Whether you are already in one, or considering joining any kind of group be it a religious group, place of work, performance group etc. the following article will enlighten you on what signs to look out for.
By Rick Ross – Expert Consultant and Intervention Therapist.
Ten warning signs of a potentially unsafe group/leader.
Absolute authoritarianism without meaningful accountability.
No tolerance for questions or critical inquiry.
No meaningful financial disclosure regarding budget, expenses such as an independently audited financial statement.
Unreasonable fear about the outside world, such as impending catastrophe, evil conspiracies and persecutions.
There is no legitimate reason to leave, former followers are always wrong in leaving, negative or even evil.
Former members often relate the same stories of abuse and reflect a similar pattern of grievances.
There are records, books, news articles, or television programs that document the abuses of the group/leader.
Followers feel they can never be “good enough”.
The group/leader is always right.
The group/leader is the exclusive means of knowing “truth” or receiving validation, no other process of discovery is really acceptable or credible.
Ten warning signs regarding people involved in/with a potentially unsafe group/leader.
Extreme obsessiveness regarding the group/leader resulting in the exclusion of almost every practical consideration.
Individual identity, the group, the leader and/or God as distinct and separate categories of existence become increasingly blurred. Instead, in the follower’s mind these identities become substantially and increasingly fused–as that person’s involvement with the group/leader continues and deepens.
Whenever the group/leader is criticized or questioned it is characterized as “persecution”.
Uncharacteristically stilted and seemingly programmed conversation and mannerisms, cloning of the group/leader in personal behavior.
Dependency upon the group/leader for problem solving, solutions, and definitions without meaningful reflective thought. A seeming inability to think independently or analyze situations without group/leader involvement.
Hyperactivity centered on the group/leader agenda, which seems to supercede any personal goals or individual interests.
A dramatic loss of spontaneity and sense of humor.
Increasing isolation from family and old friends unless they demonstrate an interest in the group/leader.
Anything the group/leader does can be justified no matter how harsh or harmful.
Former followers are at best-considered negative or worse evil and under bad influences. They can not be trusted and personal contact is avoided.
Ten signs of a safe group/leader.
A safe group/leader will answer your questions without becoming judgmental and punitive.
A safe group/leader will disclose information such as finances and often offer an independently audited financial statement regarding budget and expenses. Safe groups and leaders will tell you more than you want to know.
A safe group/leader is often democratic, sharing decision making and encouraging accountability and oversight.
A safe group/leader may have disgruntled former followers, but will not vilify, excommunicate and forbid others from associating with them.
A safe group/leader will not have a paper trail of overwhelmingly negative records, books, articles and statements about them.
A safe group/leader will encourage family communication, community interaction and existing friendships and not feel threatened.
A safe group/leader will recognize reasonable boundaries and limitations when dealing with others.
A safe group/leader will encourage critical thinking, individual autonomy and feelings of self-esteem.
A safe group/leader will admit failings and mistakes and accept constructive criticism and advice.
A safe group/leader will not be the only source of knowledge and learning excluding everyone else, but value dialogue and the free exchange of ideas.
Don’t be naïve, develop a good BS Detector.
You can protect yourself from unsafe groups and leaders by developing a good BS detector. Check things out, know the facts and examine the evidence. A safe group will be patient with your decision making process. If a group or leader grows angry and anxious just because you want to make an informed and careful decision before joining; beware.
A family is like all living things; it grows, develops and constantly evolves over time as the family structure changes. Sometimes changes to the family structure occur as a result of new members joining the family, through marriage and the birth of children; other times, it’s the result of losing family members as our loved ones pass away.
It can be particularly difficult to cope with the breakdown of a family, through separation or divorce. How people deal with a separation or divorce is different for each person, and there is no right or wrong way of dealing with it. However, it can be helpful to understand how separation and divorce can impact the people within a family.
What does ‘divorce’ really mean?
Divorce is the ending of a marriage – but what about the additional relationships that were tied to this marriage? These peripheral relationships include extended families, such as in-laws, whilst core relationships include children. The dissolution of a marriage through divorce, however, does not address the impact of divorce upon all of the additional relationships that were created through the marriage.
Children are often the most affected by a separation or divorce. The breakup of the parental unit brings with it many changes. Changes may be physical – the literal separation of each parent to different places of residences – as well as emotional: primarily the confusion and frustration of not understanding what is happening, or why.
This is why children sometimes protest against the situation in unusual or unexpected ways, such as unusually poor academic performance, withdrawal from friends and family, and other problematic behaviours. Typically, a child’s first reaction to divorce or separation is confusion, denial, and fear. Children may subsequently experience anger, depression, or even panic attacks, unless their feelings are assuaged early on in the separation by each parent.
The effect on the extended family
A separation or divorce can also affect the extended family of a marriage. In some cases, the family members of each spouse may feel like they have to take sides. This may be difficult, confusing and may also adversely affect the children too.
Children are good at sensing when something is wrong, and they’re especially deft at picking up on hostility – particularly if it’s being directed toward one of their parents. Post-separation, children typically struggle with knowing how to balance divided loyalties; feeling disloyal if they still love dad when mum is visibly upset, and vice versa.
When grandparents and other members of an extended family are also conflicted over whether they should take sides, kids pick up on this. If the extended family does express prejudice toward one parent, this can reinforce those feelings of confusion in children, and damage the relationship the child has with each parent.
Moving forward after a separation
Though it may be difficult to manage whilst you’re in the throes of a separation, it’s important that you communicate regularly with your loved ones – especially your children, extended family, and your in-laws. It’s important that you explain to them how you would like your family to move forward, despite the separation or divorce.
Talk about your feelings openly with your children and family, even if they are feelings of hurt or frustration. Let them see that although you’re upset, it’s okay to talk about how they are feeling, too. Doing this eliminates the sense that certain topics may be off limits, which can exacerbate each person’s feelings of confusion and frustration.
A separation is not a competition
It’s also important that you reinforce that even though you are separating from your partner, no one is to take sides, least of all the children. Even if, deep down, you don’t feel this way – which is common for people going through a separation or divorce – it’s vital for the children that you don’t make them feel compelled to take sides. This just creates inner feelings of conflict and torment, which can negatively impact their emotional and physical wellbeing.
It’s also helpful if you have these discussions with your children while your partner is present, so they can see that despite everything, you’re both remaining amicable toward each other. Try not to argue or fight in front of the children, and if you do need to have discussions with your partner that may become heated, try to have them while the children are not around.
Even though this particular chapter of your family life is ending, the family you’ve built never really breaks up or goes away – it merely evolves and moves forward, and it’s important to remember that as you negotiate this difficult time.
Mourning is hard. It doesn’t matter if the person has passed away, is estranged from you or has chosen not to have contact with you. It. is. hard.
Mourning can be more complicated when the person is still alive but you cannot see them, speak to them, write to them, tell them about your day, your happy moments or your big achievements in life. Or the opposite spectrum, like not being able to talk to them when things are tough, knowing they would have the perfect advice or the perfect response to how you are feeling. We get dependent on certain people and their responses to the events going on in our lives. Sometimes, when a person is abruptly cut out of your life, or you have just “lost touch” when one or both of you moved away, it can be difficult to cope. We find that we miss the smell of our mother’s cooking or the way that she smiled when she was super proud of us.
In the place of those happy memories come tears, pain, repressed feelings and sometimes anger depending on how the relationship ended. Knowing they are still out there somewhere in this big ole world makes it sometimes hard to bear. We don’t know how they are doing, how life has changed for them, we don’t get to celebrate things with them anymore.
All of these feelings are completely normal. Beating yourself up for cutting a person out of your life for your better interest is not healthy and shouldn’t be a reason to let that person back into your life.
They hurt you.
They did something to make you feel as you do now.
We each have the right to take care of our own well-being. The problem with that is it often contradicts the notion that we should “respect our elders,” “take care of our parents” or that “love conquers all.”
All of these philosophies are one-sided. They leave no space for the truth. Sometimes we just have shitty parents, friends, relatives or relationships. They don’t take into account that sometimes the abuse of said elder, parent or person we love can be toxic, overwhelming, overbearing and sometimes downright scary.
That doesn’t mean we cannot still love them! It just means we choose to love them from a distance. I found that in my case, staying in limited contact was only hurting me more because any time I received any kind of contact it was never positive. It always dragged me right back down into the toxic cesspool of despair. I was depressed because I couldn’t fix all the things wrong with their life, with mine and with our relationship, or fix our inability to see eye-to-eye on many important subjects.
