Anxiety and Decision-Making
Rosanne Henry, M.A.
From AFF Recovery Workshop, August 1995
The participants began this workshop by identifying why they weren’t anxious while in their cult. They recalled the honeymoon or love bombing phase when everyone loved them and they felt that they finally found a place where they belonged. It felt so secure having such an important mission or purpose in life. The cult provided enough expectations (at least in the beginning). So long as the leader liked them or approved of their behavior, they felt tremendous ease. When the leader disapproved of them, there were usually ways to make amends or do penance for the wrongdoing.
The dynamics of the group and the charisma of the leader often created emotional highs that had never been achieved before. Accepting the leader’s world view often allowed special protection from the evils of the world. In this contrived cult world it is no wonder there was little room for anxiety. It was systematically designed to be anxiety-free.
The next part of the workshop focused on how and why anxiety crept into their cult world.
What started out as a predictable and secure environment gradually evolved into confusion and chaos. The rules they thought they could count on started changing. Soon they entered the crazy place of not knowing the rules, which brought on waves of anxiety.
Another gradual change in their cult environment involved the persistent push for a greater commitment. It always had to be more, and soon the members felt overwhelmed and wondered if they could ever make it. Could they ever be pure enough? Could they ever reach enlightenment? Their leaders were the only proof that these standards were achievable.
Cult leaders used various techniques to tighten their hold on the group. One of the more effective was scapegoating. One member would be publicly humiliated in front of the group. This created dread among the cultists because they never knew when it would be their turn and never wanted to be used as a negative example.
Eventually cult members may see their leaders do unethical, illegal, or immoral things and doubts creep in. They may take the risk of questioning rules, actions, or beliefs. Taking this risk allows the possibility of losing their purpose in life, losing their spiritual path, or losing their god.
Those cultists who are not ready to assume such a great loss often snap into a state of cognitive dissonance. The leader may require certain behavior that violates the member’s conscience. The cult’s actions and the member’s thoughts are not consistent. What will the member do? Resolving this dilemma is usually predictable in cult environments. The anxiety of living in this dissonant state is so great that members will change their thoughts. They try to avoid the split between thoughts and behavior and choose consistency. Members cannot change the cult’s required behavior, but they can change their thoughts about it.
The last discussion on this topic summarized how ex-members were reducing their anxiety and improving their decision making abilities in order to recover. Some techniques mentioned were: making lists, journaling, gathering information, and frequent reality-checking. Tolerance and patience were very important to rebuild self-esteem and eventually trust in oneself. They gave themselves adequate time to make decisions and allowed mistakes. Encouragement from loved ones and themselves was also important.
Former members agreed that they had learned the skill of discernment from their cult experience. They were more cautious and discriminating in many areas of their lives. Using discernment helps reduce anxiety and contributes to better decisions in their daily lives, but they all agreed that cult membership was an overwhelming price to pay for these benefits.