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Sarah, a teen with a port-wine stain and body image issues, is abducted, and must find a way to rescue herself.

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Programming: Understanding, Recognizing, and Nullifying It - an article for ritual abuse survivors, and their friends, partners, and therapists

by Cheryl Rainfield, 1994

Warning: The contents of this article may be triggering. If you’re a survivor, you may want to read it gradually at different times or with a supportive friend or partner. It also might be a good idea to make sure that you are in a safe space while you read this, and for some time afterwards. You might want to remind yourself of a safe place inside you that parts can go if they need to. It’s a healing and nurturing thing to respect your limits and boundaries, and what you can hear, for now.

What is Programming?

Programming involves a message or series of messages (often accompanied by sensory, emotional, or body memories) that repeat or resonate inside a survivor’s mind at a certain cue or trigger (delivered by personalities who were trained, through torture, to do that). Programming is a deliberate tool used by cults to control their victims. It is trained into victims through the use of mind control and torture at a very young age. The degree to which a victim incorporates programming into her personality system is often a large part of her chance at survival. Often the torture does not stop until the cult is assured that the victim not only knows the new message, but has taken it into a deep core level. The survivor often has to create specific personalities to withstand the torturous event and message, and has to accept particular names and roles for personalities that the cult sets for them.

When a program is set off, and personalities begin to do the job that they were trained to do (through torture), the survivor re-experiences much of the same trauma and terror that she did while being tortured, along with programming messages. She may not consciously hear or register the programming messages, or may assume that they are her "thoughts."

Why Should I Care About It, Anyway?

Unless a survivor is aware of her programming or knows what it looks and feels like, she may simply be responding to these old messages. Programming messages can be put forth by other personalities so that they seem like the survivor's conscious thinking, and it is only with struggle that she recognizes that no, she doesn't think or feel that way, or want to complete that action. There are also times when a survivor can be fighting programming without realizing that that is what she is doing, such as when she hears a cue but doesn’t recognize it as a cue, and spends the next few hours trying to contain, suppress, or counter the thoughts, images, or impulses that were triggered.

Regardless of whether or not a survivor recognizes programming occurring inside her, the messages can feel compelling and strong, and can be extremely convincing. They often create great emotional trauma, and internal disorder, chaos, and fighting between parts. It can take a lot of conscious work and emotional energy to combat programming messages, and to change or halt their effect. However, once a survivor is aware of her personality system, her process, her own programs and what helps her when those programs are occurring, programs can be more easily diverted, worked with, and changed.

Working with programming messages can help a survivor access information about the original events that led to the programming message. For instance, she may be able to uncover memories of the first time those messages were forced on the survivor and of other abuse and torture events that reinforced those messages; information about how a survivor's personality system is set up - origin (survivor or originally cult-created parts), names, jobs, background about specific parts, and beliefs that they may have learned and retained from the cult, etc.

Having such information can help you make more sense about things you react to or believe in, and can help you form a greater picture of your abuse experience. It can help give you a firmer foothold in understanding and controlling your own reactions and triggers, and help you to work more effectively in your healing. Of course, you may not want to know all this information, and may find it overwhelming. That’s fine; if it doesn’t work for you, don’t use it.

Programming Can Be Recognized By:

  • Thoughts that do not seem to fit with the way you think now, such as "I am evil," or "I need to be with ________ (an abuser, usually someone in your family) because they love me."

  • Phrases that repeat themselves, that feel very familiar, and that often have a great emotional impact (such as panic, desolation, extreme mistrust, or being utterly overwhelmed), or that trigger self-harm, dissociation, switching, or inaction. An example would be: "My life is slipping through my fingers," "I'm all alone."

  • Intense self-hate in any form should be looked at as possible programming, including any thought, feeling, or action that leads you (or would lead you) to be hurt, damaged, controlled, or re-traumatized - emotionally, mentally or physically. The messages may not be as obvious as programming, might only sound like "I shouldn’t get close to anyone," but if you dig down a little deeper beneath this conscious message, you may hear more of the whole message - "I am contaminated and contaminating, therefore I shouldn’t ever get close to anyone." Programming messages that involve self-hate may also be blatant statements: "I’m no good," "No one will ever like me," that you may have absorbed or believed for a long time, or they may be much less blatant messages that seem to come out of nowhere: "I’m a slut."