I was allowing myself to wither away by trying to keep someone else alive…
That couldn’t work for me anymore. I couldn’t be the person I wanted to be by being a depressed, anxious, worried, fearful, stressed out individual. I wanted freedom from terror.
It is so weird to think that I felt that way. Because how can you feel terror towards a person you also love?
Do not beat yourself up for this.
For those of you still reading, I want to tell you this:
Your feelings are valid.
You have a right to feel them, just as they are, with no manipulation by others or by the person who is hurting you.
Do not beat yourself up for feeling your feelings.
Do not keep giving up your patience, sanity, clear-minded stability and rational perceptions for the sake of the other person’s happiness. You only have one life, don’t waste it by living for someone else.
You cannot heal someone who chooses not to heal themselves. Do not let yourself fall into this trap. There is a reason you chose to leave that person behind, but it’s OK to mourn the loss of this relationship.
Note: The following document contains very harrowing accounts of the suffering that has been caused by ‘the cultic separation of loved ones.’ There are 91 accounts here, all from ex-cult members who all deserve a big thank you for contributing and for sharing their feelings and pain. Thanks to all!
Sometimes, facts about an atrocity need to be dissected and spelt out bold and clear for all to see. Only then, when it is seen for what it actually is, will society rise up shouting, “Enough is Enough!”
Enough Is Enough highlights one of the most appalling acts of humanity; ‘Cultic Separation’ of families. This is where man-made religious laws, are used by groups, in the name of their leader or god, to coerce and overpower people’s minds. It results in parents shunning and have nothing more to do with their children, husbands from wives, wives from husbands, siblings form siblings, children from grandparents etc etc.
For example, a survey conducted with 240 ex Exclusive Brethren members in 2012, revealed that 76% of this group, had family (Children, Father, Mother, Siblings or Grandparents) still in the group and thus were separated from them. If Uncles, Aunts or Cousins were included this number would rise. (Mytton, 2012)
There are over 1000 cults in the UK alone.
The compilation list on this page is from 3 questions asked of ex-cult members:
1: What family members are still separated from you?
2: How do you feel about the effects of the family separation?
3: The group were you part of?
Do you have family members separated from you by a religious group? Can you answer the 3 questions above? If so, please email me on firstname.lastname@example.org and I shall add your facts to the list. (Use Anonymous/Initials or full name if you want).
Your contribution will help create awareness which can lead to people getting set free from the clutches of man’s control!
Thank you for your support
1: Separated from 4 grandparents, 2 Uncles, 2 Aunts and 10 Cousins since 1970. My Dad, Mum and brother separated from me since 1988. (32 years)
2: The effects: My family unit destroyed, missing out on decades of love and support.
3: Group I was in – Exclusive Brethren.
John Spinks (Liverpool UK)
1. When we left in 1960 I was separated from my brother and all my extended family apart from one aunt and one set of grandparents.
2. The impact on my mother of losing her son was profound. For over 30 years she did not see him and could not understand why not as she was a christian. She saw him before she died but it was not a real reconnection and she died desolate. Her distress impacted on us all. We all missed out on years of love and support from our aunts, uncles, cousins and one set of grandparents.
3. The group was the Exclusive Brethren.
1: Separated by being shunned from my daughter and two grandsons (her sons)
2: Missed out on the joy and love of family life with them. Also her siblings have missed out on their relationship with their sister and nephews. We are now old and in ill health and need her support more than ever.
3: The cult is Jehovahs Witnesses
1. Separated from parents, brothers, sisters-in-law, nephews, nieces, uncles, aunts, cousins since 1977.
2. My kids have missed out on so much love and support and as a young mother, I could have so used my mother’s advice and help.
3. The group was the Exclusive Brethren.
1. Separated from just about everyone, 1st was the 60 split, then the 70 split when most left, all are in different cults as far as I understand, also appear to have Separation, and never seen since…..
2. I left in early 1973…. Parent + all 6 uncles and aunts have died, some years ago I understand, All 22 nephews and nieces [maybe more ?] + Sister have got married some years ago Understand all of there kids are married with kids. 47 – 60 years Separated is a long time, the odd times I hear a nephews or niece has died……….. This is a so say a religious system ?
3. The group was the Exclusive Brethren.
Philip from Cirencester
1. My mother, my father, my brother, his wife, my nieces and nephews and my grand nieces and newphews, my grandmother, all of my aunts, uncles and cousins.
2. I never saw my father again (from 1990 – 2000 when he died) as they refused to let us see him – even when he was dying. They didn’t even tell us that he had died until they had already buried him. I did see my mother a couple of times – one of the times she talked to my brother and I through the screen door. The second time was when the PB were going through their little exercise of trying to get people to return to their fold around 2003. The one brother that stayed in the brethren hasn’t made contact with his siblings (3 of us) since we went to our mother’s graveside in 2004. It’s a pain that never goes away. One minute you are part of a big loving family and then you are dead to them as if you never existed.
3. Exclusive Brethren.
1: Separated from twin brother and eldest brother and their extended families.
2: Missing out on family celebrations , closeness , not being involved in their lives.
3: Part of the U.K. LDS
1: I have lost 6 children and their children – my grandchildren: 12 I believe 18 direct descendants in total. And numerous cousins.
2: The effects are really too many to list as 18 years later problems related to my upbringing still arise. The biggies are unimaginable grief. PTSD, loneliness, and difficulty living with other people.
3: Exclusive Brethren
1: What actual family members have been separated from you? My mother and my father (20 years) and a sister that turned her back three years ago.
2: I was on my own at the age of 18, became pregnant shortly after. I had to figure out how to be an adult and take care of a child on my own. I had no college education and barely any life experience. So I made some really stupid choices along the way. My two kids and my husband have no idea what my parents are like. Let alone met them. My parents drove 5 hours to tell me they were moving. I called up my mother in law and said this is your chance, come meet my parents. So we pretended that she needed to borrow a dish. Lol. They stayed for twenty minutes. I lost my sister for 17 years. I missed her kids growing up. And she dealt with some serious domestic abuse that was just swept under the rug.
3: What group were you part of? Jehovah Witness Boulder CO Hall
1: My dear mum and dad, and brother, wife, and children. Multitudes of cousins of who I was very close too.
2: Great sadness by my husband and hurt for me. Children very scathing of my family and the eb’s and not entertain churches and religion of any kind, as if that’s what religion is tearing up families they didn’t want a bar of it. Myself a life of constant heart ache, a shadow I can never erase.
3: I grew up in the Exclusive Brethren, Plymouth Brethren.
1: Separated from father, sister, wife and two children.
1: Lost contact with many relatives when the separation edict came in; uncles, aunts cousins etc. Both my parents had siblings who never joined. I lost all my neighbourhood friends too at this time. I think I was about 8. My 3 girls have never met 4 of their aunts, their fathers sisters although they oldest two are in their 40s. Two out of three never met their grandfather who lived in the same city. When their GF died on a Tuesday, he was buried on the Wednesday and we only found out the following Friday when someone told their GF’s brother who had never been in the EBs.
2: As an only child my friends and cousins had been an important part of my upbringing. I was so lonely as no EB kids lived close by. I remember hanging over the fence watching my friends play and also looking through a hole in the fence as well.
I remember sitting outside in the car when my dad visited one of his brothers briefly, so I was unable to talk or play with cousins who I had previously spent a lot of time with, who we shared Christmases and birthday parties with.
I remember coming to the conclusion that I certainly didn’t want to have children in that restrictive environment. I was fortunate to attend school to Grade 12, did well at school and got entrance to Uni and a scholarship to attend as well. I still planned to leave and go but loved my parents dearly. Unfortunately, my father died 6 weeks before my matriculation exams. I felt I could not leave my mother in the midst of her grief. My worldly friends from school all went off to Uni and again I lost good friends. I stayed solely for my mother for the next two years. Meanwhile I met a guy an EB who was later kicked out. Half his family were in, half out. His parents had broken up because of EBs when his Dad was told to kick his older brother out of the house at age 16. The mother left then too, leaving her other 8 children who had no contact with her even though she had been granted access by a judge. This screwed up the whole family I believe as I would class this as early childhood trauma.
I ran away from home to another state of Australia at age 20 but was cut off from my mother from 1972 until her death in 2006.
