November 5, 2020

Lessons from "The Vow"

Though I have been trying to be mindful of watching a lot less TV and staring at screens for any longer than necessary, there have been a couple of things in the last few months that I just felt drawn to watch.  I don’t remember how I came upon “The Vow” but it definitely caught my attention right away.  

People talk about cults with a hint of ‘I would never get caught up in something like that.”  But most of us have never really been faced with having to choose.  “The Vow” in its nine episodes, did a great job of walking the viewer through how and why a group of people got sucked into NXIVM led by Keith Raniere.

It seemed to me that the two things each person who got swept up in the cult had in common was they were all seeking more meaningful connections with others and fulfillment within themselves.  Who doesn’t want that?!  To me, that is what most people are looking for when they really step back.  I couldn’t stop myself from taking some notes so here are my biggest takeaways from, “The Vow.”

Ignore your gut at your own peril

Anytime someone tells you that your instincts are to be ignored should be looked at the with the side eye if not completely run away from.  The truth is that gut instincts can be wrong, especially when there is a history of trauma.  But that it’s ok to allow the instinct to come up and compare it to the facts at hand.  Part of grooming for an abuser, is when they tell you that your instincts are all wrong.  “I didn’t lie to you, you just don’t understand.”  Your instincts are there to protect you, there is no harm is slowing down to check in with them.

Break you down to build you up?

Beware of those that tell you that you must feel less than in order to improve.  I know of no research, AT ALL, that indicates that that is true or effective.  What is true is that when you start to address things you have avoided (i.e. trauma, addiction, conflict, etc.) is that you can get angry or sad before you start to get to real and lasting solutions.  But while it may be exhausting to unearth painful things, it is common to feel more hope or catharsis or an unburdening when you do it.  Not less than and judged.  People who want to tell you that you are not enough as you are are not to be relied upon.

Us and them

When you are told that you cannot or should not tell people who are not in the group because, ‘they just won’t understand’ be leery.  Think about how you would explain secrets to a child... If it is something that scares or hurts you, then you should be allow to talk about it with people that you trust. There are times we keep things to ourselves because it is no one's business but that isn't the same as being told you cannot or should not tell anyone else. Secrets make us sick and shame lives in the dark. If what you are going through is healthy and normal, that telling people, shouldn't be a risk.

"You must be really trusting."

There was a scene in which one of the former cult members was sharing with a small group of people that she had recently left a cutleries and that was what one women said to her, "You must be really trusting." I don't think the women meant to be rude or disrespectful but there was definitely a tone of 'that couldn't ever be me.' I immediately thought it could be anyone. If you meet the wrong person at the wrong time, it could be you. It is "normal"/right/healthy to want to find people we can be safe and vulnerable with and that is what makes us vulnerable to predators. When you open up, you risk letting the bad in with the good.

Seek and ye shall find

To be human is to search. Some people want to make more money, others want to be in better health, be better parents or less anxious, etc. There is a sense that there are people who have figured it all out and if we just got our shit together than we would have it figured out too. So people drink or use drugs or work endless hours to try and get closer to the idea that things can be all good. There is a fantasy that things can be perfect if we just try hard enough. But that just isn't the case. Life exists in a balance where we have to take the good with the bad. When we put down the booze/drugs and turn off the TV/phone/computer, we are left with our own thoughts. Ewww!! The truth is, there are always trade offs and there is no perfection. If perfection existed then there would be a diet where you could eat doughnuts daily and have a six pack. Anyone who tells you anything other than life is about balance and that perfection is achievable is trying to take your money.

I need a break

If what you are doing is truly good for you, then taking a break should be no problem. Not to say there are never consequences but it shouldn't be a problem. For example, if you workout four times a week consistently for a year and decide to take a two week break while on vacation, that should not be a problem. There will be consequences (that whole balance thing) and you will be soar when you get back. But anything that is truly good for you should be ok to take a breather from without emotional punishment.

Self harm

In the cult, there were women who were pressured to get branded. Later attorneys would argue that the women were consenting adults who chose to mark themselves. I knew a woman in college who got matching tattoos with a couple of friends (she later regretted that choice). I'm sure we have all seen service members who have gotten tattoos to reflect the branch of the military they served. There are lots of examples in which people will chose to permanently mark their bodies to signify that they are members of a group and there is nothing wrong with that. There is a difference however, when the decision is made for you. If, when, where, how with whom to chose to mark your body should all be made by you and no one else.

"Collateral" vs. the 5th step

In the series women were told that to be given sensitive information, they had to give "collateral." Collateral was basically stuff that could be used for blackmail if the woman were to ever break the rules. While watching, I initially didn't understand the difference between the 5th step off AA:

Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions

The difference is AA is confidential. Even if you quit, even if you relapse, whatever you "admit" is kept private. Where in this cult, whatever photos or information were provided were intended as a threat; you talk, we expose. VERY important difference.

Therapeutic abuses

One thing that made me really angry watching it was that they did use some therapeutic techniques but they used them to hurt and manipulate. There is a reason that therapists, counselors and social workers have to be licensed and regulated. There are tools that can be used to harm people. In one of the episodes, one woman said it was like five years of therapy in a week. It's not healthy to do everything at warp speed.

Pathologizing emotions

There is nothing wrong with feelings. It is normal to be happy, sad, angry, fearful and anxious. When having some of those feelings at a high rate negatively impacts how you live your life, it may be time to address them. But feelings are just data and having them does not make you sick or broken or weird.

Connections are tricky

As mentioned earlier, when we open up we can let the bad in with the good. There is plenty of irony in the fact that healing from a painful relationship often requires being nurtured in a different relationship. But there it is, nothing heals a broken heart like love from someone else. Whether it is recovering from the death of a loved one by seeking support in friends in family or realizing that you deserve better when a new partner treats you well. We are built to live in tribes/packs. Connections are tricky but they are also where the magic usually happen.

As always, I’m here.  If you are ready to work on having the life you want, call me and let’s get started!

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