If you are an ex-cult member, can you relate to
any or all of the losses in the lists below?
Losses Frequently Experienced by Ex-Cult Members
Losses Related to the Belief System:
(Note: Many ex-cult members attempting to integrate into traditional churches note feeling bored with sermons that seem too simplistic as well as disappointment with pastors and churches that do not make similar claims or that do not otherwise seem to measure up to their former cult and its leaders.)
It is also important to know that many former cult members still hold to some of these aspects of their former belief systems even though they have defected from
the cult for practical, moral, or other reasons. This can result in a lot of internal conflict as well as difficulties assimilating into a traditional church setting.
Losses Related to the Self:
If you are an ex-cult member who is experiencing any of these issues, how are you coping with them? Have you made progress in these areas
since your defection?
Please feel free to contact us at Freedom_Beacon@yahoo.com for support group information so that you can learn how to better cope with and manage your feelings regarding your personal losses. Please also know that there is no shame in grieving your cult losses. It is part of your natural recovery process and your support people should understand that these feelings do not necessarily mean that they need to be overly concerned that you might return to your former cult.
The following are a couple of major issues that may make certain individuals vulnerable to cult recruitment. This is not meant to convey that these apply in every case. In fact, there are quite a number of applicable factors in this regard. However, these are a couple of the major ones.
1 Many cult educators and recovery experts today prefer the term “coercive persuasion” used by Margaret Singer and Edgar Schein. However, we still prefer “mind control”, or Lifton’s “thought reform”, as we believe that those terms more vividly describe the ways in which cult indoctrination intentionally attacks member’s cognitive and psychological bases.
2 The Grand Inquisitor well states the ideology of cult leaders: “But humans are weak, explains the Cardinal. They cannot bear the weight of their God-given free will. They long for satisfaction of their bodily hunger, not food for the soul; they long to worship in community, without dissention; they long to obey, and will be bought with bread.” McNamara, Katherine. "The Poem of the Grand Inquisitor." Archipelago. http://www.archipelago.org/vol4-3/endnotes.htm (11 September 2010).
1 Lifton, Robert J., M.D., Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 1989, Chapter 22.
2 Watchtower, Bible, and Tract Society, "Do Not Be Quickly Shaken from Your Reason." The Watchtower, 15 March 1986, p. 16.
3 Watchtower, Bible, and Tract Society, "Move Ahead with Jehovah’s Organization." The Watchtower, 1 June 1967, p. 338.
4 Watchtower, Bible, and Tract Society, "Do We Need Help to Understand the Bible?" The Watchtower, 15 February 1981 p. 19.
5 Singer, Margaret T. "Thought Reform Programs and the Production of Psychiatric Casualties." The Ross Institute Internet Archives for the Study of Destructive Cults, Controversial Groups, and Movements. Ed. Rick Ross. N.p., Apr. 1990. Web. 20 Sept. 2010. <http://www.rickross.com/reference/brainwashing/brainwashing10.html >.
Cult indoctrination produces a narrow, pessimistic, and apprehensive world-view where outsiders are not to be trusted. By repeatedly inculcating an Us verses Them mind-set into members and consistently indoctrinating them with the group’s ideology, they are effectively inoculated against any conflicting beliefs or viewpoints long before they ever come into contact with them.
1 Gruss, Edmund C. Apostles of Denial. Pres. and Ref. Publishing Co, 1970, pp. 259, 260.
Sadly, while groups like Scientology and the Rainbow family are able to manipulate or coerce their members in this manner, these groups are usually not held accountable for their actions. Even when homicides or suicides have resulted, people who are in a position to hold the group responsible for its practices frequently do not do so. Since most people do not understand the true nature of mind control, they frequently assume that the choice was made of the cult member’s own volition when, all too often, nothing could be further from the truth.
1 Depression and Bi-Polar Support Alliance. "Bi-Polar Disorder Statistics." http://www.dbsalliance.org/site/PageServer?pagename=about_statistics_bipolar (27 September 2010).
2 For more information on the Jeremy Perkins case and many other incidents where the Church of Scientology has been directly or indirectly responsible for crimes and suicides, please visit: Gormez, Mike. Why They Are Dead. www.whytheyaredead.info.
