Leaving Psychologically—Breaking the Confluential Trance

International Journal of Cultic Studies ■ Vol. 10, 2019, 72-80

Leaving Psychologically—Breaking the Confluential Trance

Gillie Jenkinson

Psychotherapist at Hope Valley Counselling, Derbyshire, UK


In this paper, I offer an additional explanation for the state of trance many cult members experience—the confluential trance. These concepts arose from doctoral research into what helped 29 former cult members recover from an abusive cult experience (Jenkinson, 2016). I address a new concept, and whilst it applied to some participants and potentially applies to coercive cults more broadly, further research is required to establish the veracity of this concept and whether it is generalizable across former-member populations. I discuss how the confluential trance may make it psychologically difficult to leave an abusive cult, and I explore how some of my doctoral-research participants experienced this altered state and broke free through formal and informal interventions.

Whilst the term trance is applied ubiquitously and across a spectrum of states, and more often in relation to hypnotic trance, I adopt the term to imply an “altered state of consciousness” in which an individual becomes suggestible, lacks critical thinking, and is therefore more “vulnerable to social influence” (Galanter,1989, p. 65).

Within a Gestalt-psychotherapy theoretical framework, the confluential trance is shown to be a result of a merged state—confluence—which results in the cult member becoming open to introjecting the cult ideology without “chewing it over.” I hypothesize that the resulting confluential trance is further explanation of why the cult leader/ship and thought reform have such a deep impact on many.

Keywords: confluential trance, former member, abusive cult, thought reform, exit counseling, Gestalt

There has been considerable discussion in the cultic-studies field about trance states, altered states of consciousness, and whether hypnotic states are induced in members. When I conducted doctoral research, I identified another potential area of induced trance state—the confluential trance. I explore this aspect of trance in this paper.

I have identified four phases of recovery and growth that a former member needs to move through to build an authentic, autonomous identity and recover. The former member needs to do the following in the respective phases:

Phase 1: Leave physically and psychologically.

Phase 2: Cognitively understand the cult dynamics and cult mindset.

Phase 3: Emotionally heal the harm caused to both first-generation adults and those adults born or raised in cults, including trauma and loss; address precult vulnerabilities where relevant.

Phase 4: Recognize that oneself is recovered—"I am myself again”—and realize posttraumatic growth.

In this paper, I address Phase 1 only. I explain some Gestalt concepts, suggest how the confluential trance may evolve, and then show how it can be broken. I demonstrate how there is a need for the individual to break through the merged state (confluence) and the confluential trance in order to leave psychologically. I show how the former member needs to create differentiation between self, others, and the environment field (i.e., all or any aspects of that which is in his life) and restore the contact boundary. I explain these concepts in more This article is all my own work and has not been submitted or published elsewhere. Much of it arises out of my PhD thesis, which is published on the University of Nottingham theses website.depth throughout.

The Contact Boundary, Interruptions to Contact, and Confluence

Gestalt conceptualizes the identity as comprising the “personality,” the relatively knowable, verbalizable aspect of the individual (Philippson, 2001, p. 38), and the “self,” the ever-changing active process of “contacting the present” (Perls et al., 1951, p. 37). Gestalt theorizes that the self is created at the contact boundary (the skin is analogous with the contact boundary)—i.e., the boundary between the individual and others. In a coercive and abusive cult, the individual in many cases is not able to grow at the contact boundary; one aspect of himself is predominant (the cult pseudo identity; Jenkinson, 2008). The individual is fixed and not growing. To leave psychologically, he must begin to reinstate the contact boundary and build his authentic, autonomous identity.

As the individual contacts, or becomes aware of, the various stages of the contact cycle, moment by moment, he grows (see Figure 1, based on Clarkson, 1999).

Figure 1. The cycle of Gestalt formation and destruction.

Imagine two people as circles completing this cycle with each other, meeting, going through these various stages, and withdrawing (this is contact). The merging of confluence (imagine two overlapping circles) interrupts this contact at the contact boundary (it is an “interruption to contact”), as occurs when one is a cult member; and so, to one degree or another, the authentic identity stops growing and developing.

If the cycle is therefore not completed (items 1 through 7 in Figure 1) and there is a constant flow of “unfinished business” (Clarkson, 1999, p. 48)—that is, if the individual cannot adjust fully and creatively to the circumstances, he becomes stuck at a point on the cycle, in an incomplete or “fixed Gestalt” (Clarkson, 1999, p. 49).

