If you are thinking about leaving a high-control group, or have just left one, you have embarked on an amazing journey toward freedom, authenticity and autonomy. Although you have left and closed the door behind you, the road ahead may not yet be clear. Perhaps that is why you searched for help on the internet, hoping to find help to point to the immediate steps ahead.
First of all, let’s state the obvious: Leaving a controlling movement, group or situation is not easy. You may not even be sure yet that you have made the right decision. Perhaps you are full of doubts, feeling confused, feeling afraid and even experiencing perhaps, some self-recriminations.
You may feel relieved to know that those are feelings experienced by all of us who have left an all-consuming organization and a manipulated lifestyle. It is normal to feel disoriented and unsure after leaving something you felt strongly about, friends you lived and/or worked with, and never-disputed leaders who claimed to be able to protect and guide you through the vicissitudes of life.
Realize it or not, being a member of a controlling, high-demand, identity-crushing group can qualify as psychological, emotional, spiritual, and occasionally physical abuse. Whether you want to consider yourself traumatically wounded, or not, sooner or later you will have to admit that you have been wounded or traumatized by some of the typical high-demand group treatment such as: deceit, identity-obliteration, manipulation, exploitation, coercion, isolation, threats, false promises, undue controls on your access to information, freedom of movement, ability to question, etc. etc.
You may now feel overwhelmed by grief realizing how you were misled, how much of your life has been stolen from you, and how you may now have to begin from scratch to reclaim your authentic identity, build a new life and create a new social network.
So, one of the main things on your mind must be: “I know I have a long road ahead, but what can I do to help myself right now?”
Psychiatrist, Judith Lewis Herman wrote the classic book entitled “Trauma and Recovery”. Herman says there are three stages of healing after traumatic experiences and identifies them as: Safety, Remembrance & Mourning, and Reconnection.
Safety ::: Remembrance & Mourning ::: Reconnection
Herman puts these three stages in the above order, however, as with most things, the stages will not always be orderly and neat. One stage may run into and be overlapped by the next. That is to be expected. Allow your process to unfold as it will – just make sure you attend to each of the suggested stages.
While you are right, you do have a long road of recovery to travel, it begins with ensuring your own physical and psychological safety. Now – just out of the controlling group – you must not skip over Herman’s first stage of attending to safety by wanting to rush immediately into healing your wounds and rebuilding your life. It’s normal to want to speed ahead in that way, however, you must first attend to your physical and psychological safety. They lay the foundation for the recovery work ahead.
1st stage: PHYSICAL AND PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY
Some ways to attend to physical safety after exiting a high-control system:
- First you must attend to your literal safety. If you are concerned that the group you left may stalk, harass, retaliate and/or harm you, you must find ways to protect yourself. That might include moving away, laying low for a while, not letting anyone in the coercive group know where they can find you, changing your telephone number, assuming another identity, keeping all your identity information and co-ordinates carefully guarded, putting extra locks on your doors, even seeking police protection, or if you are in a foreign country seeking asylum at your country’s consulate.
- If you have no money and/or no one to turn to, you may have to turn to social services in the area for temporary respite. Hopefully, shelters will direct you to resources that can help you find food and shelter and then a way to earn money and help to find a place to live.
- To ensure your immediate safety and well-being you may have to live in places you would never normally consider, take employment below your skill set, and/or live a lifestyle below your normal standards. For now, comfort, self-esteem and normalcy might have to take a back seat to safety. Remember, it’s just temporary. Things will stabilize – it just takes time.
- Once you have ensured that you are not in danger or at physical risk, you can begin to take more personal, health-related measures to ensure your internal sense of physical safety. If you are not functionning at a healthy level, you will not feel ‘safe’. To function optimally during the transition from leaving a high-control group, you have to make sure that you are getting adequate rest, adequate nutrition, adequate hydration, adequate exercise and adequate fresh air and sunshine. These things are so basic that we can have a tendency to take them for-granted and even dismiss them, wanting to move immediately onto the process of healing from our wounds. However, it is by taking good physical care of yourself that you support yourself and set the foundation for being able to do the work of Herman’s second stage of Remembrance and Mourning. How can you do the challenging work of remembering and mourning all the losses and indignities of being deceived, conned and controlled if you have not had adequate rest, nourishment, hydration and strength?
- Enjoying physical well-being, physical health and physical strength is the foundation for all the other recovery work you will undertake.
Some ways to attend to psychological safety after exiting a high-control system:
- It is by taking steps to feel safe psychologically that you minimize your levels of stress and the toll such stress can take on your body/mind. If you have already attended to taking care of your physical safety and physiological needs, then you have already minimized one main source of psychological stress.
- To continue dealing with people who are still members of the group may be a big sources of psychological stress. If you have family still in the group, you may feel obliged to continue communication with them. If you have no family in the group, consider cutting off all communication with members of the group. They may guilt, shame or pressure you. They may issue warnings of all the terrible things that will befall you for leaving the group. The loaded, triggering, old group terminology may make you feel diminished or threatened – creating a lack of psychological safety. Minimizing, as you can, any contact with the controlling group members will help you feel more psychologically safe.