Preparing for the Aftermath
It Isn’t Easy to Say Goodbye
It isn’t easy to leave a group when you have spent a number of years believing its ideologies were sound and necessary for your salvation. This is especially true when the group claims to have the only truth or to be the only way to God. That is how cults and spiritually abusive groups present themselves and that makes the decision to leave much more difficult to make. The task can be even more daunting for the individual who was born or raised up in the group, as he or she may not have any other standard by which to judge real facts from the group’s false ideologies.
To complicate matters further, you have probably invested much of your time, energy, emotions, and perhaps even finances, into the group’s welfare. Additionally, the group may be the only social support network you have since the leadership probably encouraged you, long ago, to isolate yourself from your loved ones in the outside world. In the midst of such isolation, you have likely adopted the cult’s "group think", since their belief system has been spoon-fed to you by the group’s leaders—leaders who insist they speak for God and whose authority no one dares to question.
In spite of all of that, perhaps you have decided that it was in your best interests to leave the group, even though you faced the prospect of being shunned by your family and friends who refuse to defect. You may have thought the worst was over, only to find that you feel like you are still imprisoned in many ways. Perhaps, not knowing where you can turn for solace, you have wondered whether you should just return to the cult. You may feel lonely, lost, depressed, afraid, anxious, or self-destructive.
Please know that these feelings are normal for a person in your situation. But, don’t give up! You can get through it. You might also be interested to know that you are not alone. Countless people, who were once in your position, have achieved recovery from spiritual abuse and have gone on to enjoy real happiness, quality of life, fulfillment, and freedom—all without returning to their cults or filling the void with other destructive groups or behaviors.
Recovery is a Process!
That is to say, it takes TIME, and like any worthwhile venture, it can be hard work. The end result, however, is well worth the effort used to achieve it.
During your recovery process, here are some obstacles you will likely face:
Contrary to what many people think, death is not the only occasion that we feel grief due to loss. In fact, any dramatic life change (i.e. divorce, job loss, relocation, etc.) can cause these feelings. During the grieving process, we can expect to encounter emotions like: Denial, Anger, Fear, and Depression, before we are finally able to come to a place of acceptance and closure.
If you are being shunned by family and friends, who remain in the cult you left, know that it is normal to go through a "grieving process", since this is a bona fide "loss". In such a situation, it is perfectly normal to feel torn between feeling that you made the right decision by leaving and missing your former group and the sense of belonging your membership afforded you. If you enjoyed a position of respect or status within the cult, this may be another thing that you will find yourself grieving.
Cults control the information to which members are privy and use constant repetition in order to indoctrinate them with the cult’s world-view. Cult members also become very adept at suppressing any doubts they might have regarding what they are being taught, since questioning the leadership is typically not allowed. In addition, cults teach members that their own judgments cannot be trusted and that they must totally rely on the cult’s leaders for constant guidance. All of this can make it very difficult for persons who defect because:
When new information is introduced, which conflicts with a pre-established belief system, this can be very uncomfortable to human beings and causes much internal discord. Human nature usually dictates that we out-rightly reject the new information and keep our old standards of thinking, as it is the path of least resistance. But, what happens when you discover that your former belief system has been based entirely on lies or half-truths? We might be left floundering for a time--not knowing what to believe or whether we can trust the new information we’ve received, or whether we should just give up believing anything at all. We may become confused and stuck in a rut—unable to move in any direction at all. Moving beyond this point can involve a lot of research on our part, as we attempt to unlearn the lies we’ve been taught, so that we may begin to minimize their persistent impact on our lives.
When human beings are put into situations that cause them extreme duress, it can sometimes be very difficult to overcome the anxiety that accompanied the experience, even long after we are safely away from the danger. This anxiety can display itself in such things as nightmares, sleep disorders, irrational fears, anxiety attacks, unexplainable depression, and the like. PTSD is fueled by the fear of not feeling in control of certain situations--especially situations that remind us of the very trauma that caused the stress in the first place.
To overcome PTSD, we must attain mastery over our fears and the best way to do that is to directly address them in therapy. Mental Health counseling can help us determine whether our fears are irrational or not, and can assist us in managing them, by introducing us to new coping strategies. The goal of counseling is to rise above our identification as victims, to victors who have overcome our painful pasts. To merely survive is not enough, as passive drifting through life is not very conducive to enjoying real happiness and quality of life.
