Ep.32 - Under The Influence: The 'Cult'ure Series — In the first episode of the 'cult'ure series, Candice invites us to get real about the relationships and groups we occupy. What does it mean to be psychosocially ‘under the influence’ and why are we humans so prone to surrendering personal agency? Candice shares more about what's challenged her most when it comes to living at the center of her own story, revealing the recent therapeutic ah-hah that led to the creation of this podcast summer series. Spiritual wounds are defined, as well as the Buddhist concept of near enemies and what they have to teach us about abuse of power, specifically in group wellness circles. She challenges the thought-terminating cliche 'there are no victims' and speaks openly about the dangers of idealistic generalizations arguing that often the suppression of pain is far more oppressive than laying claim to victimhood. We unpack the 4-letter word 'cult,' embracing its nuance with an acknowledgment that the dynamics of social control can be both subtle or severe and that, in either instance, they have a measurable impact on human agency. Ernest Becker's work helps us to understand why it is do-gooders are so often the ones making such a goddamned mess of things, and Candice unpacks ‘bounded choice’ - the psychological mechanics of staying put - why it is we stick around even when we shouldn't. The episode wraps with a sneak-peek into the 'cult'ure series gameplan moving forward. This episode is foundational for the conversations to come, so light a candle, pull up a floor cushion, & get thee some headphones! [cue culty music]

Ep.32 - Under The Influence: The Cult-ure Series

Candice Schutter: 

Welcome back to The Deeper Pulse. I am so thrilled to be back for a new season of the podcast. Thank you for being here with me. Let's get right to it.

It is so good to be back here in the ethers with you. I've really missed doing this podcast. And to be honest, the recent break I took was much longer than I expected it to be. I did some planned traveling. I started by visiting family in Atlanta, and I got to watch my niece graduate high school, which was amazing. The real highlight of the trip was the moment when she texted me and asked if I wanted to go with her to get pedicures the day before, and she and I sat for two hours and I got to hear all about her life and her plans to head to college in the fall.

And I got to spend some time with my nephew and the rest of the family. And it was just all around such a gift. It's been a long time since I've been able to visit family in the south.

So after that trip, I came home for about a week and then I took a road trip. I drove through California to Ashland, Oregon, where I attended the wedding of one of my besties.

And it was just such a beautiful weekend. She met her beloved late in life and she was tying the knot just a few weeks before her 50th birthday. And I cannot tell you how gorgeous the love is between these two humans. It was just such an honor to witness.

Chris had met me in Ashland for the wedding, and as soon as we began what was going to be a slow and leisurely road trip home, we both came down with Covid. Let's just say it was a slow slog to the finish line, back to our own bed. And I spent a couple of weeks mostly horizontal. It was no fun, but it certainly could have been a lot worse. I did a lot of sleeping, Netflix binging, and whining to myself, wondering when it would actually be over. It took about 12 days for the symptoms to lift. And then the brain fog sort of hung on. Those of you who have experienced Covid firsthand know what I speak of.

And just as I was turning the corner, Roe V. Wade was overturned and there was a whole new fire and heat for me to process. I had a lot of feelings around it and it sort of derailed me a bit and even had me second guessing the direction that we're about to go in. But then it occurred to me just how important it is that we keep having these hard conversations. Conversations that expose deeper truths and reveal how power is so often abused and how socialization has turned humanity against itself.

If that sounds a little cryptic, hang in there with me because this series we're really gonna look at how there are cultural paradigms that many of us unconsciously reinforce. I see this collapse of American democracy as a macrocosm, a byproduct of psychosocial forces that have been at work in our daily lives for centuries.

And we hear a lot of talk about how so many leaders have lost touch with the people they serve, many of whom they never really represented in the first place. And all of that is true, but it's also true that we live in a culture that perpetually teaches us how to lose touch with ourselves. When we buy into idealistic power structures, it impacts how we show up in our families, our workplaces, and in so called spiritual circles of healing.

If we have any hope of creating a collective experience that is inclusive of all people, we must dismantle indoctrination that teaches us to separate from ourselves.

The circles we find ourselves in are often just reenactments of unfulfilled childhoods. We allow leaders to subjugate us through the use of their fairy tales, idealistic visions that negate personal agency. We trade our uniqueness for belonging, abandon ourselves and point fingers at one another when it is those we elect, praise, or worship that deserve our critical attention.

