Cults and Trauma
Posted by <Kara> on 2021-04-05
We live in a traumatized world. It can be difficult to talk about trauma in online communities because the words “triggered” and “cope” have had their own twisted lives on the internet in the past 20 years, emerging as terms that come directly from the relatively new study of trauma. When people say “that’s a cope” online, they are demanding that you accept their reality.
A working definition of trauma is any experience that overwhelms the senses and compromises our ability to cope. Awareness of trauma became more widespread when PTSD became a diagnosis in the DSM 3 in 1980, and trauma informed care was founded in 2005. Studies on the neuroplasticity of the brain have advanced in the past 10 years. There’s now scientific based evidence that leads to more acceptance that the impact of trauma has on our individual lives and our society.
With all this new knowledge, we are deeply enraged that our government continues to allow systems of oppression to inflict unnecessary trauma caused by poverty, wage labor and war. But we also know that not all trauma stems from oppression: loss, interpersonal misunderstandings and natural disasters can still turn into unprocessed traumas and unprocessed trauma can become weaponized. To avoid inflicting trauma on someone else, we will all need to heal our trauma wound, no matter the source. If one has a traumatic experience at the hands of police, and they take to the streets with the hope that calling for the elimination of the police will heal the trauma wound, one is mistaken.
Trauma overwhelms the nervous system using fight, flight or freeze to survive. In this traumatized state, one’s thinking becomes distorted, feelings can be overwhelming, and the sense of self can become fragmented. The ability to cope is compromised and the world does not seem safe. Out of this trauma, one looks for new ways to cope and to make sense of the world. The best way to heal trauma is to find caring individuals or a caring community that will provide a sense of safety, where the trauma can be processed.
It is out of this need for safety, that traumatized people are drawn to cults. Cults tend to attract traumatized individuals because they provide them with a sense of purpose, a sense of identity, a rigid belief system, and a sense of belonging. The cult’s rigidity in beliefs tends to reinforce the traumatized individual’s simplistic black and white thinking, good vs. evil, us vs. them etc. The group dynamics of the cult provides the sense of safety which the traumatized individual is seeking.
It turns out that a cult is hard to describe and even harder to define. Words and phrases used to describe a cult are a “devotion to a person, idea or object”, or a “system of religious beliefs and rituals”, or a “small social group gathered to promote a specific ideological goal”. With these characteristics, it is probably best to think of cult like groups as on a continuum. For instance, a small group of people gathering together to support each other in achieving a common goal is on one end of the continuum, which could be considered a support group. Support groups are usually considered healthy for individuals. The other end of the continuum is when the group norms, and beliefs take over the life of the individual and the culture of the group prohibits any outside influence. This group is behaving more like a cult, which can be harmful to the individual members. Cult like groups tend to attract people who are idealistic, altruistic, and people who usually want to make a change in their world. They can also attract people who are traumatized and are needing a place to hold their trauma.
The cult provides the individual with a focus on a cause outside of themselves, which will keep the individual’s trauma unprocessed and unconscious. One could say that the trauma becomes manifested onto the cult, projecting the cult as the savior which will heal them from their pain. Therefore, the cult can become one of the defenses used by a traumatized individual to manage their trauma. This defense provides them with the sense of safety which they believe their survival depends upon. That is why it is difficult for an individual to leave a cult, unless they develop other coping skills. It is also why while a member is involved with a cult , true healing from trauma is not possible.
Although cult members may be passionate about their beliefs and may feel like they need to take action, these beliefs are not deeply held or well thought out. Democrats and Republicans both enable simplistic thinking and cult like behavior from their constituents, complete with propaganda, fanaticism and saviorism, especially during election cycles. It greatly benefits our government to keep us divided and resentful of each other. It’s not an effective organizing strategy to continually demand cancelling or witholding resources or banning people with whom we disagree
It might be helpful to think of members joining a cult as part of their journey to heal their trauma. The best way to respond to anyone you think might be engaged in cult thinking is by listening, being non judgemental, and non critical. It is helpful to let them know that someone cares about their well being. That is the need that they look to the cult to fulfill. When that need is met by caring individuals outside the cult, a possible path out of the cult is provided for the traumatized individual. It is when a person leaves the cult and gives up their defensive position of the cult, that the person is able to employ new coping strategies. These new strategies may hold the possibility for authentic healing of the trauma to occur; the same trauma that drove them to the cult in the first place.
Unresolved trauma appears rampant in our society, seeming to spiral, passed on through generations. If the trauma is not made conscious, it will manifest in ways that propel oppression. Anytime we’re able to make our trauma conscious, there is liberation.