine, question and then – based on your own rational assessment – choose that which will enhance your personal growth and recovery.

If you would like to know more about this subject, I suggest reading Ellen J. Langer’s, “Mindfulness” – “a book about the psychological and physical costs that we pay because of pervasive mindlessness and, more important, about the benefits of greater control, richer options, and transcended limits that mindfulness makes possible”. Daniel Kahneman’s book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow” – a New York Times bestseller that helps us to understand rationality, reason, the way we think and choose, etc., is another highly recommended read.

There are Heroes Among Us

xtherapy-alliance.jpg.pagespeed.ic.dzbs0hF3z9“To have already claimed the right to think for yourself, to question, to deviate, to refuse to be controlled, exploited or manipulated, to refuse to be subjected to any more abuse, to be willing to give up all you have known, to give up home (even family) and strike out alone on your quest for selfhood, are the actions of a hero. It matters not that you are afraid or perhaps laden with wounds. Heroes do not take their leave and make their quest for freedom without acquiring wounds and experiencing fears along the way. The beauty of these heroes is that they are not gods – they are not perfect nor invulnerable. Heroes are sensitive, susceptible humans willing to take up the challenges and bear the wounds life places at their feet.

Perhaps you never imagined that the title of this article applies to you. Perhaps for the moment you are a tentative, reluctant hero. Perhaps you still find it challenging to embrace the whole truth of who you are. Perhaps you imagine that heroes should be impervious to wounds. Perhaps, you think that ‘real’ heroes don’t suffer as you are suffering now. That’s understandable. But this book will hopefully disabuse you of those notions. By the time you finish reading it, reflecting on the hidden treasures buried in suffering, reflecting on your core values and your right to a life of your own making, reflecting on new ways of thinking and acting, and learning simple strategies for self-care – you, too, will see the hero that you are.

To leave a high-control group or an abusive relationship of any kind is a truly heroic act. To actively look for ways to understand what you have been through and how you can recover from any wounds inflicted by those who would have preferred that you remain enslaved, is to be a hero. The hero’s path is partly a spiritual one and there are few maps to show us the way. Psychiatrist, Mark Epstein says, “The spiritual path means making a path rather than following one.”

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“To do the best you can, for yourself, for the moment, while simultaneously knowing and feeling pain, without becoming cynical, helpless, or paralyzed by fear of the pain, is the task of the hero.” -Susanna McMahon

 

When I view myself as the heroine of my own story

I no longer complain about the conflicts in my life and in myself.

I am no longer a victim of circumstances.

Instead, I am full of anticipation for my journey into the unknown.

I am a protagonist in a world of unending dilemmas,

Which contain hidden meaning that it is up to me to discover.

Tristine Rainer

 

How to Manage Fear & Anxiety After Leaving a High-Control Group

When we dare consider leaving a high-control group in order to reclaim our life, our fear quotient can shoot off the charts. We have probably been warned about what will happen if we try to leave. We know the repercussions usually meted out by the group. We can anticipate what is in store for us. We will then, perhaps, feel anxious or crippled with fear.

 

To leave, we are told, will mean a literal or symbolic death – a cutting off from the group, from salvation, from heavenly rewards and perhaps from god himself. Some of our fears may be exaggerated due to phobias instilled in us during any thought-reform practiced by the group. However, most of our fears are well-founded. We are not paranoid or crazy. We have seen what happened to others who dared to take back their mind and their life. We understand the challenges we will face in order to rebuild an authentic, self-directed life.

Once out, we soon realize that a lot of the instilled, pervasive fears have a life of their own. Even if we have done all we can to ensure our safety, we may still feel we could be blindsided by the coercive group’s punishments. Perhaps we fear that we will be permanently cut off from god’s love and protection. These and other concerns seem to be deeply embedded in our cells and we would do well to … learn how to manage them while we wait for the healer known as “time” to help them dissipate.

Sometimes anxieties arise in the form of obsessive thoughts that seem to have a life of their own. They arrive unprompted, unwelcome and even contextually irrelevant. But off they spin making us constrict, withdraw, tense, and perhaps move into a fight, flight or freeze response.