I married the ex EB guy and we were together 40 years and had 3 beautiful children. This impacted even their lives. They had one grandparent out of 4 and she had her own issues from leaving her children behind. I used to try to keep contact with my mother by writing letters and always visited when in the old home town but if the EBs knew I was coming she was shipped out of town. Visiting was always a quick five minutes at the front door where she was obviously fearful someone would see her talking to me.
Our kids never formed a bond with her. Eventually she lived with other EBs (she had no relatives in) and I totally lost where she was for about 5 years. I remember visiting the last time with my children in 1999 and my then husband I having to sit outside on a garden wall while the 3 girls got to talk to her in the front hall. I couldn’t even see her through the sun shining on the screen door. One of my daughters said she had tears running down her cheek and just kept looking at me.
A couple of years ago I heard she had tried to leave but was prevented. I have no proof of this but have no reason to doubt the story. I never got to visit her unchaperoned again.
They did tell me when she passed away and I did go to the graveside not the EB funeral. If she hadn’t died on a Friday afternoon so the funeral couldn’t happen before Monday morning first thing I would have been unable to make it up there.
Both my ex husband and I tried to connect with our “out” relatives after we left but it was difficult and I believe some even blamed us for how we or our “in” relatives had cut them off. I think for me it is easier since my mother passed away but the ongoing rejection and even grieving her alone has certainly contributed to a lot of heartache and anguish. I used to feel as if the first 20 years of my life had never existed. I never doubted my mother loved me as I was a very wanted only child after she suffered numerous miscarriages. I lived with the guilt of hurting her. I found her rejection of my children’s separate issue. Getting married and having children is something you normally share with your family. I felt we didn’t have that extended family to share with. I believe the traumas both my ex-husband and I suffered contributed to our marriage breakdown for two wounded people after 40 years together. I believe too, although our children were born out of the cult it has affected them to a lesser degree as well. There is so much family they have been cheated out of getting to know and they have grown up with two parents who experienced trauma at the hands of a cult which has certainly affected our attachment with them.
3: Exclusive Brethren
1: Mum and Dad, 3 brothers and 1 sister and all their many children, Grandmother, Aunts and Uncles, many, many cousins and now great nephews and nieces.
2: My children have had no grandparents, cousins, uncles, aunts, and no reference to the older generation of relatives and their younger relatives. Personally I lost my entire culture, friends, family and reference to life and living.
3: Exclusive Brethren / PBCC
1 I was separated from my extended family, father, step siblings, 2 grandparents, and cousins from around 1960. I was separated from my siblings and my mother in 1976. 2. Severe isolation when I first left. I had no friends, no support group. It was like moving to a foreign country without going anywhere. 3 Jehovah’s Witnesses
1. My dad, my five brothers and sisters, my eight kids since 2013. There is been absolutely no contact except occasionally from my older brother.
2. For me, I spent a total of four months in a mental rehabilitation hospital because of nervous breakdowns and 2 attempted suicides.
1: As of Oct 2017 my only daughter. Since then my 2 sons have returned to me & my youngest son who left the organization with me.
2: My youngest willing to take his life knowing he would lose his family.
Teresa Garcia Espinoza
1: Mother, Father, two brothers, aunties and uncles.
2: When parents died, no word of this to me – times changed and was allowed to see my younger brother just before he passed .. my children have grown up not knowing their grandparents, uncles and aunties, and their cousins. Had to make a new life with new friends, always held hope parents would see the light and leave, but no …..
3: Of course – Exclusive Brethren.
1: My two children, ages 3 and 4.
2: The effect was tearing my heart out and the effect on then was they did not have a mother and we are still estranged 35 years later.
3: I was Mormon.
1. Separated from my father, some of my aunts, uncles, and cousins in 1982.
2. The JW ex refused to work and entertained the brothers while I worked in a sewing factory, a true sweat shop. The ex punched me in the face, then the brothers told me it was my duty to go back to the marriage . The brothers monetarily supported custody battles while the kids and I lived in public housing. 10 years of fighting the ex and the JW team. My father is widowed, in his 90s and lives alone. His claims the congregation in Central PA is tending to his needs. He’s rail thin, can hardly walk, and they hold the meetings at his house. He plows the snow for their ease of passage to his front door using his old tractor. I’m not sure how he climbs onto the thing. My only living sibling and I don’t speak, and my other sibling died from alcohol and drugs. I found my victory through education and my 3 children, all have college degrees, 2 with their Master’s. My life is beautiful!
1. My Parents (including three mothers), two mothers in law, 20 siblings, 12 siblings in law (is that a thing?), around 50 blood related nieces, 50 blood related nephews, and around 10,000 friends and community members.
2. The effect was that I felt alone, betrayed, and abandoned. My husband and I faced the “wicked” Outside World and had to try to figure out things other people know already.
3. I was FLDS. Mormon fundamentalist polygamy.
1: I knew what I would be facing, before I left. Lost my three children and two grandchildren.
2: It was my choice…therefore I live with it. I miss them dearly, however, because I was raised in a dissociated life no attatchements to anyone, this made it a little easier on me.
1. Told to keep distancing from none JW relatives until no relationship exists. And then shunned and lost my mother, 2 sisters, 1 grandmother. The only family I had left.
2. Family unit distroyed, causing severe mental health problems on both my JW family side and my side. My grandmother’s health deteriorating from stress. She will not make it to the summer. And I can’t even be with her. Even if shunning were to stop. There is alot of damage. No one will ever view each other the same.
3. The group I was in was Jehovah’s witnesses
1: Both parents,sister,niece,cousins,cousins children.
2: Family broken up, my 2 brothers xjws with me, rest against us, shunned and treated like dirt even when family tragedy happened. Depression,feelings of never being good enough, stress loneliness.
3: Jehovah’s Witness
1: Both parents, 2 sisters, 2 brothers in law, numerous nieces and nephews, and cousins.
2: 30 years of not being in each others’ lives – missing weddings, graduations, births, and other life events as well as basic family support.
3 – Jehovah’s Witnesses
1. My husband and I have lost a daughter, son in law, granddaughter and grandson. I was never really close to most Jws, so nothing lost there.
2. It’s been one of the most painful events in my life. Like 4 people died all at once. I rationalize that since we’re family maybe they will see us some. Was I wrong, it’s going into the 4th year.
What causes us to move on from traumatic experiences? Psychologists are finding it’s not always about bouncing back—sometimes we have to feel our whole world fall to pieces.
The Vietnam War veteran had enlisted when he was young, serving two combat tours and surviving multiple firefights. “To this day,” said psychologist Jack Tsai of the Yale School of Medicine, “his war memories are triggered by certain smells that remind him of Vietnam”: overgrown vegetation, the acrid stench of burning, or even sweat—like that which ran in rivulets down the faces of men fighting for their lives in the sweltering jungles—brought it all back. It was classic post-traumatic stress.
As Tsai was treating him (successfully) for PTSD, however, something unexpected emerged. The vet still described his Vietnam experiences as horrific, but he said the painful memories remind him of who he is. His experience typifies research psychologists’ new understanding of trauma: When people are least resilient—in the sense that they are knocked for a loop, do not bounce back quickly or at all, and suffer emotionally for months, if not years—they can eventually emerge from trauma stronger, more appreciative of life, more sympathetic to the suffering of others, and with different (arguably more enlightened) values and priorities.
By no stretch of the imagination would the vet be called resilient in the sense that research psychologists use the term: an ability to go on with life, essentially unchanged mentally and emotionally, in the wake of profound adversity. To the contrary, environmental triggers returned the vet’s troubled mind to the horrors of land mines and ambushes and friends blown apart. At the same time, the vet’s military experience (and his triumph over PTSD) makes him feel that he can accomplish anything. “Nothing bothers him too much, because everything pales in comparison to Vietnam,” said Tsai.
For many, post-traumatic growth brings closer relationships—as family and other loved ones are more cherished—and a stronger sense of connection to other sufferers.
This effect, post-traumatic growth, was so named in 1996 by psychologists Lawrence Calhoun and Richard Tedeschi of the University of North Carolina. It can take many forms, but all involve positive psychological changes: a greater sense of personal strength (“if I survived that, I can survive anything”), deeper spiritual awareness, greater appreciation of life, and recognition of previously unseen pathways and possibilities for one’s life. For many, post-traumatic growth brings closer relationships—as family and other loved ones are more cherished—and a stronger sense of connection to other sufferers.
