Monday, March 5, 2018

Can People truly Recover from Cult Indoctrination and Manipulation?

March 13, 2018: Substantial new material has been added at the end of the text.

My answer is a qualified "Yes." 

But -- that answer falls into several spectral (vs. absolutely polarized) categories:

1) The first category may be described as "amenability to treatment" by a spectrum ranging from...

. . . a) those who are still largely or totally attached and committed, to... 

. . . b) those who are largely or completely detached and disgusted. 

Thus, there are two pretty different approaches, when the issue of where the person is on both Kubler-Ross's five stages of processing and Prochaska & DiClemente's five stages of therapeutic recovery. Because effective treatment of any psychiatric disorder -- very much including egregious levels of neurosis, cognitive distortion, anxiety, depression, mania, complex post-traumatic stress of the fight-flight-freeze response of the autonomic nervous system, paranoia and schizophrenogenic psychosis -- is only possible when the patient has accepted his or diagnosis and is on-board with treatment at the level of commitment and action. 

. . . a) Approaching the first category involves extensive trust development and motivational enhancement techniques (borrowed from addiction therapy) which are well beyond the scope of this article.

. . . b) Approaching the second group is examined at length in this paper at the levels of both cognitive restructuring and moving out of the "box of belief" altogether into direct sensory experience of existential reality (see item 3 below).

(It is also worth noting here that regardless of category, one can expect to see a specific version of Complex PTSD in many cult exiters, which usually includes such symptoms as 

. . . a) paranoia with expectation of abuse by others, hypervigilance and exaggerated startle response, even though the category a member / participant continues to defend the beliefs, philosophies and behavioral policies he or she has adopted, as well as 

. . . b) rebounding from both over-trust to intense distrust of others motives and behaviors, and from learned-helplessness-driven depression and/or anxiety to pseudo-narcissistichypomanic impulsivity; see my reply on that reddit thread, as well as this newer reddit post on "re-developing" the mind of those whose mental operations have been "split" into such rebounding by thought reform techniques.) 

2) Secondly, there is the matter of dealing with the pre-conditioning of the cult member's mind to boundary-diffused codependency and Karpman Drama Triangle types of interpersonal attachment schemes (see Bowlby and Cassidy & Shaver). Fortunately, there are ever-expanding libraries and networks of resources for dealing with codependency and dysfunctional attachment, including books by such as Beattie, Cermak, Mellody, Schaef, Weinhold & Weinhold, Whitfield (all see below), and others; and self-help groups like Codependents Anonymous, which I strongly endorse for treatment of cult exiters. But only with the second group noted above. 

3) Finally, there is the issue of the density of conditioned neural networking through not only the default mode network but also into the limbic system... and whether purely cognitive restructuring will work... or going well beyond cognitive restructuring into getting out of the "box of belief" altogether is required along with emotion processing via such as exposure therapy (see Bradshaw, Briere, Courtois, G. Kaufman, Kurtz, Linehan, Shapiro, Tangney & Dearing, and Van der Kolk) to uproot lingering anger, anxiety, depression, guilt, shame, and other emotions.    

Cult Education Institute founder and author Rick Allan Ross has extensive experience as a deprogrammer willing to do lengthy "rational exorcisms" with those who are still attached, committed and emotionally invested to their cults and the the beliefs thereof. And there are others out there using such techniques as Albert Ellis's Rational-Emotive Behavior Therapy, Jeffrey Young's Schema Therapy, Vincent Ruggiero's collegiate critical thinking and other (often Socratic) "thought questioning" strategies with those who are still attached and committed. (See Beck & Freeman, Dyer, Ellis, Meichenbaum, McKay et al, Linehan, Ruggiero, and Young.) 

Likewise, don't miss Tobias & Lalich (1994), which -- while dated in spots -- is pretty likely still the best single volume around on treating exiters once they are largely at stage four of Prochaska & DiClemente's five stages of therapeutic recovery, precisely because it deals with cult membership as severe codependency. (I had not yet read it when I wrote this article.) 