Here are ten simple, easy things you can do to help manage fear or anxiety:

 

Stop.  Sit.  Ground.  Breathe.  Rest.  Hydrate.  Inquire.  Remember.  Move.  Imagine.[1]

  1. STOP: When you notice fear thoughts are out of control, stop what you are doing and become the observer of what is taking place in your mind. Do not judge or condemn what you observe – just stop whatever you are doing and pay attention without becoming engaged with the thoughts. Stop any active involvement with the thoughts and just observe them. (Note: Sometimes fear arises for a good reason. If, while observing, you assess that you are in actual danger – take the required steps to protect yourself.)
  2. SIT: If you are not in any actual danger, sit down and bring your attention to what is happening around you in the moment. Sit with present moment awareness. Yes, there are fear thoughts spinning around in your mind AND the sun is shining in the window, and the cat is purring at your feet. Just sit. Simply be present to and connect with life around you while you sit.
  3. GROUND: As you sit, make sure your legs are uncrossed and both feet are planted flat on the ground – better yet, if you are outside – bare and flat on the earth.
  4. BREATHE: As you sit, bring your observing awareness to your breath. At first, just observe your breathing without trying to change it. Then after a few moments, as best you can, take a few slow, deep, cleansing breathes. Check to see if your breathing is stuck mid-chest or if you are able to do deep diaphragmatic breathing. (Seeing your belly move in and out, instead of your upper chest would indicate you are doing diaphragmatic breathing.) Begin to simply concentrate on the exhalation – focus on a long, slow release of air with each breath.
  5. REST: Each of the above steps should have helped you enter a calmer headspace, which in turn should help your muscles begin to relax. Rest now, for a while, in the rhythm of your breath. Remain identified with your non-judgmental, observing awareness. For this moment – there is nowhere to go, nothing to do, no one to be. If you observe that there are still fear thoughts in the mind, just watch them without attaching to them. Imagine any anxiety or stressful thoughts leaving your body with each exhalation and return to resting in the rhythm of your breath.
  6. HYDRATE: After stopping, sitting, grounding, calming and resting in your breath, if you can, drink some water. Hydrate your cells. Being still, grounded, oxygenated and hydrated will support the body/mind to release itself from the grip of the anxious fear thinking.
  7. INQUIRE: Now that you have completed the previous six steps, take a moment to ask yourself a few questions. Hone in on the dominant fear thought that you’ve observed and ask yourself: Is it true? Is it really true? If you believe the thought is true, follow up with the question: How do I feel inside when I believe that fearful thought? Usually the answer is something like, vulnerable, powerless, little, alone, unworthy or unloved. Then ask yourself if you are willing to release the thought and move back to feeling, as best you can, okay, centered, capable and worthy of love. Self-inquiry can help diminish the import and impact of the thought. (You can learn more about self-inquiry by visiting the website called The Work by Byron Katie.) Familiarize yourself with the process of self-inquiry so that it becomes easy for you to use in the midst of stressful situations.
  8. REMEMBER: Take a moment now to remember who you really are. Remember all you have accomplished. Remember how courageous you have been – in spite of very justifiable fears. Remember how many of the things you feared in the past never came to pass. Often when we are experiencing fearful thoughts, if we stop and ask ourselves: How old do I feel inside right now? – we will find that we feel quite young. Fear-filled thinking makes us feel anxious and we can often regress into feeling quite childlike – which makes the fears seem even more intimidating. Take time to remember who you really are now. Remember that you are an adult with all of the skills and options of an adult. Remember all of the resources that you, as an adult, can access. Remember that you are no longer a vulnerable, helpless, controlled child. Remember who you are now and settle into that knowing.
  9. MOVE: Once you have completed the above eight simple steps – if circumstances allow, move your body. Go for a walk or do some light exercise. By walking you are oxygenating your cells, producing feel-good endorphins, and balancing your brain hemispheres with the bilateral movements of your legs and arms. Moving (especially bi-lateral movements of your limbs) will help you think more clearly and stop any tendency for negative thoughts to loop around repetitively in your mind. If you cannot walk outside, try marching in place touching your right knee with your left hand and your left knee with your right hand. (This exercise is called the Cross Crawl and is an effective way to balance the two hemispheres of your brain and recalibrate your thinking.)
  10. IMAGINE: If you have time, find a guided visualization (online) to help you create an imaginary, inner safe place for yourself. Once you have already created a safe place, in moments of distress, anxiety or fear – after doing the above nine steps – you can go immediately to the safe space in your mind and find rest, respite and renewal.

