The Emotional Roller-Coaster
Anyone who has been sucked deeply in to a spiritually abusive group is all-too-familiar with the extreme emotional ups-and-downs that these kinds of groups foster. While it is not always the same in every detail, it is still quite similar to the same dynamic in hard-core cults:
Life in a cult is a roller-coaster ride. A member swings between the extreme happiness of experiencing the "truth" with an insider elite, and the crushing weight of guilt, fear, and shame. Problems are always due to his inadequacies, not the group's. He perpetually feels guilty for not meeting standards. If he raises objections, he is likely to get the "silent treatment" or be transferred to another part of the group.
These extremes take a heavy toll on a person's ability to function. When members are "high," they can convert their zeal into great productivity and persuasiveness. But when they crash they can become completely dysfunctional.
Most groups don't allow the "lows" to last very long. They typcially send the member back through reindoctrination to charge him up again. It is not uncommon for someone to receive a formal reindoctrination several times a year. Some long-term members do burn out without actually quitting. These people can no longer take the burden or pressure of performance. They start to point out inconsistencies in group policy. They may be permanently reassigned to manual labor in out-of-the-way places, where they are expected to remain for the rest of their lives, or if they become a burden, they are asked (or told) to leave. One man I counseled had been sent home to his family after ten years of cult membership because he started to demand more sleep and better treatment.
[Steven Hassan, Combatting Cult Mind Control, pp. 82-83.]
The goal is control, and this cannot be accomplished without wearing down and breaking the individual's will. If the member can be kept dependent on the leader for the experience of positive emotions, then control has been established.
Our group started out as a Christian therapy group. It was supposed to be a place where troubled Christians could come, get better and leave -- not like with those other counselors and groups, where people kept attending year after year and never got better. No, we would be a "Biblical counseling" group.
At least, this is the way it was sold to us. The reality proved far different.
Five and one-half years after I joined, I found myself just barely able to walk away. I had lost 20 pounds in two months, I was in continual fear that God had finally rejected me, that my salvation had proven to be false, and that I would spend eternity in Hell. Even though my leader knew he was inflicting all of this on me, he was less concerned with the impact of his abuse than he was with keeping me at his heel.
Spiritually abusive leaders keep their members on emotional roller-coaster rides because it tends to keep them dependent upon them for stability.
In our group, the leader was the guru who knew all the psychological answers to our problems. In more church-like groups, the leader is the pastor who knows what the Holy Spirit is "trying to say" to members.
But in all spiritually abusive groups, the leader is far more than any of this. He is also the dispenser of approval and disapproval, and as members are persuaded over time to believe in the leader's special claims concerning his spiritual "authority," even the slightest nod of approval can send a member to incredible heights of bliss, while the slightest frown of disapproval can result in days or weeks of emotional torment, depending on how long the leader allows it to last.
The only problem for the abuser is that it sometimes backfires. As Steven Hassan points out, many people eventually rebel under the pressure. In my case, I eventually worked up the courage to leave. But I expect that the experience will be something that stays with me for many, many years.