Stronger Than Before
The concept that from great suffering can come great wisdom is both ancient and familiar. An oncologist friend of mine talks about patients who say cancer was one of the best things that ever happened to them, cutting through life’s usual trivia and making them value the truly important. President Jimmy Carter’s Chief of Staff, Hamilton Jordan (1944–2008), said his battle with cancer made him see that “the simple joys of life are everywhere and are boundless.”
After a car crash in which my childhood friend Joyce lost her right leg at age 20, her months-long recovery and rehab left her with hours upon empty hours to think. “Stuff that used to be a big deal, like being popular, just isn’t anymore,” I remember her saying. “I care about making a difference [she became a schoolteacher], and I think I’m more empathetic. I feel that when someone is suffering I understand in my bones what she’s experiencing. Before, it was just, oh, poor her.” However, post-traumatic growth does not mean traumas are desirable, let alone that they should be downplayed when they befall others. As bestselling author Rabbi Harold Kushner said about the spiritual growth he experienced after the death of his 14-year-old son, “I would give up all of those gains in a second if I could have him back.”
Few lives are without suffering, crisis, and traumas, from extreme or rare ones, such as becoming a war refugee or being taken hostage, to common ones, such as bereavement, accidents, house fires, combat, or your own or a loved one’s serious or chronic illness. For years, psychology has assumed that the best inoculation against post-traumatic stress—as well as responses to trauma that fall well short of mental disorder—is resilience, the ability to pick up one’s life where it was before the trauma. Now that psychology has made post-traumatic growth a focus of research, what is emerging is a new understanding of the complicated relationship between trauma, resilience, PTSD, and post-traumatic growth.
Post-traumatic Growth vs. Resilience
Although the psychological concept of resilience dates back to the 1970s, scientists are still struggling to understand its origins. Some studies find it’s fostered in childhood by a strong relationship with a parent or other adult, and the belief that your fate is in your own hands (a sense of agency). But the opposite belief, that “God is in control and everything happens for a reason,” may contribute to resilience, too, said UNC’s Calhoun. A 2016 review of people who survived atrocities and war in nine countries from South Sudan and Uganda to Bosnia and Burundi found that resilience varied by culture. Strong emotional connections to others fostered resilience among survivors in some societies but not others, and a sense of agency actually backfired among some: If you believe your fate is in your hands and then see your family cut down by a sniper in Sarajevo, you feel not only grief but also crushing guilt.
In the absence of resilience, post-traumatic growth—a very different response to trauma—might emerge instead. “Post-traumatic growth means you’ve been broken—but you put yourself back together” in a stronger, more meaningful way, Tsai said. This may come as a surprise to those who think of resilience as the ability to learn, change, and gain strength in the face of adversity. Among research psychologists, however, resilience is about bouncing back with relative ease to where you were before, not necessarily bouncing forward to a stronger place. By this understanding, without the breaking, there cannot be putting back together, so people with strong coping capacities will be less challenged by trauma and therefore less likely to experience post-traumatic growth.
In the absence of resilience, post-traumatic growth—a very different response to trauma—might emerge instead.
For post-traumatic growth to occur, the breaking need not be so extreme as to constitute PTSD, as was the case for the Vietnam War vet. Tsai and his colleagues found that among the 1,057 US military veterans they studied, the average number of lifetime traumas (such as bereavement, natural disaster, illness, and accidents, as well as military traumas) was 5.7. Only 1 in 10 had PTSD, yet 59% of the vets had experienced post-traumatic growth. And the strongest predictor of whether someone would avoid PTSD after additional trauma was whether they had experienced post-traumatic growth after an earlier one, Tsai and his colleagues reported in the Journal of Affective Disorders. It was the first study to examine whether previous post-traumatic growth can protect against PTSD if trauma strikes again. The findings suggest post-traumatic growth might in fact boost resilience.
Post-traumatic growth—unlike resilience—is not a return to baseline. It is the product of reassembling your “general set of beliefs about the world/universe and your place in it,” said Calhoun: You question the benevolence, predictability, and control ability of the world, your sense of self, the path you expected life to follow. From the shards of previous beliefs, you create wholly new worldviews, and can perhaps emerge a stronger person than you were before.
What is Trauma?
Among psychiatrists, what constitutes “trauma” is controversial. Some define trauma based on the nature of the event: Psychiatry’s diagnostic manual, for instance, says a traumatic experience must be outside the range of what humans normally encounter. Others define trauma based on how people respond to an experience: Intense fear, helplessness, horror, or distress would be symptoms of trauma.
A circular definition —“trauma is something that leaves you traumatized”—is obviously not ideal. Nor is “outside the range of normal experience” a reliable measure: Tragically, many experiences that once were outside that range no longer are, such as natural disasters, mass shootings, or wartime horrors.
Scholars are therefore trying to do better. An emerging definition holds that trauma challenges a person’s “assumptive world”: her belief in how people behave, how the world works, and how her life would unfold. By this understanding, trauma needn’t threaten life or health, nor cause post-traumatic stress disorder. But it must make you question your bedrock assumptions, such as that the world is fair, that terrible things do not befall good people, that there are limits to humans’ capacity for inhumanity, that things will always work out, or that the old die before the young. By that definition, few of us make it through this life without experiencing trauma.
The death of a parent is among the most emotionally difficult and universal of human experiences. If a person doesn’t know what it’s like suffer the loss of a father or the loss of a mother, they most likely will one day. The passing of a parent is inevitable, but that certainty doesn’t make losing a parent any easier to accept or understand. The death of a parent is grief-filled and traumatic, and permanently alters children of any age, both biologically and psychologically. Nothing is ever the same again — it’s a wholly transformative thing.
There’s no amount of psychological data that can capture this distinctly painful and powerful grief, as it affects each of us individually. There are, however, a number of brain-imaging and psychological studies that demonstrate the magnitude of loss of the death of a parent represents. The posterior cingulate cortex, frontal cortex, and cerebellum are all brain regions mobilized during grief processing, research shows. These regions are involved in storing memories and dwelling on the past; they’re also involved in regulating sleep and appetite.
In the short term, neurology assures us that loss will trigger physical distress. In the long-term, grief puts the entire body at risk. A handful of studies have found links between unresolved grief and cardiac events, hypertension, immune disorders, and even cancer. It is unclear why grief would trigger such dire physical conditions, but one theory is that a perpetually activated sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight response) can cause long-term genetic changes. These changes — dampened immune responses, less pre-programmed cell death — may be ideal when a bear is chasing you through the forest and you need all the healthy cells you can get. But, unchecked, this sort of cellular dysregulation is also how cancerous cells metastasize.
While the physical symptoms that manifest after the death of a parent are relatively consistent, the psychological impacts are all but unpredictable. In the year following the loss of a parent, the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) considers it healthy for adults to experience a range of contradictory emotions, including but not limited to anger, rage, sadness, numbness, anxiety, guilt, emptiness, regret, and remorse. It’s normal to throw oneself into work; it’s also normal to withdraw from activities and friends.
“In the best-case scenario, the death of a parent is anticipated and there’s time for families to prepare, say their goodbyes, and surround themselves with support,” says psychiatrist Dr. Nikole Benders-Hadi. “In cases where a death is unexpected, such as with an acute illness or traumatic accident, adult children may remain in the denial and anger phases of the loss for extended periods of time … [leading to] diagnosis of major depressive disorder or even PTSD, if trauma is involved.”
Context matters. Sudden, violent death puts survivors at a higher risk of developing a grief disorder, and when an adult child has a fractured relationship with a parent, the death can be doubly painful — even if the bereaved shuts down and pretends not to feel the loss.
“Coping is less stressful when adult children have time to anticipate parental death,” says Jumoke Omojola, a therapist and clinical social worker. “Not being able to say goodbye contributes to feeling depressed and angry.” This may explain why studies have shown that young adults are more affected by parental loss than middle-aged adults. Presumably, their parents died unexpectedly, or at least earlier than average.
The gender of both the parent and child can especially influence the contours of the grief response.
Studies suggest that daughters have more intense grief responses than sons. Men who lose their parents, meanwhile, may be slower to move on. “Males tend to show emotions less and compartmentalize more,” says Carla Marie Manly, a clinical psychologist and author. “These factors do affect the ability to accept and process grief.”
Studies have also shown that loss of a father is more associated with the loss of personal mastery — vision, purpose, commitment, belief, and self-knowledge. Losing a mother, on the other hand, elicits a more raw response. “Many people report feeling a greater sense of loss when a mother dies,” Manly says. “This can be attributed to the often close, nurturing nature of the mother-child relationship.”