 

(Excerpt from Chapter 13, The Challenge to Heal, 2016, Bonnie Zieman)

[1]  These ten steps are totally within your control. They cost nothing. You do not need anyone else to help you employ them. You don’t have to go anywhere special to use them. All you have to do is recall and use them to manage and minimize fear-based thinking.

Between Depression & Anxiety – Choose Anxiety

If you have to choose between depression and anxiety – choose anxiety!  Here’s why:

One of my favorite books in my library is by Jungian analyst, James Hollis and entitled, “Swamplands of the Soul: New Life in Dismal Places”. In it the author addresses how to cope with the dismal feelings of guilt, grief, loss, betrayal, doubt, loneliness, depression, despair, obsessions, addictions, anger, fear, angst, and anxiety.

 

In the chapter where Hollis addresses the “swampland of depression” he says: “The task implicit in this particular swampland is to become conscious enough to discern the difference between what happened to us in the past and who we are in the present. No one can move forward, psychologically, who cannot say, “I am not what happened to me; I am what I choose to become.” Such a person can come to recognize that the early deficit was not inherent in the child, but the result of circumstances beyond that child’s control. One can then begin to tap the energy for life that was previously walled off.

For those of us who have been deceived, duped, exploited, repressed in the past and then exiled from our loved ones when we choose to exit such controls, it is easy to feel depressed – depressed when we think of the years we have lost, the family we have lost, the skills we were discouraged from exploring, the potential we sacrificed. As we grieve our losses, we may understandably feel depressed for a time. Who would not feel depressed as they contemplate the task ahead – to begin from scratch to rebuild a thwarted life?

As we contemplate rebuilding a life after being discouraged from educating ourselves, discouraged from developing normal competencies (that were not useful to the goals of the high-control group), discouraged from developing a normal comfort level in the world – we may experience anxiety.

It is often found that, in an attempt to avoid the discomfort of the anxiety that accompanies ventures into the unknown, people can slip back into a state of depression. It seems that the human psyche sometimes prefers depression and the safety its paralysis provides, over the discomforting feelings of anxiety produced by taking on new tasks.

We need to understand that although we may intensely dislike the feeling of anxiety it, at the very least, signals that we are entertaining doing things that are new to us, doing things that take us out of our old comfort zone, undertaking tasks that require us to take risks and moving forward with rebuilding our life.

Depression on the other hand, while perhaps serving the purpose of squashing the anxiety of movement into the unknown – can dull us, paralyze us, and demoralize us. Depression can sometimes be an unconscious choice to feel “safe” in a shell of sorrow, rather than to experience the anxiety of risk-taking and growth.

James Hollis explains: “Thus we are forced into a difficult choice – anxiety or depression. If we move forward, as our soul insists, we may be flooded by anxiety. If we do not move forward, we will suffer the depression, the pressing down of the soul’s purpose. In such a difficult choice one must choose anxiety, for anxiety at least is a path of potential growth; depression is a stagnation and defeat of life.

It is important for those of us suddenly finding ourselves without supports and woefully unprepared to function in a world we were led to believe was ‘evil’ and about to be destroyed, to realize that anxiety is to be expected when we lose our comfort zone, when we tackle something new. In fact, experiencing anxiety is a signal that you are working at learning new skills, entering new spheres of operation, and testing your determination to build a new life.

Soren Kierkegaard says, “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” If you want to explore and enjoy your newfound freedom you will, as a consequence, experience some anxiety.

