Chapter 13: Freedom from enslavement to wealth

“So I commend the enjoyment of life, because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany them in their toil all the days of the life God has given them under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 8:15)

Strange as it may seem, Ecclesiastes is one of the books I most appreciate in the Bible.  When I read it, I try to see it from the vantage point of a person who’s had it all: fame, fortune, love, material prosperity… but has found it to be “meaningless”.  How many Hollywood superstars have concluded the same, and tried to end it all?

Rather than accumulating wealth or prestige, King Solomon recommends we “eat, drink and be glad”.  We know he’s not referring to drunkenness here, as he also wrote the Proverbs, which warn that: “Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging: and whosoever is deceived thereby is not wise” (Proverbs 20:1).  Instead, this message is an encouragement to spend time with our friends and loved ones, enjoying the fruits of our labour.

How many rich people spend their lives overwhelmed by the stresses of work, unable to participate actively in the lives of their family?  How often do stinginess and the love of money prevent people from throwing parties, simply to celebrate life?

One of the most striking and unexpected things about Jesus’ time on earth is his propensity for joy and communal gladness.  We often forget that his first miracle was to turn water into wine, and we read in Luke 7:34 that he had something of a reputation as “a gluttonous man, and a winebibber”!

His Kingdom parables include stories of banquets and feasts, to which all will be invited, even the people the “world” has forgotten about, such as “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’ (Luke 14:21)  What a celebration that will be!! As Christians, we’re commanded to love and to sit at table in full equality with people from all backgrounds, races, nationalities, religions, and walks of life.  If Jesus can walk into the home of a mercenary tax collector and extend friendship to lepers, beggars, and even prostitutes, why can’t we?  There is joy in celebrating our common humanity.  Without the rigid structures of protocol, hierarchy, and self-importance, we can reach out to each other in gladness.

I find it fascinating to discover that certain sociological studies have shown that “more equal societies almost always do better” (The Spirit Level, by Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett).  A wealth of statistical evidence bears witness to the “pernicious effects that inequality has on societies: eroding trust, increasing anxiety, and illness, (and) encouraging excessive consumption”.  Frankly speaking, when we fear our neighbours, we all suffer.

When Jesus invited one rich man to give away all his possessions to the poor and follow him, he wasn’t suggesting a life of mean and miserable poverty; he was offering him the opportunity to enjoy freedom and newness of life in a relationship with Him, without the extra baggage and worry that wealth can bring with it.

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Have you ever met a very wealthy person?  I have.  I can tell you that in my experience, they tend to be weighed down by fears and anxiety about how to protect, increase and safeguard their money, rather than enjoying its fruits.  This is a generalization of course, and there is no Biblical mandate for extreme poverty, just the warning against the love of money, and the reminder that “those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction”. (1 Timothy 6:9)

Sometimes it seems that for many people, the whole of life is one, long, pursuit of wealth.  From a young age, they struggle to get good grades, in order to get a good job, with handsome benefits and a juicy retirement plan.  There is nothing wrong with this of course, and those who provide for their families and give generously to those in need will reap great satisfaction from their hard work.  However, when we strive for money for money’s sake, we often lose sight of its purpose.

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There is a certain freedom that comes from not being tied to the love of money.  We become immune to the pull of advertising and are not easily manipulated or silenced by the prospect of material gain.  Imagine: how many people across the world are afraid to denounce or uncover corruption or injustice at work, because they fear ending up destitute?  This thing I can say for certain: if you lose your job because you refuse to do something illegal or immoral, God will provide for you.  Although you may suffer momentary hardship or discomfort, you will find another job, and be rewarded with the invaluable prize of the deep peace that comes from knowing that you didn’t go against your conscience.

I have found in my own life that when I prioritize well-being and balance, everybody benefits.  As I work freelance, I have the temptation of working extremely long hours, just to draw in a larger paycheck.  But I ask myself: what is the point of earning more if I am constantly tired and have no energy to enjoy life?  As Proverbs 15:17 states:

“A bowl of vegetables with someone you love is better than steak with someone you hate.”

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Maybe sometimes I can only afford vegetables or beans, but I eat them with joy in my heart with those I love, rather than working myself into the ground.

This kind of realization takes time, and some people do go to extremes.  We’re not all called to sell everything and go and live in a caravan/trailer, the important thing is to check our motivation to see that our heart is in the right place.

The legendary Charles Dickens left us with a simple but rather accurate recipe for human contentment, in the words of Mr. Macawber (David Copperfield):

“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen [pounds] nineteen [shillings] and six [pence], result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six: result misery.”

