The Journey to AutonomyRecovery Begins With a Moment of Doubt
Helping People Escape from Abuse
The approach to helping people to escape from abuse is the same, whether from a relationship or a group. When we feel attacked, we defend ourselves, so it is vital to be friendly and considerate. Talk about shared positive experiences, rather than criticizing the predator or the group. We can help you to learn communication strategies that strengthen relationships and make it easier for an abused person to open up to you.
Surviving & Thriving
Exploitation means to use someone selfishly, taking advantage of them, their resources, and their labor. Thought reform, brainwashing, mind control or manipulation are all deliberate forms of exploitation or exploitative persuasion.
The Heroic Imagination Project was founded by Philip Zimbardo to bring the insights of social psychology to a wider public to create positive change. It helps survivors to become thrivers and to share the lessons we have learned. The project’s mission statement is: “To encourage and empower individuals to take heroic action during crucial moments in their lives. We prepare them to act with integrity, compassion, and moral courage, heightened by an understanding of the power of situational forces.”
Choosing the Right Therapist
If you are struggling with your journey to autonomy, you need a good counselor or psychotherapist. It is vital that they understand your area of distress and that you feel comfortable with them.
Helping People Escape from Abuse
Helping Friends to Finding the Way Out
Having the right guidance and information to understand the mechanisms of coercion, manipulation and trauma are key to helping people escape from abuse. It is better to foster a general understanding of manipulation, rather than criticizing the group or predator directly.
All too often, the surprise of learning that a friend or family member has become embroiled in a toxic group or relationship causes a confused or even hostile response. Asking “How could you be so stupid?” is a sure way of making the person turn away. Confrontational behavior often leads to disaster.
If your own relationship with the person has been difficult, look at improving your communication skills. John Gottman’s Relationship Cure is a good start.
The Honeymoon Period
In the beginning, relationships have a “honeymoon” period. The new believer is infatuated with the group or predator, and will hear nothing against them. A head-on assault will usually fail: showing the believer media scare stories, or even the strongest evidence, will result in cognitive dissonance: When our beliefs are challenged, we usually resist.
It is necessary to be more tolerant, more patient and more considerate to the believer. Be as good a friend as you possibly can when helping people escape from abuse.
Allow the believer to talk without interruption. We learn about our own beliefs by expressing them, but hold on to them all the more tightly when we are challenged.
Be curious, rather than confrontational. Ask what attracted them to the new group or relationship, and what they hope to achieve in it.
Understand the Mechanics of Manipulation
It is better to foster a general understanding of manipulation, rather than criticizing the group or predator directly. This is called “paralleling”: if someone is involved in a pseudo-religious cult group, use another group as an example. Jehovah’s Witnesses will not feel threatened by material about Scientology. Don’t explain the parallels – they will sink in, given time. The documentary Kumaré is particularly good, because it is not based on a real group, and shows how susceptible we all are to authority. There are many good books and movies that encourage critical thinking and expose the problems of authoritarian relationships. Recommend these to the believer, and encourage them to express their opinions about the material.
Keep the Lines of Communication Open
Most of all, keep the lines of communication open: the believer will need somewhere to go when the relationship fails. Be careful not to burn any bridges! If you have acted in a hostile way, apologize as soon as possible, and move on to more agreeable conversation, once your apology is accepted.
Stay in touch – through emails, postcards, texts or phone calls – and keep the conversation light. Maintain normal communication: ask about health and about interesting events, and remind the person of happy times you’ve spent together in the past.
Cults and predators tend to commandeer any available money, so give helpful gifts, rather than handing over cash. Gifts of food, clothing, and phone cards can make the believer’s life easier, but expensive gifts may simply be sold or handed over to the predator.
Most of all – don’t lose hope! Many people have spent decades in an abusive group or relationship, but nonetheless decided to leave – or been kicked out. Predators abandon victims who are no longer productive, so even the most dedicated believer may end up on your doorstep, looking for comfort and support. By understanding the nature of predators and their manipulative methods, you will be better able to help them to recover when that day comes.
