The ultimate goal of authoritarian control is to make people want what we want.
In order to get there, first we must make them think what we want them to think and feel what we want them to feel. Cults all do that.
In every type of authoritarian control there is an attempt to sever the link between impulses and your normal reactions to them.
When your abusive spouse humiliates you, swallow it and thank them. Whatever you feel when you think of a past humiliation, feel something else. If you feel aroused, feel ashamed. If you have an appetite, feel guilty. If you fell like bolting, stay. If you don’t like sex with the guru – conjure up feelings of pure joy while he does it. Unlearn how to want. Distrust your own reactions. Embrace pain, physical or emotional. Shun pleasure. Redefine pleasure. Seek pain for pleasure. Enjoy humiliation. Be happy to serve. Negate yourself.
Thought reform regimes come in different shapes and sizes, from religious to political. But what they all share is a goal to reshape you – and you share that goal of reshaping yourself because you buy into their premises. You start learning your new opinions from them, you start wondering “what would my group think” about this and that, and you start learning what to love and whom to hate. All this because you believe these are elements of the right way of thinking, the true opinion.
Catholics placed themselves between you and your own sex drive. Scientology audits were not just interrogation/confession tools but a reconditioning to change the victims’ reactions. NXIVM EMs were explicitly called response-feeling disassociations. And members were subjected to them every time they resisted and needed to be worn down and ground into submission. And unlearn resistance.
In the example of NXIVM, the first generation American self-help cult, members were trained to manipulate their own feelings. “Expanding their viscera” it was called. On a hypnotic tape the documentary viewers can listen to the cringy meditation instructions where cult members are told to alternate between feeling bad and good. On command. And they are not just asked to feel a little bad, but they are commanded to “trigger” the most horrific bad feelings, and then, without transition, the most joyous feeling. And then back.
The result is well documented. When the unseemly and arrogant garden gnome of a guru comes and performs sex on them, they are making themselves feel joy and suppress their disgust. They were supposed to expand (shrink?) their viscera and trigger the utmost joy for the not-so-special occasion of the guru demanding sex from them. They learned how to ignore the feeling that told them to throw up, get their clothes and run. If they felt bad, they were told they were doing something wrong and needed more hypnosis-training. Pardon, EMs. And then they were made to pay for it, so next time they would think twice before feeling bad about unwanted sex.
In scientology, the continuous audits served the same purpose. They also cost a pretty penny. In her documentary about CoS Leah Remini reveals that victims are made to pay up to half a million dollars for audits (not to mention expected donations, expensive book bundles and other expenses) just to walk up the rainbow bridge to becoming “clear” – a desirable thing playing on the same quest for purity every religion and self-help myth exploits.
The NXIVM tool to dislodge the victims’ normal mental mechanisms and self-defense was called an EM (exploration of meaning). It was openly called an emotion-response disconnection. One of the whistleblowers recalled that she took over 1500 EMs (at a list price of 175 USD a pop) just to get on the bottom rung of the hierarchy. And then she was supposed to take more of it to move up. It was a systematic disassembling of a human being to make them not feel what they feel, to make them question their own feelings, even the ones that would protect them. Facing the options of more expensive brain-breaking sessions or feeling the utmost joy at the sexual approach of the guru, many of them no doubt managed to feel great pleasure and honor for his sexual attention.
According to the cult expert Janja Lalich it was a New Age-y thing to decide for yourself how you feel about things. It was a tantalizing idea that never occurred to people before (because it was stupid) so it blew their minds.
But there’s a difference between making the decision not to be upset for being caught in the rain and hum the Pina Colada Song instead – and making yourself enjoy it when you are raped by the guru. Disabling an important mechanism just because it sometimes backfires and letting an eager guru reprogram you is never a good idea.
But making oneself endure unwanted sex is not the only slippery slope that the stupid idea of manipulating our own feelings can lead to. From the idea that one chooses how one feels follows that if you feel bad about something – it is your fault. When you feel bad, you should also feel guilty, because you committed an emotion-crime. Go take an EM. Or an audit. Or confess.
