Psychodynamic Psychotherapist Dianne Pole discusses the often taboo subject of cults and the people who become their members. Dianne has direct experience of working with cult leavers and has a specialist interest in the psychological impact of cult life. Dianne aims to deconstruct the common stereotype of ‘strange people’ with ‘bizarre ritual’s, rather she shares her alternative perspective leading us to consider whether we are all susceptible to cultism.
‘’There is no emotion, none, just the pretence of it. The words, the gesture, the tone of voice, everything is the same, but not the feeling.’’
(Wagner & Siegel, 1954)
The word cult often conjures up images of mindless people living in communes, adhering to bizarre rituals, beliefs and behaviours that seem strange and fanciful to the more ‘normal’ members of the population. It becomes easy to imagine that we, the normal balanced individuals, are immune to being sucked into the bizarre world of cult mentality.
Unfortunately, the belief in a ‘them and us’ system puts us at a disadvantage. It offers a false sense of security and creates a myth that only weak, needy people find themselves involved within high control groups. In my experience of working with ex-cult members, I have found that quite the opposite is true. It seems to me that it is the intelligent, curious people among us – those with the ability for lateral thinking and who can embrace new concepts – who are the most likely to find themselves trapped in a world very different from the one they thought they were entering.
Individuals who have an aptitude for lateral thinking are excited by new ideas. Excitement by its very nature is energising – it has a ‘feel good factor’ attached to it. For cult members, even after ‘the message’ has become boringly rhetorical, it remains those first early feelings of emotional arousal, the tingle of new discovery and the desire to maintain that level of euphoria that prevents members young and old, from listening to the voice of reason.
For a member of a cult, it can take time to realise that the original flurry of excitement is waning, and new ‘enlightenments’ and ‘truths’ can even begin to feel slightly disturbing. Hiding the way you feel from other members of the group is quite common, and can be exhausting. It can feel exposing to be judged ‘not spiritual enough’, ‘not devoted enough’ or basically lacking in some form or another, especially when the group has become your main source of support. The world outside the cult feels unsafe. Unbelievers threaten to extinguish that last remaining bit of energy with opposing views. Life inside the cult however can begin to feel lonely when exhaustion from hyper-vigilance leads to lethargy. What happens next?
When members feel like they’re losing a grip of their new identity, there is a propensity towards taking control by internalising and redirecting doubts towards the self: “If I had more understanding I wouldn’t have these niggling doubts’’ or “If I was more disciplined and focused I would feel like I did in the early days when I first found the ‘the truth’, ‘the way’, ‘the light’” or whatever positive connotation was originally placed upon the cult. To counteract these doubts, members may become more animated in support of the cult’s doctrine. There is an attempt to ‘jump start’ the feelings they had in the beginning by immersing themselves deeper into the constraints of the cult way of life.
The degree to which an individual might want to remain rooted in a cult when there is a stirring feeling of unrest might be dependent on how much has been emotionally invested in membership of the group. Acknowledging that you have lost the potential for a career, children, family or friends can feel overwhelmingly sad. In order to avoid feelings of loss, regret and sometimes guilt, it becomes necessary to hide the way you feel, not only from others but also from the self, cutting off from authentic feeling and using cognitive dissonance as a distraction to avoid painful realisations.
No one chooses to feel pain and discomfort. It is human nature to defend ourselves against pain – this is why pharmaceutical companies and homeopathic remedies are such big business. Emotional pain can present itself in different ways. The tension it creates in the body can render us physically incapacitated and the internal conflicting feelings can leave us feeling emotionally drained. Using distraction – engaging more fervently in the activities of the cult – is time consuming and leaves little room to question; members lose an internal space for the more playful, imaginative and curious parts of themselves. Ironically, the part of the self that first embraced the cult has been curtailed in order to reserve the energy needed to survive within it.
It makes sense to me that shutting off the more disturbing parts of the self can offer a measure of relief, and it is something we all do to a certain extent: if we need to organise a funeral for example, we might suppress feelings of sadness in order to carry out the necessary arrangements. In a conflict, it might feel easier to project anger towards someone else than to feel guilty about our own behaviour. However, denying our authentic selves for any length of time can become debilitating. It tends to corrode away at our sense of integrity and leaves us feeling like a husk of a person without any substance.
I believe that what family, friends and society often experience in the behaviour of cult members is not a psychopathic lack of empathy, but a shutting down of emotion for survival. People who end up merely existing rather than living can appear like the body-snatched surrogates of the opening quote. In the film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, there was no way of finding the authentic person again. Thankfully, in reality, the authentic self remains – only buried.