 The message is clear; when we’re drowning in debt, we can never be truly happy.  The Bible also warns us: “The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is a slave to the lender.” (Proverbs 22:7)

Sadly, modern society is designed to get us enslaved to our credit cards from a fairly young age.  We’re surrounded by a culture of consumerism and incessant advertising that fills our minds with unnatural desires that they have placed within us. This leads to dissatisfaction, restlessness and the constant “need” to purchase more and more because ultimately, nothing satisfies us.  Psychologists often talk of a “hedonic treadmill“, whereby we feel we are making steps towards our goals of happiness and contentment, but never seem to get there.  Whenever we reach the objective we’ve been striving for, we find it is an empty feeling; “meaningless, utterly meaningless”.  We may experience a brief sensation of pleasure or excitement, before quickly returning to our previous state of mind.

I don’t mean to suggest that it’s wrong for Christians to take out a loan or use credit cards.  The key, of course, is to owe a manageable amount and to know where to get help if things have gotten out of hand.

Debt can put a strain on individuals, marriages, whole families and even subsequent generations.  There is also a lot of shame associated with indebtedness, although this is an increasingly common issue.  People are often so afraid of being labeled “irresponsible” or judged harshly that it’s very hard for them to admit to close family or friends about the struggles they are facing.  This can lead to a general avoidance of the problem, aggravating the problem still further.

Similarly, the desire to “keep up with the Joneses” can be the catalyst as to why some people continue to spend beyond their needs.  What if you’re invited to a birthday party, wedding or baby shower and expected to take a gift?   Do you stay away in shame, or clock it all up on your credit card and go anyway?  These are not easy decisions to make.

Being in an environment in which people value designer clothing, fast cars, ostentatious jewelry and exotic foreign vacations can be very difficult for those who are struggling financially, or seeking to lead a simple life.  I’ve been invited to events such as these, and have attended wearing my cheap, comfortable (but clean) clothing, no perfume, and very inexpensive jewelry.  But I was accompanied by my big smile, my love of life, my intention to listen to and communicate with others, and the love of Jesus.  I can’t say I had a wonderful time because I generally find such environments very superficial and tedious, but I didn’t feel “less than” anyone else because of my lack of material wealth.  In fact, my personal knowledge of the “unfathomable riches of Christ” (Ephesians 3:8) gives me such a profound degree of satisfaction and inner contentment, that I feel no lack at all.

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Chapter 12: Freedom from the pressure to conform

“Do not conform yourselves to the standards of this world, but let God transform you inwardly by a complete change of your mind. Then you will be able to know the will of God—what is good and is pleasing to him and is perfect”. (Romans 12:2)

In the case of those who have been trapped by an evil cult or toxic religious group, we need to learn how to “unconform” to the standards that were imposed upon us.  The difficulty is that they were instilled into us to such a degree that it can even be hard to identify all the ways we’ve been influenced and coerced.

According to Steven Hassan, a renowned expert on mind control, cults seek to manipulate our Behaviour, the Information we access, our Thoughts and Emotions. He uses the acronym “BITE” to refer to these four categories.  I’d like to thank Dr. Hassan’s Freedom of Mind website for the following information:

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Why not take a moment to grab a pen and paper and identify all the ways in which your group attempted to affect your life in these areas, according to the information above.

Understanding this is key when we try to communicate with people who are still “brainwashed” (fully indoctrinated).  I remember once attempting to share some information with an elderly Jehovah’s Witness, and he just pushed it away, with the retort: “why are you being so negative“?  For over 45 years, he had been trained only to see the “positive” side of his organization; he was physically incapable of thinking critically or even rationally.

Therefore, once we “wake up” from the spiritually abusive environment and start to smell the coffee, the first things we need to do is develop a critical and enquiring mind.  More than anything, doing this requires us to let go of the fear that holds us back.  very vile tactic and strategy that these toxic groups use is based on keeping us in fear.  However, we know that that:

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These are beautiful words indeed, but the million dollar question is: HOW??? For many people, letting go of fear and bravely growing into a full and abundant life can seem an impossible or insurmountable task.