At the same time, the differences between losing a father and a mother represent relatively weak trends. “Complicated bereavement can exist no matter which parent is lost,” Benders-Hadi says. “More often, it is dependent on the relationship and bond that existed with the parent.”
Grief becomes pathological, according to the DSM, when the bereaved are so overcome that they are unable to carry on with their lives. Preliminary studies suggest this occurs in about 1 percent of the healthy population, and about 10 percent of the population that had previously been diagnosed with a stress disorder.
“A diagnosis of adjustment disorder is made within three months of the death if there is a ‘persistence of grief reactions’ exceeding what’s normal for the culture and the religion,” Omojola says. “In this situation, the grieving adult has severe challenges meeting social, occupational, and other expected, important life functions.”
Even adults who are able to go to work and put on a brave face may be suffering a clinical condition if they remain preoccupied with the death, deny that their parent has died, or actively avoid reminders of their parents, indefinitely. This condition, known as persistent complex bereavement disorder, is a trickier diagnosis to pin down (the DSM labeled it a “condition for further study”).
In more concrete terms, unresolved grief can spiral into anxiety and depression. This is especially true when the parent dies by suicide, according to Lyn Morris, a licensed therapist and VP at Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services. “Adults who lose a parent to suicide often struggle with complex emotions such as guilt, anger, and feelings of abandonment and vulnerability,” she told Fatherly. Indeed a 2010 study out of Johns Hopkins University confirmed that losing a parent to suicide makes children more likely to die by suicide themselves.
Elisabeth Goldberg, a relationship therapist in NYC who works with grieving adults, has seen the toll that long-term grieving can take on a marriage. Specifically, Goldberg suggests a (somewhat Freudian) link between losing a parent and cheating on a spouse. “I see many affairs as manifestations of unresolved grief about losing a parent,” she says. “The adult child stays in a state of disbelief, and rejects reality in many ways in order to feed the delusion that the parent is still alive. The grieving child needs a new attachment figure, that’s the psyche trying to reconcile the denial and grief. So rather than say, ‘My mother died,’ the grieving child can say, ‘While Mommy’s away, I will play with someone other than my spouse.’ ”
How to cope with the death of a parent in a healthy way remains an active area of scientific inquiry. Ross Grossman, a licensed therapist who specializes in adult grief, has identified several “main distorted thoughts” that infect our minds when we face adversity. Two of the most prominent are “I should be perfect” and “They should have treated me better” — and they tug in opposite directions. “These distorted thoughts,” Grossman says, “can easily arise in the wake of a loved one’s death.”
When a son or daughter reflects on how he or she should have treated a deceased parent, “I should be perfect” thoughts tend to rise to the surface. Grossman say his patients often feel that they should have done more and, “because they didn’t do any or all of these things, they are low-down, dirty, awful, terrible human beings,” he says. “These kinds of thoughts, if left undisputed, usually result in a feeling of low self-worth, low self-esteem, shame, self-judgment, self-condemnation.
On the opposite extreme, patients sometimes blame their deceased parents for not treating them properly, and never making amends. This is similarly unhealthy. “The usual result of this is deep resentment, anger, rage,” Grossman says. “They may have genuine, legitimate reasons to feel mistreated or abused. In these situations, it’s not always the death of the parent but the death of the possibility of reconciliation, of rapprochement and apology from the offending parent.”
“The possibility,” he says, “has died along with the person.”
In extreme cases, therapy may be the only way to get a grieving son or daughter back on their feet. Time, and an understanding spouse, can also go a long way toward helping adults get through this painful chapter in their lives.
“Husbands can best support their wives by listening,” Manly says. “Men often feel helpless in the face of their wives’ emotions, and they want to fix the situation. A husband can do far more good by sitting with his wife, listening to her, holding her hand, taking her for walks, and — if she desires — visiting the burial site.”
Toxic shame is one of the most common debilitating feelings that people struggle with.
Toxic shame is a term that refers to a chronic feeling or emotional state of feeling bad, worthless, inferior, and fundamentally flawed. It is called toxic because it is unjust, whereas healthy shame is when we do something morally wrong, such as aggressing against others.
The origins of toxic shame
Toxic shame has its roots in trauma. Trauma is a word that people either don’t think much about or they associate it with something extreme, like broken bones or severe sexual abuse. While these things are indeed very traumatic, there are a lot of traumatic experiences that people don’t recognize as trauma. That’s why many people struggle to understand how things like childhood neglect can be a form of abuse and trauma.
In most cases, it is trauma a person experienced in their childhood and adolescence. Moreover, this trauma was experienced in a repeated fashion and wasn’t processed as such nor healed. So the person was conditioned into routinely feeling ashamed when there was nothing or very little to be ashamed of.
Regarding toxic shame specifically, it develops because an individual’s primary caregivers or other important figures routinely shamed, or punished them either passively or actively. Such a person internalized those hurtful and untrue words and behaviors, and it became their understanding of who they are as a person.
Toxic shame beliefs and emotional states
Some common beliefs a person suffering from toxic shame may have include:
I am unlovable; I don’t matter; everything is my fault; I can’t do anything right; I don’t deserve good things; I was a bad child; I deserve to be treated the way others treat me; I’m a bad person; my needs and wants are not important; nobody likes me; I can’t be myself around others; I have to hide my true emotions and thoughts; I’m never good enough.
It is common for a shame-ridden person to also suffer from chronic anxiety and low self-esteem. Some people cope by hurting or not taking care of themselves, while some hurt other people and become highly antisocial and narcissistic.
Toxic shame is often accompanied by toxic guilt, where the person feels unjust responsibility and guilt. So the person not only feels ashamed, but also guilty for things they are not actually responsible for. They also feel responsible for other people’s emotions, and feel ashamed and guilty when other people are unhappy, especially if it’s in some way related to them.
It’s common that shame-ridden people lack a sense of self and are dominated by their false-self, which is a combination of adaptation techniques and coping mechanisms that they developed to deal with their unresolved trauma. As I write in the book Human Development and Trauma:
“This early erasure of self often develops into an internalized practice of self-erasure in later life, or various other emotional problems like the inability to name emotions, the presence of guilt or shame about feeling emotion, or a general numbness surrounding emotion.”
Toxic shame behaviors
Lack of healthy self-love. Because such a person usually suffers from low self-esteem and overt or covert self-loathing, these things manifest themselves in poor self-care, self-harm, lack of empathy, inadequate social skills, and more.
Emptiness. The person also feels chronic emptiness, loneliness, and a lack of motivation. They don’t want to do anything, don’t have any active goals, and do things only to distract themselves from how they feel.
Perfectionism. A lot of people who struggle with toxic shame are also highly perfectionistic because as children they were held to unrealistic standards and punished and shamed for failing to meet them.
Narcissism. On the other side of the spectrum, there are those who develop grandiose fantasies about how they will become rich, famous, powerful, and conquer the world, believing it will make those painful feelings go away, which is not what happens even if they succeed.
Unhealthy relationships. Many people suffering from toxic shame have unhealthy relationships because they don’t know what a healthy relationship looks like. Or they are incapable of building and maintaining one.
Usually they settle for a “good enough” relationship, where both parties are highly unhappy but are too weak, in their own way, to pursue true happiness. Sometimes, again, it’s because they believe they don’t deserve anything better. Also, the relationship is a decent way to cope with all the unbearable painful feelings that come up when the person is alone.
Susceptibility to manipulation. Since they are ridden with toxic shame, guilt, loneliness, and inadequacy, manipulators can push those exact buttons to make them feel those exact emotions and then they will do what the manipulators want to get rid of that painful emotion.
“Why are you hurting me?” “Don’t you want to be a part of us instead of being a lonely loser?” “This product will finally make you look beautiful.” “It’s all your fault.” There are many examples of things abusers and manipulators say.
Summary and final words
Children who experience trauma often feel shame. Since this shame is usually unidentified and unaddressed, the child grows into an adult who suffers from a chronic shame.
Toxic shame is closely related to other emotional states and beliefs, including low self-esteem, self-loathing, chronic guilt, unresolved anger, and never feeling good enough.
Consequently, these mental states result in unhealthy behavior, including acting out, hurting others, feeling responsible for others, self-erasing, having toxic relationships, poor self-care, poor boundaries, being overly sensitive to other people’s perception of them, being susceptible to manipulation and exploitation, and many others.