This season of The Deeper Pulse, we will be examining culture as somewhat culty phenomen. And you might be surprised to learn just how much dysfunction that you, me and we have learned to normalize.

So let's dig in.

"You are the only you that has ever lived. Your idiom is the only idiom of its kind in all of existence. And if you cannot hear the sound of the genuine in you, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls." Howard Thurman.

Her office was exactly what I'd expected. Overflowing bookshelves spilling onto the floor. Stacks of disheveled papers everywhere.

When I first learned I'd be working with more than one published author as a part of my writing fellowship, I felt a little intimidated. Whitney Otto is the author of How To Make An American Quilt, a novel adapted into a movie in the mid nineties. I'd watched it back in college because Winona Ryder.

The film came out right after I ditched my English major. In part due to the oppressive constraints of professorial edits. And also because becoming a bonafide writer always felt like a pipe dream to me. Besides I had a more immediate need to stop having panic attacks. So I traded English for a Psych major midway through my sophomore year. And now here I was two decades later, circling back to my first love.

I was sitting in a real writer's home office, feeling right at home. Whitney was, and is, immediately lovable and she seemed to delight in our work together. Her insights humanizing. Her laughter a balm.

I'd sent her a few pages of my memoir in advance of our first meeting. Scenes from my childhood that I'd struggled to capture on the page. She sat across from me holding my printed words in her hand. I could see penciled comments scribbled into the margins. She began with some encouraging feedback, and I sort of floated above my body struggling to receive her words. I felt certain they were just paving the way for another message. The one that I could hear building at the back of her throat.

She lifted the pages and waved them in the space between us before she spoke.

"Candice, the writing is good. But I can't seem to find you on the page. It's like you're reporting events from somewhere outside of yourself. I just keep wondering, where are you in this story?"

Her words struck a chord deep inside me, and I had no idea how to answer her. I felt like I'd been using my writing to try to claw back into the center of myself since the very first day I cracked the pages of my first diary, the blue one with the tiny key I had kept hidden in the bedside drawer.

In my early adolescence, when other girls my age were acting out in anger and rebellion. I was mostly behaving gladly. Eager to please everyone I came into contact with. Neurotically tuned into the world around me.

On the Enneagram it's been said that I'm a one, which apparently means that I'm the perfectionist. Conscientious, ethical, a human with high standards and a stickler for details. And yes, if you're wondering it is as fun as it sounds.

Yet as with all personality profiles and typologies, I hold it lightly. I have to admit it does resonate. My moral compass is very well developed and being out of value alignment is a full body experience.

That said, I can also get pretty mired in self doubt, particularly when my sense of right and wrong feels somehow out of sync with the culture around me.

It was an equal blend of idealism and self doubt that drew me toward wellness arenas and the pseudoscientific world of new ageism. I was intoxicated by the promise of holistic health and it drew me into practices that transformed my body and my relationships, and also tethered me to teachings that had me spiritually hustling, trying to earn the favor of metaphysical gods, transcending my humanity through good vibes and positive affirmations. To tell you the truth, it was exhausting. What I couldn't see then that I can see now is that my beliefs were simply a modernized and laundered version of the same old top- down good versus evil spiritual hierarchy. And my original sin was having an ego with all its limitations.

Now my journey through new age wellness is something I will share with you in the next episode. Let me just say that it was helpful and productive until my spiritual path became codified into a new age religion of sorts. Perpetually in service to an ideal, I had a habit of suppressing my discomfort in order to compensate for what I perceived as my personal deficiencies. I sought out cultures and containers where the teachings confirmed what I already believed about myself. That it was my fault that bad things kept happening to me. That if only I were good enough, then I would finally stop struggling. And some invisible force above would reward me and bring an end to my suffering.

In my mind, heaven wasn't a place you go when you die. It was an embodied ascension up and out of the torturous ambivalence of my humanity. In theory, that is. In reality, it was just another way to rise up and out of my body. Dissociation had been my safe space from the time of early childhood, and Whitney hadn't been able to find me there on those pages because I didn't know how to be there.

Wasn't I always standing on the outside playing a part in someone else's story? I always looked involved. I took my cues from the people around me. I could be still, silent, and contemplative. Outgoing, present, encouraging. I could do it all. I could be whatever was expected of me. Especially if I thought it was in service to something larger.

I kind of think that if we wanna know what it is we believe about God, truly. We needn't look any further than our relationships to the leaders around us. Those who promise to hang the moon if we follow the breadcrumbs of their influence. How do we respond to that? And what happens when someone's influence leads us away from ourselves?