I don’t think it is possible to achieve this without a warm and supportive community around us, whether it’s a face-to-face or online one.  As I’ve mentioned in previous chapters, we all need a safe space to express ourselves freely so we can walk hand-in-hand with others on the same journey.  It may seem like you’re alone, but in fact, there are millions of people around the globe, struggling to overcome similar issues due to spiritual abuse.  The best way to make lasting friendships is to seek to be a good friend to others; rather than waiting for others to be there for you, why don’t you reach out to them?  On the other hand, if you’re the type of person who finds it very easy to listen to and comfort others but rarely speak of your own problems, take a risk and try sharing your story;  you’ll see how mutually enriching and liberating relationships like these can be – if you give them time.

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Chapter 13: Freedom from enslavement to wealth

Chapter 11: Freedom from transactional and coercive relationships

I have noticed that many people in this world tend to have a very “transactional” view of relationships and communication.  Simply speaking, this refers to the tendency to see others as a means to an end, in order to get something we want or need.   The “coercive” element is regarding the desire to force others to do, say or believe things that we push upon them.

As I’ve mentioned in previous chapters, we were not only members of a highly controlling religious group, but we were also trained to become highly controlling people.  Thereby, we were both victims and perpetrators at the same time.

Coming out of this mindset has been one of the hardest things for me in many respects.  Allowing people to say “no” to me when I make a request, and respecting their right to refuse to do what I’m asking is a steep learning curve.  Often, I want to subtly “encourage” or put pressure on them, in order to get my way.

I am infinitely grateful to my husband, who has been very good at highlighting my desire to control and my innate perfectionism.  It has been very difficult and extremely humbling to admit that I have problems in this area, but through the grace of the Holy Spirit, I am learning to let go and grow in respect for others and their boundaries.

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You’ll know that someone has control issues when you are afraid to say “no” to them because you are afraid of their reaction.  You fear that their love is conditional and that if you refuse their request they will withdraw their affection or friendship.  Growing in boldness in this area requires great inner strength and courage, and can take a long time to learn.  I recommend investigating books such as “Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life” (Dr Henri Cloud & Dr. John Townsend) and “The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse” (David Johnson and Jeff Van Vonderen).

Often, it’s the fear of ending up alone that holds us back.  We’re unwilling or feel unable to set boundaries because we know deep down that our friends or family members will seek to punish us or cut us off if we move out of their sphere of control.  That is why the most important thing is to take time to establish healthy friendships with people who truly respect us and don’t have any ulterior motives.  This is easier said than done, but not impossible.  In many cities throughout the world there are organizations such as “Al-Anon”, “Celebrate Recovery” and many other types of support groups where you can receive help in a safe, non-judgmental environment.  A quick Google search for groups in your area will show you the options available.

Once we start to surround ourselves with others who have a healthy mindset and are also working towards recovery and freedom, it becomes much easier to confront the people in our lives who love to manipulate and coerce us into doing what they want.  It may not be necessary to cut them out of our lives altogether, but by learning to say “no” to them and standing up against their bullying, we will be taking great strides towards our own personal happiness in a very practical way.

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Chapter 12: Freedom from the pressure to conform

Chapter 10: Freedom from shame

I was rather tempted to call this chapter “Freedom from guilt and shame”, as these two words are often coupled interchangeably.  However, my research into this has shown me that these are two, very different concepts.  This quote from Marcus Brigstocke (British comedian, actor and satirist) sums it up extremely well:

Guilt is feeling bad about what you have done; shame is feeling bad about who you are.

In her blog, Dr. Brené Brown defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.”

How many of us were made to feel like this when we were in the cult or highly-controlling religious group?  It’s common to hear leaders overemphasizing the human condition to instill shame into their listeners, rather than focusing on the life-giving message of Christ’s redemption or the fact that we are now “new creations” in Him (2 Corinthians 5:17).

If we are constantly being reminded that we are “undeserving worms” this begins to affect our self-image and sense of worthiness in a very destructive way.  I find that it also tends to make us less compassionate towards others, as we have not been taught to recognize the unique value of each human being around us. It’s much easier to become frustrated and angry with people we come into contact with if we see them as “sinful wretches”.  Some doctrinal backgrounds teach that not everyone is invited to be saved by God’s grace, which can lead them to behave towards others in a very cold-hearted and judgmental way.  It has been my experience that many of them end up with very twisted and unhealthy attitudes, as a result of their fundamental doctrines.

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I find it sad to see that many sermons and daily devotionals aim to keep people in obedience by instilling them with a sense of “FOG”: Fear, Obligation, and Guilt.  In fact, it is not guilt, but shame.  Guilt is actually a healthy emotion that helps us to identify when we’ve hurt others or acted irresponsibly etc, enabling us to reevaluate and modify our behaviour.  We know that one of the functions of the Holy Spirit is to convict us of sin, and this is always done in a practical and healthful way.  We are shown something specific we’ve done or omitted to do, so we can repent of it, turn away from the destructive behaviour, and receive forgiveness and peace.