Your Freedom From an Abusive Group or Partner
Recovery strategies include understanding the methods of manipulation, which not only speeds recovery, but helps to guard against future manipulation. It is important to question the beliefs instilled by the cult or predator, and dismiss anything false or dangerous.
Ensure Your Safety
The first step to recovery is ensuring your safety from an abusive group or partner. It may be necessary to alert the police to your situation, especially if your group or partner has a history of physical coercion. While you are recovering, you should block any contact from anyone who is abusive.
Avoid Judgmental People
The support of family and friends is very helpful to recovery, but avoid judgmental people at this point: people who want to tell you what to think or how to behave, or want to explain why you were abused. You are regaining sovereignty over yourself, and it is important to make your own rules.
Take Care of Yourself
Once you have a safe place to live, have a physical check-up with a medical doctor and visit a dentist and an optician, if you need to.
Sleep deprivation is a typical form of abusive control. It clouds judgment and makes us more compliant and submissive.
In the first days and weeks, you may need extra sleep – this is perfectly normal while recovering. Aim for between seven and nine hours sleep, once you have settled down.
A comfortable sleep environment is essential. Sleep should be uninterrupted – switch off any devices at least an hour before your bedtime. Push aside anxious thoughts by deciding to consider them when you are fully awake, and relax yourself by thinking about pleasures yet to come.
Make sure that you eat properly. Many groups force cheap, high-carbohydrate diets, laced with sugar, on their followers. It is important to have the right balance of carbohydrates, protein and fats.
It is also important to create a gentle exercise program. Choose an activity that you like – swimming, cycling, and walking are all good, but if you like to play tennis, badminton, squash or soccer, find a sports club and sign up. If nothing else, take a short walk each day.
Start to Reach Out
Contact with other people is essential to successful recovery strategies. It helps to have even the lightest social contact. Solitude can lead to too much self-focus, which can lead to depression and self-doubt.
Make contact with others who have recovered from similar situations to your own. If possible, meet up in person, but at first you might want to create an anonymous identity and search the Internet for survivor groups.
Be careful not to join a group that is steered by angry victims – often such people are stuck in their own recovery, and will taunt and humiliate newcomers, just as their own predatory partner or leader did.
If you are attacked on an Internet forum, withdraw without comment. Discussion is the way to resolve difficulties, not argument. You may want to return to the critic later, once you feel strong enough to counter aggressive behavior, but in the initial stages of recovery, look after yourself, just as you would when recovering from an illness. Keep the stress levels as low as possible for a while.
Address Your Involvement
Take time to think about your involvement with the group or predator, but take an equal amount of time away from the subject. You may feel guilty for doing anything simply because it pleases you, but it is a very good idea to list your pleasures and indulge some of them. Your self-determination has been taken from you: it’s time to take it back! You can go to a movie, or buy yourself a box of chocolates, if you feel like it. You no longer have to police yourself to conform to the arbitrary restrictions that have been imposed upon you. There is no longer any pressure for you to confess or shame yourself.
Consider the teachings or beliefs of the group or partner: the rules you had to live by. It is crucial to ‘unfreeze’ these rules by thinking them through. You may decide that some of the rules are sensible – you have the right to choose which to reject, and which to maintain.
Talk about these rules and beliefs with others who have suffered, but also with people who have had no similar experiences. It is important to know that you are allowed to express your opinion, and that by expressing it, you learn about yourself and grow.
Understand the Methods of Manipulation
Understanding the methods of manipulation not only speeds recovery, but helps to guard against future manipulation. It is important to question the beliefs instilled by the cult or predator, and dismiss anything false or dangerous.
Lalich and Tobias’s Take Back Your Life is an excellent recovery manual. If you want to know more about the general subject of cult involvement, we recommend the new edition of Steven Hassan’s Combating Cult Mind Control. Jon Atack’s Opening Minds gives an overview of manipulation in all kinds of relationships and the Open Minds website hosts a great deal of information.
If you feel overwhelmed, find a good counselor. For our advice, click here.
Don’t be worried if you “float” back into the shame, fear and disgust induced by the abusive group or partner: with time, you will come to be stronger than you ever were, and these “floating” incidents will diminish.