Leaving a cult and being ousted into outer society can be very stressful. We can be left feeling as if we’ve been tossed from an airplane into the middle of a jungle. You may wonder what you should do now, or how you will ever survive. You will have more questions than answers and may have no idea where to turn for reliable information and help. If that were not enough, cults are very fond of impressing on their members the idea that the world outside their closed group is evil, ruthless, and possibly even under the control of the devil. Your former group may have even taught that the world is going to be destroyed by God and that, the only way a person can be saved, is to cling to the cult.
Learning what the Bible really teaches can help you eradicate your worries about that last notion, but you are still going to need to learn how to get along in outer society. You will need to re-learn—or learn, depending on how old you were when you joined the cult—coping skills that will help you survive on your own, as well as social skills that will help you to deal with people in the real world.
While space does not permit a complete analysis of the issues you may face when defecting from a cult, we hope this information will help you to understand some of the things you might expect. Remember, too, that the situation is not hopeless and you are not the only person facing these issues.
We hope that you will feel free to contact us for more information. Support Groups are also available.
Time and again, suicide has provided a means of escape for cult survivors who have found recovery and reintegration into larger society fraught with difficulties. Additionally, it is not uncommon for current cult members to resort to suicide after finding no clear-cut approach for relieving their on-going cult oppression.
People who feel suicidal generally have one thing in common: They have no hope that their circumstances will ever improve. Cults inspire this type of thinking by fostering the idea that there is no hope or salvation apart from their particular group. Thus, cult members are perennially bound within a spiritual, emotional, and mental prison with no hope and no likelihood of parole. Their condition is very similar to that of a battered spouse who dares not even entertain the possibility of escaping the abuser, regardless of how dangerous the situation has become. Cult members also live with a pervasive sense of foreboding at all times. They continually live in fear of displeasing the leadership since to do so will result in severe punishment or ostracism from the group. The guilt and shame they internalize while subjected to the abusive environment makes them feel like they are damaged goods that will never be accepted elsewhere. Such profound hopelessness, helplessness, and lack of self-worth can be catalysts for suicidal thoughts and behaviors.
Additionally, so many cult doctrines and mind control methods are based on fear. This can induce cult members to prefer death by their own hands to the possibility of falling into the hands of their angry God.
In fact, some experts estimate that the rate of suicide among Jehovah’s Witnesses is as much as "five to ten times the rate of the general population."1 Watchtower loyalists often allege that statistics like these are the invention of outsiders who want to paint a negative picture of the organization. Nevertheless, our support group members frequently speak about the many cases they have personally observed while they were in the organization.
Why is the incidence of suicide so high among Jehovah’s Witnesses? There are several reasons:
First, cults like the Watchtower replace the natural human inclinations to hope, trust, and love with a deep mistrust of anyone and anything not affiliated with the cult, including non-believing friends and family. They also instill general mistrust for one’s peers by requiring that cult adherents report each others’ misconduct to the leadership so as "not to be a party to their sins". Finally, they are taught to mistrust their own critical thinking and decision making capabilities so that they eventually believe that their very survival is impossible apart from the group. Hence, the resources that cult members could once turn to in the midst of a crisis are effectively eradicated. Instead, they are taught that the only people they can implicitly trust are the cult’s leaders. However, these leaders rigidly control the rank and file members with fear, threats, degradation, and humiliation. Thus, the life of a cult member is a true paradox for while they are members of an elite group they simultaneously endure extreme isolation. It is not difficult to understand, then, why so many see suicide as their only solution or why suicidal ideation tends to be significantly higher within the cults than within larger society.
When cult members defect from their groups, they frequently feel profoundly empty, lonely, and hopeless. Not only have their self-images been negatively impacted by their cult affiliations, but they also do not know whom to trust. As one newly defected cult member recently lamented, "I need to reach out to someone, to maintain some glimmer of hope that someone somewhere might be able to help me."