As is the case with those who were conditionedsocialized, instructed, indoctrinated and normalized to erroneous-belief-based cognition in their families of origin, critical thinking and/or "thought questioning" strategies have shown widespread efficacy for correcting irrational and/or illogical thinking. But, purely cognitive strategies often fail to lift psychiatric patients out of their anxiety, depression or manic attempts to "manage" their anxiety and depression. It is now understood that merely correcting beliefs -- and appraisals, evaluations, judgments, analysis, interpretation and/or attribution of meaning based on beliefs -- is often insufficient to get at the lingering emotional residue of the complex post-traumatic stress disorder that can only be addressed experientially (see this article for an example of such experiential psychotherapy). 

(On PTSD and CPTSD, see Courtois, De Bellis, De Souza-Talarico et al, Doctor et al, Dong et al, Dutra et al, Friedman, Guajardo et al, Jonson-Ried et al, J. Kaufman et al, Kelleher, Kira, Koenig et al, Lereya et al, Lupien et al, Marquez et al, McEwen et al, Meewisse et al, Molina, Negrao et al, Ogden at al, Ostiguy et al, Perry, Raja, Rytwinski et al, Sachs-Ericsson et al, Sapolsky, Schiraldi, Selye, Stovall-McClough et al, Teicher et al, Ursano et al, Van der Kolk et al, Wang et al, and Watts-English et al., as well as Treat Autonomic AND Cognitive Conditions in Psychopathology?)

More recently, one sees combinations of those methods with mindfulness or "insight" meditation techniques very much like those used by many Asian-style and LGAT / NLP cults (see Batchelor, Brach, Chodron, Deikman, de Mello, Forsyth, Goleman, Hafenbrack et al, Hart, Kabat-Zinn, L. Kelly, Kramer, Krishnamurti, Lang, Levine, Marra, Ogden, Orsillo, Segel, D. Siegel, Somov, Stahl et al, Tart, Tolle, Trungpa, van Dijk, Watts, Williams, and R. Wright) ... and thus often acceptable to the attached / committed cult member (though not so much to the attached / committed member of a Western-style, authoritarian, evangelical religious cult). 

In general, "success" rates are not high with the purely rational techniques. My opinion about that lack of success is based on an experienced understanding of how cults gain control of the rational mind that operates largely (or even entirely) on appraisal according to conditioned, socialized, instructed, indoctrinated and normalized belief as opposed to looking to see, listening to hear and otherwise using one' senses to determine what is... or is not.  

We don't know enough yet about the large-scale success rates with the mindfulness meditation "crossover" strategy. But "early returns" suggest that vipassana-style insight meditation -- a component of many modern psychotherapies that trains the mind how to see, hear and otherwise sense what is vs. what is not -- helps former cult members to separate fact from conditionedsocialized, instructed, indoctrinated and normalized fiction. (See Hart on Goenka.)

And... because mindfulness meditation is self-awareness-raising and can be used to bleed off or "digest & discharge" emotional energy (e.g.: paranoia, rage, grief, shame, guilt, anxiety, depression, manic defensiveness, etc.) resulting from cultic manipulation of an attached / committed / invested member's codependency, the latter approach may work with at least some who are still invested in and identified with the cult. 

With regard to those who are more toward the detached and disgusted end of the spectrum (because it is often "partial" rather than purely polarized to one end or the other), "psychoeducation" appears to work well. In no small part, this is because -- while the exiter may still be depressed, anxious, confused, etc., he or she wants OUT, and is motivated to find whatever path it takes to get free of his or her "withdrawal" symptoms. 

Such psychoeducation can include the following (all of which include or point to extensive references and resources):


And Lord only know how many other effective "crowbars" there may be now that cult deprogramming and exit counseling have grown to the extent and level of sophistication they have in the face of the explosion of cults in "free" societies like those in Western Europe, North America and Australia. Some of the better crowbars I have seen are based on psychoeducational concepts like these:



Out of the Past


Finally, it is vital to inquire and listen carefully to understand...

1) why the cult exiter joined up in the first place, 

2) why the exiter continued to remain in the cult once at level six, and... 

3) why he or she elected to leave.

In the first and second cases, what I have pieced together from not only listening to "conscious" reasons, but also delving into the specific family systems and Karpman Drama Triangle dynamics of exiters, as well as their ego developmental paths according to the models conceived by Erikson and Piaget, is that those who join cults and remain in them to the troublesome sixth ("Lab Rats") and seventh ("Gluttons for Punishment") levels tend to show...

