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The Psychology of Self-Defense: Stealing Your Intuition

Marionetes on Olvera Street, DTLA | Photo by Brian Donnelly

The podcast began with the story of a woman being led into a room by people she knew, loved and trusted. She had a bad feeling and wanted to run, but she didn't. Her friends then held her down while a stranger held a searing hot instrument to her flesh. This initiation lasted for nearly an hour and ended with a brand of the group leader's initials over her groin.

But of course the story didn't begin there. If it did, it would make no sense - why would a perfectly intelligent human being not put up a fight and flee from this torture?

The "Escaping NXIVM" podcast starts with the assault, but then backs up to the beginning. Over eight episodes it breaks down the years of grooming that led this woman, Sarah Edmondson, to this unimaginable moment.

Not long after listening to "Escaping NXIVM", a post popped up in my social media feed from my friend, Joni about a whole other manipulative guru, James Arthur Ray (JAR). In his case three people died when he lead a culturally appropriated, poorly planned and doomed-to-fail "sweat lodge" in the Arizona desert. Many who survived say that they knew something was wrong throughout the process, but were too spellbound to leave.

Once again it was a situation of terrified people participating in something their intuition screamed at them not to do. But with the grooming and psychological pressure that built up over time, participants found themselves unable to walk away from this fatal event.


As a self-defense instructor I was riveted by these stories. Its a standard line in any self-defense class to exhort our students to "trust your intuition".

But we all know that outside of class it's not always that easy.

In fact, for many of us, it takes an active act of will to follow our intuition. It can be a herculean task to overcome the social and neurobiological forces that are at work everyday to undermine that little voice in our head that tells us something is off.

It is within ourselves that we battle between the "survival" brain and the "thinking" brain each telling us, "something is wrong" and "don't be silly" respectively. This can be especially pronounced with folks who have experienced previous trauma.

For help in bridging this gap, I recommend the work of Elizabeth Stanley, PhD. Her articles, "How to Help Both Brains Feel Safe During Coronavirus" and "The Trauma of COVID-19 Resurgence in the United States" will help you navigate the stress and trauma of the current pandemic. If you want to dive deeper, her book, Widen the Window: Training Your Brain and Body to Thrive During Stress and Recover from Trauma is a must read for keeping your sanity in these crazy times.


But there was a more personal reason I was intrigued by these stories of abusive leaders.

From personal growth courses, to martial arts to the church I grew up in, I recognized some of these manipulative behaviors from my own first hand experience. And I knew my friend Joni, who had originally posted the JAR story, had her own experiences to share. So after listening to the podcast we debriefed to try and make sense of what we heard. Though neither of us experienced anything as dramatic as in the NXIVM or JAR stories, it helped us understand some of our own experiences.

One thing that really stood out were how well the manipulations of unethical leaders lined up so closely with Gavin de Becker's "interview" tactics - the manipulations bad guys use to get close to you and gain your trust.

In researching tactics used by cults and gurus, I saw striking similarities to the tactics outlined by de Becker. In the image above is a partial list from cult expert Alexandra Stein, PhD. You can see her full list here.

Whether it is the hustler on the street wanting to shake you down, a romantic interest who becomes a domestic abuser, or a self-styled guru endorsed by Oprah, the psychological manipulation used by predators and opportunists have patterns.


As my conversations with Joni unfolded, I knew she would be a perfect guest for my interview series, "The Psychology of Self-Defense". This series explores self-defense from a holistic view with interviews of experts in their field.

Joni is an experienced chaplain, a current student at the Seminary of the Southwest and founder and moderator of Conscious Conversations.

With her experience as a spiritual leader-servant, as well as tales from her recovery and being a spiritual seeker, I wanted to get her take on how leaders and groups can consume, override, or as she puts it, "steal your intuition". From our talk, Stealing Your Intuition, I was particularly struck by what she says about responsible leadership.

The last thing I want to do in this conversation is to frighten you away from any groups or opportunities for growth, whether it be with a meditation group, personal growth, a church, a recovery group or a martial arts school.

Personal growth groups are not inherently bad, but as you will hear in the conversation, based on both our experiences and the research of scholars, they can often be ripe for unethical leadership.

Rather than scare you off, Joni and I walk through the red flags, manipulations and counters to your objections an unscrupulous leader might employ. The goal is to help you to be able to identify them for yourself if you happen to run into them.

So you can reclaim your intuition.


Psst: Amazon wants me to let you know this article contains affiliate links. That means if you make a purchase from a link you click on, I might receive a small commission. This does not increase the price you'll pay for that item nor does it inspire me to recommend it. These are just damn good books.

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