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On the other hand, if we are suffering from a general sense of unease and disquiet, feeling that we’re just not living up to God’s expectations or anybody else’s, it’s more likely that this is NOT the prompting of the Holy Spirit.  In Romans 8:6 we read that “the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace.”, whereas the mind which has been heavily influenced by toxic, controlling religion will be governed by fear, anxiety, and shame.

On the other hand, Jesus told us to “love others as we love ourselves” (Mark 12:31) and without a healthy degree of self-compassion, rooted and grounded in His own love for us, it’s very hard to extend truly selfless generosity towards others.

For many, the idea of “self-compassion” or “self-empathy” sets off frightening alarm bells, as they have been instructed that such things are expressions of “selfishness”.  However, extensive studies by psychologists on this topic have shown that when we learn to give ourselves empathy and compassion in a healthy way (which is by no means the same as self-indulgence or hedonism), we naturally become more compassionate towards those around us.

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Chapter 11: Freedom from transactional and coercive relationships

 

Chapter 9: Freedom from the judgmental mindset

It can be a real struggle to shake off the mindset of demoralizing others or judging, according to our views and beliefs. After all, that’s what we were taught to do.  Maybe we still have the habit of gossiping about others, which is one of the most toxic characteristics of cultish groups.

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I’ve noticed in myself, that certain trigger words or concepts can cause me to start seeing everything in black and white, rather than responding to others with understanding and compassion.  Generally, we allow our worldview to colour how we see reality, and that leads us to categorize or judge people, according to our values and personal standards.  On the one hand, this is understandable and simply a part of life, but as ex-cult members or survivors of spiritual abuse, our outlook on life was extremely closed and dogmatic.

Let me give you an example.  Recently, I discovered a profound sense of peace by practicing Christian mindfulness. I shared a video on it in a small Facebook group that I manage.  Within an hour, one of the members had sent me a private message about it, with an article warning that “mindfulness has its roots in Buddhism”.  Buddhism!!!  Obviously, this was a trigger word for this person.  I thanked her politely, but explained that I didn’t find any conflict between this practice and my Christian beliefs.  After all, mindfulness is simply the discipline of becoming still and consciously aware of your environment, thoughts, body, and breath.  She didn’t seem to accept my response, and went on to ask if there is any basis in Scripture for it.   I quoted Psalm 46:10 – “Be still and know that I am God”. However, rather than letting it go and agreeing to disagree, she carried on with her objections, telling me that I’d taken the verse “out of context”.  Not wanting to get into an argument with someone with such a fixed mindset, I thanked her again for her concern but assured her that I do have the Holy Spirit in me, whose job it is to correct and guide me.  Often, I find that very judgmental or controlling people seem to have no faith at all in the Holy Spirit’s ability to do this, and prefer to go around signaling other peoples sins, mistakes or heresies themselves, often very unaware of the big log of hypocrisy in their own eyes…

Unfortunately, she still wouldn’t stop debating the point, and her comments began to get personal.  She said to me, sarcastically – “I suppose the Scriptures aren’t enough for you”.  At this point, I decided to highlight her judgemental attitude, letting her know that I found it hurtful that she was making such an assumption about me.  I tried again to be conciliatory, stating that I believe that subjects such as Christian Mindfulness, Christmas trees, yoga or Harry Potter are matters of conscience; each believer must make their minds up for themselves.  (I’m not saying that I’m an advocate of Harry Potter, or bitterly opposed, but I do feel that when something is not explicitly stated in the Bible, it’s important for people to look into the facts and reach their own conclusions).

Despite all my words, my warm and appreciative attitude and assurances of Christian love for her, she wouldn’t let go of the topic.  She kept on stating that “the Bible wasn’t enough” for me, and that I was somehow getting into a dangerous, New Age practice… In the end, when I saw that she wouldn’t stop attacking me and making wild assumptions about my spiritual life, I stopped responding.  There is a saying: “Don’t feed the trolls”.

