The Unbearable Smugness of “I Got Mine-ism” Amongst Cult and ex-Cult Members
I’ll preface this post by saying that, in accordance with the clinical research, I do not believe there are strong correlations between prior life experience and the likelihood that a person will join or stay in a cult (or “totalist”, or “high-demand” group.) What follows is a speculation, based on memory and anecdote, on why people who are already inside such a group may be more prone to the kind of enabling and moral harm that Facebook friend Joseph Teskey has described to me as “I got mine-ism” (IGM).
IGM is a defensive strategy by which a member who has not (or believes they have not) directly experienced abuse or institutional betrayal within the group deflects stories of abuse within the group by immediately self-referring, saying things like: “I don’t know about other’s experience; I find/found the teacher/teachings to be profoundly helpful in my life.” The statement is usually couched within an unwillingness to act on behalf on victims or mitigate future harm.
In my own two cult experiences, I adopted the defence of IGM to varying degrees, and I remember many others who did as well. In the circle of people I’m thinking of, none of us (that I’m aware of) had prior experience with therapy. We had all come from family and social cultures in which that just wasn’t part of the wellness toolbox. When we gravitated towards the techniques of meditation and yoga offered by the groups, we found that they could have powerful self-regulatory effects we had never felt before, and we were hooked.
I believe that many of us were under the illusion that the meditative/yogic technique was the key to our new-found capacity for self-regulation. I don’t think we understood that we’d been love-bombed, or acquired a new family / safe haven in one fell blissful swoop. We didn’t understand that our internal changes were as much relational as they were intra-personal. The messaging was always singular and privatized: “You can go within, you can find x, you can choose y, you can be responsible.” One was never encouraged to really examine who was saying this to you, or why, or what they might want.
A paradox formed part of the group’s deception: you were told you were entirely self-responsible, and yet the benefits you experienced were mostly if not entirely coming from the group dynamic. You were emotionally isolated within a group somatic process that made itself invisible.
My own, and I believe others’, prior training in self-responsibility (or lack of experience with therapy) gave us the impression that we were in a place in which we had to resolve all conflicts or grievances internally. In a cult you can’t ask people for help and expect transparency or existential honesty. It’s palpable, whether you cognize it or not, that anyone with standing in the community who you would go to for help will reframe your appeal in relation to some deeper way in which you must surrender to the teaching or the leadership. In other words: any counselling is highly motivated and manipulative. It’s designed to protect the dynamic by making it manageable. Nobody will suggest that you leave, when leaving might be the only healthy thing to do, as hard as it would be.
If you’re aware of all of these rules, I believe you’ll double-down on the hyper-individualism that makes sense and seems to keep you safe. You remind yourself that you are there for your own development: that’s all you have control over. Yes, there are problems, ups and downs, hypocrites and assholes. People get hurt. Some recover, some don’t. Such is life, you feel, and it’s the same in here as it is out there. God is both shrugging and chuckling at the thought that you would have it be different.
And so nothing has really changed from before you were enmeshed in this new scene: you were always on your own, just you and God and the fates, and it’s the same now. And this feeling of the atomic self, equipped with nothing but a technique for self-consolation, means that you have no time for the sorrows of others. How could you bear to add them to your own?
The height of my own IGM was catching myself casting judgments on an older woman who died of cancer while in the group. Classy. She had sought out and received no care, in part because she maintained an affect of complete and total devotion to the leader. So obviously, she was fine.
Instead of being able to understand that I was part of a network that enabled harm, I criticized her in my heart. I remember distinctly feeling: her death was her own fault. She was stupid for not seeking treatment. But at some point I realized that I was criticizing her for not being able to do what I actually needed to do: reach outside of the group, restore other relationships, recognize that I had been fooled by my society into believing something that the group had expertly amplified: “You’re on your own, so you’ve got to get your own.”
I don’t want to abdicate responsibility for any way in which my IGM hurt other people, like those I hardened myself against and refused to sympathize with, even after I saw them emotionally and physically abused by a leader. At the same time I think it’s important to recognize that IGM is enforced by the isolationist dynamics of such groups. Cult members who are incapable of bearing witness to the trauma of their fellows are stunted, I believe, by a subtler form of trauma they are able to mobilize into a sophisticated defence that looks like spiritual dedication.