  • Feeling that you have to do something and have no choice, or can see no other way out of a situation. This could appear as a blatant message that tells you: "________ is preordained," or a less blatant message that tells you: "If I don't do ______ right now, then ______ will happen (I will die; lose my friend; fail at what I'm doing; be hated.)."

  • Images of hurting or killing yourself that suddenly appear in your mind, as if for no reason, and that make you feel like you have to act on them. These are sometimes accompanied by auditory messages or body feelings. For instance - you are feeling fine, you’re waiting for a subway train to take you home, and suddenly you have a flash of yourself stepping off the platform in front of the train - or an urge to jump onto the tracks. Or you may hear repeated messages or "thoughts" telling you that you are dead or will be dead, or that someone close to you will die.

  • Any "thoughts" or messages that discredit your experience as a survivor and a multiple, or that disempower you should be examined to see whether or not they are programming. This can include constant harsh judgement of yourself; degrading, hurtful and damaging "thoughts" about yourself, and any "thoughts," feelings, or messages that trigger intense feeling and make you want to act in such a way that would hurt, isolate, or trigger you.

  • Messages or phrases that tell you to do something that would be dangerous, hurtful, or go against your intuition or feeling of what is safe for you. For example, "I must call/write/email my mother (or abusive relative) because she’s waiting to hear from me, and really loves me."

  • Phrases that use language and thinking that do not feel like your own, that sound biblical or prophetical, or that sound like something you may have been told. For example, "I am walking to my doom if I am walking away from _______ (my parents, the cult, etc.)," or "The cult can see/hear me no matter where I am, and they know what I'm saying."

  • Hearing or seeing inside your head, or overlapping the physical world, sounds or images that are used to "warn," frighten, or threaten parts inside, or make them compliant, or that you remember being used in your abuse. For example, alarm bells, flashing lights (usually red), certain symbols (such as the spiral, the peace symbol, the symbol for anarchy, the symbol for life, the yin yang symbol, etc.).

  • Phrases that are not heard loudly or clearly, but that seem to be continually running behind your conscious mind. Often the language will be formal.

  • Familiar common sayings, nursery rhymes, children’s songs, religious songs, Christmas/holiday songs, or portions of popular songs are often used by cults as cues or triggers for programming. They may be an indication of programming if:

    • you hear them repeating over and over in your head and do not like them or how they feel but can’t make them stop—and they bring intense negative feeling with them;

    • an urge to act that would harm you or someone you love, emotionally or physically;

    • or they seem to carry a message within the words or the music that you hear beneath the phrase;

    • you didn’t grow up hearing them but they persist inside your head;

    • personalities inside you reference those phrases or that tune to "prove" a point, usually an old belief taught by cult (such as "you see? I'm really meant to be alone, I shouldn't be around people.")

    • you remember them being used in your abuse (or the same tune but violent or cult words instead of the "regular" words), and consistently hear them repeat inside your head.

Symptoms or Effects of Programming:

Programming in progress can also be recognized by some of the most common "symptoms" or effects of various programs:

  • feeling like you are spinning, the room around you is spinning, or your head is spinning.

  • everything around you suddenly becoming too bright or too loud, or feeling like your senses have suddenly been intensified past what is comfortable or normal.

  • having your head suddenly feel dizzy or fuzzy.

  • feeling literally unable to talk (I describe it as having "cement mouth").

  • finding yourself suddenly spilling out detailed information about yourself, your personalities, your internal healing process, or where you’re at right now when you did not want to share that information, or when you’re sharing it with someone you don’t particularly like or trust.

  • sudden violent, injurious, or death-related images that appear in your head about yourself, someone you know, a stranger, or a pet.

  • sudden and repeated images of yourself doing something inappropriate that would hurt someone else or that would jeopardize your career or feeling of self-worth.

  • a desire to suddenly contact a family member, an abuser, or someone you don’t trust.

  • a sudden impulse to go to a specific location that you do not know, don’t remember having heard of before (ie. no one’s suggested it to you), that you feel unsafe in and would not normally visit, or that you remember abuse taking place in.

  • a sudden or repeated belief that you will die or someone close to you will die.