- One of the main ways we create a lack of psychological safety is with our own thinking. Are you making mental lists of all the terrible things that might happen to you as a result of leaving the group? Are you ruminating on what you should have done, or could have done? Are you dramatizing the possible dangers of having left the organization? Are you only able to imagine a future for yourself in the most negative and discouraging terms? If so – it must not feel very safe to be in your head! You have to learn how to manage your thinking. You must take control of your own thoughts, so as not to let your thinking run riot with all kinds of terrible imaginary scenarios. Your body/mind cannot tell the difference between a real experience and a well-imagined one. What are more ‘well-imagined’ than our worry thoughts? Interrupt, challenge or stop such thinking and it will begin to feel much more safe inside your head! You will experience less anxiety.
- One way to not get caught in a lot of psychological stress (which adds to a feeling of a lack of safety) of your own making is to make a concerted effort to live in present moment awareness.
- Do some Google searches to learn more about present moment awareness and the amazing technique called Mindfulness.
- Begin to take basic measures and small beginning steps to find your own living space, get any identity papers you need, set up any training or permits you need to be able to work, plan a realistic budget and be frugal so that money is not a major stress-causing factor in your life. If perchance you have a source of income which means food, clothing and housing are not a source of stress for you, then bring your attention to finding a therapist to talk to during the next phase of your recovery. Small steps that begin to put the pieces of your life back together will help you feel some relief from all the pressure.
- Putting basic structures that support life in place will help you feel safe enough to be able to move on to the next phase of your recovery – remembrance and mourning.
2nd stage: REMEMBRANCE & MOURNING
- If you can afford it, try to find a good therapist who understands what it is like living subjected to manipulation and control. The therapist will accompa
ny you as you review, remember and mourn your losses due to control, coercion, abuse and
- If you cannot afford to work with a therapist right now, then a good way to help yourself remember and grieve is to write about the coercive experiences in a journal.
- Set aside time to write, and time to feel and grieve as you write. This kind of work can be taxing, which underscores the above encouragement to make sure you are taking care of your physical well-being so that you have the strength to do this emotional work.
- If you can set things up this way, try to schedule time to take a brisk walk in the fresh air and sunshine after a session of writing, remembering and feeling. The walking has many benefits – one of which is that the bilateral strides help to rebalance the brain hemispheres and release some feel-good endorphins. The last thing you want to do after a session of writing and intense feeling is to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs. Choose walking over self-medicating!
- Of course, there is much more involved in this stage of remembrance and mourning than documenting your experience and feelings in a journal. You can find a lot of good suggestions about how to manage this stage of your recovery from manipulation and exploitation in the about-to-be-published book, “The Challenge to Heal – A Recovery Guide”
3rd stage: RECONNECTION
- Having probably been required to limit your social circle and interactions to members of the same high-control group, and perhaps now being shunned by those friends still in the group, you can expect to find yourself alone and even lonely.
- It is very difficult for humans to heal in isolation. We all have a basic need for human connection. It may feel daunting to think about re-entering the world of social interactions, especially if you were made to feel that the outside world was bad, dangerous or immoral.
- Since people are not aware of your background or current needs, they will not be lining up at your door asking to become your friend. The work of reconnection is really up to you. You must look for ways to reach out, initiate a conversation with a stranger or invite a colleague out for a cup of coffee.
- Be patient with yourself. Not every effort to connect will be successful. Just don’t allow yourself to become discouraged. If you are turned down, rebuffed, unsuccessful – just keep on trying. There are all kinds of wonderful people out there who are looking for connections with other human beings too.
- Connections with others are wonderful ways to commiserate, laugh, enjoy pleasurable activities, and get support.
- Once you do find someone whose company you enjoy, be judicious about how much you share or disclose at one time. You do not want to overwhelm new friends with all the details of your difficult past. Disclose – but disclose appropriately and with some appropriate restraint.
- Friendships are solidified when both people feel that the other is interested in them. Ask questions of your new friend. Be curious about their views and their Listen. Don’t use their answers as vehicles to move into talking about yourself. When someone feels heard and feels appreciated they will feel more connected to you and then be desirous of further get-togethers with you.
- As you rebuild your life outside of the high-control group, think about making connections along the way. Make connections with colleagues, fellow students, neighbors, etc. Be the first to say a warm hello. Many people are just as shy as you might feel and will be relieved and happy that someone else makes the first friendly gesture.
- Life will start to feel more worthwhile as you reconnect and engage with it. As you create safety, grieve your wounds and losses, and develop new connections you will begin to feel more energized, upbeat and hopeful. You will have things to look forward to. You will see that there is life outside of the group and beyond the memories of what you were required to do by the group, or what the group did to you. You will feel less defined by your experiences of coercion and exploitation. When you reconnect with life (in all its forms) you truly broaden your horizons, and that feels good. You deserve to finally feel good about yourself and life!