How do we reckon with that? Over the years, I've thought an awful lot about the difference between privacy and secrecy. I'm gonna leave the definitions to Webster and just speak off the cuff here about how I personally distinguish between the two.

To me, privacy requires ownership and choice. When, what, and with whom will I choose to share this thing that is mine to have, hold, and know. Privacy says to me, you are the steward of your story, your feelings, longings, yearnings, experiences, and understandings. These things are intrinsically private because you alone choose when and where to share them.

For me, something that is private is singular in its impact. If it is revealed, it still belongs to me.

Secrecy on the other hand is more complex. It says to me, I am something hidden, perhaps even from you. I am a secret for one of many reasons. Perhaps because you feel shame around owning me or because turning to face your truth means casting a shadow onto another person or persons. The choice, whether or not to share is interdependent.

When you share a secret, whether aloud or to yourself, you have revealed something, something potent, deep, honest, and true. Your secret might be something that the culture around you disapproves of. A secret might liberate you from the burden of shame while also initiating a whole other series of consequences. If your secret involves or exposes others, you may question whether or not you are at liberty to share it.

I hold space of privacy and keep secrets for a living. As a coach, I help people to carry the weight of their stories. Confidentiality is key. And I take it very seriously. We all need safe spaces where we can share the underbelly of our experiences. Spaces where we know our secrets are safe and our privacy is self-determined.

Yet once we've come to terms with the secrets we carry, what then?

Now I won't pretend that this is true for everyone. In fact, I have good reason to believe it isn't. But for me, secrets can be deadly. Now that might sound a little dramatic, particularly if you haven't listened to previous episodes and you don't know a lot about my family history. But let me just say this. There are some secrets that require external expression, or they slowly metastasize inside of us.

I'll speak for myself. Much of the pain I experience in my writer life is due to the fact that the stories I need to tell most are bittersweet and complex, ambivalent meandering journeys through highs and lows that involve many other humans. Humans who were doing their best at the time, but whose best was simply not good enough.

All of that to say, sometimes we keep secrets because we fear the fallout. If we share the whole truth, particularly about any harm we've experienced, who will we implicate? And what does that say about us?

Now I'm not asking these rhetorical questions for a friend. I'm genuinely wrestling with all of this, and I'll be attempting to pick it apart in the next few episodes. I'm hoping that you, the listener, will be willing to walk alongside me through that messy gray area, where there are no good guys and bad guys, no straight and easy answers.

I'm learning as I go and admitting aloud for the first time that for too long I have internalized ideals rather than holding those who've caused me harm accountable. I'm no longer that little girl afraid to ground herself in the truth of what she's feeling. I now reside at the center of my story and I'm giving myself permission to tell the whole truth, choosing to lean into the words of Anne Lamott, who writes:

"You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better."

In January of this year, I started working with a new therapist via Zoom. During our first session, I did my best to give her the basic overview of my life story, peppering in some of what I'd uncovered in previous years of therapy. I basically said, but didn't say... "I'm fluent in therapy. Here's a brief download of all my inner kid shitty issues. Let's just skip over all the deep dive processing and get right to my question, shall we? It's like, I can't even help myself. Even when I'm going into therapy, I do the whole self protective look how much I've got my shit together dance.

Thankfully, Judith is a patient woman and she sat through all of my throat clearing and waited for the moment when I'd finally get to the point of why I'd reached out to her. I eventually told her the truth, that I was feeling stifled in my expression, and that I had felt this way for such a long time, so gagged and bound that I just didn't know what to do. I told her about this pervasive feeling of self doubt that comes and goes like a fever that won't break.

And I puzzled aloud at the fact that I trust my skills, my capabilities, my well worn smarty pants, but when it comes to trusting my subjective experience, I get a little squirrly. Conflicted and contracted inside. It's as if I believe that my reading of life is somehow wrong or invalid.

Judith asked a few questions and listened intently until it was her turn to speak. And I was totally caught off guard when she zeroed in on a period of my life that I typically gloss over in the telling. On a part of my story that I often make light of, but that had long weighed heavy on me.

"Candice, I'm wondering something. Have you spent any time in therapy exploring your spiritual wounds?"