But then I have to ask myself with all honesty; have I ever been a troll?  Have I ever fallen into the trap of deliberately picking an argument with someone, just because I disagree with them on some minor point?  After coming out of the JWs, my mind was still fresh with criticism,  contempt and various phobias.  I remember that one December back in 2014, a neighbour knocked on my door, and gave me a Christmas wreath to decorate my front door.  But the problem was; I couldn’t touch it  – I somehow feared that its “pagan origins” would bring a “demonic presence” into my home, and so I swiftly rejected the gift, handing it back to her in panic.  It was simply a circle of green holly leaves that she had made herself, but to me, it was radioactive.  I couldn’t bring myself to accept it.  She looked at me with great confusion, clearly very offended.  I tried to explain, in the politest terms I could, that we didn’t celebrate Christmas and that I was very appreciative of her kind gesture, but the damage had been done.

Considering that I had initially woken up from the cult in 2009, why was I still reacting this way in 2014?  The answer is that I had attempted to “move on”, but had not taken any time at all to deprogram or rid myself of the JW mentality.  For that reason, I still had closed-minded and judgmental attitudes towards others and their beliefs.

On another occasion, around 2015, I picked an argument with a dear friend online about women preachers, who teach and have authority over men.  I claimed that the Bible didn’t support this practice, and questioned her integrity as a Christian.  Well, you can imagine how she responded!!  She sent me a video explaining her position, but I couldn’t even bring myself to watch it; I had made up my mind and would NOT be persuaded.  Since then, I have studied this topic in depth, carefully considering each side of the argument, and am currently on the fence.  I am now much more tolerant of other people’s views. I don’t see it as my “job” to go around judging or criticizing others for their beliefs – I’ve learned to “agree to disagree” and to “live and let live”.  This is the way of peace, after all.

That doesn’t men to say that I’ve become some kind of mindless, wishy washy, relativistic Christian; far from it!  I still hold to strict, personal standards of morality and doctrine, but it’s just that I don’t choose to impose them on those around me.  No one has positioned me as their leader, teacher, preacher, pastor or spiritual guide (thankfully!!), so I don’t feel I have to right to comment on the decisions other people choose to make with their lives.  However, if someone were to ask me my opinion on a particular subject, or for advice about a specific situation, I would try to answer humbly, but honestly and with love.

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Neither do I want to spend my time as a masked, online crusader, poking holes in people’s arguments and proving my superior knowledge; nobody likes those kinds of people.  In my opinion, it is a totally ineffective way to teach, preach or evangelize.

The reality is that dialogue, growth, and discipleship, in general, must occur as part of a relationship – before commenting on someone’s life choices or debating with them about doctrine, you need to get to know the person first, to see where they are coming from and what their issues are.  That is why I now have a personal rule that I don’t discuss or debate questions of Scriptural disagreement online, as  I find it highly divisive and unfruitful.

I always say, if anyone wants to know my personal beliefs regarding God, and any particular doctrine in the Bible, I’d be happy to share openly, but only in the context of a video/voice call (via Skype or Messenger), or in a face-to-face conversation.  It’s not that I have anything to hide or feel ashamed of, it’s just that I want to avoid getting involved in heated arguments between believers, which are not upbuilding or edifying in any way.

If we focus on love and finding ways to bear each other’s burdens, as fellow Christians on a journey, we will be able to walk alongside each other in mutual support, not stand against one another in conflict.  This is the true test of Christian maturity:

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Chapter 10: Freedom from shame

 

Chapter 8: Freedom from numbness and despair

When any human being faces deep, emotional or psychological pain, the urge to run from it, to suppress it and “move on” is very great.  Rather than being overcome by the waves of distress and anguish, many choose to find a distraction, a relief, an escape route.   This is much more common for those of us who have suffered spiritual abuse, because we already developed various “coping mechanisms” within the group, to distract us from our dreary, meaningless lives.

Numbing the pain through hours and hours of Netflix binge-watching, becoming a workaholic, developing an addiction to “busy-ness”, alcohol, sports, drugs, toxic relationships or any other dysfunctional behaviour, will only work for so long.  At some point, all the pent-up anger, trauma and pain will explode, leaving us feeling broken and alone.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.  There is a better way to cope – and not only to cope but to thrive.  However, it will involve taking the time to feel all the emotions we’ve been numbing.  In her book, “The Gifts of Imperfection”, research professor Dr. Brené Brown explains her discovery that: “We cannot selectively numb emotions, when we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.”

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So, by seeking to avoid feeling the emptiness at the center of our beings, we also rid ourselves of the opportunity to experience real joy and inner fulfillment.

For many people, taking the time to be truly silent, without any distractions at all, can be rather frightening.  As we fear the battle inside, we may feel the urge to pace around the room, to shout out, to find a way to escape from the rising torment within.  How do we get it out?  How can we start the process of feeling those emotions we’ve suppressed?