By turning the victims’ attention to their inner feelings rather than the outside world that caused the bad feelings in the first place, cults effectively teach Stockholm syndrome to their members. Dependence bonding (a more accurate name for Stockholm syndrome) is in essence the survival mechanism of changing one’s mind when one can’t change the circumstances. And it is only necessary when one can’t change the world, only to cope with what is given. Making the victims invariably change how they feel – rather than the things that cause them bad feelings – discourages taking action. And when we look at the result, we see a bunch of seemingly hyperactive but spiritually frozen and insecure followers who don’t dare to think anything anymore, they just second-guess what they are supposed to think. And feel. Thought crimes and emotion crimes go hand in hand.
Cults only piggyback on our own propensity to try to change our own feelings. Take a simple example, a marriage. We are required to promise a feeling, no less, for life. We promise to feel love in the future.
Not only is it illogical since our future self will know more about our future circumstances by definition. It is also anti-human, because it makes individuals force themselves to never change. Never change in nature, in lifestyle -and never change in emotions. People essentially promise to force themselves to feel love when they no longer do. And they all brake under the pressure.
It all starts with the emotions. How often do we swallow our feelings and try to feel what we are supposed to feel instead? Just take the aforementioned marriage. The spouses are supposed to feel love – even when they don’t. They are supposed to feel arousal, even when they don’t. They are supposed to want certain things – even when they don’t. And they are working hard – on themselves – to feel the required things.
To cut back desires that don’t fit into the mold, to cut back dreams that are frowned upon, to adjust everything in their lives to the role they are supposed to fulfill, the functions they are supposed to perform. And then parenthood comes and they would be monsters if they wouldn’t try to suppress their feelings of anger, frustration, hatred for the thankless children – who are not supposed to be thankful and who are right to cry all night. The degree to which new parents have to work on their emotions is self-imposed mind control. It is on par with what cults do (complete with 24/7 occupation, sleep deprivation and extreme pressure).
But one’s family of choice is nothing compared to one’s birth family when it comes to mind control and self-mind control. A child is always in dependence bonding with its parents even when they are abusers and criminals. For survival, not for anything positive. Is it then such a surprise then that cults can harness this self-taught proclivity to change our feelings?
Forget changing minds – changing feelings is where it all starts.
People find it difficult to fortify their children against the calls for blind obedience because they also rely on it to make their job as parents easier. Similarly, we find it difficult to resist cults because the methods cults use are also used in our families – and every other type of group. Birth groups, groups of belonging, parties, nations, families.
At the end of the day every cult demands that you do whatever the church men tell you. But that’s not always how you see it because they make you want it first.
At first, cult victims think they are learning what they are supposed to think about every single thing in the world, they are practicing a sort of what-would-Jesus-do thinking, where ‘Jesus’ stands for whatever their opinion leader says it the thing to follow and emulate. They are practicing to be more ‘ethical’ (NXIVM, Scientology), they feel like students of The Right Kind of Thinking and sometimes they still make mistakes, sometimes they need their leaders’ advice on what to think and how to feel about something.
In a particularly disturbing scene one of the NXIVM victims describes one of their nocturnal walks with the guru. The guy used those one-on-one conversations to reinforce his control over his hypnotized subjects and jumble their minds by throwing a lot of weird opinions at them. When a woman had doubts they went on such a walk and the guru instructed her to run against a tree as fast as she can. She did it, but stopped before she hit the tree. “Interesting,” said the guru, “how protective you are of your body.” Which made the woman feel ashamed for not running head first into a tree. Even her self-preservation instinct was declared wrong. Then the guru instructed her to drink from the puddle to fight against her instinct to be clean. She did that to prove that she can overcome her self-preservation instincts.
Another victim was describing how she was instructed not to feel fear when she was about to be branded with a cauterizing iron and without anesthesia. She managed to “trigger” a state of pure joy – and she was proud of herself afterwards. When describing how she was scolded for not wanting to be branded her husband interrupts and passionately explains – to himself, really – that fear can be a good thing, that is what tells you to step away when a bus is moving towards you. He says it defensively, as if we need to believe him because he doesn’t. He needed time and distance from the cult to be able to see it this way again. Being accused of fear was cult parlance of a thought crime. Or an emotion crime.
This is clearly way beyond the “removal of limiting beliefs” as they put it in NXIVM parlance. This is a complete disintegration of individuals until they are completely unsure who they are, what they want, how they feel and what they think. Then they are open and hungry for whatever they are told to be and to do. And they will want it and they will feel it. Just to regain any sense of security and certainty.