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Nov 3, 2020 in 

Cult Mind Control : How to heal yourself from cult trauma

A cult experience can be extremely unsettling as it can entail physical as well as mental and emotional trauma.

Ingo Michehl, M.Ed.'s profile photo
Ingo Michehl, M.Ed.


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Freedom of Mind versus Mind Control - How to heal yourself from cult mind abuse

In 1986, after completing my German high school, I returned to California, where I'd been an exchange student, to check out universities for study. In San Francisco, I was invited to a "cup of tea" by an "international student club". Six and a half years later, traumatized and emaciated, I returned home. It was an experience way outside the normal range of human experience, comparable to combat or prisoner of war trauma experienced by soldiers. It has taken me many years to heal myself from this experience, and it accompanies me to this day.

"How could I have been so stupid to get sucked into this?" I asked myself after leaving. I was intelligent, educated, and had even been taught about Hitler's Nazi cult in German high school. But I hadn't been taught about mind control, which is a subtle but extremely effective combination of psychological manipulation techniques first systematized by Mao Tse Tung during the "cultural revolution" in China, later adopted and perfected by the so-called "youth cults."

I only found out about it because the above question caused me to investigate the subject by studying psychology. I ended up writing my masters thesis on "Cult Trauma and Recovery." (Library of Congress, 1996) I later traveled the US giving speeches and lectures at universities and helping families with voluntary interventions for their loved ones, working with Steven Hassan, author of the book "Combatting Cult Mind Control" and "Releasing the Bonds" - which I highly recommend.

Cult mind control is real and truly insidious as it is virtually impossible to discern for the unaware - and highly effective in controlling a person's thoughts, feelings, and actions. As an indoctrinated cult member you believe you're free, but you don't realize that all your thoughts, feelings, and actions are controlled by your paradigm, your indoctrinated beliefs which are written on the inside of an invisible vase around your head through which you interpret the world around you. Whatever does not conform, like negative information about the group from the outside, simply bounces off that vase.

"Go ahead! Leave! Go back to satan!" my cult leader told me several times, using reverse psychology, and causing me to beg to be able to stay, because I was afraid of being invaded by satan if I left the group. "You're brainwashed! Go home!" people told me - but I interpreted it as simply another attack by satan to destroy my faith, and I used thought stopping to cut any possible doubt.

So how do you break a bullet-proof vase? You throw a nail inside and shake it. The convex nature of the vase it resistant to impacts from the outside, but a pin-pointed impulse on the inside can make it shatter. That's how I got out. Lesly, bless his heart, a student at the UIC campus in Chicago where I was "witnessing" and teaching cult doctrine as a registered student club (CARP, the student branch of the Unification Church) at the time, gave me a flier that juxtaposed the teachings of the group with the bible and asked me, "if there was a contradiction - to which authority would you hold?" "To the new revelation!" was my first thought. But then I realized that a perfect God could not contradict himself in a later revelation, and logic dictated that in case of a contradiction, the "new truth" could in fact NOT be true. I began my own research (clicking out of the self-justifying mind control loop) and found more and more contradictions. Finally, on mother's day 1993, while selling flowers on the corner of South Chicago Heights and Sauk Trail, the "vase around my head" exploded and it fell like scales in front of my eyes I realized: There IS clear contradiction! Hence this "new truth" is NOT true. I have been deceived and manipulated.

I planned and executed my own escape with Lesly's help. It was like waking up from a bad dream. But I realized I had a choice: This experience could shatter me - or it could make me stronger. I chose the latter, studied psychology and went on many self-healing journeys to recuperate and integrate the experience into my being. It has been a long and at times difficult journey, but as my friend Ryan once said, "all those experiences were stepping stones to where and who you are now."

How does mind control work? As described in my master's thesis, in essence, cults or controlling persons induce "Cognitive Dissonance" (Leon Festinger), a discrepancy between our thoughts, feelings, and actions, by influencing either or all of these aspects of our personality. (See attached graphic) Ask me if want to learn more about it.

Part of the recovery process if giving value to your traumatic experiences, and one way to do that is give them meaning - such as the profound realization "I am free!", and deciding to use that freedom to explore possibilities (like living in the Caribbean, America, Australia, Japan, and Spain - all of which I subsequently did) and transforming my trauma by helping others, setting impulses for the freedom, healing, and evolution of consciousness.

