Invisible internal worlds of survivors
Date: July 31, 2021 09:42PM
Disclaimer: this is not Cult 101. If you've left a cult in the last few years, or are still trying to figure out whether what you experienced was coercive control, this post probably won't help. If you're still in a closed group and trying to discredit an ex-member, you're also not going to understand this properly. If you've been out for years or decades and are still in pain, then it may be useful. Of course it may not.
There is a difference between what someone does to us and how we interpret it. When someone is in a position of authority, it is easy for them to forget the vulnerabilities and insecurities of those around them. This is true in any situation but is amplified in cults to dangerous levels. Cults teach us that we cannot trust our own thoughts or feelings but the actions of our leader and their teachings are 100% accurate. Cult members therefore are continuously trained to put spiritual or political doctrine above the welfare of individuals, even children. Members become furious at anyone who speaks up about abuse. Survivors are discredited by members saying that their own experiences are far worse than the survivors', or by pointing to the survivors' flaws.
I want to make it clear that abuse is NOT a matter of perspective. Most abuse is illegal, including coercive control. Anything that harms children is illegal in almost every country. However, most cults quibble about the definition of 'harm'. Cults often believe that they have a higher purpose which is more important than law. Devotees are conditioned to believe that their actions are correct and that any law, government, medical practitioner or school board who disagrees with them is wrong, or doing the devil's work, or harming the planet and so on.
One thing I've noticed about devout cult members is that many of them appear to struggle with theory of mind. That is, they can't imagine that their guru might've been deceiving them (deliberately or accidentally), and they also can't imagine that their actions could be interpreted as anything other than flawless. So any suggestion of imperfection is met with cynicism and rage. This is even, perhaps especially, true of those who are screaming about being the most empathic person in the room ("I'm spiteful because I'm JUST SO SENSITIVE! I just cannot be around all you DISGUSTING TOXIC PEOPLE, because I'm WAY TOO NICE!!").
But the main issue I wanted to raise here is that there is a huge gap between the delivery of an action and its interpretation. I was recently discussing the example of a father who can't afford for his child go on a school trip, or something similar. The father doesn't want to feel ashamed of being broke, so raises some imaginary deficit with the child ("you'll only make yourself look stupid" or "you don't deserve to go, I'd only be wasting money"). The parent transfers his own shame onto his child, and free from bad feeling, soon forgets the incident has happened.
The child, however, will never forget. Not only did she miss out on an important experience she was looking forward to, she thought that it was because of some deep internal failing in herself. Something intangible and specific to her. The child remembers it forever. Her belief that she is unworthy becomes a core part of her identity. It may alter her behaviour for the rest of her life. If she ever accuses her father of emotional abuse, he will not only deny it but will actually believe he did nothing wrong.
What is rarely discussed is that the messages we internalise about the world are completely invisible to everyone outside of ourselves. As humans, we try to make sense of our experiences. It's what we do. We try to model the world based on what we see. If someone says, "nobody likes you because you're ugly," and then we experience four different events where we believe we are disliked, we connect those four experiences as having happened because we are ugly.
Abuse is like a magnet that draws messages to the world around it. We only have to experience one incident of physical violence, sexual assault, humiliation or neglect -- before we start to create a narrative connecting it to other things we have heard or been told. From that point, all sorts of disparate and unconnected incidents get woven in. It's like the severity of the first incident cascades down to other ones, changing their meaning. If you imagine a complex sculpture made of lots of cups of water connected by horizontal straws, pouring red ink into one glass will mean that, over time, every cup of water will turn red. The ink won't be as strong in every place, but it will affect almost every part of the system. You would interpret the sculpture as being made of red ink.
Something similar happens in our thoughts. We can't know why someone said or did something hateful to us. Almost unconsciously, it starts to seep into every other memory we have. We cluster together the memories that support this idea until we look at ourselves as a whole and say that we are something negative. The damage comes from our interpretation and the way that moves through our memories.
