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DBT Skills that Might Feel Triggering to Cult Survivors

When individuals seek healing after leaving a cult, therapists might employ distress tolerance skills to assist them in managing the intense emotions stemming from their experience. However, some of these techniques might evoke negative responses from clients due to the cult's prior manipulation and weaponization of these concepts to exert control over them. Cults may have taught members distorted versions of these skills to achieve specific outcomes, such as fostering positive thoughts about the group or leader while minimizing negativity. Instead of being used to promote emotional regulation and individuation, these skills were twisted to encourage submission. As therapists work with survivors of cult involvement, it's crucial to be aware of this dynamic and to be patient as clients navigate the process of relearning how to use these tools in a healthy manner.

DBT skills that cults can weaponize and distort:

  1. Radical acceptance: Radical acceptance is a DBT skill that can help individuals who struggle with trying to control the uncontrollable and who actively resist or avoid the reality of their current situations. It teaches people to accept reality fully and without judgment so that they can cope with their circumstances and move forward. As you can imagine, this concept can be weaponized to encourage cult members to accept mistreatment and toxic environments with statements such as "no group is perfect" or normalizing unfair treatment by telling members that they are a part of a greater mission that requires self sacrifice. The key thing to remember with radical acceptance is determining what is outside of and what is within the client's control. Ex-cult members need extensive help in identifying what is within their control and how to wield that control in the face of manipulation and pressure. Radical acceptance is meant to empower individuals to move forward and make necessary life changes, not to accept unfair treatment.

  2. Distraction: Distraction can be a fantastic tool for emotional regulation. Volunteering, engaging in a hobby, changing your cognitive focus to something less emotionally charged such as a fictional book, or learning a new skill can all be healthy distraction practices. In cults however, people are encouraged to distract themselves in these ways to minimize and ignore negative thoughts and feelings about the group and/or leader. When helping former cult members utilize distraction, it's important to emphasize that the goal is to temporarily tolerate these emotions or thoughts, with the intention of revisiting them at a more appropriate time. For instance, if negative thoughts arise while trying to sleep, reading can be a helpful distraction so that rest is prioritized. Encourage clients to jot down the emotions or thoughts that are popping up for reflection at a later, scheduled time.

  3. Mantras: Repetitive encouraging statements can be a great form of emotional regulation as it can encourage people to keep pushing forward in times of distress. Simple phrases such as "I can do this" or "I've survived situations like this before" can be incredibly grounding as people face difficult circumstances. However, cults have utilized the concept of repetitive phrases and mantras to suffocate reasonable doubts and concerns in their members about the group and its leader. For example, mantras like "my life is abundant" are utilized in cults to thought stop and only allow for "positive" thoughts. Therapists should encourage their clients to utilize mantras after they have given themselves sufficient time and space to analyze what has been concerning to them. This analyzation can occur during therapy, in the presence of an unbiased friend, or as part of a designated worry time in the client's week. Therapists should also encourage the use of mantras that allow for nuance rather than problematic black and white phrases. Ex: "I can find ways to protect myself" is more nuanced than "I am safe".

Healing from the aftermath of cult involvement is a complex journey to say the least. Survivors of such experiences require understanding, patience, and the right tools. Therapists play a crucial role in assisting these individuals as they navigate through intense emotions and relearn healthy coping mechanisms. By acknowledging the ways in which cults manipulated certain skills for control, therapists can guide individuals towards genuine emotional regulation, individuation and growth.

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