. . . a) evidence of having been conditioned, indoctrinated, socialized, habituated and/or normalized to the same or similar values in the member's family of origin... which was quite often a participant in either the cult into which the child was inducted (e.g.: as in so many of the evangelical, fundamentalist, pseudo-religious cults in America), or a participant in a cult with similar authoritarian dynamics, structure and beliefs... even though it was seen by the "New Recruit" to be different and even a willful rejection of the cult in which one had been raised;

. . . b) fragmented identity structures owing to histories of having been pre-condtioned to accepting abuse by some combination of having been neglected, ignored, abandoned, discounted, disclaimed, and rejected, as well as invalidated, confused, betrayed, insulted, criticized, judged, blamed, embarrassed, humiliated, ridiculed, denigrated, derogated, victimized, demonized, persecuted, picked on, dumped on, bullied, gaslighted, scapegoated, and/or otherwise abused by others upon whom they depended for survival in early life; 

. . . c) far more than culturally common energized and ardent movement around the Karpman Drama Triangle to both try to avoid being in and return to submissive acquiescence in the "victim" corner at the bottom thereof; 

. . . d) polarized, absolutistic, totalistic, black-and-white, all-or-nothing, all-good-or-all-evil, concrete operational (as opposed to formal operational) processing of what they perceive in the environment; especially with respect to perceptions which have been emotionally charged for them by those on the higher levels of the cultic pyramid;  

. . . e) either regression to or life-long containment at lower levels of a contaminated and corrupted version of Erikson's developmental path, especially at the stages of autonomy, initiative and competence, all of which precede identity formation; and...

. . . f) suppression of development along both Erikson's and Piaget's developmental paths by parents with authoritarian and/or neglectful / abandoning parenting styles (see Baumrind). 

Thus, I see largely -- but not always entirely -- unconscious reasons and motivations for those who join groups offering supposed or ostensible ego empowerment to correct pretty obvious narcissistic injury in early life. 

One more time, however, I want to make it clear that I have seen these developmental and family systems factors in exiters who "climbed" -- or sank? -- to the sixth ("Lab Rats") and seventh ("Gluttons for Punishment") levels on the pyramid. "Seekers," "New Recruits," "Committeds," and "Wonderbounds" have not always -- or even often -- shown (me) such developmental and family systems factors... although it seems fair to say that exiters at levels two through four I have spoken with do sometimes have show signs of such developmental histories. 

In whatever event, it is crucial for the mental health professional treating cult exiters to at least explore these developmental and family systems factors to find "leverage handles." Because grasp of what attracted the exiter to the cult in the first place is not so much the key to clearing up the unresolved issues that may attract them to a similar situation in the future as is a clear grasp of why they chose to remain once it became increasingly discomfiting to do so at pyramid levels six ("Lab Rats") and above.   

In the latter, what I have heard includes (not in any suggested order of incidence)...

. . . a) absence of freedom of elective behavior;

. . . b) inability to live a "normal" life;

. . . c) callous disregard of the exiter's personal problems by authorities at higher levels on the pyramid;

. . . d) affectively intolerable discrepancies, ambiguities and outright conflict between the cult's "moral" values, stated "ethics," behavioral practices, assertions and claims;

. . . e) tyranny by higher level authorities (usually "Willful Slaves" and "Cynics");

. . . f) burnout leading to chronic imbalance of the autonomic nervous system and the fight-flight-freeze response leading over time to obvious symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder

. . . g) intolerably debilitating, stress-induced somatic conversion disorders

. . . h) gross financial distress;

. . . i) moral disgust with the guru's (and sometimes others') sexual indiscretions and inability to continue to rationalize them;

. . . j) discovery of illicit activities (usually involving the eighth, ninth and tenth level authorities or "Willful Slaves," "Cynics" and "Sociopaths," as was the cause of mass defections from ISKCON in the 1980s);

. . . h) repeated punishment or excommunication for apostacy or other activities intolerable to the eighth, ninth and tenth level authorities. 


As is the case vis reasons for remaining in the cult as the "screws tightened," clarity as to the causes of disaffection and ultimately disconnection empowers the exit counselor to not only... 

1) help the exiter reclaim his or her empirical sense of "what is" (vis what they were led to believe), but to 

2) "re-motivate" the exiter to stay on the new path of detachment through sometimes painful self-discovery and awareness as to what caused him or her to delve so far into masochistic attachment to yet another "abusive family."  


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