Experiencing anxiety is NOT always a signal that you are in danger and should stop. Anxiety is NOT always your enemy. You WILL experience anxiety as you work to reclaim and rebuild your life. It must be expected, managed and even embraced.

As James Hollis says, we are confronted by a choice to move forward while experiencing some anxiety or to fall back into paralysis and depression. Depression, by stalling forward movement, may temporarily make anxiety abate and may even make you feel “safe” and less vulnerable – but at what cost?

Depression, when it strikes, does hold meaning, and there may be much we can learn from its presence. If, however, you think you may have unconsciously chosen to feel depressed rather than to experience the feeling of anxiety that comes with entering new territory, consider making a conscious choice to involve yourself in the project of rebuilding your life with its attendant anxiety. Choose the challenge. Allow the anxiety. Manage the anxiety. Take the required steps toward meeting your previously repressed potential.

Thirty years ago when I left a manipulative, repressive group, I felt depressed. During that period of depression I made little progress in moving forward and rebuilding my life. Blinded by the many losses and the dark hole of depression, I saw no way forward.

 

 

However, the depression did offer a time-out to grieve my losses and as I slowed down during that dismal state and thought about my life, I was able to develop an appreciation for what remained to me, for nature’s always reliable presence, and for the unconditional love always demonstrated by my husband and children. As the depression helped me make space for grieving, I eventually came to the realization that life now required me to embrace this new reality outside of the high-control group and to step up to envision a future different from the one I had expected.

However, as I contemplated moving forward with my life – I became anxious. At first I took the anxiety as an indicator that I was moving too fast or contemplating too much. Fortunately, something in me was able to challenge the accuracy of that assumption.

I began to re-envision and rebuild my life with small, manageable steps in areas that would cause me the least amount of anxiety. I began with the path of least resistance and sought out books that would encourage and support me – and began a course of private uplifting and educational reading/study at home.

With the new knowledge from my reading, and as my courage grew I decided to step out of my comfort zone and study more formally at university. It took a few months to push myself to take the risks required. I had to be willing to endure the anxious feelings these new behaviors and surroundings would produce. It would have been so much easier to continue to isolate and mourn my losses, but life was asking me to stretch and grow.

I was fortunate to have the time and resources to make the choice to go to university. However, it made me anxious to even think of all the pre-requisites I would have to fulfil to be admitted to any institute of higher learning. I had grown up in a cult that discouraged formal higher education. There was a lot of catching-up to do. Once admitted into the halls of higher learning, the anxiety did not abate. For a while, each new step brought more anxiety with it. I felt like an alien treading on unknown ground on a distant planet. I felt unprepared and out of sync. But, I discovered, the only way to reduce my unpreparedness was to persist learning new things and trying out new behaviors. That persistence also reduced my anxiety.

I had to take the risks and bear the anxiety movement forward produced, in order to build competencies that would allow me to fully participate in and enjoy this hard-won experience of freedom. Of course, I did not realize then that I was actually choosing anxiety over depression. I only discovered that when I read the Hollis book “Swamplands of the Soul” and made the connection.

It is my hope that with this article I have alerted you to this choice that may also present itself to you. I want to encourage you to not fear your own (very normal) anxiety as you contemplate reclaiming and rebuilding your life. Instead, recognize the anxiety when stepping into the unknown as a signal that you are trying new things that will help you recover your place in the world. The anxiety will diminish with time and persistence.

Your new, life-rebuilding projects may be very different from mine, but the inner experience will be similar. Humans are designed to experience anxiety when entering new situations so that they will stay alert, maintain focus and keep themselves safe. Eventually, as we embrace more and more new activities the anxiety will lessen, but anxiety will still be there as a signal when you are entering ‘new territory’ and need to keep your wits about you and/or seek support.

One caveat: As you work to create a new life, be alert to old patterns of excessively high standards and overly-high expectations. They can exacerbate anxiety and, if the high-expectations are not attained, throw you back into depression.

