Friday, May 13, 2011

Q. How could I have been so wrong? A. It’s easier than you think

   If you stand forlorn and disillusioned come May 22, you won't be the first to feel that way after trusting a spiritual leader. Though many followers of Bible answer man, Harold Camping, will be "crying mightily" and asking themselves what went wrong, many victims of spiritual abuse have asked that same question -- and  some continue to ask themselves the same question on a regular basis. 

Some spiritual abusers purposely deceive the flock for gain or power. Others unintentionally abuse, but whether intentionally or not, religious authorities who exhibit spiritually abusive traits create plenty of damage.

  After a few days (or weeks or months, in some cases) many Campingites or former Campingites, will wonder how they could have been so blind to their teacher's faults, or how they could have been stupid enough to believe him, or so gullible. They will not understand how easy it is to be taken in. They will be in very good company. Many people, emerging from spiritually abusive churches and groups, ask the same thing. How could this have happened to ME?

It’s a lot easier to fall under the spell of an errant religious leader than many people realize. It doesn’t seem to matter if you're highly educated or not, whether you are wealthy or poor, whether you have a healthy amount of skepticism or not. It doesn’t matter whether you have just a smattering of Bible knowledge, or whether you consider yourself quite the scripture expert. 
  Cult-like leaders – and especially those who seem to believe in their own special calling – can do amazing things to people’s minds, sometimes unknowingly.
  What makes these religious figures so authoritative, and how could you have fallen for it all?
 Certain factors work together in combination to bring about dependence on authoritative voices:

1. Elitism: If your Bible teacher constantly casts scorn or derision on other religious groups, churches or beliefs, he makes his followers feel special. He points out faults of Church A, then B, then C. Before long, no one is quite as enlightened as your special group.
   If Church A is worldly because of a certain practice or doctrine, then simply by not being a part of Church A, you find yourself up a notch on the spiritual ladder. YOU have escaped error or sin by not being part of Church A. Then repeat with B, C, D...
   This is how elitism works. The leader criticizes other Christians not like his followers. When such criticized Christians respond to the negativity, the leader characterizes the response as persecution. At the same time, he steps up the criticism of groups outside his authority. 
  This does two things: 1. It makes followers know that to avoid errors like those in Church A, B or C, they need to keep to the group and listen more closely to the leader. 2. He also makes it hard for followers to leave. After members have spent so long looking down at folks outside the group, and inflating the “specialness” of the group, it is hard for them to leave and join a group they’ve criticized for so long.
   Cults and spiritually abusive groups inflate their own sense of uniqueness and calling. AND they put down others outside the group frequently.
   If you’ve found yourself following your leader in criticism of outside groups, know this: It’s hard -- once you’ve started -- to back up and go a different direction. In the most cult-like groups, almost no one outside your little circle is considered authentic. You can’t just instantly erase months or years of your own critical attitudes toward outside groups. To leave the group, it means you have to realize that your criticism, though sometimes just, was sometimes not just. That’s hard to own up to. To keep from feeling uncomfortable over your negative views of others, you held on tighter to your leader and absorbed more of his negativity and disdainful views than you otherwise would have.
2. Authoritarianism: Your leader not only exaggerated the claims of the group as a whole, he exaggerated his own importance to the group. Some leaders can actually put on a humble facade, all the while stressing their own importance and uniqueness. Though some leaders come right out and demand subservience (so that you show God how humble you are, through serving them) others are more subtle. They just want you to admire and adore. By establishing themselves as the ultimate authority on spiritual things, they puff themselves up and receive an emotional boost. What followers do when they follow, or give to, or compliment such leaders is to provide the narcissist with what is called “narcissistic supply.” When you become a source of narcissistic supply to a leader, he makes you feel very important, very special. Later, when you start harboring doubts, it’s hard to just walk away. If you do, suddenly your position as chief supplier of flattery is in danger. Your own sense of purpose fades and that’s uncomfortable.
  3. Mind control: Manipulative spiritual leaders use mind control tactics. Some may even do this unknowingly.
“Trust bandit” is what Lalich and Tobias call these leaders. They take something very essential from you. In the book Captive Hearts, Captive Minds, the authors point out that “even after leaving the group or relationship, many former devotees carry a burden of guilt and shame while they continue to regard their former leader as paternal, all‑good, and godlike,” according to one reviewer.  The power of manipulation reaches far and wide.
   In a chapter called the Authoritarian Power Dynamic, the authors list some traits you will find among abusive, manipulative leaders:       
 * the tendency to hierarchy
 * the drive for power (and wealth)
 * hostility, hatred, prejudice
 * superficial judgments of people and events
 * a one‑sided scale of values favoring the one in power
 * interpreting kindness as weakness
 * the tendency to use people and see others as inferior
 * a sadistic‑masochistic tendency
 * incapability of being ultimately satisfied
 * paranoia                              

