Cult mentality and being mesmerised
The more I work therapeutically with victims of prolonged, domestic violence, the more I see the similarities in the type of work I do and that of the de-programming necessary after cult membership.
It is not that the abused individual ‘loves’ their abuser in any healthy, adult or reciprocal meaning of the word, but it seems to me that they are better described as ‘mesmerised’ by their abuser. I use the word ‘mesmerise’ advisedly; the charm, control, and capacity of the abuser to negatively influence is all captured in this verb.
It is important to understand that all interactions with between the victim and abuser are in fact the same as between a hypnotist and client. There is an ongoing active, powerful, and deeply reinforcing programming taking place.
In the case of the abuser, this dynamic is used to confuse the victim’s sense of reality, self-efficacy, and ability to defend themselves.
One would hope in the case of the hypnotherapist, these same capacities are used for positive ends, to help strengthen, grow, and heal.
Most of my clients are women, but this is likely more due to social factors, than lack of need within the male population. Women are found to seek therapeutic help more readily for all physical and psychological conditions, when compared to men. So, whilst I have worked with some men clinically, my observations are mainly drawn from my experience of female survivors of abuse.
However, both the women and men I have worked with show a similar pattern, in that within their childhood parenting dyad/s there has been a high level of control and domestic violence. My clients have been reared in a context imbued with fear, unpredictability, and excessive coercion. Although admittedly, my clients are unaware of this and are often fiercely loyal of their abusive parent or parents.
This unstable and highly charged home environment creates a perfect breeding ground for future abuse to occur. I have seen two dynamics commonly emerge from this context, which work in combination to make an individual highly vulnerable to victimisation:
- These individuals are socially taught from a young age to have exceptionally low expectations regarding relationship quality. That is, they have no concept of what normal, healthy, respectful adult interactions look like, because they have had no access to good modelling in their childhood. Therefore, early in the relationship they accept and minimise attacks to their sense of self. Healthy adults do not tolerate this behaviour and cease interactions rapidly. However, those with disrupted childhoods tend to make excuses and try to find reasons for the abuser’s behaviour, often internalising responsibility for the other’s unacceptable behaviour.
- These individuals have been habituated (when we learn not to react to something, because it so frequently occurs) to an unstable, unpredictable environment. Chaos and uncertainty are so normalised that even extreme violence, will not result in them experiencing a normal fear response. They often frequently develop an additional affect disorder. An affect disorder is a mismatch between the context and the display of an appropriate emotional response.
What this looks like in clinical presentation, is an individual who whilst being able to reiterate what has happened to them, often in terrifying, graphic detail, seems completely emotionally detached from what they are describing. For example, they can be describing a particularly brutal assault and then laugh, saying, ‘yeah, so I thought he was a dick’.
From the therapist’s seat, if I were to only listen to the tone of voice and watch the body posture, I could be fooled into thinking that I was talking to someone who is merely describing going to the supermarket, rather than re-telling an act of extreme violence.
Separating from the abuser’s influence
This is where the issue of separation becomes imperative. If there is no break in contact between the abuser and victim, it is unlikely that therapy will be successful, because these individuals have little internal resources to identify and recognise that what they are experiencing is abusive. Their internal threat system is often so mis-wired and their identities so fragmented (disassociated) they are almost incapable of experiencing the event other than in third-person observer – think, as though they were watching a movie of their life, as opposed to acting in it.
These individuals have lived in environments experiencing daily insecurity for so long, they have learnt to emotionally detach themselves when confronted by them. Additionally, they have been socialised to re-write ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, so often that they literally have no capacity to identify risk.
Family context and learning
Imagine this scenario:
Daddy hits mummy. Mummy is bleeding. Mummy tells the child, ‘don’t worry mummy is fine, everything is ok. Daddy loves mummy’.
The child’s physiological, internal threat system is in overdrive, but the adult carer who helps them make sense of the external world, is informing them there is no risk – that what they have witnessed ‘is ok’. This is repeated often, forming a deep programme on what is understood as risk.