If you are newly out of a high-control group and about to rebuild your life, use the Hollis sentence quoted above to remind yourself of the choice in front of you: “I am not what happened to me; I am what I choose to become.”  If we only dwell on what happened to us and what we lost by being a member of a controlling, repressive group we will probably remain depressed. If instead, we start to work toward what we can now become, with what is now available to us, in spite of the accompanying anxiety, we will be rewarded with progress into a new, rewarding life.

 

 

(This piece was originally written for and posted on the Open Mind Foundations’ blog.)

Emotions Manifesting As Physical Ailments – After Leaving a High-Control Group

If, now out of your particular manipulative group, you find yourself suffering from persistent, unexplained physical ailments, you may benefit from reading two books by science journalist Donna Jackson Nakazawa:

Childhood Disrupted: How Your Biography Becomes Your Biology, and How You Can Heal (2015) 

The Last Best Cure: My Quest to Awaken the Healing Parts of My Brain and Get Back My Body, My Joy, and My Life (2013)

 

The research presented in these two Jackson Nakazawa books is particularly relevant for survivors of undue influence, coercion and abuse. Recent scientific research demonstrates the undeniable link between chronic, stressful, adverse experiences especially in the formative years of childhood – and physical complaints experienced throughout the lifespan. As Jackson Nakazawa says, “… your biography becomes your biology.”

 

 

Stress, pressure, double-binds, abuse and unrelenting adverse conditions produce measurable changes in the brain and nervous system (according to the research highlighted in these Jackson Nakazawa books), all of which set up anyone’s body/mind for health issues and autoimmune disorders.

 

The good news is that researchers have also demonstrated that many, simple lifestyle interventions, such as: mindfulness, naming and disengaging from catastrophic thoughts, yoga, meditation, guided visualization, EMDR therapy, and acupuncture, etc. can literally rewire the brain and reboot the immune system – effecting significant, measurable changes in health and well-being.

If you are looking for hope, if you need a doable plan for recovery from abuse or control-related malaise and illness, if you have had a challenging cult childhood and are suffering now from chronic illness, do yourself a favor and read the above-mentioned books about ground-breaking research with regard to the possible physical effects of adverse childhood experiences – and how to overcome them.

 

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“…people who are ostracized suffer deeply, including the obvious loss of self-esteem and depression, but also including physiological symptoms such as ulcers, suppression of the immune system, anxiety …” Kipling Williams, Purdue University psychologist – cited in Psychology Today, 04/09/13

 

“Your health is bound to be affected if, day after day, you say the opposite of what you feel, if you grovel before what you dislike and rejoice at what brings you nothing but misfortune. Our nervous system isn’t just a fiction; it’s a part of our physical body, and our soul exists in space, and is inside us like the teeth in our mouth. It can’t be forever violated with impunity.” -Boris Pasternak

 

Disclaimer: The purpose of shining a light on the above-mentioned books is to promote a broad understanding of psychological issues (e.g. psychosomatic illness) that could apply to the lives of current or former high-control group members. This information is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice or treatment. The purpose is to offer psycho-educational insight. Seek the advice of your primary care physician before undertaking any suggestions shared here. Never delay seeking medical help, disregard medical advice, or discontinue medical treatment because of information in a book, including this one. Reliance on any information, suggestions or any recommended resources from this book is undertaken solely at your own risk.

(Above article adapted from Chapter 16 in “The Challenge to Heal: A Recovery Guide to help reclaim your life after leaving any high-control group”, and was first published on the Open Minds Foundation Blog.)

The Powerful Need to Belong: Especially After Leaving a High-Control Situation 

 

We become acutely aware of our fundamental need for belonging when we are cut off, banished, shunned, disconnected and/or alienated. If you have exercised your right to reclaim your life from a high-control situation, it is highly likely that you are now being rejected or excluded by those who are still in the group or situation. You may very well have lost any sense of belonging, especially if family members and friends are still a part of the extremist group.

 

 

Belonging is so important that it is one of the core human need categories listed in psychologist Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, depicted in the illustration below. At one time the survival of the individual was inextricably linked to the tribe. To be separated from the tribe meant certain death. Our primitive reptilian brain probably still considers belongingness a survival issue.