Philip Zimbardo, professor emeritus at Stanford University (ironically the university I checked out before being "recruited"), created the infamous "prison experiment" where student volunteers were divided into guards as inmates of an artificial prison environment. The experiment had to be prematurely terminated because each group so identified with their roles that the "guards" became overbearing and sadistic, while the "inmates" became submissive, depressive, or violent. This dynamic became known as "role identification" in psychology, and it explains partially how people can become cruel and manipulative when accepting a certain role or set of beliefs - as in a prison setting, a nazi group, an abusive relationship, in a cult.

Zimbardo later wrote an article on "Liberation Psychology" in response to this dynamic, espousing "a healthy dose of hedonism" and self-determination. While I find this adequate for the process of liberation from oppression, group or cultural indoctrination and mind control, I propose the next step: Freedom Psychology, the psychology necessary for healthy and sustainable coexistence and well-being.

Freedom is defined by Wikipedia as “the ability to move and change.” I would add “based on our own educated free will, free from outside manipulation, and based on the moral principle of responsibility, as freedom without responsibility is license, the abuse of freedom. Freedom is only freedom as long as it does not infringe upon the freedom of others.“

Trauma causes us to suppress our emotions. It's a safety mechanism so that you don't get paralyzed by fear and stuck in a burning building. But the problem is that this emotional pressure builds up inside of us if we don't learn to process and release it. Depression is anger towards the abuse turned inwards. When the pressure gets too much, we "spew" - like the safety valve on a pressure cooker. Bouts of anger, aggression, even violence or self-hurt (e.g. by hitting something hard, alcohol and drug abuse) can then alter with periods of depression and apathy. Denial is a strong part of this dynamic. Recognizing and acknowledging these dynamics takes great courage and self-reflection, but it is a key factor in our self-healing journey, and when coupled with therapy and self-healing rewarded with an improved sense of well-being and completeness. As a counselor and spirit guide I can accompany and help you on this journey, should you wish it.

To heal yourself from cult trauma it is first necessary to leave the manipulative circumstances - the cult. Then the healing journey begins - the journey to re-establish your cognitive balance, to integrate your experience and new aspects of your personality that you've developed during the experience, or, as the Native Americans would put it, to find and recover the lost parts of your soul that were splintered off as a result of the trauma. You need to re-establish a sense of peace and well-being, and feeling safe in the world, transcending the trauma  It helps to connect to aspects of your life before the group that felt stable and healthy, and finding and establishing new ones. It also helps to study about psychological manipulation to understand what happened to you. 

Here are a couple of books I can recommend in this regard: 

Combatting Cult Mind Control and Releasing the Bonds - Steven Hassan

Cults in our mids - Margaret Singer

Totalitarianism and the psychology of mind control - Robert J. Lifton

Having studied these and many other books and writing my thesis on cult trauma and recovery I realized that I was indeed not stupid, but that rather I was manipulated by a highly-skilled subversive organization into accepting a false world-view and doing their bidding. I acted on the information I had available as well as I could at the time - and was deceived. It's ok. It happens to the best. Hardened journalists and opponents of the group were "converted" by Moonie love-bombing and clever indoctrination, including a Harvard history professor I encountered while being a member. 

Even if I may have been a victim at the time and acted from a false paradigm at the time, I have transcended it, have learned from it. To hold on to anger causes us to become bitter and angry, so my intent is to forgive those who wronged me, and to let go. To learn from it and become stronger as to avoid similar pitfalls in the future - and help others to do the same. When feelings arise, I notice them and let them go. And convert them to something positive - like writing this article and informing others about the still legal and mostly unopposed mind control techniques of unethical mind abuse organizations/groups or cults. 

You can read more about this in my article Historical Background of Cult Mind Abuse.

As another former cult member once told me: The best revenge is living a good life.

You're free. Make something good out of it.

Find a vision or goal that inspires you and that causes you to stretch yourself, to focus on something positive and constructive, on sharing your gift and your contribution with the world to make a difference. In other words, find a way to turn your "negative" experience into something positive.

If this resonates and/or relates to yourself or a loved one, and you need some assistance, feel free to contact me for a free exploration session to find out if we are a “good fit” - and if I can help you.

A good resource and support network is the International Cultic Studies Association ICSA

Kind regards

Ingo Michehl, M.Ed.

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