How It Happened:
The Sweat Lodge Phenomenon

Experiencing the Structure of Experience
October 19, 2010
When You Make Wonderful Changes and Feel Worse Than Ever
December 2, 2010

How It Happened: The Sweat Lodge Phenomenon

by Carla Camou

How is it that some people can sit and watch someone get hurt, or even die and not lift a finger to help? How could those folks in the sweat lodge not notice that someone was in real trouble.

Not having been there, I don’t know the exact circumstances. But I do know what kind of atmosphere can create a situation like that. Whether or not what I’m going to describe has anything to do with current news events, the patterns are worth all of us understanding in case we find ourselves, or someone we know, in a similar situation.

Let’s start with some basics. Human beings need hope. With hope, we will endure almost anything. When we lose hope, we give up. Humans also have a need to feel that they belong. It is hard wired into us. When we feel like we belong to a group, we become very loyal to that group. When we are aligned with the group we feel good. When we go against the group we actually feel like we are doing something wrong. We feel guilty. So it is natural not only to seek out people who give us hope and make us feel that we belong, but also to be intensely loyal to that group.

Powerful leaders use these innate needs of humans to create a loyal following. They offer hope--hope that you can have it all; hope that you can be rich, successful, in love, beautiful, happy, etc. What they offer seems possible, really possible. So you open yourself up to have some hope.

The next step of powerful leaders is to remove fear. They encourage folks to face their fears and demonstrate how you can’t trust it. There are a variety of ways to do this. The basic idea is that they push you through your fear, your doubt, and your logic and have you come out in a better place. After a few times, you begin to doubt your fear and trust the leader just a bit more. You start to want them to push. The eventual goal is for you to trust the leader more than you trust your own feelings.

Once you are in the system, you don’t even realize that you are losing trust in yourself. You may even be thinking that you are having a great experience. You most likely feel like you are doing some important personal growth work and, you are. Learning to face your fears is a critical life skill. It only becomes a problem when you associate the good feeling of facing your fear with the leader and not yourself.

The experience of facing your fear and coming out in a good place is compelling. The experience of having witnesses while you do this is even better, and when you witness others, then a group bonding happens. At this point you have both hope and a sense of belonging.

Then, they add the consequences of giving up. They tell you that if you back down from what scares you, you’ve failed yourself and missed out on something wonderful. They teach you that the only reason you won’t succeed is if you “give up” on yourself. Within this frame, all difficulties you are having with the leader or the organization are because you are being scared. And, the way through that fear is to hang in there a little longer, until you come out on the good side.

This combination of hope, belonging and attitude that “the only way to succeed is to keep pushing forward with this group” is a powerful structure. Stepping out, leaving the group often feels like being cast out or ripped away from the only good in your life. The equation is now: being in the group equals hope and belonging, and being out of the group equals letting my fear win and giving up on myself. Since most of the time when we join these groups, we are in some kind of transition and often do not have a strong support system outside of the group. Going against the group means starting all over and this is extremely hard.

So, you are in this group where you have great hope. You are growing and you feel like you belong. The leader often asks you to do things that are scary or hard, and you always feel better when you do them. This time, it’s sitting in a sweat lodge. It will be uncomfortable, hot and humid, but really nothing to worry about. By the time you are a couple of hours into it, you are in a completely different state. The group pressure to push through this new challenge is quite high. And, you trust that the leader really knows what they are doing. That is the key. Once we hand over authority, humans tend not to take initiative. They leave it to the one in charge. They trust their leaders to do what is best and they don’t trust themselves to override the leader.

Now, we have a huge problem. If the leader isn’t paying attention or is unwilling to act, people can get hurt. People can die. And the ones that live will have a lot of emotional damage to deal with. It will be especially hard because from the outside we can’t even begin to imagine how the others could have witnessed someone in dyer need and not done anything. And, they can’t even explain it themselves. That transfer of their inner authority to the leader happened so subtly they never saw it happen. If we had asked any of them while they were still a part of the group, they would have denied any problems because for them there weren’t any problems. They had hope and they belonged. They had all they needed.

A good leader will do many of the same things that the dangerous leaders will do. Determining the difference isn’t exactly easy. A good teacher will have many ways to challenge you and many things you can learn from them. The main difference will be in their intent. The good leaders are focused on what is best for you, not what is best for them. The false leaders will put themselves first. A true leader, teacher, mentor, will continually hand the reigns back to you. Or refuse to take the reigns when you attempt to hand them over. They will push you, but they will make sure that you don’t begin to blindly follow them. They will not promise you more than they will deliver. Often they will not promise anything, they will simply show you what might be possible. A true teacher understands that their ultimate goal is to help the student outgrow the teacher.

The damage done by false leaders can be very deep. It can not be measured in dollars lost or time spent. These people gradually take away our sense of who we really are, and recovering from that takes time, patience and often some professional help. The shame people feel when they have followed a false leader is immense.

It is very important that we all understand that this really can happen to any of us. Many people have had an experience of following a false leader. The duration of time that we followed varies. It is, however, very common. Unless you understand the combination of factors that create such a following, you are likely to follow a few false leaders on your path.

A leader’s job is to create a compelling experience, one that encourages you to push yourself out of your comfort zone. They will provide an opportunity to feel like you belong and motivate you to keep going. When a leader considers themselves to be more of an authority on your life or your feelings than you are, it’s time to stop following.

If you’ve been there, or are there now, take some time to think about how you got there. Be gentle with yourself about your experiences. There really were good things within that experience and it’s OK to take the good and leave the rest. Most importantly, you are not the only one who this has happened to. You are not alone.

I think that most of us have walked at least a few steps down this type of path and spent a little time with someone who crossed the line a bit too often. When and how we came to terms with it is an individual process. But before we get too excited about the cases that make the news, maybe we need to check out the cases within our own lives and let that serve as a reminder to us to trust ourselves a bit more and be willing to speak out when something seems wrong. A good leader will appreciate that you are speaking out.

Comments are closed.