The question landed like a mic drop. Just like that she'd pointed right to the story I'd been most afraid to tell. And when I say tell, I mean, write. Because for me, there is no more honest way of getting to the heart of a difficult something than putting pen to page. But every time I sat down to do it, I just couldn't.

And what's weird is that the story itself isn't all that dramatic or compelling. In fact, it pales in comparison to some of the other experiences I've been able to document. Stories of abuse, neglect, unimaginable traumas.

This untold story that I speak of wasn't even the most challenging or interesting time in my life. But I think the reason I struggled was because of the ambivalence I felt. When I looked back at this period of my life, it was such a bittersweet blend of gratitude and fury that I just couldn't make sense of it.

Oddly enough, just a couple of hours before my first session with Judith, my partner and I had visited our storage unit and I dug into the way back corner to pull out a storage bin full of old journals. Inside I found a smattering of pages from my youth, two half empty journals from college, and then an eight year period of my life that I had tediously documented from start to finish. 13 separate volumes, each page filled from front to back. It spanned a time when I was steeped in personal development, wellness workshops, spiritual inquiry, and all sorts of helpery. I sat down and read through every page of those journals, the knot in my belly tightening and loosening as my body remembered moments my mind had long forgotten.

In a later session, Judith would reveal to me that she too had personal experience in the high demand culture of spiritual development. And so she had known what to point me toward, what to look for when it came to the aftermath. She explained that a spiritual wound is what happens when comfort and confusion collide. When love and terror exist in the same time and place, when something nourishing becomes toxic, or when we abandon the deeper self in order to secure love and belonging in a group. There is a rejection of inner knowingness in favor of dogma, codependent expectations, or secure rank in a spiritual hierarchy. Self abandonment disconnects us from inner authority, and in time we lose the ability to know and sense what is right for us.

Spiritual wounds are more common than you might think, and they don't only occur in so-called spiritual communities, but also in intimate relationships and mainstream cultural dynamics. Spiritual wounds aren't often discussed because they are paradoxical traumas. Times when we must reconcile the good with the bad. They require a high degree of emotional maturity to unpack because they are such a confusing blend of light and shadow.

Early this month, I attended an online writer's workshop with Cheryl Strayed. In it, she spoke to what it takes to mine the depths of our stories. She said, "There are many obstacles to becoming who you are, to finding your place in the world, to liberating yourself from the people and stories that will kill you. Being required to do them is a curse. Doing them is a blessing. The only way to do these things is to do the thing that you cannot do. The paradox of becoming is that to become, you must nearly die along the way."

That's it, right there. This podcast summer series is a crucible of sorts, casting the truth into the light of the fire and learning to stand in the heat that results.

This series is my way of paying sincere homage to those who both helped and harmed me through their influence. I hope to extend accountability and grace, as I share my stories and liberate myself from the people who shaped them.

Okay, so I wanna start with this question. What does it mean to be under the influence? Now, when I hear those words, I usually think of a physiological response to a mind altering substance. But it is also true that we can become emotionally and spiritually altered through our engagement with the world around us. Just as we can become physically addicted to something we ingest, we can become emotionally dependent on certain types of interpersonal dynamics.

We are shaped and socialized by our experiences, for better or for worse. And in time, this sets up a sort of neurological expectation, if you will. A way that our body and being responds that affirms the past and makes us more susceptible to certain types of influence.

For example, as a survivor of childhood trauma, I am conditioned to respond a certain way to relational dysfunction. A social interaction that others might read as neutral or severely off putting can serve as a sort of emotional primer for me, activating old trauma and investing me in present day dramas that are unhealthy and regressive. I may even behave in my old world way and look back on the interaction later wondering what on earth came over me?

What on earth, indeed. Certain memories were pounded and grounded into my psyche early on. Even as a grown adult, I sometimes find it difficult to disengage from the norms that my body came to know as a child. In this way, I am still under the influence of my past.

Now I've covered this topic rather extensively in early episodes of the podcast. So I'm not gonna spend any more time on it here. Just a quick reminder that who and what influences us can feel at times hardwired.

In this series, I'd like for us to zoom out a bit more and examine the influence of the everyday cultures we find ourselves in.

Culture itself can be a psychoactive environment that alters our thinking. And like it or not, we are continually operating under the influence of those who teach us, lead us, and with those whom we spend the majority of our time. Our influences shape our choices, and it often happens without our conscious awareness because social influence is the water we swim in.