All these painful, unprocessed emotions actually belong in the context of their childhood environment where they were initially hurt and violated, but they are currently unable to make that connection and resolve it, so they deal with them in the ways they learned: actively or passively hurting themselves or others, or both.
The challenges are daunting. Yes, we are vulnerable.
But each of us can find the courage room inside.
The first part of this article is a story about how frightening the current pandemic is for some of us, and how one young woman is finding her courage every day. (This client has given me permission to share some of her story, hoping her courage is contagious.)
The second part describes two different practices for courage-building. If either one resonates, grab a journal or open a fresh computer doc and WRITE IT OUT or (with bilateral stimulation) DO IT. The key is to act because action is POWER: a main ingredient of COURAGE.
Angel of a New Life.
She’s so distraught that she needs time to cry before the session can begin. “But I’m afraid of dying. I will die . . .This could be Armageddon. Couldn’t it?” Since COVID-19 has become a pandemic, Angel, a woman who recently left an apocalyptic religion, has experienced a resurgence of acute PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) symptoms: panic attacks, overwhelming fear, dissociation, feelings of abandonment.
I respond, into my computer screen, “No, Angel. I don’t believe it’s Armageddon. We’ve talked about this. And I know you’re scared. Before we keep going, please find your feet on the floor.”
I give her a moment. “Do your feet feel the same on either side?” At first, she can’t feel her right foot. At all: she’s dissociated—unable to feel her body fully. For Angel, this manifests first in her feet; she cannot feel the ground. This brings on a new round of panicked tears. I speak again, wishing that our two bodies were in the same room instead of on opposite sides of Toronto and opposite sides of our screens. When someone is upset, dissociating, crying, just sitting quietly with a loving witness can be a great help. Our brains and bodies are inherently social; the presence of an emotionally-regulated person brings calm to an individual or even a group in acute distress. Our emotions are contagious.
Does it work through a screen, though? Therapists all over the world are asking themselves that question right now. “Angel, I’m here. I’m with you. Keep your eyes open. Look at me. If you can’t feel the right foot, just focus on your left foot. Move your toes up and down. Lift your heel. Now touch your one hand to the opposite knee. Then the other hand. That’s it.” She shivers, sighs, touches and touches, back and forth.
After this short round of bilateral stimulation — rhythmic touches on alternating sides of the body — a wave passes through her body, top to the bottom. Though I can’t see her right foot — we’re working in separate rooms, each on our screens — I know from her and eyes face that her awareness has entered the ‘missing’ foot, connecting her back to the floor and to the present. “Back in the feet? ” I ask the familiar question.
She answers, “Yes, back in my body.”
Touching one side, then the other: it’s a deceptively simple grounding technique, but it works in profound ways. Bilateral stimulation can be tactile, visual, or auditory — gentle rhythmic stimulation to either side of the body/ears/eyes to calm and soothe the nervous system.
Eastern physical and spiritual practices like yoga, Qi Gong, Tai Chi, and all the martial arts have elaborate systems based on this technique; Western neuroscience and psychotherapy have finally joined the club. Most of the somatic trauma therapies developed in the last twenty years use some form of bilateral stimulation. Though I work a lot with visualization and mindfulness, my core practice as a therapist is OEI — Observed Experiential Integration — another bilateral stimulation therapy that changed my life twenty years ago, when I was healing from the traumas of my childhood.
We Live in a Beautiful, Traumatized World.
Many of us have extensive histories of abandonment and trauma: child abuse, including neglect, insecure attachment to caregivers, religious trauma similar to Angel’s; violent and emotionally abusive adult relationships; combat experiences; assaults of many kinds; school, academic, and workplace bullying; life-altering accidents, shootings. Many trauma victims grow into kind, productive individuals who have healed, who are healing, who want to heal. Yet many more are in prison or live in prison-like personal circumstances, trapped in the pain and disconnection of traumatic reenactment.
While life protects none of us from misfortune, with the spread of Covid-19, some people are experiencing traumatic stress as daily reality for the first time. Having never experienced anything like this before, many people are deeply confused, which often expresses itself as an inability to focus. When everything normal has changed, it is natural to feel disoriented and fearful.
Even for those of us who are relatively safe, this pandemic carries all the markers of the traumatic experience:
Powerlessness. Intense anxiety. Lack of predictability.
Fear of impending injury or death. A disordered sense of reality and time.
Disrupted social bonds.
For those who are working in essential services and healthcare, the dangers are potentially lethal. The brave work some people are doing now will leave the deep internal scars of post-traumatic stress disorder.
But the rest of us also have to contend with this frightening time. Later in the session, Angel asked, “But how can my parents not even call me? How can they not check in on me? Did they never love me at all?” Her family has disowned her for leaving ‘the truth.’ She’s had very little contact with her family or old JW friends. She already has created a small circle of new friends, but she craves contact with her ‘old world’ and her parents and siblings.
Ostracism is one of the most wounding things a group can do to an individual or family unit. Social death is truly a form of death. And with this pandemic, because we’re so cut off from each other, millions of people are experiencing a taste of social death and ostracism.Our internal and external social engagement systems have been disturbed or completely overturned. Forced isolation is painful.
Single clients tell me — on a phone or computer screen, at this time — that they think they are going “fucking crazy.” I nod and say, “Let’s work with that.” We are social creatures; our bodies and our brains are social machines. We can now see on MRI scans that our brains respond to and interact with each other all the time — right down to the level of mirror neurons. We experience our connections with each other as both emotions and physical feelings in the body.
That’s why the glance of a stranger’s eyes or the gaze of a loved one can be so powerful. It’s brain to brain contact. By reading this, you share with me a moment, a small world of thought.
I continue to work with Angel on her renewed symptoms. She feels deep grief for the loss of her family. This is part of religious and betrayal trauma: in breaking away from an abusive religion or relationship, the person often loses a community as well as an identity. Sometimes, when Angel feels like she can’t cope with this world and her fear, I remind her of the extraordinary courage she found to make her escape in the first place.
My therapy and mentorship practice is called The Courage Room. That doesn’t only indicate the name of the place; it’s also another way of saying ‘the human body’. Each of us has within a room of resilience and strength. You are the courage room. I am the courage room. We are in this together.
Below, you will find two techniques for building your courage (finding your calm is an extra benefit.)
Finding The Courage Room Inside: two basic techniques
#1. Make Courage Real: Visualize The Courage Resource
The first step in building courage is to imagine it. Never underestimate the healing power of the imagination.
Usually every one of us, even those who’ve lived through damaging experiences, can remember a time and a place where we were safe, where we experienced a sense of happiness and contentment. In therapy-speak, we call this a resource; remembering the resource place or activity is called resourcing. We summon up those places in our memories we can use for self-nourishment and stabilization.
These do not have to be fancy places. Often they are humble. One safe place in a house: for one client, it was under the dining room table of her childhood. Sometimes it’s a backyard or garden. A park you used to love as a kid (or still love as an adult). A safe relative or friend’s house.
So think of (or imagine — custom-build one) your place of courage and safety.
Meditate upon it. Daydream about it. Honour it in your mind and heart.
Courage can also be contained, like a talisman, in one small object in our mind or physical life. Imagine the space or the object.
Hold it in your hand if exists: turn it into your courage talisman.
Now, grab the journal or open the fresh document and write down the story of your courage room/object. Really DO IT: the physical act is an act of power. Accessing power through your imagination gives you courage. Courage COMES from the imagination. More on that in another blog post, and a book I’m writing . . .
My house is full of small and large rocks and stones because at different times, they’ve given me courage, or a view into another possibility. Rocks and stones especially are dense, beautiful objects of power. Their solidity is dependable. And one of my most important ‘courage’ rooms and talismans combined is a big tree in my neighbourhood. I visit it almost every day. I love that tree!
Close your eyes and think about how the courage of this space/object can grow, expand, giving you both strength and a sense of calm. When you experience distress, upset, exhaustion, fear, PTSD symptoms, go to your room/object and get in touch with your courage resource. The more you work with this, the more powerful it becomes.
Visualization can be many things, including a spiritual practice that’s part of meditation, but it’s also a form of brain exercise that translates into physical results. For decades, elite athletes have employed visualization in their training; a whole body of research shows how effective visualization is for building co-ordination, strength, and spatial memory.
