Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The Strengths of Former TMers

I want to post soon about after effects common for former cult members.

But a recent anonymous commenter reminded me we don't stress positives enough — and that may discourage people from beginning recovery.

Now, I know "symptom" lists are powerful things for my therapy clients. Lists offer some inkling that, yes, perhaps you suffer from a syndrome — but you are not alone. And you can do something about it.

I can't tell you how many adult children of alcoholics realize they suffer from a treatable syndrome just from reading such a list.

Lists also offer relief for many. They feel validated about experiences and feelings mainstream culture dismisses, denies, and judges. In truth, these "symptoms," which they may feel shame about, are common — even normal — for people in their situation.

So symptom lists can be a very positive thing — in their own way.

But I took our anonymous commenter's objection to heart. In my counseling, I do try to emphasize former cult members' strengths. A quibble I have with some cult counseling theories is they focus too much on "symptoms."

The danger? Creating a "victim" mentality.

Clients may become so caught up in blaming their cult they fail to take responsibility for making changes in their own life. The risk is they never get beyond the trauma. They fail to move on to a happier, more comfortable, more productive life.

So I thought, before I post an after effect list, I'd share the many strengths former cult members show.

And those I believe our commenters show every day here on TM=Free Blog.

  • Compassion & Empathy: Having survived cultic abuse, you may be readier to empathize with someone else's grief. It's easy to see the difference between the care and concern our commenters show each other and the hurtful sarcasm so prevalent in the blogosphere.

  • Analytical Thought: Most former cult members who go through conscious recovery — whether with a professional or on their own — think deeply about their core concerns. Duped in the past, you may exercise keen judgment and discernment so it never happens again.

  • Social Activism & Altruism: Perhaps you joined a cult to seek spirituality or social justice. This often remains a core value after you leave. You may go on to political activism, cult activism, involvement in charity through your church or other organizations.

  • Survival: Don't overlook the simple fact you survived cultic abuse with your mind and body intact. Celebrate this every day.

  • Courage: This is particularly true if you walked out on your own. And it's present to the nth degree if you are an adult child of cult members. You never knew another way of life and may have lost your family and friend support network when you left. Yet you still left — and stayed out.

  • Resourcefulness: Anybody who leaves a cult demonstrates a high-degree of self-reliance, resourcefulness, and independence. These strengths are strong pillars you will build a new life on.

  • Skills: Don't overlook the skills you learned in your cult. Perhaps you learned a craft or profession. Using them after you leave is an ultimate revenge on the cult. But nearly everyone in a proselytizing group learned how to speak articulately and passionately. These are skills that are invaluable in career and family life.

  • Sense of Humor: Freud termed this a "high-level defense" and praised its value for meeting life's challenges. In the cult, maybe we relied on sarcasm and other hurtful speech. But our commenters here show a gentle, playful sense of humor that is life-supporting.

  • Optimism: People who throw off their cults' shackles are among the most optimistic people I know. You show a realistic view of the amazing possibilities of life now lived in freedom.

  • Gratitude: It's easy to be grateful for every day lived when you recover from repression, fear, anxiety, depression, harsh judgment, and the other cult-life realities.

  • Honesty & Trustworthiness: Many of us react strongly to the lies, fraud, and even criminality we participated in when in our cults. You may now resolve to live with a high-degree of honesty and integrity.

  • Openness & Reflectiveness: These come with time. Many people first leaving a cult are closed down and suspicious. But you may come to live transparently, share experiences and feelings, and fearlessly reflect on them consciously.

  • Inquisitiveness & Willingness to Explore: Did you become involved with your group because you were open to new things? After leaving, bolstered with increased analytical thinking, your openness is an attractive quality many people are drawn to.

  • Fearlessness: Many, many of my clients go on to start businesses, go back to school, begin writing books, and much more. You may be eager to grab your "second chance" and head in new directions.

  • Flexibility: In our cults, we learned at least two cultures, two languages. There was the language of the group — and then there was the language of "straight" society. Use that situational flexibility to further your career, develop new social skills, raise your kids. (What parent doesn't have to be flexible?)

  • Ability to Cope with Difficulties: The pressures you experienced in your group may make you more able to handle stressful situations. It feels great when you stop beating your head against a wall! And handling the normal strains of mainstream life seem like nothing after the cult.

  • Use External Challenges as Stimulus for Growth: You can be more conscious about turning bad things into good things.

  • Intelligence & Creativity: The truth is cults attract the intelligent and creative. They can't use the weak. Some of the brightest and most creative people I've known were in my group. Freed from cult repression, you can go on to a remarkably successful career.

  • Curiosity: Perhaps the same child-like curiosity — in the best sense — that led you into your group will lead to a rich and fulfilling life outside.

  • Ability to Find Meaning Even in Adversity: You can find spiritual — or social/secular — meaning in what you endured.

  • Sense of Direction & Purpose: Perhaps because you are keenly aware of time lost in the cult, you can seek new purpose more intensely.

  • Ability to Grieve: You will say goodbye to the trauma — and integrate the good things about your cult — through conscious recovery. Despite what critics may say, most former cult members do not dwell on the past and domove on. I wish the same for all reading this!

Writing this post was very healing for me. Thanks to the anonymous commenter who inspired it!

If you think of other strengths to add, please use the comments below or write me directly at jmknapp53@gmail.com. Your contribution could inspire another former member.

John M. Knapp, LMSW

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