The etymology of the word influence is "to flow into." So perhaps it's understandable that we often merge with the object of our influence. In other words, despite our best intentions, it's not uncommon for us to lose agency to our associations. Influence creates a systemic and alluring high. We see this every day on social media where secular influencers have the ability to shape the thoughts and behavior of millions of humans, all through filtered images, captions, and sound bites.

This is both a good and a bad thing. Both positive and not so positive influences are more visible. But even positive inspiration does not in and of itself empower action. If we want a culture filled with self act-ualized people, we've gotta do much more than provide a contact high. To mindfully lead in a digital era means understanding humans are reflexive when it comes to sacrificing personal agency on the altar of anyone they believe can provide easy answers to the ongoing questions that plague us.

When the future is uncertain, intoxication is all the more alluring. Predictability is its own relief. So we turn our attention toward perspectives that confirm what we think we know or what we most want to believe. And right now American culture is cultier than ever. Online algorithms push us toward content that confirms our beliefs, silos us from influences that challenge us. And as a result, so many of us are doubling down, betting it all on people and narratives that are not always what they promise to be.

In her recent book, Atlas Of The Heart, Brene Brown describes 87 emotions and experiences that "define what it mean to be human." Toward the end of the book, she writes about the Buddhist concept of near enemies, or things that appear useful or helpful when in fact they're obstacles in disguise.

For example, the near enemy of compassion is pity. Pity means well and may even look like support, but in reality, pity moves us further away from compassion and genuine empathic connection.

The near enemy of love is attachment. When we confuse dependency and need with love, it undermines our sovereignty and the ability to offer unconditional love and authentic care.

Perhaps one of the most telling... the near enemy of connection is control, which we're really gonna examine in future episodes.

In the words of Jack Kornfield, "near enemies depict how spirituality can be misunderstood or misused to separate us."

This is so important because if we don't know about near enemies, we might think that we are doing all the right things and that we ourselves are the problem, because something that should be working just isn't. When near enemies masquerade as spiritual allies, well-intended spiritual teachings can be repurposed to bypass pain. Or they can even be weaponized, used to gaslight or subjugate others.

We'll spend an entire episode on the particulars of how this can play out. But just to say that near enemies are a big reason why self-help sometimes goes sideways and well-meaning relationships and communities become dysfunctional.

Now I am of opinion that there is no such thing as an absolute spiritual truth, at least not in a way that can be expressed within the bounds of human language and comprehension. Situational nuance and context is everything when it comes to expressions of spirituality, because generalizations are dangerous and can lead to situations where people are retraumatized or a mostly good thing is misused to coerce or control.

So again, this is all gonna make a lot more sense as we get into later episodes, but let me just give you a quick example.

Back in the day I was involved in a series of spiritual wellness communities that overemphasize the popular new age refrain: there are no victims. Now the intention was to create a growth mindset, to inspire emotional accountability and self-awareness, and at first it worked for me.

I was able to step outside of my victimhood and learn how to do the inner work and own my shit as they say. But the further I went down that rabbit hole, the more I came to believe that if I was experiencing something, anything negative in my life, then I was somehow energetically at cause. So basically if something out there felt off to me that I just needed to get right within.

I had gone from not taking responsibility to taking all of the responsibility. And this was all made worse when I started hanging out with people who would use the near enemy guise of honesty and truth-telling to justify their dominant behavior.

And because I considered myself at cause, I often accepted their one-sided projections and blamed myself for their poor behavior. When I had feelings about being verbally assaulted, I would remind myself never to be a victim. And I would spend all of my energy holding myself accountable for their choices, after all I was energetically asking for it, wasn't I? I'd been taught that the most enlightened way to deal with conflict was to suppress my feelings and rise above them. And because I didn't self express my anger, I internalized it as shame.

Of course, it's easy to see the wisdom of not getting mired in victim mentality, but if we aren't careful our suppose-to's and spiritual ideals can back us into impossible corners.

Just the other day, I was talking with a client who's been struggling for years to end an emotionally abusive relationship. She's been inching away slowly and fortunately for her, the relationship is now long distance and she's finally ready to break it off for good.

When I gently suggested she perhaps draw a boundary when it comes to said person being able to access her via phone post breakup. She spoke frankly.

"Oh, I don't know. Candice. I'm not sure I can do that. It just feels so mean."

Now I completely understood what she was saying because I've walked that road before.

Careful not to push her, I simply offered a question for her to reflect on. "Perhaps it is mean, and yet what if in doing the nice thing you make it possible for him to be mean to you?"