The psychological energy of the person becomes bound or repressed out of awareness. This repression then drains away resources available for experiencing life, in its richness in the here-and-now with full psychological and physiological responsiveness

(Clarkson, 1999, p. 49)]

When the individual moves away from fulfilling his natural needs and his ability to self-regulate and self-actualize, and moves to pleasing others, he develops a “social character” (Prochaska & Norcross, 2007, p. 170). That is, he has transformed his basic, natural existence into what appears to be genuinely social but is in fact a “pseudosocial existence” (Prochaska & Norcross, 2007, p. 170) in which he is not being his authentic self (Mackewn, 2000, p. 27).

As both a member and a former member, the individual is, therefore, stuck in the fixed Gestalt in one part of his personality, no longer creatively adjusting because the psychological energy belonging to the authentic self is “bound or repressed out of awareness” (Clarkson, 1999, p. 49). This situation leaves room for a pseudo identification (Perls et. al, 1951), which is not genuine contact (author’s term) and results in the development of a cult identity, which is a pseudosocial identity (referred to as pseudo identity). This pseudo identity is that part that has developed in response to the constraints of a thought-reform environment, and it superimposes (West & Martin, 1994) or overlays the precult identity (Jenkinson, 2008; Singer, 2003).

Cases of pseudo-identity observed among cult victims are often very clear-cut, classic examples of transformation through deliberately contrived situational forces of a normal individual’s personality into that of a different person. (West & Martin, 1994, p. 274)

As part of the intense influence and change process in many cults, people take on a new social identity, which may or may not be obvious to an outsider. [. . .] The group approved behavior is reinforced and reinterpreted as demonstrating the emergence of the new person. Members are expected to display this new social identity. (Singer, 2003, p. 77)

This pseudo identity then takes precedence over the authentic identity. Research participant Lindsey likened her introjected cult personality (Jenkinson, 2008) to a tumor splitting her personality and blocking contact with her authentic identity, as quoted in the “Cult Pseudo Identity” section later in this article. For those who have joined cults, as the authentic or precult identity is restricted, it shrinks and their cult identity expands (Paloutzian, Richardson, & Rambo, 1999; West & Martin, 1994). I suggest that these processes are not dissimilar for adult children of cults (Lalich & McLaren, 2018), who grow up in an environment where, to one degree or another, their authentic identity is stifled by the thought forming environment-field (Derocher, 2008; Kendall, 2016; Matthews & Salazar, 2014).

Introjective Coercive Confluence As a New Term

Introjection is also an interruption to contact and consists of the individual taking into her system aspects of the environment field without assimilating them; that is, these aspects do not become a part of her. Food and chewing are metaphors for developmental stages; for example, the toothless baby takes in predigested food but as she develops she begins to chew over the food, to decide what she likes and what she does not (Jenkinson, 2008; Perls, Hefferline, & Goodman, 1951). Continuing the analogy, when food is properly chewed, digested, and assimilated, it becomes part of the individual (Perls et al., 1951). To accomplish this assimilation, food needs to be “destructured” and “restructured” for the individual to grow (Perls & Wysong, 1992, p. 5). When the food sits undigested in the stomach, it is usual for one to want to throw it up and get it out of one’s system. But if the individual suppresses that desire and keeps it down, the food either poisons or ends up being painfully digested (Perls & Wysong, 1992, p. 5). When what one is taught, such as an ideology, is “swallowed whole without comprehension,” and “on authority,” such as a cult leader’s, but used by the individual “as if it were their own,” it is an introject (Perls & Wysong, 1992, p. 5). Introjects are therefore taken in on the basis “of a forced acceptance,” and the identification with what is taken in is a “pseudo-identification” (Perls & Wysong, 1992, p. 5). Introjects are not truly integrated or part of the authentic identity and therefore are not rendered useful to the individual—the self is not created at the contact boundary.

Typically, the person who introjects is

not in contact with one’s self;

identifies more with the values of the social group;

is easily swayed by authority figures; and

is overwhelmed by environmental forces (Clarkson & Mackewn, 1993, pp. 72–73).