As Hoyt Richards says, surviving a cultic experience is a badge of honor. We become stronger and more knowledgeable as a result, and we can also help the broader society to avoid the pitfalls of toxic relationships. Survivors become thrivers!
Choosing the Right Therapist
Finding a Guide
A good therapist is someone who understands the mechanisms of coercion, manipulation and trauma.
The Right Therapist
If you are struggling with your recovery, you need to choose the right therapist. In a society that is overflowing with therapists, this should be easy, but it isn’t: many therapy systems are questionable, there are unqualified therapists in the field, and many qualified therapists are unfamiliar with the problems of undue influence. This is surprising, as there are millions of wounded escapees out here from both coercive groups and relationships.
In order to heal and thrive again, you must be able to trust, and yet your trust will have been violated by a predatory group or individual. The therapist should help you to regain trust in your own preferences and decisions.
No progress will be made if you do not feel comfortable with the therapist. It is important to agree upon goals for therapy at the outset and to monitor those goals as you progress. If you are not progressing, find another therapist.
It is also vital not to fall into an authority relationship with a therapist. A therapist should help you achieve authority over your own life and your decisions, rather than selling you a new worldview.
Therapy must be affordable: it should relieve stress, rather than causing it. Many cult groups bleed their members dry financially. In many places, free or subsidized therapy can be obtained through government and employer-sponsored programs.
A good therapist will understand that it is necessary to challenge the beliefs instilled by a cult or abusive partner. This may be best done outside the therapy session, with sympathetic others who are willing to listen. It is extremely important to find your own view, and take control of your own life.
Lalich and Tobias give excellent advice on choosing a therapist in “Take Back Your Life”. The book also gives a treatment framework for former members:
- An education program about mechanisms of influence and control typically used in cults, and the power of those persuasive efforts
- Counseling sessions focusing on adjustment difficulties in relationships, careers and so on
- Treatment of post-traumatic symptoms and complications
- Treatment of any pre-existing psychological or emotional difficulties
- Medication for symptomatic relief of anxiety or depression, if necessary
Madeleine Tobias has also contributed valuable guidelines for ex-members in “Recovery from Cults”.
Surviving & Thriving
Strength & Wisdom From a Manipulative Experience
Surviving & thriving a traumatic experience, once fully digested and understood, often brings strength & even wisdom to the life of the victim.
Leaving Can Be Traumatic
Leaving an abusive cult or relationship is usually traumatic. We often feel ashamed that we were taken in, so lose trust in our own decisions. But the truth is that almost anyone can be taken in, because we are sociable creatures, and want to belong.
It is important to understand the social dynamics that make us vulnerable: only predatory people are immune to social influence; the rest of us are likely to follow the usual cues and simply join in. Restraint isn’t inborn: it has to be learned.
While much of our compliance is normal social behavior, we often join a group or relationship, because we felt elevated by an experience of awe. It can be hard to let go of the elation we felt at the beginning, but often that elation was manipulated, whether by the flattery of love-bombing, or through a particular exercise or meditation which induced a peak experience.
Take Back Your Life
To recover is to take back control of your own life. The process can be daunting and there can be many set-backs, but, in time, recovery is liberating. As the abusive experience is properly digested, the imperative to serve a group or predator dissipates. You can choose how to spend your free time and who you spend that time with.
Survivors of toxic groups and relationships often learn humility: they have better judgment, because they know they are not infallible; they are less impulsive, so take their time before making decisions; and they can use the skills they learned in the group or relationship to help others.
Don’t Reject Your Skills
There is no need to reject any of the skills or knowledge you acquired while in an abusive group or relationship, only the idea that they were the gift of the group or predator: you have earned the right to your experiences, and to any benefit from them. You can use your insights for the good of society, rather than to serve the needs of a predator.
Surviving & Thriving
Survivors can take the motivation they learned in the group and put it to new uses. Former members of high-demand groups and toxic relationships have used their skills to excel in business, in sports, and in the arts. We can share our hard-won understanding with the world, making it a safer and better place.
If you have survived an abusive situation and grown to be a better person for it, please let us know; we love to hear from people who are surviving & thriving!
Heroic Imagination Project
A-Z of Coercion
Complete list of everything you need to know about Coercion