For many people, family-oriented holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Hanukkah are loving, happy times: baking, singing, playing games, decorating, sleeping in, giving gifts, and spending time with family and friends.
However, for former members of “high-demand” groups, it can be a very difficult time. Especially for those with family members still involved with the group, holidays can provoke a lot of anxiety and even phobic reactions.
One option is to avoid the visit. Some people decide it would be too stressful or even harmful for them. This is unfortunate, but everyone must take care of their own health first and foremost. If you do choose this option, you may want to focus on spending time with other people you care about who want to be with you.
It can be really hard to deal with comments that are meant to recruit you back or impose the group’s moral system upon you. Of course, devout members often still believe they need to “save you.” The good news is that you can learn to handle these comments strategically if you have done healing work and understand cult mind control issues.
Some former members get incredibly zealous and use the same passion they had getting people to join to try to pressure people to exit, or “wake up.” This is not what we recommend at Freedom of Mind. Build rapport and trust, ask respectful, thought-provoking questions, and really listen. Try to step inside the person’s mindset and then respond strategically. Go step by step, not faster than the person is willing to lead themselves.
It is especially painful when current members of a controlling group are not willing to communicate with you at all. Cult policies of disfellowshipping, excommunication, and disconnection are all common methods of controlling people to be loyal and obedient. If you have been cut-off, it is very normal to feel hurt, lonely, and grieve the loss of connection to a loved one. So, focus on doing things within your control! This might include reaching out with calls, emails, or handwritten letters even if they do not respond.
If you are an ex-member of their group but able to visit, family gatherings might trigger lots of unresourceful feelings. To prepare, it might be wise to reflect over past holidays. What worked and what was problematic? What were the best parts of spending time with your family? Also, asking other former members for tips and strategies that have worked for them might offer some new ideas. It might be beneficial to write these on note cards or on your phone’s note pad as little reminders throughout the night. Steve Guziec says he has done this personally and had clients do it. It helps calm and re-ground them when they feel adrenaline kicking in.
Have you talked with your family about how to approach gatherings in a way that won’t leave everyone feeling defensive or hurt? It can be difficult to talk about boundaries with your family, especially if they are involved with a group which systematically stomps on their own personal boundaries, or if you feel like they are pressuring you to come back to the group. Try saying something like, “I know that you’re passionately involved with [X group]. I love you, and will always love and support you. For these few days, I would like to request that we focus on what brings us together, and not talk about [political/religious/ideological differences].” Then, be consistent! If someone directs a cult-related comment at you, say something neutral and change the topic. “That’s an interesting idea. What kind of pie are we having tonight?”
Next, pay attention to when you might get negatively triggered. Know what happened that made you upset. Develop an internal gauge. How reactive/angry/anxious/triggered are you feeling right now, on a scale from 1 to 10? When you have a solid understanding of what sets you off, you can deal with it more effectively in the moment. Take a few deep breaths, a bathroom break, a walk, or whatever you need to do to bring you back down to a lower reactivity level. Stay anchored in your body.
How can you take care of yourself if things get too intense or you feel too triggered? Try your best to identify safe spots: a room, a bathroom, a basement, an attic, a neighbor’s house, a local coffee house.
I also recommend making sure that you have an “exit” if necessary. If you have the resources and prefer not to stay at a family member’s house, get a hotel room or Airbnb. Have transportation available. Scope out public transportation options, taxis, Uber, or Lyft. If you feel like someone is giving you an ultimatum, and you can’t change the subject, or remind them that you wish to just focus on things that bring you closer together, just take a break or cut your trip short. This will not only ensure your own physical health and safety; the experience will be less stressful if you are not dependent on your family for basic essentials during your visit.
I hope the holidays will be a time of love, warmth, and peace for you! Remember that love is stronger than mind control, and there is always hope.