Because, as in the first example of the school trip, the real motivation for the verbally abusive incident was very different to the child's interpretation. The father didn't mean the awful thing he said, he was barely even aware that he said it. He was just trying to hide his own shame. The father may have held some deep internal belief like "I'm a bad father if I can't support my child financially." That's the one rule he has to live by and it's the one thing he can't face. A thought like, "I'm a bad father if I shame my daughter emotionally" never enters his mind. He will never recognise himself as abusive because his abuse didn't violate his own beliefs about his role in the world. He'll spend a lifetime believing the child got upset over nothing, and blaming her for it.
So is the girl's interpretation objectively erroneous because it was never intended in the way she sees it? He was still abusive and she was still badly harmed. As a subjective experience, it forms the framework that she views her entire life through. She'll look at every awkward party, every bad date, every poor grade through this lens. It may alter her expectation for friendships, careers, relationships. It will almost certainly make her vulnerable to abusive relationships because if she feels unlovable she will settle for anything. When she legitimately identifies this incident as being a formative experience that destroyed part of her life, she would NOT be exaggerating, overreacting, or making it up. Her interpretation is NOT wrong: it doesn't matter what the father meant, or felt. He gave her a reason for his actions and she interpreted that as being a true and accurate assessment of the situation. She has no resources to frame it in a different way. The abuse is real and the impact on her, and the rest of her life, is very real and is perfectly understandable. There is nothing irrational about it.
This is a non-cult example because cults are even more complex. In fact I think that verbal and emotional abuse in cults is even more dismissive and brutal. More people hold a smaller number of limiting belief. Those beliefs are held far more strongly. There is more shame and punishment for those who do not live up to the cult leader's impossible standards. So individual members experience far more shame, at a far higher cost, and so lash out more often at anyone who triggers shame in them. Remember in the above example it was the daughter who triggered shame in her father even though she did nothing wrong. In cults, when everyone is in unnaturally close proximity, a child or new recruit might repeatedly trigger shame in others just by existing.
So that person or child starts to hear a pretty convincing story about their personal wrongdoing. A cult leader will never say, "your youth reminds me of my own failed dreams" or "actually I'm just human and don't actually have all the answers". They'll deflect their shame back onto the person who triggers it, and will sleep soundly after having done so.
Trying to convince an abusive person of their effect on us is impossible. They will never see the impact.
For survivors, we may have to be mindful of our own interpretations of cultic experience. It is a huge challenge to separate out criminal acts -- like violence, assault or patterns of coercive control and harassment -- with our invisible constructed narratives that cause us long-term harm. This does not mean we are responsible for what happened to us. We cannot think ourselves happy and no-one is expected to. But sometimes we have to become aware of the differences between what was happening in another person's mind vs what was happening in ours. This is especially true of those who joined cults very young or grew up in them. Our early experiences take on a certain mythic quality. If we spend ages trying to make sense of what happened and we are still suffering after unravelling all the pieces, we might have to stop and look instead about the stories we are still telling ourselves. What did we interpret about the events we experienced? What thoughts or beliefs held that interpretation together? Is it personal? Mystical? Something else?
To be clear, you have to do all the unravelling first. You have to name the abuse before figuring out how it impacted you. Abuse is real and is not simply a matter of interpretation. Cults are fundamentally abusive systems where a small number of people profit from the passion and vulnerability of others, and gain financial and social advantages by perpetuating harm. It's never going to be okay.
But I think sometimes even when someone is trying to crush us, their reasons still have everything to do with them, and not us. So if we remain crushed many decades after certain incidents occurred, that may have everything to do with us, and not them. That will never, ever make it okay to destroy another person's life, property or future, of course. Nor tell them that they should've gotten over it by now. If you're trying to say that to another human being, you've missed the part where you really did cause damage even if you've forgotten how or why.
Just a thought.
(P.S., please excuse the typos)
Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 07/31/2021 09:54PM by Jupiter.