She fell silent and I did too, because we had entered that liminal space where there are no easy answers. When it comes to humaning, there are no simple formulas or spiritual hierarchies that can save us. There are difficult choices that are unique that we must each reckon with.

We know we are close to the deeper pulse because of the paradox that emerges. Sometimes we have to admit that we are being victimized in order to stop playing the role of the victim. Ironically, it is the denial of our victimhood that often keeps us from taking restorative action. If we can embrace nuance and hold more than one truth at a time, we can own our experience and heal from it simultaneously without getting mired in labels and without trying to transcend them.

Agency is eroded when we cling to disempowerment and also when we generalize complexity into self-limiting soundbites. If you think victimhood feels stifling, try moving forward in the face of endless shoulds and have tos. Idealistic aspirations can be just as oppressive, especially when they drown out the real and true messages that our bodies are trying to send us.

But now let's turn a corner and look more carefully at group dynamics. If we wanna know what can go wrong, we don't have to look far. Scroll through your favorite online streaming service, and you will find a growing list of cult documentaries. Going Clear, Holy Hell, Wild Wild Country, Keep Sweet, the list goes on and on.

Usually when we think of high demand groups, we think of charismatic leaders. Narcissists who blatantly manipulate their followers to buy into group indoctrination, sometimes at deadly cost. Fortunately, in recent years more nuanced portrayals of cult dynamics are finally emerging.

The HBO docu-series, The Vow, comes to mind. The Vow takes time to document the genuine appeal of group awareness trainings and how a high demand group can develop over time. It features the beginning, middle, and end of NXIVM, a personal growth organization led by Keith Ranier, which was disbanded in 2018 when it was confirmed that the innermost circle was engaging in sex trafficking, forced labor, and racketeering. Raniere was eventually sentenced to 120 years in prison.

When accusations surfaced, the vast majority of NXIVM members were in understandable denial. Far from the diabolical epicenter of dysfunction, they had benefited from the work itself and they couldn't even conceive of the insidious abuse of power that was operating behind closed doors.

I have watched more cult documentaries than I care to count, and perhaps what I find most fascinating is the way that I feel when watching them. There's always this empathic part of me that can relate to the survivors and their stories. Even though my personal experiences in high demand groups might pale in comparison, I feel a tremendous amount of compassion and empathy. To a point. Because there is also a self-righteous part of me that is working over time to distance myself from their stories. It's as if I'm sitting on the edge of my seat, listening and waiting for that pivotal moment when I can finally exhale with relief and say, ha yes, that. That is the red flag that I would've never missed. I would've left right then. What is wrong with these people.

Now I'm not proud of it, but this pretty much always shows up at some point when I'm watching. And it actually makes me wonder if the popularity of cult docs has something to do with the fact that we are all looking for such evidence, to prove our immunity to such things. We watch and wait for that moment when we can say with absolute certainty, I would never be so naive to fall for that.

It's easy to think highly of ourselves and to imagine that we are too levelheaded and street smart to ever get involved in things that are even a little cultish. But cult is the root of culture and it is a common co-creative construct.

In fact, it's a dynamic that doesn't always describe the group on the whole; a pattern of behavior and response that naturally arises in lots of different types of interpersonal relationships, all resulting in the erosion of personal agency.

Cultic influences are operating in many of our homes, communities, and workplaces. If we can just set the word cult aside for a moment, it's really just a question of what is healthy or unhealthy about our affiliations and how might helpfulness and harm be overlapping?

In upcoming episodes, I'm gonna speak more in depth about cult dynamics, not to point a finger toward any one group or organization, but as an overarching framework for us to hang our hat on. Cults, or high demand groups is they're sometimes called, have a ton to teach us about the human psyche, the mechanics of coercive control, and what really happens when we lose our sense of agency to an individual, a doctrine, or a group identity.

Amanda Montel, the author of the book Cultish writes, "like everything in life, there is no good cult, bad cult binary. Cultishness falls on a spectrum." And then she notes while providing a ton of evidence for this fact, "humans are cultish by nature."

As someone who has personal and professional experience in more than one of these gray area environments, I find Amanda's fluid definition of cultish to be very helpful. Even if you've never doned a white robe or bowed to a Supreme leader, I challenge you to read her book. Chances are you'll find yourself reflected somewhere in its pages.

