Here is an exercise for recovering ex-members:
Look around your home. How many objects remind you of your former cult? Do you still have cult clothing, books, music, or art? How does having these objects affect you?
I recently worked with a woman who had been out of a Korean cult for 7 years. She understood that it was a cult, knew the leader was a rapist, made the decision to leave, went back to school, and got married. But, she still struggled. When she and her husband came into my office to do recovery work, I learned that she was still sleeping on a wooden pillow with the cult’s symbol on it. Part of her was still attached to the cult. (She no longer uses the pillow, and I am using her story with her permission.)
Cult objects can be an anchor back to the cult mindset. They can be an active trigger, or they can serve unconsciously as painful reminders of guilt, shame, trauma, anger, or betrayal. They can encourage thought-stopping, loaded language, or absolutist thinking. Unless you work on your own personal recovery and integrate your Cult Self with your Authentic Self, the Cult Self can continue to exert unconscious negative influence.
Alternatively, cult objects may continue to be useful, or remind you of a positive experience or relationship. Carefully consider the effects these objects have on you, whether positive or negative.
Personal recovery means taking back control of your own life. Before, the cult may have decided what objects you have in your life, and assigned major significance to them. Perhaps the cult taught you that your personal value was tied up in these objects, or that the only way to be happy or healthy was to use these objects.
Now that you’re out, you get to decide what to wear, where to live, what to eat, how to sleep, and what media to consume. You can determine the significance and value of your own personal possessions. Don’t let your former cult continue to influence you with these objects.
It is my advice to never throw away anything truly personal like your journals, poetry, artwork. Put them in a box and give them to a trusted friend or family member. You might want them one day after you have done healing work, and the pain and trauma of being in a cult is not as acute. Likewise, please consider not burning or throwing away cult objects that are irreplaceable and could be used by a future researcher or in a lawsuit. I can’t tell you how many times ex-members told me they threw away or burned pictures, recordings, or personal creative works and have come to regret the impulsiveness of their action.
That said, here are some ideas about what to do with an old cult object:
1. Unceremoniously throw it away. Remove the significance of that object by refusing to devote any more of your time or energy on it. Simply toss it.
2. Perform a ritual destruction. It can be cathartic to (safely!) burn, shred, or otherwise destroy that object. It’s a tangible way to signify that it no longer holds any control over you. Consider a symbolic destruction too as a way to feel good and keep the object.
3. Alter the object or its use. Perhaps you have some cult clothing that would make a good cleaning rag, or perhaps the fabric can be used in a sewing project. Treat the object as you would treat anything else you own.
4. Keep it. Maybe the object is still useful, and it doesn’t impede your healing process. Perhaps you have some academic interest in it, or it reminds you of a friendship or a fun trip. Again, please consider keeping objects that are truly personal or irreplaceable, even if you have to temporarily give it away.
The important thing to remember is that you are in control over your own healing. You have control over what you want to do with your own possessions, and what they mean to you. Be mindful about your decision. Don’t just keep an item out of habit, or because you have a phobia that something bad will happen to you if you get rid of it.
What have you done with your old cult objects? Comment below and let us know what has been helpful for you!