This will depend a lot from person to person.  Some will choose to speak with a person they can trust or a therapist; someone who will not judge, interrupt, ask unhelpful questions or lose interest halfway through.  Others will find solace by making a video or audio podcast about their experience, either publicly or anonymously, to share their story with the world.  Some people will prefer to write their thoughts down on paper or in digital format,  or express themselves through art, music or dance, or find their voice in prayer to our Heavenly Father.

For me, the pen has always been my trusty friend.  My pen, and the book of Psalms.  So often, I have called out to God in anguish, allowing the words of the Psalms to speak for me.  I also like to go on long walks, as the physical exercise, fresh air and stunning landscape where I live help me to flush out the toxins and focus on the larger realities of God’s love and mercy towards me in the midst of my pain.

As Dr. Brené Brown described, we cannot “selectively numb” our emotions.  So, as we start to open up our hearts to the pain we’ve been hiding deep down, we begin to appreciate so many other buried emotions, which may have laid dormant.  It can take a while to adjust to the emotional rollercoaster that can ensue, but with time we’ll be able to find ways to remain calm and centered.

In order to do this, we need to take care of our whole body, mind and emotional health.  As I have researched this topic, I keep seeing the same suggestions, time and time again, namely: regular exercise, healthy eating, and sufficient sleep.

These are things we all know about and feel that we should do, but somehow, we still find ourselves ordering junk food, lamenting over our sedentarism or obesity and surviving on caffeine after 5-6 hours of sleep, night after night.

The fact is that making positive lifestyle choices requires much more than willpower and effort.  The best way to start is by educating ourselves about the importance and impact of these changes, then finding fun and enjoyable options to engage in.

For instance, I am a teacher of English as a second language, and I always say to my students: “if you don’t enjoy your studies, you won’t have any motivation to continue with them, or make progress”. This is something I believe in very wholeheartedly, and I’ve observed time and time that it is true.  So, I make a conscious effort to adapt the material of every class to their preferences and interests and find engaging ways to help them stay involved.  It’s had fantastic results!  It’s wonderful to see them growing in confidence and ability, without getting dragged down by guilt and needless stress.

Similarly, to follow our healthy living goals, we need to discover delicious dishes to cook, entertaining exercise routines or sports to enjoy, and a calm and relaxing nighttime routine to look forward to.

In the same way, the more we educate our minds regarding the benefits of certain types of food, adequate exercise and health-giving sleep, the easier it is to keep to our goals.

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Another key is to work towards strategic and achievable goals, not some pipe dream of a “perfect beach body”.  If our goal is health, vibrancy, and energy, we can live life to the full at every step.  When we look at airbrushed photographs in magazines of skeletal models who are constantly hungry, tired and anxious, we need to see through the glossy images of “perfection” and recognize the reality behind the fake smiles and windswept hair; this is a marketing stunt.  These pictures are designed to make us feel fat, ugly and inadequate so that we will reach out and buy whatever miracle “cure” they are offering.  If only we could afford the latest super-food supplement, exercise machine or diet pills, our lives would be “perfect”.  That is the lie they are selling.  So, we use our credit cards to buy these products, only to find that the whole thing was a hoax; there is no magic pill to transport us to the “perfect body” because such a thing simply doesn’t exist.

I know this because I have spent a significant amount of time among people who do have beautiful “bikini bodies” when I was at an all girl’s school in my teens.  There were certain girls in each of class that we all looked up to; they seemed to have it all.  They were thin, beautiful, from rich families, and appeared to have it all; the latest accessories, fashion sense, an attractive boyfriend… the list goes on.  But as I got to know some of them better, I was able to see that each of them suffered from numerous insecurities and inner pain, just like all the rest of us.

I would argue that since my school days in the 1990s to the present, things have got much worse for young women, and men too.  The “selfie” culture, with its intense focus on the image we project to others around us, coupled with the never-ending pressure to get “likes”, followers and blog subscribers etc. has meant that our insecurities and desire for recognition and external approval have skyrocketed.  And if no one “liked” my photo, what does that say about me?  Young people and even adults are now associating their self-worth with their online presence, like never before.

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It is not surprising therefore that psychological studies have linked social media usage with depression and anxiety among young adults.  I’m not implying that we should shun this type of technology altogether; I am a user of social networking sites myself, and have even founded a Facebook group called “Faith after Deception Fellowship”.  I have seen that when used wisely, these platforms can be a useful tool to promote human connection and friendship, but always within certain boundaries.

