When I first left the cult I was a part of, I was a wreck. My entire identity was in shambles because so much of what I’d done—and much of what was done to me—while part of this group had been abusive. While a member, I was completely out of touch with reality. I’d been brainwashed into believing that bad things were good and good things were bad. And now that I’d left, I couldn’t trust my my decision-making abilities because I’d clearly made such terrible ones while under my former pastor’s control.
She controlled how we saw the world and we had to align our views—spiritual, social, and political—with hers (a process called Monopolisation of Perception). She controlled what we watched, who I could be friends with, which university I went to, put wedges between children and their parents; claiming that she and her husband were our mother and father, demanded our presence at the church four days a week, and even told the congregation to pay for her plane ticket so she could go to Malaysia for a conference run by the International cult leader Jonathan David. She refused to let me leave our church building and forced me to take communion. As I cried, choking on the breadstick, she yelled at me about how selfish I was.
My greatest shame is watching her attack a 12-year-old boy by picking him up by the feet, dropping him on his head, and then ripping his top off as she screamed about how evil his T-shirt was. She then made us pray in tongues for the evil to come out of him. His mother stood beside me, crying. I felt for her so badly. I hugged her and said, ‘It’s okay. Pastor Michaela* knows what she’s doing.’ My brother tried to stand up to her and she ripped him a new asshole. I was terrified of what would happen to me if I disobeyed anything she said. So I sat by. As I said earlier: not proud of my choices.
After six years of this, I left with my own free will; holding the ability to make choices in shaking, terrified hands. And one month from today marks my sixth anniversary of leaving. So even though I’ve been out of the group for a little while now, I still have PTSD and Borderline Personality Disorder as a result of that and other consecutive traumas.
But I’ve come a long way, and I’d like to share three steps I’ve taken to become more confident in my ability to make good choices.
#1 – Start With Little Choices
My first port of call after leaving the group was to seek professional help. I told my counselor about the decision-making paralysis I was experiencing, and she said, ‘Well, how about you start small? Obviously making big choices for your life right now is out of the question. That’s okay. But how about you make little choices then celebrate them. For example, when you wake up in the morning, you have a jar of coffee or a box of tea bags in front of you: what will be your hot beverage of the morning? And when you decide what you feel like drinking, really pay attention to the fact that you, you, made a choice.’
So I did. And using this tool helped me to flourish quite quickly because I began to look for opportunities to make choices in order to celebrate the fact that I made them! It was healing, practical, and fun!
#2 – Surround Yourself With Validating People
I can’t tell you how vital this step is. Especially as survivors of abuse, we tend to feel shame for putting our own wellbeing first, and believe we’re actually terrible people for not thinking about everyone else. Once you’ve escaped abuse, it can be really hard to make choices that support the idea that you’re valuable—especially if you don’t believe it to be true.
But one thing I’ve learned is that Ne-Yo was onto something with his song Let Me Love You (Until You Learn to Love Yourself). Rebuilding my life after the leaving the church, a family breakdown, and a suicide attempt would not have been possible without people around me who believed I was valuable when I didn’t. The same idea works for developing your confidence to make good decisions: surround yourself with people who remind you that you’re smart, wise, and have what it takes. Not naysayers who cast doubt on you, reiterate what your abuser may have said, or confirm the negative things you believe about yourself. And, seriously, get rid of anyone who doesn’t support you as you try to do what you feel is best for your life. This doesn’t mean that people will always agree with you. But the right people, healthy people, will allow you to disagree with them without making you fear punishment or rejection. Find these people and don’t let go!
#3 – Get to Know Yourself
If you don’t know yourself, you won’t know what you like, dislike, want, or don’t want. And it’s pretty hard to make decisions if you don’t have a clear motivation for doing so. So it’s important to spend time with yourself “as though you’re getting to know a new friend” as Caitlyn Roux says in her TED Talk. Danielle LaPorte’s book The Desire Map is also an incredible resource that I recommend to everyone. It helps us to identify how we want to feel in order to make decisions from a place of clarity and joy.
*Not her real name