A group, a congregation, an organization, a collective, a community - whatever the setting - if violations take place where people who align with the same ideals gather, you’ve got a complicated mess on your hands. The group surrounding a leader or ideology can exacerbate the trauma caused by abuse of power. In such situations, many of us were publicly shamed for things we did while striving to align with the goals of the group. This is excruciating and humiliating. If you manage to extricate yourself from that network, Bravo! But even with good therapy and support from friends and family, we can continue to suffer quietly, making it far safer to steer clear of groups altogether. Aversion to groups can actually be a hard-earned survival mechanism.
Group violation is especially challenging because we are such social beings - as Dr. Dan Siegel, a neuropsychologist, says, 'We are hardwired for connection'. But when that natural instinct has been turned against us and violation occurs in a group setting, be it verbal, emotional, sexual or spiritual, the added layer of pride and shame compounds the experience. By pride, I’m referring to the group think: “we are special” , “we know something others don’t know” or “we are the chosen ones.” And shame, well, that is a primary means by which a nefarious leader controls his minions - by bringing attention to our failings and keeping us striving. All this, makes it totally understandable that many cult survivors don't want to be in groups.
However... Since we are indeed social critters, I believe that speaking in a group and/or sharing one's story with others in a safe container can be powerful and integrative. I experienced this in my own healing process when I joined Toastmasters, a group that supports members to develop their public speaking abilities. I will never forget my first introductory speech. I visibly shook like a leaf, standing in front of maybe a dozen very kind and supportive people while I stammered out a few sentences, then ran back to my seat and tried very, very hard not to burst into tears. But the next time it was slightly less terrifying. And now, I sometimes can feel amazingly calm and clear when I am talking in a group setting. I think Dan Siegel would attribute this progress to what he calls ‘creating a coherent narrative’ - that my neurological system has settled through the experience of telling, and repeating my story. And, I believe it is more than that. An emotionally safe group setting allowed me to heal and re-establish the positive aspects of tribal instinct.
There is no question - having a one-on-one therapist who is well versed in spiritual abuse, has been essential to my own healing process. And for me, forays into groups have been equally important. Being seen and accepted as part of a group, and noticing and identifying when something is “off” has unequivocally restored some of my trust in humanity in a way that was not possible through individual relationships. And, as the late, writer and playwright Anton Chekhov, once said, “You must trust and believe in people, or life becomes impossible." Sometimes, joining a group can rebuild trust in others, making what was once impossible, possible again.