If I use my Facebook account to share images of a perfectly happy and flawless life, it could lead those around me to feel sickened, depressed and miserable in comparison.  If I am having a terrible day, feeling like nobody loves me, that my work is meaningless or my life tiresome and bleak, seeing a picture of a good friend sitting by the beach drinking cocktails in the sun is likely to send me down a very dark spiral.  On the one hand, I want to see my friends – the positive, happy and healthy part of me wants to rejoice in their good fortune, and wish them well, rather than being eaten up by jealousy and contempt.  However, there are days when that is very difficult for me.  Those are the days when I should probably avoid social media altogether.

As for me, my golden rule with all these types of platforms is to keep it real.  I make sure that the people on my friends list are those I feel happy and comfortable with sharing honestly so that I can tell them about both the good and bad days I’m having.   Just to give you an idea, this is something I posted a while ago, when I wasn’t feeling well:

A perfectionist’s response to a cold:

“You need to push through! You can’t let people down! There’s no way I’m missing that deadline!! I need to be strong.

This is my fault; I should have rested more; should have gone to bed earlier. Maybe my diet isn’t healthy enough???

Must take more medication in order to push through…” 

Jesus’ response: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. (Matthew 11:28)

I try to be open about my struggles with perfectionism and the challenges of life, as I know that every single person on my list of friends has their own issues to deal with.  If we can choose our friends carefully and move towards a place of vulnerability and support, compassion and kindness, social media can quickly become a daily source of encouragement and edification.    This has been my own experience.

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Coming through the numbness and despair and reaching a place where we can feel both positive and negative emotions, is a long and difficult process.  If we are to succeed, we need at least two or three good friends or close family members who we can reach out to and share with honestly.  Not everyone will understand.  Not everyone will have the time or “get it”.  Rather than feeling disappointed with those people or trying to force them to be something they’re not, we can focus on identifying those who have the emotional space and compassionate awareness to walk with us in our pain, as we walk with them in theirs.

As I’ve discussed previously, sometimes, seeing a trained therapist or counsellor can be the best option.  Rather than dismissing this option as “too expensive” or “impossible”, it can be an idea to investigate if cheaper, more affordable or even free routes to expert help are available in your area.  A simple Google search is a good place to start.  However, once you find someone, it’s important to ascertain whether they really understand what it’s like for someone to have left a cult or controlling religion.  One friend shared with me that her therapist hadn’t studied these topics at all, but she applied her knowledge of toxic, controlling relationships and applied it to her context, with great effect.

Nevertheless, if you feel that the professional you’re speaking is not able to engage with you in a meaningful way about what you’ve been through, don’t waste any more time with them.  Ask to be transferred to someone else with specific knowledge, or investigate other options yourself.

If you’re part of a local or online support group for survivors of spiritual abuse or ex-cult members, you could ask if anyone has any good tips regarding therapy / counselling.  Not everyone sees this as something they want to explore, but if you’re feeling “stuck in a rut” emotionally or psychologically, having someone to talk to who is professionally trained and has extensive experience can be a real lifeline.  Never feel scared or ashamed to ask for help or to invest time or money in your own recovery; it may end up being the best investment you ever make.

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Chapter 9: Freedom from the judgmental mindset

Chapter 7: Freedom from self-censorship

Being in a highly controlling religious sect stripped me of my voice.  I learned to keep my opinions to myself, to remain quiet, and to toe the line.  I knew that any indication of disagreement or derivation from the accepted norms would set me apart as a subversive person, an “independent thinker”, someone who would ultimately be shunned and rejected by the whole group.

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Even after leaving, it has taken me years to get my confidence back in order to express myself freely again, due to people pleasing, a yearning to “fit in” and to be accepted by others.  This is particularly difficult for me as I live in Chile; a small South American country set apart from the rest of the world by the Andes mountain range, the Atacama Desert, the Pacific Ocean and the imposing glaciers of Patagonia to the south.  In this nation, people do not tend to express themselves openly but seek to “keep the peace”, by taking care to say what other people want and expect to hear.  This is understandable, considering that during Pinochet’s dictatorship from 1973 – 1990, anyone who dared speak out risked being silenced, by means of torture, exile – or worse.  Thereby, a whole generation of Chileans had to learn to keep their opinions to themselves.  Books were burned, higher education became unaffordable, and free thinkers were shipped out of the country.