Cult are just an exaggeration of psychosocial forces that are operating in and around us at all times. We can be cultish about football, fashion, music... lovers, leaders, and online influencers. Humans just have a tendency to fixate on talent, charisma, or shared visions and identities. You might not be able to personally relate to a Jonestown survivor or the blind follower of a fundamentalist right wing conspiracy theory, but maybe you've bonded with your bestie over a love of all things Oprah, been wooed by an alluring partner, or coerced by a convincing sales rep. In her book, Montel examines how culture becomes cultish, examining spiritual communities, along with MLMs, fitness trends, and other culty outliers.

While there are way too many charismatic, narcissistic overlords wreaking havoc on the world, cult dynamics aren't always centered on the influence of a single personality. Sometimes it's a co-creative environment where agency is surrendered to a cause. Or helpful tools designed to liberate consciousness eventually concretize into a shared group identity.

My year-long, deep dive study of these dynamics has forever changed my experience of the word cult. So now, rather than asking the question... is this a cult or isn't it? I find it more useful to ask what exactly makes this experience feel so damn culty? Where is agency being lost to dogma or power over dynamics? And what can cult experts teach us about the everyday groups we occupy and sometimes get stuck in?

Sociologist and cult researcher Janya Lalich calls this bounded choice.

Bounded choice is the tension we feel when we are free to choose something, but making that choice leads to less than favorable outcomes.

For example, a person might be free to leave her abusive partner, but in doing so, she becomes financially unstable and or vulnerable to an escalation of verbal or physical abuse. Or let's imagine that you've become aware of an abuse of power within the company you work, but you choose to remain silent, and be complicit to the dysfunction, because speaking out means losing your job, good standing, or a sense of belonging in the group.

Or here's a more immediate and democratically devastating example. Just look at how almost every elected representative in the Republican party is handling the upcoming midterms, post insurrection. The bounded choice is clear. Pretend you buy into the big lie or lose your job and your place among your people. Now, there is absolutely no excuse for turning a blind eye, but there is an explanation. It is human nature to become irrationally bound to the cult of our choosing. The examples are endless and they show up at every point on the political spectrum.

Bounded choice is further complicated by the fact that whatever it is we believe in has also bound us to an identity that we rely on as a source of our self worth.

On one of my most favorite podcasts, A Little Bit Culty, I highly recommend it, Mark Vicente, a NXIVM survivor describes this well. When people ask him how it is he remained so loyal to Keith Rainier as a leader for so long. He explains it this way. He says:

"You don't really fall in love with the leader. You fall in love with the idealized version of yourself that they show you. This is why it is so hard to let go, because you're letting go of the persona they helped you to create and you have wrapped your worth and goodness up in being that."

Ding, ding, freaking ding.

Staying put is not always a question of, is this relationship or environment inherently wrong or right? Or is this thing that I've devoted so much of myself to good or bad?

There's a much deeper reckoning going on, which is: If I let go of this, who will I be? And will I continue to matter without this?

In his brilliant book, Escape From Evil, Ernest Becker describes how countless researchers and scholars have struggled to understand what he calls the problem of aggression in human life. In the end, he and his peers come to one conclusion. He says, and I quote, "the greatest cause of evil included all human motivations in one giant paradox. Good and bad were so inextricably mixed that we couldn't make them out. Bad seemed to lead to good and good motives led to bad."

The paradox is that evil comes from man's urge to heroic victory over evil. Really what Becker is saying is that all too often, "evil" happens in the name of goodness.

I've studied quite a bit of Becker's work and he writes frequently about what he calls the hero project, the pain staking effort that humans make to achieve immortality and leave something of ourselves behind when we're gone. We are carnal creatures with self-awareness, and the symbolic self is desperate to leave behind evidence of its significance.

Sometimes this desperation shows up as depression and lethargy, as we're defeated by the largeness of our need to be known. And at other times we become addicted to the heroic hustle, scrambling for our worth through good deeds, social standing, and hard earned accolades. Becker describes heroism as "the all consuming desire to make the world conform to our desires."

So what does this have to do with the cultiness of culture? Well, if we are each driven by the standards we've set for ourselves, then that means that we construct the image of an ideal self. And it is this ideal self that marketers speak to and that leaders exploit when it comes to social control. If you can convince someone that you know exactly how to make them the hero of their own story, they will follow you almost anywhere. They might even excuse or participate in unthinkable acts if you can somehow also convince them that their misdeed serves a higher purpose.

