Mental strength or its absence has a strong influence on our daily life, obviously. This mental strength can be weakened by thought patterns and can result in communication issues, relationship problems, and unhealthy decisions.
I for myself was prone to have these thought patterns back in the Cult days and I can say that they not only hindered me from applying critical thinking but also led to depression.
Here is how these thought patterns apply to Cult members:
1. All-or-Nothing Thinking
The world of a Cult is black and white: They are the good ones, all others are bad (even though they may have a fair chance of being saved). Growing up a Jehovah’s Witness, this Us-against-the-world spirit was instilled in me and everybody else I knew. What I learned: There were no half-measures. Either you were a 100 % Jehovah’s Witness or there was a distinct possibility of being labeled bad association or losing privileges in the congregation. This is mirrored in their shunning policy: If you don’t believe in every little word the leadership publishes, you are an apostate. All or nothing. That continued after I left. Coming from an All-or-nothing environment I had problems realizing the nuances that life offers.
There are so many ways to apply this one to Cults in general and Jehovah’s Witnesses in particular: A single successful preaching day meant that we truly had Jehovah’s blessing. An earthquake or military conflict somewhere meant that we were indeed living in the last days. The experience of some Jehovah’s Witnesses being saved from a harmful situation showed how Jehovah’s spirit works.
The problem: When we overgeneralize, we tend to forget everything that might negate our pattern. We block out that practically all other preaching days were rubbish. We didn’t want to realize that there have always been earthquakes and conflicts but we are hearing more about them due to better and faster news delivery. And while being in awe of Jehovah’s alleged spirit in action with these lucky Brothers and Sisters, we totally forgot about all the other times Jehovah’s Witnesses were killed or hurt badly. This pattern led to me being afraid of Armageddon for the better part of the 13 years since having been ex-communicated (=disfellowshipped).
3. Filtering out the Positive
Very similar to the aforementioned, this one applies to Jehovah’s Witnesses in a particular way: When I was a Jehovah’s Witness I now and again did tend to notice something negative in the organization I wasn’t happy about. But instead of meditating on that thought and trying to bring it into perspective I would abandon these thoughts and concentrate on the positive. It was a common pattern among the Jehovah’s Witnesses I knew.
And even if one couldn’t think of something positive there was always the last straw: “We have to trust that Jehovah knows what he is doing and that this is his organization”. This is a common pattern in a Cult environment. But in the real world, weighing the pros and cons in a balanced manner is important. That’s why this thinking pattern may not really have been helpful to any of us.
Did you ever catch yourself second-guessing the intentions of the Brothers and Sisters in your religious group? I know I did. I used to believe I knew exactly how strong the faith of my fellow Jehovah’s Witnesses was. One tends to become very judgmental as a Witness and Cult member in general.
Also, every time I got up to mischief I believed everybody around me knew. Which they didn’t, of course, but I thought I could read their minds when they talked to me. So, mind-reading was negative both for others and for me. This kind of thinking put undue pressure on me and made me try harder to make up for my bad.
Despite Armageddon being late, Jehovah’s Witnesses are still going strong on that “last days” shtick. It’s amazing mankind has survived so far, considering we’ve been living in the alleged worst part of human history at least since I was born in 1981. That is because of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ confirmation bias leads them to think that the world situation is worse than it is.
Of course, it’s not all moonlight and roses, but if you would like a more objective look at the world situation I recommend you read some Steven Pinker; for example The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has declined. This book helped me loads getting rid of Armageddon panic.
6. Emotional Reasoning
This applies to so many groups, not only religious ones. Appealing to emotions almost always yields better results than sticking to facts. That’s why advocacy groups like the WHO have emotional videos featuring sad children’s eyes rather than graphs.
But let’s look at Jehovah’s Witnesses: Take any Watchtower publication and flick through it to any page. Read a paragraph. There’s a good chance you will stumble upon a sentence along the lines of “How happy we are to be part of God’s people”, “How thrilling it is to know God will destroy the wicked” or something like that. This is very manipulative. I remember thinking: “Actually, I don’t feel that happy. Something must be wrong with me“. Or: “Everybody else is happy, so I must be happy to.” As a Jehovah’s Witness, one gives more weight to emotive thoughts than to reason. That was a big problem that hindered me from moving on for a long time. I’m guessing you’ll find this in many Cults and cult-like groups.
There’s not much more to add: “Disfellowshipped”, “Apostate”, “mentally diseased”, “worldly” – just three of the many labels put on us by JW.org. The same goes for many Mormon groups: Their apostates are labeled Sons of Perdition. And among Islamists, atheists and apostates are of satanic origin, heathens, destined to be killed.
There are different ways this pattern applies to a Cult like Jehovah’s Witnesses. The most obvious ones are the failed predictions, of course. Funny how nobody seems to care among Jehovah’s Witnesses. This is due, in part, to the Governing Body claiming affiliation with prophets of ancient time who seemingly had the gift of foretelling future events. So, if it worked out for them, it will have to work out for the Governing Body in the long run, right? We just have to believe.
Plus: It says so in the Bible. On a smaller scale, we are all prone to fortune-telling. Did you ever think you’d make a perfect ass of yourself doing an assignment in the Theocratic Ministry School and then it didn’t go so well indeed? Classic self-fulfilling prophecy. Why? Because we were made to believe that if something goes wrong it is always our fault or our lacking of faith. If things go well: Thank you, Jehovah! This leads us straight onto
If something went wrong in the congregation or in my life, I always believed it was due to my masturbation. Or thinking of football whilst preparing for the meeting. Or some other mistake I made (mostly masturbation). Jehovah’s Witnesses pride themselves in not being superstitious. But that’s not true: For example, believing that the sin of an individual can take away Jehovah’s blessing from a whole congregation is Superstition 101.
10. Unreal Ideal
Remember those talks at the convention full of experiences of eight-year-olds preaching to a whole class? Or that disabled sister who spent 300 hours in field ministry every month? Or these African brothers who sold their vegetables so that a Kingdom Hall could be built? Every single so-called encouraging talk was basically about showing the rank and file that it still wasn’t enough, no matter how much time and energy they were already investing.
The same goes for Scientology: The main goal is to achieve Level 9000 Thetan status or something like that. Your best is never good enough. In Cults, there i no room for focus on oneself. An unreal ideal was pretty common back in the days and I know it wore me down quite a bit.
These are but a few patterns we were programmed with while being Jehovah’s Witnesses or being Cult members in general. This led to many of us having low self-esteem, being worn down with doubt, even depression.
It is important to single out the psychological side-effects of living in a cult. First of all, it will help us to help ourselves move on. Second of all, we can only help others after having helped ourselves first.
This post was inspired by and has been adapted from a piece I originally found on Psychology Today that was penned by Amy Morin, who is a licensed clinical social worker, psychotherapist, and author of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do. To view the original, please visit this site. I have applied the general thoughts found in this article to a Cult background in general and to a background as Jehovah’s Witness in general. This article was originally published at taze.co.
What are your thoughts? Did you experience any of these patterns?