Sadly, some are not able to maintain even a glimmer of hope. If defection from the group was not by their own choices, they might believe that being cast out is evidence that they are evil or that they could not be faithful enough to adhere to the cult’s requirements. They are often made to feel as though they are disappointments, both to the group and to God. If they defected willingly, they are generally regarded by cult loyalists as worse than the average outsider. Either way, the damage to the self-esteem is compounded and the shunning which follows is an immense source of despair and loneliness. When ex-cult members encounter their cult-loyal friends and family in public, the cold treatment they receive is a constant reminder that they are deserving of rejection. Since they are likely already struggling with guilt and shame this only reinforces the belief that they deserve ill treatment. Hence, whatever shreds of self-esteem remain continue to be eroded.
It is also extremely common for cult survivors to feel immense dissatisfaction with their post-cult lives. This is particularly true for the idealist whose life purpose has been entirely wrapped up in the cult’s change-the-world mission. Others simply lack a sure course of action without the cult-directed path to follow. As a result, many survivors feel lost and have enormous difficulties finding purpose in their lives. Suicide can seem a viable option for, although physical escape has been won, the mind, emotions, and will, still labor under the yoke of cultic bondage.
Post-cult life continues to be a crucial time for survivors who must contend with many new issues as they arise. They must learn to use their own thinking abilities once again and to become self-sufficient in outer society. If they were raised up in the cult, they will need to develop coping skills for dealing with the outside world. Those who are in a position to assist them in these matters must be particularly astute during this crucial transition period.2
1 Peper, Christian. "Jehovah Witness Suicide." Associated Content: Yahoo Health & Wellness. http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/119541/jehovah_witness_suicide.html (16 September 2010).
2 The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
There are several types of dissociative disorders that can be brought on by severe anxiety. However, unlike Dissociative Identity Disorder, these other dissociative disorders do not involve the development and emergence of alter-identities. In recent years, it has become quite common for cult survivors to be diagnosed with Dissociative Disorder Not Otherwise Specified. This diagnosis is typically used for clients who do not meet enough criteria for a specific dissociative disorder diagnosis (i.e., dissociative amnesia, dissociative fugue, or depersonalization disorder). Nevertheless, they meet certain criteria across several types of disorders in this category.
Dissociative Disorder Not Otherwise Specified is described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, as:
. . . disorders in which the predominant feature is a dissociative symptom (i.e., a disruption in the usually integrated functions of consciousness, memory, identity, or perception of the environment) that does not meet the criteria for any specific Dissociative Disorder.
a.) There are not two or more distinct personality states, or
b.) Amnesia for important personal information does not occur.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders includes some additional examples that are not applicable to our material. However, in example #3 the mention of coercive persuasion, thought reform, and indoctrination is of particular interest since it specifically applies to cult survivors. In addition, example #4 might apply to certain members of New Age groups that promote excessive and prolonged meditation and other trance-like states.
1 Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Washington D.C.: American Psychiatric Association, 1994, p. 654.
2 Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Washington D.C.: American Psychiatric Association, 1994, p. 490.
Many personality disorders seem to be encouraged by certain facets of cult involvement. For example, a narcissistic personality might feed off the cult’s elitist mindset. Dependent personalities can easily become completely dependent on the group. Or, an antisocial personality’s tendency to misuse others without feeling guilt might be sanctioned and even encouraged in the cult environment. Additionally, there seems to be much evidence that cult involvement might be largely responsible for the development of certain personality disorders especially in children who are born or raised in cult families. This certainly seems to be the case with Borderline Personality Disorder, which is often in evidence in adult children of abusive and non-nurturing environments.
Borderline Personality Disorder is a private mental illness. Obvious symptoms might not be seen for months and are most evident during times of stress. Nevertheless, the thoughts and feelings associated with the disorder are ever present. This often results in a "Jeckyl and Hyde" type of personality that is frequently only discernible to loved ones.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders lists several criteria for Borderline Personality disorder. Only five of the following criteria need to be met in order to warrant the diagnosis:
A pervasive pattern of instability of interpersonal relationships, self-image, and affects, and marked impulsivity beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) the following:
1. Frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment.
2. A pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by alternating between extremes of idealization and devaluation.
3. Identity disturbance: markedly and persistently unstable self-image or sense of self.
4. Impulsivity in at least two areas that are potentially self-damaging (e.g., spending, sex, substance abuse, reckless driving, binge eating).
