The Role of Cognitive Distortion
Proponents of cognitive therapy, based on the work of Aaron Beck and others, believe that by changing the way we think we can have a profound effect on the way we feel.(6) In Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, David Burns outlines 10 common mistakes in thinking, which he calls cognitive distortions.(7) These distortions are explained here in the context of post cult recovery.
All-or-nothing thinking: Cults teach black-and-white thinking, such as “Everyone outside the group is controlled by Satan or is evil,” “The leader is God and cannot make mistakes,” “You must always strive for perfection in order to reach the group’s goal.” Such thinking stifles personal growth and keeps a person pitted against the rest of the world.
Overgeneralization: Simply making one mistake can cause a person to leap to the conclusion that the group’s predictions about dire consequences for those who leave are indeed coming true. Former members often have difficulty allowing themselves to make mistakes without hearing criticisms in their head. Reviewing actions at the end of the day, no matter how simple, can help counterbalance the internal cult “chatter.”
Mental filter: cults teach people to dwell on their mistakes and weaknesses. In many cults each day’s activities are reviewed, with concentration placed on any “sins” or wrongdoing. All thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are cause for criticism, prayer, and repenting. After such training, a person may obsess about a small mistake and lose sight of the positive things that are happening. Anything negative becomes a focus that filters out everything else.
Disqualifying the positive: One means of cult control is to not allow members to take pride in their achievements. All that is good comes from the Master, while members are made to feel stupid and inadequate. Making lists of personal strengths and accomplishments may counteract this reaction.
Jumping to conclusions: There are two forms of coming to a negative conclusion, which are probably familiar to ex-members:
Mind reading: Those who were in New Age or Eastern cults may have been led to believe that mind reading is real. This belief is used to make assumptions about others. Doing the same now may be counterproductive. Don’t jump to conclusions about another person’s actions or attitudes. Don’t substitute assumptions for real communication.
Fortune telling: Cults predict the failure of their critics, dissenters, and those who leave. Former members sometimes believe that depression, worry, or illness is sure to hound them (and their family) forever. Remember, such phobias and distortions have nothing to do with reality but have been instilled by the cult.
Magnification (catastrophizing) and minimization: Magnifying the members’ faults and weaknesses while minimizing strengths, assets, and talents is common. The opposite holds true for the leader. This trend has to be reversed in order to rebuild self-esteem, although reaching a balanced perspective may take time. Feedback from trustworthy, nonjudgmental friends may be helpful here.
Emotional reasoning: In groups that place emphasis on feeling over thinking, members learn to make choices and judge reality solely based on what they feel. This is true of all New Age groups and many transformational and psychology cults. Interpreting reality through feelings is a form of wishful thinking. If it really worked, we would all be wealthy and the world would be a safe and happy place. When this type of thinking turns negative, it can be a shortcut to depression and withdrawal: “I bad, worthless, and so on, therefore I bad, worthless, and so on.”
“Should” statements: Cult beliefs and standards often continue to influence behavior in the form of shoulds, musts, have tos, and oughts. These words may be directed at others or at oneself-for example, thinking, “I should get out of bed.” The result is feeling pressured and resentful. Try to identify the source of these internal commands. Do they come from the former cult leader? Do you really want to obey him anymore?
Labeling and mislabeling: Ex-members put all kinds of negative labels on themselves for having been involved in a cult: stupid, jerk, sinner, crazy, bad, whore, no good, fool. Labeling oneself a failure for making a mistake (in this case, joining the cult) is mental horsewhipping. It is an overgeneralization, inaccurate, cruel, and, like the other cognitive distortions, untrue and self-defeating. Labeling others in this way is equally inaccurate and judgmental. If there must be labels, how about some positive ones?
Personalization: Burns calls this distortion “the mother of guilt.” A primary weapon of mind control is training members to believe that everything bad that happens is their fault. The guilt that accompanies this sort of personalizing is crippling and controlling. You are out of the cult now, so it is important only to take responsibility for what is yours.
These 10 cognitive errors are all habits of thinking that are deeply ingrained by the thought-reform processes and cult indoctrination. Tendencies toward these distortions may have been in place even before a person’s cult involvement, which may have enhanced vulnerability to recruitment and increased susceptibility to the cult’s practices. Given the habit of these kinds of destructive thinking patterns, is it any wonder that former cult members sometimes feel depressed? The good news is, like any habit, these patterns of thinking can be broken and discarded through awareness and practice.