Where Do the Feelings Go?
Survivors of emotionally and spiritually abusive systems process emotions differently than a growing person does. This is because feelings (e. g., anger or grief) from hurtful stimulus were not permitted to be expressed in the group. Only positive emotions were accepted. But to be "up" and smiley all the time is not normal. The painful feelings, therefore, were stored in the member's "tank." After exiting, draining the tank; i. e., writing1 and talking about one's hurtful experience is a necessary part of recovery.
Natural Recovery System
Our natural recovery system is set up to give us hope, encouragement, and permission to feel.
Exiter's Recovery System
However, after being in an abusive group, there are voices (tapes in our head) and a hyper-vigilance to "don't feel," "don't tell." We feel numbness like a "zombie."
Removed from the Cultic System
Even though we are removed from the cultic system, we are still processing the old way of thinking (the mind control programming) and our "tank" is still full.
The Full Tank
These sprays and leaks from our full tank are manifested in physical complaints, touchiness, depression, difficulty making commitments, etc. [See: Common Emotional Feelings After a High Demand Group for more on this.]
In order to recover we need:
- An atmosphere of emotional safety
- Encouragement for appropriate emotions
- Encouragement for the re-parenting process
- To track down each emotion, account for them and expect others to do the same
- Respectful treatment
As we begin to recover we:
- Drain the tank
- Live without cultic support
- Process emotion as it happens
- Live your life knowing you are okay.
(Adapted from "Feeling Your Way Back to Life" by Ron Burks, M.A.)
Important: While it is very helpful in one's recovery to write and talk about feelings and experiences, if memories become too painful (child survivors may experience feelings of rage, intense sadness and fear, nightmares and/or flashbacks), or if you are struggling with any type of destructive behavior, seek out a supportive, safe, and understanding counselor or therapist who is knowledgeable with complex post traumatic stress disorder (a.k.a. complex post traumatic stress syndrome) and abusive religious cults or cultic groups and the after effects of thought reform and manipulation. This is especially true if you begin to have memories of being sexually abused. The helper or therapist should be willing to listen, validate and empower you; not try to control you or tell you to "get over it." (Also see: Surviving and How to Walk Yourself Through a Panic Attack)
How Do I Go About Writing and What Do I Write About?
"...the experience of fighting silence with words
will in time diminish the size of what you fear."
~Diane Mandt Langberg
There are several ways to go about writing (and it's up to you as to what you want to do). Some counselors or therapists who have helped exiters of abusive groups suggest composing a personal "time line" (starting at the beginning of their group experience, relating to incidents that were stressful and abusive) and then writing about these events one by one, and as often as necessary. Others just write as the thoughts come to their mind.
The following is written from my own experience and what helped me.
First, buy a large 3 ringed binder with dividers. Or simply start off with a ruled spiral notebook or other type of notebook. This will be your private journal. Then choose a safe place to do your writing. (Remember that you do not have to share your writings with anyone you feel is untrustworthy or insensitive.)
If you are someone who likes to organize, you may like using the 3 ringed binder and dividing it up into subjects. The following is what I chose to write on after I exited and are only suggestions. You can make up your own titles and write on whatever you want. (I later purchased two more 3 ringed binders, as I found I had much to write about.)
- Information on cults/mind control/thought reform
- The [name the group] and what it teaches you.
- My life in the [name the group]
- The people in the [name the group]
- Why I'm out of the [name the group]
- Why I don't return
- My life now
- What the ministers have said (to note the duplicities, confusion, lies, control)
- False teachings
- My Family (when growing up, plus present family)
- Dealing with those that don't understand
- Counseling (if you're in counseling)
Other subjects I later wrote on in a separate 100 page spiral notebook:
- My Life and Feelings in the [name the group] (cover the entire period, starting from when you were first recruited)
- Relationships in the [name the group]
- Ministers from (list the dates)
- Serving in the [name the group]
- Relationships and Friends
- Before the group (Important relationships; ideals; dreams; struggles and conflicts)
- Bad Memories in the [name the group]
- Ones I helped by being in the [name the group]
- My relationship with God in the [name the group]
- Performance in the [name the group]
- Being deceived into the [name the group]
- The programming we received against true Christians
- What it all revolved around
As you write about your experiences, your anger and your pain, don't forget to write about why you left and why you're glad you're out. Think of the freedom you now have in contrast to all the control and abuse you experienced in the group. (This will help during the times you struggle with whether or not you made the right decision to leave.)
Write about what you feel might have caused you to go into the group in the first place (or made you go deeper into their teachings). Perhaps it was the result of a particularly stressful time in your life, a new move, the breakup of an important relationship, etc.
What were your needs and vulnerabilities and how were they exploited by the group? What did you enjoy doing before you went into the group?
Write about whether you were becoming more submissive to God in the group, or whether you were actually becoming more submissive to the "government" of the group.
Ask yourself if you were you were basically introverted or extroverted before your involvement. (Authoritarian groups usually compel their members to be extroverted, whether they want to or not. Forcing yourself to be something you aren't can cause undue stress.)
If you were raised in the group from a child and feel you have nothing to connect back to, read Am I Only a "Pseudo Personality"? (Don't forget that, as a child survivor, you can choose to make good and positive memories and traditions for yourself and your family today. You are in control.)
Become aware of what your triggers are and write them down. Remember that when you have an accumulation of stress, it can increase your susceptibility to triggers. (Be sure and go back later and make a note as to when they are no longer triggers for you.)
Write about the positives in your group. It may be hard at first to think of anything worthwhile that you gained by being in an exploitive, deceptive, abusive group, but it very well could be traits such as dependability, value of honesty, convictions, courage, teaching skills, economizing, leadership skills, juggling multiple tasks, time management, organization, survival techniques, speaking up in public, helping others in need, patience, compassion, and the ability to empathize with others.
After you continue to recover, you will probably choose to no longer keep what you have written about the group (and you will know when that time comes). In the meantime, writing will allow you to deal with painful, intrusive thoughts in a constructive way. You will receive more insights as you continue to write (especially if you are in counseling) and as you reflect and ponder about what you've written. When we are in touch with our feelings, we are being real with ourselves, and the group can't control us anymore.
By D. M. Williams
Exit & Support Network™
August 29, 2005
Updated May 16, 2014
Read: Personal Writings About My Experience With "God's Church" (Insightful writings that cover deception, fraud, trauma and abuses suffered at the hands of "God's ministers." Helpful for anyone who has exited any of the high demand Herbert Armstrong offshoots and are working through their feelings.)
Looking Back on My Experiences (very helpful for understanding our involvement and breaking free)
Footnote by ESN:
1 The word "writing" is preferred instead of "journaling" and refers to writing one's story, experiences, or painful thoughts, in a private notebook in order to reflect on them and process them. It does not refer to journaling as in a "mystical" sense; i. e., trying to tap into "what God is saying to you." This type of journaling is a New Age, or mystical practice, and is not endorsed by ESN.