I suggest that, as the member introjects the negative influences from the thought-reform and thought-forming environment-field, believing herself to be bad, sinful, or impure, she projects her positive aspects onto the cult leader or higher spiritual being, which in turn sets up an interdependent, confluent (merged) relationship (Lichtenberg, 1990; Lifton, 1999). As the confluence opens up the channels for introjection, the facility to “chew over” what is flowing in becomes weakened and is, in some cases, virtually nonexistent. This state is “introjective confluence” (Perls, et al., 1951, p. 191) and, for some, is self-perpetuating whilst the leader remains in power and the member remains compliant, suppressing her critical thoughts (Jacobs, 1987). This combination of factors can exacerbate the psychological restriction of the member (a fixed Gestalt) and maintain the cult pseudo identity. Coercive can therefore be added to Perls’s term to indicate the presence of cultic abuse and thought reform, and a new term, introjective coercive confluence, can then be created (see Figure 2).

I suggest that the idealization of the cult leader/ship is crucial to the evolving introjective coercive confluence and results in a loss of contact boundary as the individual turns his focus in the direction of the leader/ship as the embodiment of a god, the representative of a god, the answer to the member’s problems, and so on. As the individual introjects the claims made, she merges with the environment (confluence). The introjective coercive confluence is then reinforced by the abusive practices, which often start sometime after the individual has joined. The leader would be foolish to reveal this aspect on entry because the member would be more likely not to join or to leave immediately after having joined.

In the next section, I discuss how one might view the result of this introjective coercive confluence as confluential trance.

Figure 2. Introjective coercive confluence.

Confluential Trance: Proposal of a New Concept

For the purposes of this paper, I offer the hypothesis that interpersonal confluence is a state of trance (Perls et al., 1951, p. 122), and that this state can result in the individual becoming highly suggestible, which in turn results in him introjecting and giving up control. Galanter noted that “people are more vulnerable to social influence when they are made to think, sense, and feel differently than usual, when someone or something disrupts their emotional balance” (Galanter, 1989, p. 65), and so the individual can lose sight of “the customary internal signposts” that may be “undermined” (Galanter, p. 65).

In addition to the trance dynamics set up in confluence, Cialdini (2007), in his empirical study of influence, evidences that the six principles of influence (reciprocation; consistency; social proof; liking; authority; and scarcity), can result in “enormous force” in the hands of a “compliance professional,” be that in marketing, advertising, and the like. He applies these theories to cults and cult leaders (Cialdini, 2007, p. 25) and notes that these principles of influence can “…produce a distinct kind of automatic, mindless compliance from people—that is, a willingness to say yes without thinking first” (Cialdini, 2007, p. x).

These are powerful forces and, I suggest, as the individual becomes confluent, introjects, and loses his contact boundary, he is no longer in touch with his authentic self; he is in a trance; he cannot think for himself and is in an altered state. I therefore suggest that the trance state is brought on by the introjective coercive confluence, and that this state can be referred to as a confluential trance. In addition, for some, the spiritual practice—such as repetitive singing, praying, meditation, chanting, which have been reported to be further intensified by drugs such as LSD or MDMA (reported to be used in so-called therapy group interactions (Wroe, 2009))—results in sometimes-extreme and long-lasting altered states of consciousness (ASCs), which may be intensified by the confluential trance state. The ASCs exacerbate the loss of contact boundary, as do the introjected beliefs in the cult leader/guru’s claims of supernatural power. A number of participants in my research experienced ASCs, and some suggested they experienced what they called hypnotic induction from the cult leader. For example, one participant believed he saw his leader walk through a wall, and another saw a “ball of light” move though the congregation and enter the leader’s body just before she started prophesying.

Introjection can be viewed as preventing individuals from developing their own authentic identity and evolving their own values—they become like a stomach full of undigested food or a house full of someone else’s possessions (Clarkson & Mackewn, 1993, p. 73). Confluence undermines their ability to make genuine contact. They are split internally between their own authentic desire and the introject (Clarkson & Mackewn, 1993, p. 73), although in a thought-reform (for first-generation adults) or thought-forming (for adult children of cults) environment, they may suppress their thoughts and doubts (milieu control; Jenkinson, 2016, p. 209) and not even be aware of their authentic desires, thus exacerbating their trance state. This condition indicates a traumatizing environment-field, which may result in dissociation. Situations that are conducive to high suggestibility are those in which there are high levels of dissociation (split) and low levels of critical thinking (Aguado, 2015, p. 51).