#2. Bilateral Stimulation
Anyone can experiment with stimulating each side of their body in a simple alternating sensory pattern. When we touch the body, or focus our vision or hearing in a certain way, we send signals to the brain: it’s the brain that actually allows us to feel, see, hear, taste, smell. Focused, intentional bilateral stimulation has a regulating effect on the brain, the body, and the entire nervous system.
So next time you are panicking, ready to scream at someone, filled with the pressure to harm yourself or another person in any way (in reality or in your imagination) please count to ten, take a few deep conscious breaths, and give the techniques below a try. We bilaterally stimulate naturally when we walk, dance, push the pedals of our bicycle.
First and foremost, as I did with Angel above, put your feet on the floor. Feel your feet. Feel how each side might give you a slightly or a radically different sensation. Pay attention. Go back and forth. Just stay with your feet; the feeling will come into them.
Breathe into your belly. You don’t want to have the breath up in your throat; pull it all that way into the bottom of your lungs and let your belly fill with air.
Take your right hand and gently tap your left knee or thigh. (Further focus comes when we cross the midline of the body, hence the left to right sequencing.) Take your left hand and gently tap your right knee or thigh.
Repeat 20 times, paying careful attention to how this simple exercise helps to calm down your body. Keep breathing into your lower lungs and belly. Feel your feet on the floor. Repeat more if it helps.
If you want to get more active, stand up. Feel your feet on the floor. Lift your right knee up and touch it with your left hand. Repeat on the other side. Do this bilateral stimulation march for a few steps, remaining in place, to see if it works for you.
Turn these two basic, easy techniques into part of a mental health hygiene routine. Share these techniques with friends and family. Kids can also use conscious bilateral stimulation to calm down, to feel better, to focus on homework, and to self-soothe.
The Beginning, Not the End, of The World
Social distancing has brought Angel into a renewed period of mourning for the loss of her family; it’s an ongoing sorrow, especially in a time when most of us are anxious to connect, to remind ourselves that we belong, we are part of our families and of the human family. In a recent session, Angel talked at length about losing her family, her friends, feeling that she had died to them; none of the community members that she’s known her whole life have called to see how she’s doing.
“It’s like Armageddon has already come and I’m dead!” Her face seemed to be ready to crumple. I thought she might cry. But something else happened. Her expression altered and opened; her face lit up. And her voice became stronger as she said, “But I’m not dead. Obviously! I’m ALIVE. I’ve already resurrected myself. That’s what leaving was for me. Resurrection. And it’s the only kind of resurrection I will ever know. So I’m not going to waste it.” Then she did something she’s only recently started doing, after almost thirty-three years of living: she swore, with great feeling, “Fuck that!” We burst out laughing, each leaning in to get closer on either side of our computer screens.
Here’s to self-resurrection. Here’s to spring, which shows us every year how to come alive again.
(Disclaimer: Dear Reader, this article is not a substitute for therapy or counselling. If you are experiencing serious distress, please call a hotline or a trusted friend for support.!)
(This disorder can also apply to a wife but in this article it refers to the husband)
A narcissistic husband will destroy you and destroy your life. If you are realizing that you may be married to a narcissistic husband, or you already know you are, well done! It’s not easy to recognize when you are in a mind control situation so you should give yourself a pat on the back…
So that’s the first step, being able to identify the reality of your situation. Now you have to deal with it. This means getting away from him, so that you put a stop to the abuse, and then you have to undo the damage he has done to you, and the children, if there are any.
In order to do that, you have to understand what was done to you. In fact, the more information you have about what he did and how he did it, the better for you. With this in mind, I want to explore here a very particular aspect of any relationship with a narcissistic husband. I am going to look in detail at the false personality, or pseudopersonality, that the manipulators impose on their victims and the implications of this.
You can substitute other phrases for ‘narcissistic husband’ here. You may consider that you have a ‘controlling girlfriend’, a ‘group leader’, a ‘strict boss’ or a ‘manipulative friend’. In any situation of psychological abuse the same things will apply.
Narcissistic husband – a quick summary
A narcissistic husband is all about control. He wants to control you so that you make him the purpose of your life. He wants all of your time and attention, he wants your praise and adoration and he wants to know that he has total power over you. To do this he will manipulate your beliefs, he will control your thinking and your decision making and he will manage your behaviors. He will even change how you think about the world and your place in it.
All this adds up to a change in personality for you. Friends may have commented how you are different, not yourself and so on and you may have noticed how you somehow got lost in the relationship or you may not even know who you are anymore. This is because you have had this pseudopersonality imposed on you by your narcissistic husband.
Oh, you’re back, good! In this article we will deal with the details of the pseudopersonality itself and the implications of it.
Deception from day one
From the very first encounter, the narcissist is manipulating the impressions of the victims. The narcissist makes out that they are charming, friendly and caring, as well as intelligent, wise and worldly. They understand that first impressions are important and they want to make as good a one as they can. My grandfather used to say, “Get yourself the name of an early riser and you can stay in bed all day!”
The narcissist wants people looking up to them because that creates a power imbalance in the relationship from the word go. And control and domination is what it’s all about for the narcissist. And, of course, that power means that they get their praise, compliments and adoration, their narcissistic supply, from those around them.
Using a whole range of destructive mind control techniques the narcissistic husband then imposes a collection of beliefs, ways of thinking and making decisions, ideas, emotions and behaviors on the unsuspecting wife. This is basically imposing a new personality on her, as we have outlined above.
A good way to think of the pseudopersonality is to consider that it contains the programming that the narcissistic husband wants in place. The beliefs are aligned with the thinking of the narcissist, the thinking and decision making are designed for the benefit of the manipulator and the behaviors of the pseudopersonality make the life of the narcissist more comfortable.
Think ‘slave’, but in this case the slave does not realize it is a slave. It thinks that it is making it’s own choices, that the relationship is normal and acceptable and the slave thinks that everybody is working hard for the benefit of all.
This may seem far fetched if you have never been in a mind control environment, but it is what actually goes on.
The pseudopersonality is programmed to consider the well being of the narcissistic husband above all else. Decisions are made in order to avoid upsetting him and instead to do things that are likely to be pleasing to him. Thoughts such as ‘If I do that he will be upset so I won’t bother,’ are so common for the pseudopersonality that it becomes automatic and the pseudopersonality hardly realizes that it’s doing it.
In this way a person with a pseudopersonality believes that he or she is making their own decisions. After all, they decided whether to choose A or B, they haven’t asked anyone and no-one has a gun to their head. What the person doesn’t account for is the extensive influence the narcissist has had on them up to that point. The fact that the pseudopersonality believes it is making it’s own decisions gives it a sense of control and motivates it to continue in the relationship, trying to improve things.
This starts out with the wife needing to check with him to know what to do. If often ends up with her needing to check with him to know if she is ok and even to know who she is.
The idea is that she feels that if he is ok, then she is ok, too. If he is angry or upset, then she feels bad and she may even consider that she is bad. She has been literally trained to accept responsibility for anything that goes wrong, and if he is upset, then she is at fault, and it’s because of who she is that there are problems. This kind of thinking is very detrimental to a person’s self esteem and self confidence. It means that the pseudopersonality often has a very low opinion of itself.
But to outsiders, the pseudopersonality presents a great façade. It acts as if everything is great and the relationship is marvelous. In cases like this, when the woman separates from the narcissistic husband, people are shocked because they believe the two make the ‘perfect couple’ and there did not seem to be evidence of any problems at all. They often find it hard to believe the long suffering wife’s stories about her abusive husband.
The pseudopersonality is also programmed to defend the narcissistic husband, making excuses for him when others criticize him. Even when the woman’s family can see that he is abusive, she backs him up. This can be very distressing for her family because they can’t understand how she cannot see that he is bad and abusive.
The dependency can be such that a woman cannot imagine a future without her narcissistic husband. Many people have a phobia of leaving and they even think that they would be so alone that they could even die. This obviously keeps them locked into the relationship with no other option than to stay and try and make things work in whatever way they can.
Having a pseudopersonality means that a person’s decisions and actions are not their own. These things have been shaped and controlled by the narcissistic husband using influence that is outside the awareness of the victim.
The victim does not know what is going on. They do not have all the information about their situation. Not having full knowledge and awareness of what is going on means that the woman’s decisions are not fully informed. She is making decisions with only a fraction of the available information, and even much of that is distorted! For this reason, the victim is not responsible for what happened to them. (This typically takes a person months of study to fully understand how and why this is true.)