It is this ideal self and our desire to achieve a heroic self image that fuels insatiable need. Not just the need for social standing or material acquisitions. I'm talking about this internal drive. Like the one I had for years that led me to listen to all the talks, read all the books, do all the workshops, pay all the money to brand ambassadors and self-appointed gurus who held the key to my most coveted self image. And I'm not alone in this.

Now this is not to say that we shouldn't aspire to be more or do better. There's loads and loads of goodness to be had out there, and a lot of it is genuine and in service to maturing us emotionally and spiritually. But here's the thing. It's not about good tools versus bad tools. We'll never get to the bottom of all this if we keep trying to sort things into tidy moralistic categories. Therein lies the problem.

The tools themselves are not binary. A single teaching can go either way, depending on what it is placed in service to. It can be balm for the soul or a weapon used to inflict moral injury. This is why personal development is so damn messy and why there are so many spiritual cults all around the world, far too many for us to count.

It is these helpful life affirming places we go, the ones that inspire genuine self discovery, that also give birth to this idealistic self and later become places where we sacrifice our humanity in service to an impossible ideal.

Unless that is, we know what sorts of things to look out for.

We're gonna go way into this, but just to speak plainly a cultish environment is one that requires we imitate a heroic or idealized version of ourselves, where our needs become secondary to a larger self-sacrificing mission. Whereas a healthy culture authenticates us, celebrates our diversity, shares accountability, and makes room for the full spectrum of our humanity.

And in this way, we're circling back to a thread that's been running through all the episodes. When we abandon who we are in favor of who we think we should be, shit goes sideways. Which is why we're gonna spend so much time examining what puts the cult in culture and how best to untangle our worth from social pressures and internalized expectations that aren't our own.

So here's the game plan moving forward. In the next episode, I'll be sharing all about the decade I spent working in wellness circles, steeping myself in the world of self empowerment. It's a long story, but I'm gonna do my best to collapse it into one episode. Wish me luck, because I'm still struggling with how to come to terms with the bitter sweetness of that time. It was a hard road of transformation that was both life giving and disempowering all at once.

But if I've learned anything, it's that vertical (aka spiritual development) isn't all that linear. It's more a series of highs and lows that progresses toward unfortunate realizations and painful separations that re-sources us, re-turning us back to ourselves. I'm gonna do my best to be generous with my story and conscientious of those who might be impacted by the sharing of it. I'm gonna give you a peek behind the curtain into what it's like to work in the inner circle of a personal development organization in the hopes that it will serve as a reality check and a cautionary tale into the insidiousness of patriarchal norms even in high minded environments.

I'll share about a 10 year cycle of my life, peppering in the good and the bad of more than one culty environment, because I want you to feel the tension that I felt. I want you to understand why it's not always easy to exit a culture of control, even when it no longer serves you.

From there I will introduce you to another one of my favorite humans, a very special friend who has courageously agreed to share her personal story with us. She and I are gonna spend a few episodes together, trading insights and supporting one another as we speak for the first time about a time in our life that we were both taught to never speak of.

And then I've asked her to stick around with me so that together we can unpack so much of what the research has taught me. We'll take a closer look at why the commerce of self-help is so problematic and how even touchy feely soft power can be abused. We'll talk about relational red flags, charisma and codependency, and everyone's new favorite buzzword... and perhaps my biggest trigger of all... gas lighting. We'll spend an entire episode dissecting dogma and what happens when relative insights become concretized into a language and prescribed as a way of life. We'll talk about moral injuries, what they are and how they shape us and what it really takes to learn and grow in community while staying connected to a sense of inner authority.

I'm hoping that this series will be somehow relatable to you and your life. That it will challenge you to think critically and examine your beliefs.

I really can't wait to dive into the content with you. And in the meantime, I invite you to spend the next week paying close attention to the influences around you. Ask yourself, where exactly in my life am I under the influence? And what impact is this having on my sense of personal agency? Does this influence invite me to imitate others or authenticate who it is I really am? And is there anywhere in my life where I might be abandoning the deepest truest part of me in favor of an imagined ideal?

What is true? What is good? What is right? It turns out the answer is deeply personal. As you move through the world, ask yourself, how does this feel to me? Does this ring true?

Make note of what comes up and then tune in next week as we go deeper than ever.

May the greatest influence on your life be the knowing within you.

Thank you so much for listening.

I'll see you next time.


© The Deeper Pulse, Candice Schutter