Cult Pseudo Identity

In the confluential-trance state, the personality—of which there are normally many aspects and facets, many subpersonalities (Rowan, 1990)—is therefore restricted and reduced to one aspect, the cult pseudo identity. As the member cuts off contact with all she has known, such as family, friends, career, or educational pursuits, and dedicates herself to the cult, her life becomes restricted. This restriction allows for the cult personality to become predominant, and as the following comments by research participants indicate, in these circumstances,

All those different aspects of oneself are shut down and then the cult personality/identity, which keeps giving oneself the negative messages and that feeds that [. . .] neural network, is the one that becomes predominant, that’s the one that’s being fed day in and day out. [Lavinia]

I’ve also thought about the cult identity as a brain tumour requiring very special surgery to remove without hurting my brain [. . .] You need a proper surgeon or medicine to remove without hurting the host. [Lindsey]

Fluidity of relating, change, and life transitions is not easily accomplished within the restrictive, coercive, and controlling environment of an abusive cult (Langone, 1993). There is little opportunity for the individual to dislodge or digest the introjects without leaving, being punished, or becoming psychologically destabilized (Jenkinson, 2008). The challenge is to dislodge and digest these introjects—that is, to free the restricted identity and recover—which will result in freeing the authentic autonomous identity.

To remove introjects, the individual does not integrate them, but instead chews them over and eliminates them; and it is necessary for her to

. . .become aware of what is not truly yours, to acquire a selective and critical attitude toward what is offered you, and above all, to develop the ability to “bite off” and “chew” experience so as to extract its healthy nourishment. (Perls et al., 1951, p. 190)

Planned and Informal Intervention

For some of my doctoral participants, identifying what was not truly theirs, which reinstates the contact boundary, was achieved with the assistance of others, by means of an intervention, whether via planned exit counselling or unplanned and spontaneous support from a counsellor or family member/friend.

The purpose of a planned exit counselling (Hassan, 2013; Giambalvo, 1995) is that the individual leaves physically (is removed from the cult environment), rapidly followed by leaving psychologically (receives information that challenges her cult mindset and facilitates her contacting her authentic identity; Phase 1). The process is condensed into a short space of time and recovery is speeded up. The psychological aspect of the intervention entails creating differentiation to break through the introjective coercive confluence. The process also helps the individual challenge the negative introjects about herself and her projection (also an interruption to contact) onto and idealization of the cult leader (the person needs to “unmask the cult leader” [Jenkinson, 2016,

p. 262]). The exit counseling helps the person to understand what happened to her and identify the nature of the group; that is, she identifies it as an abusive cult (she can “call a cult a cult” (Jenkinson, 2016, p. 259). This in turn results in his incipient understanding of thought reform and the abusive power dynamics.

Exit counseling is challenging and can be traumatizing (Ikemoto & Nakamura, 2004), and the individual initially may be unwilling to listen or hear what is being said. For example, Daphne was “shut down [. . .] I wasn’t willing to hear anything”; she would not listen to her family, was disconnected from them, and was viewing them as the enemy (dispensing of existence; Lifton, 1989, p. 433). Such resistance is in part because the individual is likely to be angry at the forced intervention, but also because the intervention is challenging the confluential cult mindset and the effects of the thought reform. The process is a shock because conflicting emotions arise as the individual is suddenly confronted with the reality of her situation, with shame and guilt, and with an incipient contact with her. authentic identity. The individual may initially resist undoing the confluence and challenging the introjects— she resists throwing up the metaphorical undigested food sitting in her stomach (Perls et al., 1951) by resisting the information. Being shown videos and TV programs of other unrelated cult situations raises the person’s awareness and helps her to recognize the same dynamics that were at play in her cult; and for some, this approach aids in a breakthrough. Research participant Daphne “couldn’t deny it anymore,” and her experience evidences the power of one beginning to recognize the coercive and controlling dynamics:

I was almost having flashbacks in my mind’s eye. I was remembering things that didn’t sit well with me in the group and I started remembering about the humiliations; that they didn’t think I was giving enough money although I was giving probably close to 50% of my salary. It happened over the course of a couple of days where, as they were showing me talk shows and things like that, of other groups that had been on TV—I mean they weren’t talking about my group—I could just relate to what was being shown to me. [Daphne]

The recovery process began for her as she understood the nature of the group. The authentic self that had been “squeezed” naturally began to “reinflate” [Daphne]; she was raising awareness of and chewing over the introjects. She was also helped to undo confluence and the confluential trance, thus reestablishing the contact boundary and differentiation between herself and the environment-field.

