Letters to Brené #1: On Leaving A Cult

[Note: I wrote this very personal piece somewhere around October 2014 in the wake of all that took place mid last year. I couldn’t post it when I wrote it because everything was still spinning and it was too early to sort through the barrage of emotions crashing on every side. I feel like the time that has passed since, and the physical and emotional distance, has allowed for *some* healing. But I will admit that there is a long way to go. However, I do feel somewhat ready to put this particular piece, vulnerable as it is, out there. There will likely be future posts on the ups and downs that come with the healing process. For now, here’s an unsent letter I wrote simply as an exercise to try and process scary emotions.]

Dear Brené,

First off, I hope you can forgive me for using just your first name and leaving out the respectful title. Chances are you will never read this, and that’s okay because it’s simply an exercise to help me process emotion and not much more. Secondly, thank you for writing your incredible book on shame and vulnerability. “Daring Greatly” changed my life and continues to change my life.

Today I want to tell you about something really painful that I went through when I very publicly left a “church” that I had been a part of for close to five years. I put church in quotations because they are actually a cult. Shortly after I left, the “pastor” of this group was criminally charged with sexual offenses involving another ex-church member. The cult continues to maintain his innocence, but I wouldn’t expect anything better from that group anyway.

I feel so many emotions connected to this experience, but one of the strongest emotions I have been feeling over the past few months is shame. I keep wondering why I feel shame when I didn’t do anything wrong and when they are the ones who should be ashamed for how they scam and take advantage of people. And yet, within this process of healing and creating a new life for myself, there are still moments of overwhelming shame, embarrassment, humiliation.

I feel ashamed because I couldn’t see it for what it was. I feel ashamed that I told others that they should be a part of this “church”. I feel embarrassed that I threw myself so sincerely into something so twisted. I am embarrassed that I defended the crazy practices advocated by its leaders. I feel humiliated that I fell prey to the con because I would generally consider myself an educated, smart, intelligent person. Not only did I join, but I allowed myself to become consumed with it, thinking that I was “serving God”. I can’t believe that I even declined other opportunities to do amazing things because I thought this was where I was meant to be, where God wanted me to be. A big part of me feels like people will now think I am stupid or foolish or gullible and question my ability to think clearly in the future. Ultimately, I’m embarrassed that I even have to write this and that I’m sitting here heartbroken and having a pity party about my own foolishness.

There were times when the shame was so debilitating that I hardly knew what to do with myself. I found myself isolating and withdrawing from all social activities. I let text messages and emails pile up without responding. I didn’t call my friends or reach out to anyone. Overall, I felt pretty depressed and estranged from everything that I thought was my life. In some ways, I needed the distance, a break from what was, so I could think clearly for the future. But then, my “break” turned into full fledged isolation and avoidance. Then again, who’s to say how long such a “break” needs to be. In any case, it was a whole lot of guilt and shame and fear all wrapped up in self-pity.

At first, I couldn’t name the shame. That took some time. But once I was able to call it for what it was, I could at least figure out what to do next. So I pulled your book off my shelf and found your 3 steps to overcome shame:

1. Practice courage and reach out

2. Talk to myself the way I would talk to somebody else

3. Own the story

And so, that’s what I’m doing. I started talking to my brother, my sister, and a few trusted friends, some of whom had been through a similar experience. I thought about how I would have supported another person if I knew they were just coming out of a cult, which led to a very healthy level of self-compassion. And I’m learning to own my story. I’m refusing to be a victim. I’m practising vulnerability, and pressing on. Writing helps. But I’m taking my time with publishing these short reflections. I remember what you said about waiting to share a story until it has been processed in a safe way.

Thank you for sharing your wisdom with the world.


P.S. 7 Reasons to Leave a ChurchThe Shunning, and The Universe Washed My Feet

© Copyright Benita Grace Joy 2016


5 thoughts on “Letters to Brené #1: On Leaving A Cult

  1. IS says:

    This is the same feelings a sibling of an abuse victim feels. Or a person who went through it. I really recommend you read Mending the Soul. It can be intense because the book outlines the dynamics of abuse in such a way that you’re looking right at it. Our natural defense mechanism wants us to deny it. I helped me. It gives examples of churches turning the ignorant blind eye and naive ear to abuse victims. Even when there’s evidence of abuse in a court, there are congregation members who give character testimonies of what a great man of God the abuser is even when the evidence is very clear and incriminating.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. marabann says:

    Thank you for sharing Benita. You have so much courage. I admire you so. I love the 3 steps outlined. You deserve to feel compassion from others and yourself!

    I want to share a reminder that every human goes through some kind of abusive relationship in their life. The severity and type of abuse may be be different, but it still is a uniting experience. I think it is arguably easier to cast aside your inner voice cautioning you, when the relationship is with a group, not just one person. You met so many people at this church, even friends that to this day went through the breaking away process as well and you hold in high regard still. You have something in common with these friends: you are all intelligent, loving people looking for a supportive community to appreciate something larger than us all. There is zero shame in that. And there is zero shame in having to fully flesh out the picture that made you finally decide to leave. You gave people in this community the benefit of the doubt. You forgave at times. This is what makes you so wonderful. And when you put all the pieces together and saw things for what they were entirely, you made an incredibly difficult decision but an honorable and progressive one. It is scary to separate from your “home” when your mom and siblings are so far away. But you did it because you are that strong of a person. So again, I applaud you. I am so proud and honored to call you a friend.

    Liked by 1 person

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