Cult Commands Part I: The Angry Voice in Your Head

A month ago I posted some words on Instagram that dinged a loud bell with some of my followers. It had to do with the tape that sometimes runs in our mind. Sound familiar?

I call them "cult commands". Cult commands are the voices in our head. I use that name for two reasons. The words are cult-ish because the language ("You're stupid/clumsy/a burden") isn't original to us. Someone else came up with the language. And "command" because they feel like a directive, a statement that can't be argued with. Cult commands lack truth but feel true and very real.

Cult commands originate from a few places. Sometimes from abuse that we suffered or something was told to us (or valued as important) in our family or sometimes from other powerful social institutions or beliefs. In Daphne Merkin's excellent book This Close To Happy, for example, Merkin says her mother told her, "your tears don't move me,". If our parents told us something similar, then we may have received other commands:

"Stop complaining!"

"It doesn't matter."

"No one will believe you,"

"You don't deserve that, "

Photo credit: Annie Spratt via Unsplash

Photo credit: Annie Spratt via Unsplash

Dr Bruce Perry says children are malleable, not resilient. They don't get over something. Children may seem unaffected by a traumatic event or behavior but "elements of their true emotional, behavioral, cognitive, and social potential are diminished – some percentage of capacity is lost, a piece of the child is lost forever..." Because of this early messaging, adults language and behavior matter a lot.

One of the messages that kids learn early on is about the greater good. In kindergarten, for example, my daughter learned not all kids need certain rules but every kid is expected to follow them. She doesn't need reminders to stay in her place in line and keep hands to herself but other kids do. So she not only hears these reminders a lot but has to change her behavior to work around others'. Kids get that others' needs are often more important and what is socially acceptable matters:

"You'll hurt his feelings,

"You think only of yourself,"

"You're heavier than your sister,"

"You're too sensitive,"

Regardless of where the messaging came from, you can recognize a cult command because the theme is hopelessness. It's the ultimate in absolutism: there is nothing you can do. Cult commands are uttered as if you are a person without any agency, intelligence or skills. Like your existence depends on prayer and luck only. But because they were instilled in us at such a formative time, many of us believe them. Once belief settles in, the damage can be immense.

Thanks for reading and check back in next month for Part II: How Cult Commands Affect Us As Adults.