In fact, the word “no” is rarely used at all in this country; it’s extremely rude to give a negative answer to any kind of offer or invitation, however sincere.  Instead of saying “no”, people almost always say yes.  “Can you come to my house on Saturday evening?”  – “Yes, of course!” says the Chilean, despite knowing full well they probably can’t.  The socially acceptable way around this is simply not to turn up.  You say yes, but then you don’t follow through.  That is politeness in this culture.

So, as a British woman who has spent over 13 years of her adult life in this culture, learning to speak up and to give voice to my authentic self has been a challenge.  Writing this book has been the first big step for me, as well as making the audio podcasts that I occasionally upload to Youtube.  Getting to know ex-cult survivors online and hearing their stories has encouraged me to speak my truth boldly, but with love.

This has spilled over into some of my face-to-face interactions with my Chilean friends here too.  I no longer feel the need to keep quiet, blend in and avoid showing my true nature, although I do still seek to be kind, warm and generous to others.

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I know that many people struggle with the challenge of expressing themselves fully after being in a group in which this was strongly prohibited.   Effectively, we learned to hide our true thoughts and feelings when we knew they would not be acceptable to the other cult members or leaders.  Out of fear, we practiced “self-censorship”, to protect ourselves from criticism, condemnation, and punishment.

The question is now; how can we grow in maturity, leaving fear behind, learning to “speak the truth in love”? (Ephesians 4:15)

The first step is to be rooted and grounded in love.  We know that: “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18).  When we are afraid of other’s reactions, eager to please at any cost, or willing to set aside our own integrity to avoid “rocking the boat”, we will never find true freedom of expression.

And we will find that a lot of the time, our fears are hugely overestimated.   By speaking up boldly, we also empower those around us to do the same, if we’re careful to speak with compassion and sensitivity, not anger and pride.  Of course, we also need to be prepared for the fact that some will not take kindly to hearing a different point of view to their own, especially if you are challenging something within their belief system or personal values.  That’s why it’s important to tread carefully, with respect  – but without compromising your own values, being “fake” or backing down.

This is not an easy balance to strike, and you may lose a few friends on the way; I definitely have.  However, speaking out and revealing my authentic self has also led me to meeting truly compassionate, open-minded and undogmatic people, who accept me for myself and don’t seek to change or control me.

The truth is that speaking openly and frankly is one of the most powerful things you can do when breaking free from toxic, controlling people or groups.  At the beginning, their absence in your life will need like a painful, unfillable hole in your heart, and it may seem tempting to go back to them, by compromising your true beliefs, opinions and authentic self.  That is because deep down, we know that their love for us is conditional  – on our words, thoughts and behaviour – they are actually incapable of loving us for our own sake only.

When those people intentionally walk away from us because they can no longer control us, we have to face a period of intense searching.  Who am I?  What is my purpose on earth?

That’s when we need to start listening for the “still, small voice” of our heavenly Father, who speaks to us through the storm of our emotions, doubt, and despair.  (1 Kings 19:12)

Unlike the majority of other religions that tend to follow a list of rules and principles, we Christians walk hand in hand with Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who tells us:

“Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.

I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:4-5)

 

The challenge is, of course, is to know how to do this and how to keep on doing it day after day.

This requires FAITH. It can be so hard when we’ve been trained to believe that God speaks to humanity via an Organization or another intermediary, but the truth is that Jesus himself promised in John 10:27-28 that:

“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand.” 

 

Sometimes, we reject those who claim to hear Jesus’ voice, because they sound crazy, or because we simply feel that we are not important enough to hear from Jesus personally.

This is a lie that Satan wants you to believe: you are a nobody, you don’t matter.  Why would Jesus care about you or take the time to speak to you?

However, I can tell you from personal experience that Jesus does speak to us, although it’s not generally an audible voice or frightening inner monologue, like those who suffer from a mental illness can experience.

When we repent, asking God to give us His Holy Spirit to lead us and pray in Jesus’ name for guidance, God intervenes.  Sometimes, he uses other people to speak wisdom and encouragement into our lives, other times He speaks to our heart directly with spiritual wisdom via our thoughts, and very frequently, Jesus’ voice is audible to us via the pages of the Bible.

If we lack faith or are languishing in feelings of inadequacy or doubt, we can take courage from the words of one man who had the privilege of speaking to Jesus face to face (Mark 9:24). He exclaimed:

“I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”

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Painting by Jacek Irzykowski

Chapter 8: Freedom from numbness and despair