Cults: Don’t feel what you feel

Making people to change how they feel is a cult staple. It is also ubiquitous in other parts of life. We will never be able to resist the lure of a cult if we constantly train ourselves to suppress our own feelings and replace them with the feelings we are supposed to have.

I was in the first year of film school and looking to find an internship placement. I researched production companies, sent tailored CVs with cover letters that proved that I know of their work. Then I sent follow-up letters to find out if they received my application at all. I have sent over 100 CVs and only received one incredulous response: why would I commute to work in Milton Keynes for free? I explained why but there was no more correspondence between us. The deadline was approaching fast and I was about to lose my year because I couldn’t secure an internship.

Luckily, our mentors were aware of the difficulty of securing an unpaid internship. They used their industry connections to place unconnected students like me. They sent me to a gorgeous little advertising company that was responsible for some of my favorite TV commercials – and they sent a glowing recommendation letter with me.

The day of the interview arrived. I was standing outside their SoHo office, looking at the green door with a growing sense of… difficult to tell what.

I can’t remember what happened next. All I know is that I never rang the bell and never walked through the green door. Honestly, to this day I draw a blank when I try to remember what I did instead or how I rationalized not going in. It was thoroughly uncharacteristic of me, not showing up when I promised, letting down those who recommended my. And yet, I have no idea what happened next, and why.

Despite the obvious benefits of that internship, despite my very real eagerness, despite the extraordinary efforts I put into getting there – I did not walk through that door. I probably thought I should be making money instead because London is expensive and I can’t afford an unpaid internship. But that is just a guess. I honestly can’t remember.

With hindsight I know this: I have never felt I was entitled to work in the creative industry to begin with. I did believe that and I made it true.

After my inexplicable not turning up at the interview I could not exactly go back to school and explain why I was so unreliable all of a sudden, when my responsibility and hardworking nature were my defining characteristics at school. My tutors were impressed and tipped me to be the greatest success in my class.

I didn’t feel that I deserved it – probably because my family didn’t think so. I didn’t allow myself to succeed because my family would not want me to succeed. It was really important to them that I failed. It was important to them that I learn, like they did, that it is impossible to succeed. And it was important to them because that was their life excuse. Had I succeeded, it would have made them feel awful. Their deepest desire now was to get vindication in their failure.

Their deepest desire became my hidden priority – and it was activated outside of that green door.

My internalisation of the need to fail because my family wanted me to fail was clearly my deepest, hidden priority. Well, not mine – theirs. They programmed me and I delivered.

My hidden priorities were of course hidden from me. I knew it with my brain. After all, it has been told to me in no uncertain terms that I will fail. And I will learn how bad it is for them by repeating it. That was the priority, not even very well hidden. And then it was activated when it really mattered. It came in the form of instinct and gut feelings – and they misled me. In the crucial moment, when one must trust the deepest reserves of emotional clarity and intuition, I accessed it and it told me to go back waiting tables.

It may sound totally upside-down but I am not the only one with hidden priorities that tell us to do the wrong thing at crucial moments in our lives. In fact, it is something of a cliché.

Just think about the woman who can’t figure out why she always attracts (or feels attracted to) bad guys. Or the guy who complains that he always attracts (or feels attracted to) psychos. Well, it is because the signal that there’s a potential mate only lights up in their heads when they see a cold and slightly menacing guy or an unpredictable and capricious woman, respectively. In the crucial moments of their lives they are misled by their guts, their feelings, their instincts.

Her instincts tell the woman that she is unlovable so of course a guy would be cool around her, just like her father was, and she feels it’s a potential mate. His instincts tell the man that all women are irrational and inexplicable so he only feels that there is a potential mate present when a woman behaves irrationally. They both skip any number of suitable mates and the signal just doesn’t go off until they see a bad one that confirms their hidden priorities: that her place is being neglected and his fate is to be punished by women.

We can’t trust our own feelings if we can’t trust those who planted them in us. This is story as old as time.

And yet, when crucial moments come, we need to rely on those gut feelings. We need them to make super quick calculations for us. We need them to deliver intuition and guidance when we are under the most pressure.

So if our most basic and hidden priorities are our enemies, if they want us to fail, if they want us to punish ourselves, if they tell us that a capricious woman is what a woman is – those hidden priorities become our worst enemies. We make our biggest decisions based on these misfiring calculations, invisible even to ourselves (although surprisingly visible to others around us).

Sometimes our instincts are right but sometimes they tell us to bolt when we are standing in front of the green door of our dreams. Don’t we hate when that happens? How can we tell them apart? We can’t just always do the opposite of how we feel. That is no a solution. But what can we do when our feelings mislead us?

Willing ourselves to feel something else is definitely the wrong answer. 

Yet, that is what mind control groups teach. 

A recurring pattern in cult stories is how cult victims are trying to suppress their own instincts to bolt. But their story didn’t start there. Before they were made to suppress the desire to leave, they have been practicing changing their own feelings on other things.

Cults: How to make people want what you want them to want

Families display plenty of things that cults also do. In a way, families are the primordial form of mind control. There is a certain notion of inevitability embedded in genetic kinship – lending the weight of self-evidence to a family setting. It primes every member to adapt instead of rebelling and to change their minds instead of their families – because family connections can not be changed.

Families can isolate you from other opinions, you live together and spend most of your time in each other’s company, second-guessing the dominant family member, trying to live up to their expectations and avoid their punishment, such as disapproval. They can control your time, your connections and even your food intake. It is only natural that one day their deepest priorities become yours. The more you deny and defy them, the better.

Cult leaders follow the same recipe. The genetic kinship is the only thing that is missing – but it is easily replaced with some ideology, a purity quest, a narrative of improvement (self or the world), superiority or the end of times – or some combination thereof. And they can safely build on the foundations of a former child’s instinct to adapt to the inevitable. Once an authoritarian setting is established, the learned helplessness of the former child kicks in and dictates to shape ourselves in a way to please the authority figure. It is all ingrained in us, we all did it once – only some of us didn’t have evil families with destructive and leader-serving agendas, so we attach only positive things to the idea of a family, and dismiss the embedded mind control as benevolent or non-existent, and in no way similar to cults.

But there is a reason all authoritarian mind control group calls itself a family.


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