The child must learn independently how to cope with this high level of alert, as the danger is ever present, and eventually the neurological system simply fails to activate in the face of by normal standards heightened risk. It now takes ever increasing levels of risk to register that there is danger present. Whilst these individuals are highly vigilant, forever watchful for threat, they are extremely underactive in response.
Added to this physiological training i.e. the child can endure greater and greater levels of fear without experiencing it as danger; they are simultaneously being psychologically and socially embedded with what is acceptable behaviour and what to expect in an adult relationship. That is, their idea of healthy interactions is grossly warped. How this plays out in daily life, is that their abuser often has complete control of their victim’s mental capacities and how they understand and make sense of the world.
Because these individuals have literally no internal model of healthy relationships, nor have they had the normal childhood opportunities to learn how to create internal limits and boundaries (as taught by healthy, secure parents), they are often essentially blind and immune to the fact that what they are experiencing is abuse.
A common refrain I hear is, ‘but he didn’t hit me’.
The individual then goes on to describe being cut, strangled, spat on, pinned, screamed at, locked in rooms, kicked, humiliated, neglected, terrorised and ‘always walking on eggshells’.
They then repeat, almost mantra like, “BUT he didn’t hit me’, to which I reply, ‘well that’s ok then. Clearly no abuse there.’
Their line is so arbitrarily drawn, that these individuals can become completely oblivious to the actual and very real physical abuse that they are experiencing.
Deprogramming and rebuilding
My job then is to firstly begin with introducing them to the idea that they have been victims of domestic abuse; helping them redefine the parameters and their internal definitions of what abuse is. This is primarily a job of reframing and education.
This stage of therapy is not a battle of logic, but a counter-battle against deep, emotional programming and is the necessary first step in gaining traction with my clients via demonstrating that I am trustworthy and authentic. It is certainly not about being their friend, as at this point, my task is to challenge their long-held beliefs and begin an initial process of shocking them out of their ‘mesmerised’ state.
That is why, in those early stages of therapy, it is vital there is no contact between the abuser and victim because I am essentially trying to shout over the internalised voice of the abuser. This is extremely challenging and any real-life reinforcement of that voice by the actual abuser, is likely to swamp my effort, as the abuser’s voice simply holds much greater emotional power and resonance than anything I have.
The next step is to access their emotional memories. It is vital that there is an integration of their experiences, as they begin to observe and learn what their underlying emotional reaction actually was during these incidents. It is an extremely powerful and cathartic part of the therapeutic journey, and lays the foundation for the emotional, psychological, and social growth yet to come.
My clients need to experience and understand how their fear reaction has been blocked, in order to, allow their healthy fear response to be activated; otherwise they are at significant risk of returning to the abuser or entering future abusive relationships. I use hypnotherapy at this stage, as it allows the client to safely access their difficult memories, before moving on to understanding their faulty learning patterns.
The last stage, which is by far the most time intensive, perhaps indeed life-long, is the deprogramming of the abusive beliefs. This is essentially where the client begins to experience and explore their potential as a more integrated adult. It is by no means an easy or straight-forward process, but thankfully it builds on its own successes, as the client begins to reinforce their own growth and maturation.
Leaving the influence of the cult leader
This is why I have begun to increasingly think in terms of ‘deprogramming a cult member’ when working with these clients. Just as a specialist in cults must break the connection between the cult leader and his followers, I am having to break the intense connection between my clients and their abuser.
In fact, I would argue that my clients have essentially been indoctrinated into a cult of violence and disorder from childhood, and just like any cult member attempting to break away, the process is extremely energy intensive and involves drastic rupturing and destruction of their old beliefs, before they can begin to implant new, more healthy ways of seeing the world
However, speaking both from personal and professional experience it is a do-able process. I can say, hand on heart, although escaping domestic violence is tough and at times, terrifying; the move towards true independance and safety is the most valuable process of a client can make.