5. Recurrent suicidal behavior, gestures, or threats, or self-mutilating behavior
6. Affective instability due to a marked reactivity of mood.
7. Chronic feelings of emptiness.
8. Inappropriate, intense anger or difficulty controlling anger (e.g., frequent displays of temper, constant anger, recurrent physical fights).
9. Transient, stress-related paranoid ideation or severe dissociative symptoms.1
It is a common misconception that all people with Borderline Personality Disorder are suicidal and low functioning. In fact, suicidal and self-harming tendencies are only one of the criteria listed above. Despite their private struggles many people with the disorder are successful and high functioning in public. These individuals are commonly referred to as Transparent Borderlines and they can have either introverted or extroverted tendencies.
Current wisdom holds that Borderline Personality Disorder is due to emotional under-development caused by a lack of normal emotional growth in childhood. For all of the reasons that we detailed in chapter five, cult families can be very abusive and non-nurturing. This is because cult members tend to impose upon their families the same types of authoritarian structures, rules, restrictions, harsh penalties, and suppression of autonomy that the cult imposes on them. Moreover, we have seen that growing up in a cult family system certainly does not foster normal emotional growth.
Since it is believed that Borderline Personality Disorder is rooted in childhood abuse or neglect, addressing the various issues relevant to family systems theory is indicated in therapeutic settings. Moreover, since there is ample evidence that cults contribute extensively to family system dysfunction, it would be well to assess the extent to which cult affiliation might have contributed to the condition. Additionally, the criterion in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders seems to indicate that Borderline Personalities lack adequate social and coping skills. Issues related to mood and identity are also indicated. Hence, social and coping skills that were not learned in the dysfunctional family system and were further stymied by cult involvement will likely need to be taught in the therapeutic environment. In addition, concerns regarding mood and identity that are bound to come up when counseling individuals with Borderline Personality Disorder can include:
IF YOU ARE LIVING WITH SOMEONE WITH BPD, what you can do:
Keep communication open
Validate the person--most conflicts with BPD's occur when they perceive criticism, no matter how constructive, as a personal attack.
Seek professional help for your loved one with BPD and support for yourself.
Don't give up hope--This is a mental disorder that can be handled with counseling, unconditional love and validation, and medication, if necessary.
Life is unpredictable in cults and cult families, just as it is in other abusive, dysfunctional, and non-nurturing environments. Because of this unpredictability factor, cult life is not conducive to a child’s development of a consistent self-image. Nor can it satisfy his needs for safety or security. Emotional, mental, and relational development can, therefore, be significantly stunted. Moreover, this situation will not automatically correct itself just because the child reaches adulthood. In fact, the end result can be personality, anxiety, or mood disorders, as research has shown that traumatic experience can significantly alter brain function 3. This is especially true when the onset of trauma is in the developmental stages of childhood and is sustained for a significant period of time.
1 Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Washington D.C.: American Psychiatric Association, 1994, p. 654.
2 He also should not be dependent on the cult for his sense of identity, if he was raised in such an environment.
3 For an in-depth study into the bio-chemical changes in the brain as a result of trauma, please see Ziegler, Dave. Traumatic Experience and the Brain. Gilbert, AZ: Acacia Publishing, 2002.
4 Methods of addressing issues with self and others will be covered in chapter seven. Methods of addressing issues related to spirituality will be discussed in chapter eight. For now, we will suffice it to say that positive aspects of a survivor’s personality and motivations can be utilized to bring about positive changes in behaviors.
Most mental health professionals who work with clients who have Dissociative Identity Disorder view the condition as an avoidant behavior or defense mechanism. There are a couple of reasons for this point of view:
1. Onset appears to be triggered by intense, traumatic episodes (i.e., routine physical or sexual abuse or chronic and severe neglect) experienced in childhood; and
2. Adults who have the condition can display symptoms when certain stressors trigger memories that are reminiscent of the childhood trauma.