 

When we are cut off from, and shunned by family and friends, it can awaken very primal feelings – feelings that can make us feel panicked – prompting us to conclude, on a deep level, that our very survival is at risk. This is why ostracism, disconnection, and shunning are such powerful, punitive and inhumane tools.

 

If you are now disconnected or being ostracized, you must make it a point to attend to your fundamental need to belong. Being with others will help meet the need of your body/mind to be seen, acknowledged, known, connected and included. It will diminish the anxiety that accompanies any punitive shunning behaviors.

Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs

 

Maslow posited that until the lower level needs in the Hierarchy of Human Needs – such as belonging – are met, it is difficult to move up the hierarchy to satisfy higher level needs. So, for example, if you are finding you are having trouble attending to your “self-esteem needs” after extricating yourself from exploitation and control, it may be you first have to attend to your “belonging needs”. By taking care of your belonging needs you facilitate your movement up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to meet other needs that properly press for attention and fulfilment.

 

In today’s world, it is an over-exaggeration to imagine you will die if banished from a group. This is a thought you must challenge. You will be hurt by being ostracized, disconnected or shunned, but you will not expire from it. Your survival on the planet is not threatened by being cut off or alienated from a real or symbolic family. You can help the reptilian part of your brain calm down by giving it a sense of belonging by joining in group activities (in the workplace or in the community) that please you – even if they are not with the group of people that you are really longing for right now.

 

It can also be helpful to employ the technique of relating to it, not from it (“it” being whatever feeling is distressing you at the moment). You can apply this simple technique to the feeling of disconnection and lack of belonging. For example, you can say to yourself:

  • A part of me feels like I just cannot survive being disconnected or shunned and losing my sense of belonging in my group, but I choose not to dwell on this irrational fear.
  • The old, brainwashed part of me resists joining groups of ‘worldly’ or ‘infidel’ strangers to engage in pleasant activities, but I’m going to push past that resistance and find a group or activity that pleases me.

You acknowledge (relate to) the feelings that inevitably emerge from disconnection, isolation, shunning, but you refuse to be governed by (react from) those feelings. This takes practice, but with a little effort you can make relating to instead of reacting from your default position when dealing with any challenging feeling.

 

So how does one attend to their need for belonging? By reaching out to associate with others (even if they are relative strangers) you begin to give yourself the gift of fulfilling the need to connect and belong. Even the most basic connections can help calm the reptilian part of your brain and help you feel better during the initial shock of being cut off from a group or community, even if it was your choice to leave the group or situation.

 

Don’t wait to feel profound interest in an activity or group. If you notice any small level of interest, join in. Involvement often precedes interest and awakens interest. Just get involved. Just connect. Find a healthy, inclusive group to join, such as an exercise group, a health club/gym, a walking group, a mindfulness meditation group, a yoga center, a photography club, a support group, a volunteer agency – whatever pleases you or whatever opportunity for connection that presents itself. Healing from trauma is made so much easier when we connect with the community around us.

 

‘Belonging’ does not reach out and find you. You must take steps to find ways to connect and belong. Be proactive. Do it now. If your first efforts at connection are not satisfying, find another group to join. You must be persistent and courageous in attending to your fundamental, human need to connect and belong.

 

“Only connect.”  ~E. M. Forster

 

Recommended Reading on the topic of belonging and connection:

Reaching Out: Interpersonal Effectiveness and Self-Actualization”, 2012, David H. Johnson

True Belonging: Mindful Practices to Help You Overcome Loneliness, Connect with Others, and Cultivate Happiness”, 2011, Jeffrey Brantley, M.D., Wendy Millstine

Leaving Loneliness: A Workbook. Building Relationships with Yourself and Others”, 2014, David S. Narang

Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect”, 2014, Matthew D. Lieberman

Real: The Power of Authentic Connection”, 2016, Catherine O’Kane, Duane O’Kane

 

(This article originally appeared on the Open Minds Foundation Blog.)

