This was one of the last presentations I took in. Very powerful stuff.
ICSA 2012 Conference Listening to the Still Small Voice: Reclaiming the Self after Leaving Religious Totalistic Groups
Who Am I? Most people go through a stage in late adolescence or early adulthood where they ask this question of themselves. They are moving towards independence from their families and into a whole new world where they will be required to face many decisions regarding who they are and what type of life they want.
But especially for people who are raised in a cult this question never really gets addressed because the group only allows for a broader response to the question. I am (a member of this group). It does not address the issue of who am I as an individual. The group only asserts that there is a social identity as a member of the group. Therefore true independence can never be achieved.
Catherine De Boer has been doing some research on this question with a focus on people who leave cults. Leaving any social group, whether it is the family, a club, a sports team or a school can be a challenge because we all gain a certain identity from belonging to the group. If the experience was good we will be proud to say we belonged there. If the experience wasn’t positive we probably won’t be telling too many people we were part of it. But generally we can be part of a family, participate in a sports club, go to college and still develop a sense of who we are as an individual. Rarely do any one of these demand that you surrender who you are as a person.
Cults are different. They do demand that you give up your personal identity. Other interests are forbidden. The only group you belong to is the cult even to the point of giving up family members if they are not part of the group and in some groups they even separate family members who are also members of the group. The denial of individual identities and in some cases familial links has one purpose – to control the individual. If you can limit what they enjoy, associations with disapproved people or other groups then you have a stronger hold on them.
So what happens when a person leaves or “disengages” from a cult?
Generally when we leave one group we find another that meets our needs better. At one point we may have gotten a lot out of playing hockey or chess. But times change and we may find our interests change. So we leave the one group to look for another or something different. But this assumes that in the course of our development we have learned who we are and it is that knowing that moves us in other directions searching for other ways our needs can be met.
Disengagement from a cult however is different. The person may not know what they like, what their interests or even what talents or skills they have. They haven’t had social interactions with enough interests or activities to know what they want, what their interests are, their talents. They have to start exploring these things at the same time that they are dealing with leaving the group, all their friends, sometimes their families or their work. They may have to deal with a traumatic and forced disengagement from the group. These things can make adjustment into living in the real world extremely difficult.
I sit and think about how I felt when I was forcefully disengaged from the Jehovah’s Witnesses. I felt lost. And the first thing I did was jump head first into college. That kept me busy for several years. But I wasn’t working on who I was as a person. Granted I was a sponge and absorbed so many new thoughts and ideas. It was fabulous. Eventually though I had to sit back and think about that question: Who am I?
A person can experiment with groups, or interests, take courses, read books and just talk to people. But ultimately you still have to wade through all of it and decide what is right for you. And that is where the “still small voice” comes in. We need to sit quietly and sort through it all, the good, the bad, and what falls in between to find that voice inside that says: “This is who I am.” And then you find the courage to stand by your beliefs simply because they are your beliefs and say something about who you are as an individual apart from any group.