Others have an abrupt experience of leaving, with an informal intervention resulting in the confluential trance being undone, accompanied by a strong physiological sensation. For example, Nina described having a “snapping moment”—that is, she suddenly snapped out of the cult mindset. This occurred while she was still a member, when she was seeing a counselor who showed her an article containing information about cults:

I was reading this line on a page of an article about cults when I had what I called back then a “snapping moment.” You know, it was that clear cut. I was done. Snap. It's like my brain just went whoop. I was out of the cult mindset at that moment. Now I still had a whole bunch of recovery, but that piece of information broke the spell.

I suggest that Nina’s breaking “the spell” was coming out of the confluential trance, which was brought on by confluence, introjection, and ASCs; and this process enabled her to see that she no longer needed the cult. Before that point, the confluential trance had ensured that she was in a suggestible state whereby she could be influenced because the trance bypasses both the mind (evidenced by the sensation of the brain coming back online) and the emotions, and utilizes the cult pseudo identity as the individual self-suppresses (milieu control; Lifton, 1989, p. 420).

If the participant has physically left but is “still there, kind of mentally,” as research participant Reginald described, a direct challenge from another former member or friend not to return to the cult may be powerful:

[It was] like an idea that kind of flew in the face of everything I had been thinking about for 9 years, you know, and so that sort of began to kind of stir a little bit in my brain. [Reginald]

A challenge from a friend about the guru’s motivation resulted in Jane feeling as if

…something just felt so wrong in the pit of my stomach, then something just switched. [Jane]

What is shown in these examples is that the hypnotic confluential trance requires certain strategies to “wake up” the individuals, to “snap” them out of it. In these cases, the incentives were cognitive challenges, and encouragement, in the form of information, to think for themselves that led to their “calling a cult a cult” (Jenkinson, 2016, p. 259). and increased understanding.

Reginald’s recounting illustrates his waking from the “stale” confluential trance when another former member from his group challenged his assumption that he would return to the group. He continued,

And then one day I went out, I sat on the front yard on the grass and it was like waking up all of a sudden it was as if colours changed and everything. I just went boi-ing. I felt like I had just changed my perception of the entire makeup of the universe. As if I had been in a kind of a trance. And I wouldn’t usually emphasise that, but it really did have a quality of a sort of awakening from a hypnotic trance that had gotten stale. And, I thought, “wow, I'm probably not going back and don't really need to!” [Reginald]

Reginald had already left physically, 9 months before; but that day he finally left psychologically. I suggest this is evidence of his contacting the authentic autonomous identity again, seeing the world through his own eyes, as it were. This waking up enabled him to make his own decision about whether or not to return; that is, he was in genuine contact with his authentic identity, and he started to self-regulate, gradually breaking his dependency. These participants’ responses demonstrate how someone can suddenly leave both psychologically and physically, and also may do so within a short period of time.

When individuals are in a confluential trance, evidently there is virtually no differentiation between them and the environment; they are merged and therefore desensitized. They cannot activate their energy for themselves, and they are unaware of their predicament. Max, another research participant, referred to that which holds the individual as a “marble edifice.” This data suggests that, for some, freeing the authentic identity therefore may require external assistance to break through this marble edifice.

All these participants were first-generation adults; and I suggest that, in contrast, those adult children of cults who have not bought into the ideology of the cult and remain rebellious may not enter into the confluential trance. But those who do buy into the belief system of the cult and decide to convert probably do so. Further research is required to verify these aspects.

As all former members (both first-generation members and adult children of cults) leave, they need to move on to Phase 2 and build on their realization that they do not need the group or the leader. It is these aspects that I addressed in “Relational Psychoeducational Intensive: Time Away for Postcult Counseling” (Jenkinson, 2017). That approach enables the individual to break the confluential trance and move through the phases—through cognitive understanding, to emotional healing, to a place of recovery and growth.


In this paper, I have explored an alternative explanation of trance state induced in coercive cultic groups that require their members to be merged, or confluent, with the group and the leader/ship—the notion of a confluential trance. I have shown how individuals can break free and evidenced how some of them need an external intervention, whether that be formal exit counseling or informal access to information.


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About the Author

Gillie Jenkinson, PhD, is a registered MBACP and UKCP accredited psychotherapist. She is a published author and international speaker and specializes in working with former cult members and survivors of spiritual abuse. She is Mental Health Editor of ICSA Today. Gillie’s website and email are www.hopevalleycounselling.com and gillie@hopevalleycounselling.com

If you are a therapist and interested in attending training on these or any other cult- or spiritual abuse-related issues, either in the form of an introduction as Continuing Professional Development or in depth as a Certificate in Hope Valley Postcult Counselling, please contact me.