What I have learnt about coercive control
Before my experience being part of a cult, I never realised how vulnerable we are, as humans, to being manipulated and controlled, and having our identities shaped by those around us. When I was in the cult, despite having a number of experiences which my gut told me were not right, I genuinely believed I was part of something that mattered, and that I was making a positive difference in the world. I did not realise that slowly, over months, I was being shaped into a different person.
At first, the most noticeable thing was the 'love bombing'; that is the over-the-top praise and compliments which were used as a tool to buy my loyalty and commitment. This actually felt great when I first joined, as I had just left a job role which had left me feeling let-down. I felt a bit lost and my esteem was low, then all of a sudden I was in a community that told me I was amazing all the time, and they seemed to really want me around.
Then came the relentless appeals for money, with statements such as 'God will bless you if you give your money', and 'don't live through fear and hold back giving your money - live by faith', all delivered with smiles and friendliness. This made me uneasy at first, but I rationalised it to myself, and as time went on I just accepted it and would regularly hand over large amounts of money without thinking.
Following this, I compromised and rationalised the idolatry of the leaders too. Repeatedly hearing people talking about the wisdom of the leaders began to change how I saw them too. They had the congregation hanging off their every word, and it even felt like being in the presence of a celebrity when the more senior leaders attended meetings.
Over time I became more and more committed and more susceptible to their brand of clever, coercive control, which had me questioning my own sanity and beginning to feel like a child. It seemed like the leaders had some special gift or knowledge, and any experience I had in the past seemed to count for nothing. This meant that when the more sinister forms of control 'kicked in', I was more willing to accept it, and I began to hear phrases, spoken in privacy, like 'you must learn to submit to the leadership and do what they say'.
I look back and the me I am now would never have tolerated this talk, however with all the months and months of compliments and friendliness, this more forceful control was built upon a 'love-bombed' foundation.
In her six conditions for thought reform, Margaret Singer asserts that one of the ways somebody can have their mind controlled is to...
"Keep the person unaware of what is going on and how she or he is being changed a step at a time. Potential new members are led, step by step, through a behavioural-change program without being aware of the final agenda or full content of the group. The goal may be to make them deployable agents for the leadership, to get them to buy more courses, or get them to make a deeper commitment, depending on the leader's aim and desires."
This definitely happened to me. It happens in relationships and families, cults, modern slavery, and even in the workplace.
Understanding this process can be very healing. The perpetrator always makes you think it's you, and cults set out to make it look like its members are choosing to be involved, when in fact they are becoming psychologically trapped and changed over time.