Cults, Controlling Relationships and Narcissism Part II: Finding Yourself
Updated: Oct 13, 2020
What can you do if you have read part 1 of this post, and find that the dynamics described are really familiar to you? The first step is recognizing that you're in a controlling relationship or a high-control group. One of my first moments of recognition, was when I got my first tattoo. I had always wanted a tattoo because I love body art, but tattoos are disfavored by the religious leaders. I made the decision that I would get a tattoo to celebrate graduating from grad school. At this point, primarily thanks to my education, I no longer believed the ideology that I had been indoctrinated with, but I was not ready to leave yet and lose all of my family and friends, so getting a tattoo wasn't something that I perceived as wrong per se, just something that no one else could know about. A funny thing happened when I was getting the tattoo, I realized for the first time that I actually own my own body. Prior to that moment I perceived my body and my boundaries as being owned by the leaders of the religious group. Right at that moment, with that realization, I took back decision making power over my own body. From that moment on I decided what I could and could not do with my own body, that was an incredibly powerful moment.
So think about your body and your boundaries, who has decision-making power over them? If it isn't you, then you might be happier if you take a closer look at who you're surrendering that power to. I warn you though, once you see that dynamic you can't unsee it, and the seeing can be very painful. The next step is also hard, practicing acceptance that you can't change the controlling person or organization. The only thing that you can do is separate yourself, create as much space between them and you as possible, then begin figuring out who you actually are outside of the controlling relationship. This can be an emotionally treacherous journey, most of us define ourselves, at least partially, in terms of our relationships, and you might lose a lot of important relationships. You might lose anyone you care about who is still trapped in the circle of control; of course some of these people might follow your example and run for the hills with you, but this isn't something that you have any control over. Acceptance of that loss is key to moving on. It's really normal and necessary to grieve that loss, and to grieve the order and predictability that comes with authoritarian structures and relationships. Grieving is normal and necessary, but in the process remember that this is also a second chance to discover yourself and build an authentic life.
You might find that you really like your authentic self, and that you're drawn to others who are practicing living an authentic life. There is joy and wonder in this process of self-discovery, but particularly at the beginning of your journey you'll probably have to look for it. So where to begin? A good place to start is by exploring your boundaries. Boundaries are very simple, this just means what works for you and what doesn't work for you. Boundaries are simple but not always obvious, we often don't realize a boundary exists until we or someone else crosses it. So really pay attention to your internal responses, listen to what your body is telling you. Does something not sit well with you, or make you uncomfortable? Do you dread spending time in certain places or with certain people? There might be boundaries there that are being ignored. It's crucial to really tune into your body's responses, to understand if you're responding to a boundary, or to unfamiliarity. Most of us are uncomfortable with the unfamiliar, and if your activities and daily routine have been prescribed by some entity besides you, probably many things will feel really unfamiliar. If we're uncomfortable with someone or something because it's new or different, that isn't necessarily a boundary violation.
Trying new activities, routines, practices, and relationships that might make us uncomfortable due to unfamiliarity is how we grow, and you don't want to miss out on that. Reflecting on your experiences and how your body responds to them is how you will clarify if something is a boundary violation, or simply unfamiliar. This brings me to the next step, trying new things. Exposing yourself to unfamiliar people, activities, and practices is a really good way to figure out your true preferences, boundaries, and values. As mentioned, this can be unfamiliar and therefore uncomfortable, but doing this in an intentional manner and really reflecting honestly on these experiences should help you feel more comfortable and connected with your authentic self.
The last point that I would like to make is about support. Finding other people who have had or are experiencing similar relationships can be a very normalizing experience. You can often find support or recovery groups online, or IRL, to support you in your healing process. I will be forever grateful to my little sister for helping me through this process. In service to finding support, here are some books and other resources that you might find helpful, and I'm very much interested in hearing your story so please feel free to share along with any resources that you have found helpful:
Choice Theory: A New Psychology of Personal Freedom by William Glasser M.D. This book describes and clarifies power dynamics in interpersonal relationships. I found when I was reading this book that I was giving away so much of my own power, reading helped me to take this power back.
Love, Joy, and Feminism by Libby Anne; patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism/ This is a blog about recovering from a childhood in a conservative evangelical homeschool family. I found this blog to be helpful because many of the practices and dynamics that Libby Anne describes were ones that I could very much relate to.
The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown, Ph.D., L.M.S.W. I found this book very helpful for learning about shame and resiliency, and practicing self-acceptance and authenticity.
Combatting Cult Mind Control by Steven Hassan. In this book the author describes his BITE model of defining high-control groups, as well as tips for gaining freedom.