I’m OK, you’re OK
Being in a cult-like environment can affect us in ways that may not be immediately visible.
In September 2005, I had been out of the Sea Org for five months. I had managed to get a good job working as Production Manager for a weekly magazine in Santa Barbara. I was adjusting to life outside the Sea Org and, I thought, doing pretty well at it.
Then I made a mistake.
It wasn’t even a big mistake – I put the wrong phone number on an ad. It meant we had to run a free ad for the advertiser. It was barely a blip in the weekly production of a 60-page magazine. Regrettable, yes, but not the end of the world.
But for some reason, it hit me hard. I felt waves of guilt and shame wash over me, along with a kind of angry defensiveness. I was close to tears. It was completely irrational. I knew the people at the magazine were good people. They weren’t going to shame me or make me guilty. They weren’t going to assign me Liability and insist I do an amends project. They weren’t going to scream obscenities at me, or accuse me of treason or sabotage. They weren’t going to give me hours of Security Checking to handle my “CI,” then read my overts in front of a group muster. They weren’t going to throw me into the lake, have me run around the building 50 times, or assign me to physical labor.
But I had spent years in an environment where those exact things would have happened, even for something as minor as a typo.
I was so upset that I had to go for a walk to cool off. When I got back, my boss pulled me aside. He could see I was upset – he didn’t know why of course. He reassured me that it was no big deal. “Look,” he said, “everyone makes mistakes. That’s not important. What is important is that we learn from our mistakes.”
In those few minutes, I swear he demonstrated more compassion, more wisdom, and more executive skill than 99.999% of the so-called “executives” at the Int Base. And from that day to this one, I have never made an error in a client’s phone number or address or website address.
But that one incident made me realize that the effects of life in a cult could be greater than we might realize. I’ve been doing some study on that subject, including a fascinating book called Take Back Your Life: Recovering from Cults and Abusive Relationships by Janja Lalich and Madeline Tobias. The authors have spent many years studying former cult members and the issues they have to deal with. They discuss something called “cognitive distortions,” which is a fancy way of saying “errors in thinking.”
Here are the ten “cognitive distortions” that they have found to be common with many recovering former cult members. I present these not as Gospel, but as something to think about and discuss.
All or nothing thinking: Cults teach black and white thinking, and we were exposed to plenty of that in Scientology. “All psychs are bad.” “All critics are SP.” “David Miscavige is perfect and never makes mistakes.” “Apostates always lie.” This kind of thinking stifles your critical thinking abilities, and creates a “them against us” mindset. I find that it helps to question and challenge those black-and-white data whenever they pop up. Ask yourself things like “is it really true that all psychiatrists are evil?”
Part of the “all or nothing” thinking of a cult is the idea that the cult’s mission is “everything” and individual goals and desires are “nothing.” Coming out of Scientology, one might feel the loss of a huge, overriding planet-saving mission. In comparison, simply living one’s life and pursuing one’s own goals can seem “small” or “boring.” Well, one remedy for that is to get busy living life, setting one’s own goals and going after them. Another remedy is education. Discover for yourself how big Scientology really is and what its “planetary impact” really has been. Maybe you won’t miss that “big game” so much when you discover how minor and insignificant it really is.
Overgeneralization: Cults tend to paint a dire picture of what happens to people who leave the cult. Did you think bad things would happen to you if you left Scientology? Did you think you would become PTS, or terminally ill, or a failure? When you make mistakes or get sick, do you hear these kinds of harsh criticisms in your head? Do you feel that every slightest setback is those dire predictions coming true?
Mental filter: Cults train people to dwell on their mistakes and weaknesses. In Scientology, Security Checks, Ethics interviews, Conditions, O/W write-ups are all becoming more and more common. One is trained to constantly monitor one’s thoughts and actions for any negativity. Even the smallest transgression becomes cause for guilt, criticism and repentance. This can make it difficult to make life decisions. If you don’t trust yourself, even the smallest life decision becomes daunting. Consider this: are you too hard on yourself? Do you berate yourself unnecessarily for small errors and mistakes? Do you sometimes lose sight of the positive things going on?
Disqualifying the positive: One means of cult control is to not allow people to take personal pride in their own achievements. Anything that is good comes from the Leader or the Doctrine, not from the individual. Have you been made to feel stupid or inadequate? Have you really listed out and acknowledged your own achievements and strengths?
Jumping to conclusions: Many cults teach that mind-reading is possible. I’ve seen a version of this where Scientologists claim to have a “knowingness” about a person or situation before they really know anything. Have you ever jumped to a conclusion about a person or situation that turned out to be incorrect? Sure, you perceive what you perceive about people or situations, but don’t substitute a kind of mystic assumption for good honest communication and observation.
Magnification and minimization: Cults tend to maximize the faults and weaknesses of members while minimizing their strengths and talents. And they do the opposite for the Leader. Putting your own strengths and talents into proper perspective is vital. Have you listed out what your real personal assets and strengths are?
Emotional reasoning: Some cults place emphasis on emotions over thinking. What a person feels is paramount. The Scientology version of this, in my opinion is “positive postulate.” We believe that if we postulate something with enough positive intention, it will happen. Conversely, if we experience any failure or misfortune, we tend to blame our own “negative postulates.” This can lead to a sort of constant introverted analysis of the “purity” of our postulates.
“Should” statements: Any cult has a lot of should, must, have to, ought to type of statements. Even after one leaves, one can still hear these statements. Some of my own favorites are “I should be productive all of the time,” “I must never be idle,” and so on.
Labeling and mislabeling: Labels are judgmental. You may have been assigned many labels in Scientology – PTS, NCG, counter-intention (CI), SP, “ethics particle,” dilettante. Continuing to think in terms of these labels can be self-defeating. Using them on others is judgmental. Or, you may be assigning other labels to yourself for ever joining Scientology: stupid, dupe, foolish, crazy. All of these labels are self-defeating. If you must use labels, how about some positive ones, like idealistic, altruistic, hard-working? You joined Scientology to help people. Give yourself proper credit for that impulse.
Personalization: In Scientology we were always taught that we were fully responsible for everything that happens to us. Again, that can result in a lot of interiorizing worry and guilt – “what did I do to pull that in?” sort of thing. It’s important to be realistic about what you can and cannot control.
The point is, go easy on yourself. Realize that feelings of shame and guilt, failure, depression, or hopelessness could be leftovers from a cult-like lifestyle. Think about your strengths and talents, not about your weaknesses and failures, which are not as large as you may think. Don’t beat yourself up over mistakes and setbacks. And most importantly, educate yourself.