I really liked being in a cult.
I’ve been afraid to admit it, but it’s true.
I was in a prominent cult with a wellness business facade for two years in my early twenties. I’ve had no problem generally owning my cult experience since I left. It was a unique experience, the stuff of movies, and I can’t imagine any more exciting way to spend that time of my life.
I learned a lot of cool things while there: how to read people, how to alter how another perceives the world, how to get women off (it was a sex cult, after all.)
But the thing I REALLY gained from the cult, the thing that I’ve hated to admit, the thing that fills me contradicting emotions, is that in the cult I learned how to be MYSELF.
I know. You’re supposed “lose yourself” when you’re brainwashed. Well...
What the cult did, and what I imagine all successful cults do really well, is create a safe space for me to be me. They did that by making the world a little smaller, a little friendlier, a lot more vulnerable. And despite being an artificial reality, it was the reallest real I’ve ever experienced until that point.
Most of us kid ourselves that we fully operate on independent free will.
We don’t. I don’t. You don’t.
Ever since our ego developed as children, our actions have been affected by social expectation. That’s not a bad thing. It’s actually a beautiful part of being a human-- at least when the reference group supports the individual.
The sadness of our social nature is when the reference group (parents, school, friends,) don’t support the individual-- and the individual shrinks to fit in.
I did that my whole life. I tried to be a bro. I tried to be a Marine. I tried to be a businessperson with a closet full of suits despite that I despise any clothing that prevents me from rolling around in the grass.
I really can’t blame anyone for my inauthenticity, though I used to totally blame my upbringing. One benefit of being a coach is that when you hear enough sob stories that sound just like yours you realize how bullshit they all are. (Holla at me if I’ve ever coached you ;))
The cult was the first place where I didn’t (initially) feel like I had to shrink to fit in. I could actually exhale… speak my mind, ask for what I wanted, do and say unconventional shit. And unlike in the “real world,” no matter what I said or did my cult community would still love me.
I know. It probably sounds fucked up. I’ll raise it further.
I became super attached to one of my cult mentors because she validated me for just being me. Even though she was only a couple years older, I viewed her as my mother. The mother who would set me up with women and laugh when I did something bad. In that light of unconditional validation (dare I say “love”), I could see who I really was when I wasn’t trying to meet someone else’s expectations.
For the first time I could write without censoring my thoughts. I could speak the way I actually thought. Unlimited validation, in my experience, is a bigger upper than any drug.
Granted, no cult lets you STAY powerful. They show you what you’re capable of, then take it away to sell back to you piece by piece. After I had one taste of my power, I became a junkie to for it. To get more of it, to “go deeper,” I had to once again shrink to conform to a new reference group.
I wish I could say that I had big enough balls to refuse the shrink the first go round. But I didn’t. I shrunk into another inauthentic version of myself. Instead of seeking validation from my deadlift, I sought it from how emotionally vulnerable I could appear.
(FYI, I fucking hate long-hugs. But I catch myself still giving them to spiritual people who I think expect them. If I’ve ever given you a long hug, I was faking it. I’m sorry. I wanted you to like me.)
At some point the soul refuses to keep shrinking. You sober up and drive yourself home. But you have to figure out where “home” is.
The hardest part for me returning to “the real world” was the recognition that there is no such thing. At least not the static way we like to think. New York, USA was just another cult-- a really big disorganized one. So was my pre-cult social circle. So was the Marine Corps. So was every office I’ve ever worked in and every bar scene I attended. They were arbitrary realities with lingo and memes and social expectations collectively set by the reference group.
For awhile I judged these clearly inferior cults. Normal people were so fucking boring with their reality politics and short-hugs. I hated it because I felt I had to know who Khloe Kardashian or Jeff Sessions was in order to be accepted. (I still don’t know who one of those two people are and I don’t care.)
Eventually I learned to be my own reference group. That is, give myself the love. Love myself despite my shortcomings, frustrations, and how I talk too fast in FB videos.
That’s different from “not giving a fuck.” “Not giving a fuck” is good advice, but without the prereq of self-love you’ll be a sociopath. Even worse is the emotional void created when you don’t opt-in to some version of the biggest cult: humanity. I won’t go into the trippy we-all-are-one stuff (but holla at me if we’ve ever done drugs together ;))
When you love yourself you give yourself permission to be who you are. And when you are who you are it becomes easier to be found be all the truth-telling, medium-hug, non-political people who make up a reference group you actually want to be a part of.
So yeah. Cult life taught me that.
And I’m still in a cult. A few actually: I have a shared reality with my girlfriend. I have a shared reality with my business partner and our contractors. I have a shared reality with my clients and my email list. I have a shared reality with UFC fans. I even have shared reality with people who cried during the final episode of the 90’s cartoon Mighty Max. (Holla at me if… nobody’s hollering about that one 😢 )
And you’re in cults too. They are inescapable. Humans be groupthinking because that’s what we do. (It's a necessary effect of empathy.)
But as long as you remember to be your own source of love, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to belong.
Being a Badass = Loving yourself.