It is a good idea to recognize and identify the programming messages that you do hear, and to consciously work on understanding and changing those messages. This gives you more power over your own reactions and triggers, your feelings and state of being, and your life - and it will help you in your healing.

Recognizing programming and combating it can be an important part of the healing process.

To help change or halt the effects of programming:

  • The first step is to hear and recognize that it is happening.

  • Next, make note of the specific messages that you are being told. It often helps to write them down.

  • If you can, it helps to take the message back to its source. Ask parts inside when they first heard the message, who told it to them, and what the context was.

  • Try writing out all the steps of the program that you can recognize in as much detail as you can.

  • Try to let some of your inner conversations about this take place on paper. This can often help more parts inside you to become aware of what is happening while it is happening, thus they won't be as easily convinced of the lies cult has given you. You may also find out more information than you otherwise would have if you didn’t write it out or let parts write.
  • Write out counter-messages to the program messages that you hear. Make them strong, positive, and healing, and have them address or counter the cult messages. Often there will be parts inside who know just what to say. An example of a programming message and a counter message is:

    Programming message: "I’m going to die/I deserve to die."

    Counter-message: "That is something the cult told us to control us and make us afraid. It is a lie. They may have told us that under torture - maybe even convinced parts of us that it is true, but it is not. We are healthy and strong. We will live a long life - and we will not let the cult control us by fear. This message you are repeating, that you were told, is a lie."

  • Have compassion for the parts who hold programming messages, and find out what they really want underneath the messages, lies, and distortions. Often, when you really listen to these parts and get past all their cult-prompted messages, you’ll find that they just want to protect you and keep you/them alive, and that they never wanted to hurt others. Parts who hold programming messages were originally created to protect you and to keep you alive - because some part inside had to do that - and underneath all that bluster, they are quite vulnerable.

    It often helps alleviate some of the fear and reaction you may have to these parts or their messages when you realize this. This doesn’t mean that those parts should continue perpetuating cult lies; they should be encouraged to stop. But it can help to know that they, like you, only wanted to live.

  • It may also help to write out empowering or countering messages to programming messages, and to put them in places where you will see them - taped to the mirror, the wall, folded in a book, beside your bed - to remind you of the good work you’re doing, and that you don't have to act on programming. For example, "It is a good idea to treat myself the way I feel people I care about should be treated."

  • It can also help to hear some of the positive or counter messages you’ve created from safe outside people that you trust. This can help to reinforce the positive messages, especially if you hear them often; eventually, some of them will sink in.

  • You may even want to make a tape of some of your positive or counter messages, and listen to the tape when you feel you need to, or to ask your therapist or a friend to create such a tape for you, based on counter messages that you’ve created.

If programming is occurring in the moment:

  • Try to do the things listed above.

  • If a program is functioning that you’ve already written up, consult the steps that you’ve recognized, and locate where you are in the program - or write out the steps that are occurring.

  • Announce to all your parts inside that programming is functioning and that you need to protect yourselves; you now have new ways of coping.

  • Find ways to ground or centre yourself, and encourage comforting, healing, mothering, or protective personalities to come forward (or out in your body).

  • Help parts inside to hear each other and be there for each other. (Writing out internal conversation often helps with this.)

  • Find ways to comfort yourself and make yourself safe. Surround yourself with safe things and/or people (ie. teddy bears, toys, soothing music. Wrap a blanket around you and keep a notepad and pen or crayons beside you. Make yourself a warm drink.)

  • Express yourself safely as much as you can - through paper (writing, art, scribbling), through screaming or moaning into a pillow, pounding a pillow, or going for a fast hard walk. Try to keep aware of the messages going on in your head; if you only do something like scream, and ignore the internal chaos, you may find yourself pulled more deeply into the intense emotions accompanying the programming, and the messages themselves. For that reason, I prefer writing everything out so I can see/hear what is going on.

  • Check with yourself how realistic the thing is that you feel you need to do. Ask yourself whether it's truly something that you want to do, with healing and care on your side.

  • Remind yourself that what is happening is a program; it’s a good thing not to act on it.

You are stronger than the cult, and by looking at and recognizing your programming, you’re not letting them win. Just by recognizing your programs, you are light years away from where the cult ever expected you to be. You are doing real healing work that will help you to heal faster, feel better, and gain greater control over your process. A safe journey to each of you.

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©Cheryl Rainfield, 1994

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