   4. Black and white thinking: When these leaders speak with such convincing authority, with a voice that sounds unwavering and sure, it is hard for many not to believe what they say. They don’t seem to hesitate at all. In a world where there is so much uncertainty and ambivalence, it is refreshing, sometimes, to find a voice that seems so sure and convincing. Unfortunately, certitude comes with a price.
  With spiritually abusive leaders, “many disputable matters are classified as either ‘black’ or ‘white.’ No allowance is made for ‘middle ground’ in these areas. This is sometimes also referred to as ‘polarized’ thinking, because nearly every issue is interpreted as having only two possible answers, both of which are polar opposites of each other. Spiritually abusive groups leave very little room in between the two extremes, thus crowding out both personal freedom and the operation of God's Spirit in the life of the individual. “ See Rest Ministries chapter on black and white thinking.
  People in a spiritually abusive system become dependent on their leader’s reasoning skills, or assurances or authoritative voice. Without it, they feel lost. It’s not because they are stupid or unable to think on their own; it’s because that, first attracted to the calm and forceful assurance of the voice, they eventually became dependent on it, like on a drug.

5. Group-think reinforces the deception: In a chapter called Group Leveraging, one writer looks at mistakes made by the Kennedy administration over the Bay of Pigs incident. He says that Kennedy afterwards asked, “How could we have been so stupid?” but says that stupidity is not the explanation. Group-think was. It’s easy after you’ve gone a wrong direction to ask how you could have been so stupid, but at the time, if you look closely at what was going on, you’ll see that group leveraging was in all likelihood, going on.
Here are some traits of group-think that Rest Ministries quotes from a 1971 Psychology Today article:

"Groupthink" happens when ‑‑
1. The group shares an illusion of invulnerability;
2. The group engages in collective rationalization to discount dissonant information;
3. The group comes to believe in the inherent morality of what it wants to do;
4. The group develops stereotypes of other groups and of dissenters which protects it from accurate analysis;
5. The group puts direct pressure on dissenters in order to silence them;
6. Group members begin to censor their own thought, especially doubts they may have about the wisdom of proposed courses of action;
7. The group comes to believe in its unanimity because of lack of dissent and the belief that "silence means consent;"
8. Some members of the group come to function in the role of "mindguards" ‑‑ watchmen who "protect" the leaders from dissenting views by actively discouraging such dissenters from expressing their disagreement.

These are complicated dynamics, but very powerful ones. It may be hard for those never under the spell of such leaders to understand, but the tricks and deceits these leaders use -- in some cases even without realizing what they are doing -- are very powerful, and almost anyone can become a victim under the right circumstances.

So what do you do when you find you’ve been deceived by a religious narcissist or errant leader? Start by finding other such believers. Tell your story. Tell how you broke away from the power over your mind. Though you may have been told not to “gossip,” it is not gossip to tell your own story and is often very helpful and informative to share experiences with likeminded victims after the trauma of spiritual abuse.

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