 

 

Dealing With People Who Intimidate, Threaten & Bully

Have you been surprised by someone in your life who is suddenly trying to intimidate, manipulate, control or bully you? Bullies can pop up anywhere and come in all shapes and sizes. Although their negative actions may feel personal, generally they are not. Such aggressive and passive aggressive behaviors reveal much more about the person engaging in them than you.

Those needing to intimidate, control, threaten and bully are acting from their own inner lack of control, and their own inner chaos. They are indeed suffering within, and prefer not to suffer alone. In effect, bullies in whatever form they present, are projecting their inner out-of-control reality on to you – because it affords them some temporary relief and the longed-for illusion of power.

Intimidators cannot, however, manipulate or bully you without your permission. You withhold permission by not engaging with them, by not getting emotionally involved in their latest control story, or their current drama or ‘schoolyard’ game. Just don’t play along. Ignore them and leave the metaphorical ‘schoolyard’.

There is nothing worse for a person who needs to control and manipulate than to have no one available to intimidate and threaten. Reserve your emotional engagement for truly worthwhile endeavors – for what really matters to you. Don’t allow such people to drag you into their latest drama or threaten you if you refuse to do their bidding or side with them to intimidate, bully or badmouth others.

If you feel that despite your efforts to not succumb to their intimidation, you are being deceived, goaded or manipulated into a situation that feels just too negative, it may be that you are dealing someone who is in more than a bad mood or having a bad day.

Reasons for unwarranted confrontational and hostile behavior are many and often complex. Causes may include and are not limited to pathological anger, hyper-aggression, pathological bullyingnarcissistic rage, post-traumatic stress disorder, brain trauma, substance abuse, and life crisis. In some cases it’s just a normal person having a bad day. In others, you may be dealing with a sociopath or psychopath. Regardless of the reason, it’s important to respond proactively and effectively when your rights, interests and safety are at stake.

If, for some reason, you cannot walk away and your boundaries or rights are being violated, communication expert, Ni Preston advises, “When standing up to bullies (in situations where something important is at stake), be sure to place yourself in a position where you can be safe, whether it’s standing tall on your own, having other people present to witness and support, or keeping a paper trail of the bully’s inappropriate behavior. In cases of physical, verbal, or emotional abuse, consult with counseling, legal, law enforcement, or administrative professionals on the matter. It’s very important to stand up to bullies, and you don’t have to do it alone.

Bullies come in every shape and size and can be found in the most surprising places, even in groups where you come together to work toward a common goal. If you are feeling intimidated or bullied by a neighbor, friend, co-worker, boss, group member or in online forums, please follow some of the above suggestions or read more by clicking on the following link:

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/communication-success/201409/how-successfully-handle-aggressive-and-controlling-people

 

Cracking the Cult Code for Therapists: What Cult Victims Want Their Therapist to Know

Have you been wanting to find a therapist to help you with your recovery from your years in the JW cult? Perhaps you found a therapist only to discover once working with them that the therapist had little, if any, understanding of the dynamics and controls experienced in cults, nor the emotional after-effects of having been deceived, controlled, exploited and shunned? Well, it seems you are not alone.

Every week in ex-JW groups you can read reports from frustrated therapy clients describing how their therapist, although well-intentioned, really had no idea what they had been through in a cult and even seemed to minimize or discount it.

I have written a little book to help ex-cult members in, or entering into, therapy. It’s entitled, Cracking the Cult Code for Therapists: What Every Cult Victim Wants Their Therapist to Know. I’m really excited about this book and know it will be a welcome resource for therapists as they find themselves working with more and more with this unique and growing client population of cult survivors.

If you would like to offer your therapist, or prospective therapist, a more comprehensive understanding of cult dynamics, abuses and the ensuing destructive psychological effects, do check out this book. Go HERE and use the “Look Inside” option to check out the Table of Contents and determine if this book is one you would like to offer your therapist or encourage your therapist to acquire for their library.

Friends and family members unfamiliar with cults and the psychological aftermath for people exiting them can also better understand what their loved one has endured and the challenges they now face, by reading this book.

If you prefer, you can still download my free two-page document which briefly outlines typical cult dynamics and after-effects. You can find it under the tab “For Therapists” on this website.