The pseudopersonality co-exists with the real personality but it dominates and suppresses it. This idea helps to explain the internal battle that many women experience while with a narcissistic husband.
One part of them wants one thing. Another part wants the opposite.
The real personality wants to leave the relationship. The pseudopersonality is programmed to stay. The pseudopersonality can hardly wait for him to return to the house, the real personality is disgusted at the thought of being with him again. The pseudopersonality loves him, the real personality hates the things he does. The pseudopersonality feels that it needs to look after him, the real personality logically knows the situation is not fair, bad or even detrimental.
These contradictory emotions, or contradictory thoughts and emotions, are very distressing for the woman and there is no way to resolve this situation until the pseudopersonality is removed. While it is in place, however, the woman, not understanding what is being done to her, can easily blame herself for not being able to sort things out. Many women feel that they may actually be going crazy! And at the same time they also have a sense that it’s not them that is the problem but that there is something wrong with him, but they just can’t put their finger on what it is.
A narcissistic husband installs a pseudopersonality over time using powerful influence techniques that are repeated time and time again. The pseudopersonality is forced onto the victim without their knowledge or consent. The victim is therefore not in a position to resist mentally. In fact, in the honeymoon phase of the relationship, the victim is a ‘willing’ participant, so to speak. This is the nature of mind control, the victim thinks that the abuser is actually helping them and is genuinely looking out for them. Therefore it is easy for them to go along with what is happening.
These factors, along with the fact that a person’s core beliefs are changed, mean that the pseudopersonality can be quite durable. Just because a woman leaves a narcissistic husband does not mean that the pseudopersonality disappears. It actually persists and it will last for decades unless the victim does something about it.
Some aspects of the pseudopersonality may disappear or weaken with time, but most of it does not.
First of all, the persistence of the belief system and behavior patterns, which are not designed for the benefit of the victim, causes problems of all sorts with trust, relationships, sleep, concentration, memory, decision-making, digestive issues, identity issues and emotional disturbances.
Secondly, if a person does not recognize that they were in an abusive relationship, they break up and try and put things behind them. Later, when problems arise, they do not associate these problems with the abusive relationship and the pseudopersonality. They may seek help for said problems without realizing where the problems originated. Unless the therapist recognizes the source of the problem as being the abusive relationship, the problem will be treated in isolation. This rarely gives satisfactory results.
More abusive situations
A person who has a pseudopersonality has various beliefs, attitudes and behaviors that have been installed as part of the pseudopersonality. Obviously, pseudopersonalities share many common beliefs and behaviors because each pseudopersonality is designed to be subservient, obedient, dependent and loyal.
For example, the pseudopersonality is programmed to accept responsibility whenever things go wrong so that many people blame themselves when anything around them is not working out. They do this even when there is no way that things are their fault. The behavioral manifestation of this pattern is the pseudopersonality apologizing very frequently, even for the smallest of things.
Another common trait of the pseudopersonality is expressed when somebody treats a pseudopersonality very nicely. The pseudopersonality is so used to being treated badly that when someone treats it well, it is extremely grateful. So grateful, in fact, that it wants to make sure that the person doing the nice things knows how grateful it is. What do you notice? The pseudopersonality says ‘thank you’ a lot and may be very effusive in expressing gratitude, including going over the top in returning the good behavior, buying a small gift and so on.
The excessive apologizing and expressing of gratitude are but two examples of the evidence of the presence of a pseudopersonality. There are all sorts of other beliefs and behaviors that indicate that a person has been manipulated or abused in the past, if you know what you are looking for.
Psychopaths and narcissists know exactly what they are looking for. They recognize these indicators as soon as they meet someone. After all, they are used to imposing these things on their victims!
The reason this is important is that when a psychopath, sociopath or narcissist meets a new person, if they see the signs of a pseudopersonality, they know that person will be an easy target for them. So they set their sights on them and go for it.
The only way to take the target off your back is to get rid of your pseudopersonality. Trying to forget your abusive situations will never work. The damage is too deep and you can’t hide it from the predators. You don’t even know what they are looking for, so how can you hide from them?!
Trying to manage narcissists and psychopaths won’t work either. They are so much more sly and devious than you could ever be, and they are way better at destroying limits and boundaries than you ever will be at putting them in place.
A further complication here is that the pseudopersonality is programmed to reveal things about itself. The narcissistic husband needs information to keep the manipulation going so he programs the pseudopersonality to reveal things to him. This pattern is insidious and often extremely strong and when a woman leaves her narcissistic husband, the pattern persists. She ends up revealing all sorts of things about herself to others, often complete strangers. If the listener or reader is a narcissist, the woman is giving them all the info they need to pick up where the narcissistic husband left off.
So what to do about a narcissistic husband
You really need to leave. While you are in the relationship, the abuse continues, the pseudopersonality is constantly reinforced and you suffer while your life is being stolen away from you. I know it’s incredibly difficult to get out and it’s still something that has to be done.
Then you have to undo the pseudopersonality. Working with an expert is worth your while. It will save you time, money and heartache. Having professional help going through a divorce from someone you know is abusive, and who is guaranteed to play dirty, is invaluable.
Until you get rid of the pseudopersonality you will have that man in your head, acting like a malignant psychiatrist. Your life won’t be your own and you will continue to be affected by him. If there are children, you owe it to them to get rid of your pseudopersonality so that you can help them to get rid of theirs. The risk of not doing that is that they grow up with a pseudopersonality and fall prey to other narcissists and end up being caught in an abusive relationship themselves as adults.
The emergence of COVID-19 as a public health emergency by the World Health Organization has led to a number of precautionary measures such as quarantines, social distancing or in some cases total lockdown in region or countries around the world.
For the first time since WWII, Europeans have been confronted with such restrictions and have to adjust to new realities where the future is unpredictable. Keeping a job and earning a living have become uncertain, especially for those who are already in a precarious situation, leading to greater levels of stress and anxiety. Furthermore, limiting access to normal daily activities, not just going to work, but normal social interactions with others provokes mental health issues, and weakens physical health for those who already struggle to maintain good health and wellbeing.
This situation is particularly worrying for prisoners, who may experience greater mental health effects as they are deprived of external social contacts for a longer period. Children are also affected by social isolation and the mental health issues this provokes. For those who already experiencing loneliness, the social distancing required to stop the pandemic only further raises their feelings of social isolation.
Feelings of loneliness and social isolation, heightened by the current public health crisis, can have severe health consequences for a number of socio-economic groups. Anxiety and apathy, as well as loneliness, are some of the mental health consequences that will persist long after the pandemic ends, while the increased feelings of depression and stress, especially during a time of uncertainty, may have serious impacts on public health, increasing people’s vulnerability to poor health, and weakening society as a whole. Social isolation should not become a norm, even if some specific circumstances require social distancing. These two terms are often used interchangeably but their meanings should be clearly distinguished and used in an appropriate manner. Indeed, it may be more appropriate to talk about “physical distancing” instead.
Tackling the pandemic and preventing its further spread is vital for society, but such measures do not mean there should be a collapse in social contact. The impact of isolation and loneliness should not be under-estimated or fall to the bottom of politicians’ lists of priorities as inaction now will lead to high human and financial costs later on. The strong social and economic arguments should be enough to convince decision makers that they also need to take urgent action to tackle people’s social isolation especially those in a vulnerable situation. Developing effective interventions, including prevention measures is not an easy task during a public health emergency when priorities have to be redefined and public spending has to be urgently reallocated; but consideration of these issues now can widely contribute to limiting the long-term effects of the current crisis.
In an era when digital technology is an integral part of people’s lives, public authorities must deploy their capacity to meet people’s needs and address both the physical and mental health impacts of social isolation. Online medical consultations can support doctors and patients to ensure proper medical follow-up, which is widely affected by confinement. Such a measure will demonstrate the role of digital technologies in the health sector and provide an effective response to patients’ needs – allowing patients to be properly diagnosed and avoid self-medication that can additionally worsen people’s health during a health emergency.
The possibility for online discussion with a health professional or a psychologist is another concrete action that can help reduce anxiety and panic and overcome feelings of being alone or powerlessness. Virtual thematic discussions and group activities offered by social workers can also help combat social isolation – people can be part of a collective where they can “meet” and discuss with others, their common values and interests. Teachers play an important role for child’s socialization, through online classes, as well as extra-school activities that can meet children’s specific social needs.