Perhaps the best way to explain Dissociative Identity Disorder is to dissect the term so that we can define each part of it:
Dissociation refers to the capacity that the human sub-conscious has to psychologically escape from severe mental trauma even as it is occurring. We might liken it to what happens when the body goes into a state of shock due to severe physical trauma. Just as shock is the body’s way of compartmentalizing physical pain until it can better deal with it, dissociation allows the psyche to compartmentalize mental suffering. For victims of recurrent abuse, this can become a chronic way of dealing with the psychological trauma. In fact, memories of the traumatic episodes can be suppressed indefinitely. A person who is experiencing a dissociative episode can feel surreal as if she 1 is outside her body and is watching what is happening to it but is not actively participating in it. She might feel like she is dreaming, watching television, or observing the stressful event through a hazy window.
A person who has Dissociative Identity Disorder also experiences fugue states wherein she loses time and is unable to recall what happened during the time that was lost. She might not even know how she came to be at her present location or she might otherwise feel disoriented and confused. This is not the result of ordinary forgetfulness or dementia. It is not attributed to physical trauma (i.e., head injury), a medical condition, medication, or substance use. Rather, it results from and is triggered by severe stress. It is not difficult to understand how such a condition can significantly impair a person’s normal patterns of functioning (i.e., social, occupational, etc.).
Identity refers to the personal qualities and personality traits that serve to distinguish people from one another by giving them their individuality. However, a person who has Dissociative Identity Disorder can have two or more separate and distinct identities that internally co-exist. There is the original personality that the person was born with (commonly referred to as the Host or Core Personality or the Core Identity) and at least one alter-identity (or alter). The alter-identities are generally passive observers in the person’s daily life, but they can emerge if specifically triggered by stressful events or memories. Their purpose is to protect the core personality from physical, psychological, or emotional harm. We might compare the situation to the game of Chess. In Chess, various game pieces are advanced for the purpose of protecting the King from capture. The game piece that we choose to advance depends on what is happening on the board at that moment and which piece is best suited to deal with it. Dissociative Identity Disorder works in much the same way except that it is done on a sub-conscious level. In complex systems consisting of many alters, a particularly strong alter might act as the gate keeper by choosing which identity will emerge in response to a particular stressor.
Disorder implies that the behavior is not regarded as normal functioning. Moreover, it is likely to impair the person’s ability to function normally.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders categorizes Dissociative Identity Disorder as:
A. The presence of two or more distinct identities or personality states (each with its own relatively enduring pattern of perceiving, relating to, and thinking about the environment and self).
B. At least two of these identities or personality states recurrently take control of the person’s behavior.
C. Inability to recall important personal information that is too extensive to be explained by ordinary forgetfulness.
D. The disturbance is not due to the direct physiological effects of substance (e.g., blackouts or chaotic behavior during alcohol intoxication) or a general medical condition (e.g., complex partial seizures). Note: In children, the symptoms are not attributable to imaginary playmates or other fantasy play. 2
we do not know what causes some individuals to develop Dissociative Identity
Disorder while other victims of systematic abuse do not, there are a few things
that we do know. First, as previously mentioned, Dissociative Identity Disorder
most often occurs in very young victims of intense physical or sexual abuse. It
can also appear in cases of severe and persistent emotional abuse and neglect.
That means that an abused adult is not likely to develop the condition, nor is
it generally found in survivors of periodic abuse. In fact, the incidence of
the disorder is relatively rare with current statistics identifying .01% to 1%
of the general population as having the disorder. However, statistics have
varied widely in each decade and from country to country since the disorder
first began to be diagnosed. Furthermore, some statistics now state that
perhaps as much as 7% of the general population might be undiagnosed. 3
In any case, the frequency of abuse appears to be a key factor in the onset of Dissociative Identity Disorder. In cases of severe childhood abuse it is also known that the closer the relationship between the abuser and the child the more psychologically and emotionally damaging abuse can be. Additionally, the age of the abuser in relation to the victim can also be a big factor. These dynamics tend to worsen the impact of child abuse because children are dependent upon the care and nurturing of older people with whom they have close personal attachments. Hence, when a child is severely neglected or brutalized by the very people who are supposed to be protecting her it can completely devastate the child’s ability to trust. It also can result in persistent and intense fears of abandonment. Time and again we find that such emotional and psychological traumas can continue to affect the child well into adulthood.
In addition to these factors, there also appears to be certain psychological pre-cursors that might enable some children to develop Dissociative Identity Disorder 4 while others do not. In our counseling sessions, we have been able to identify several similarities in persons with the disorder including, but not limited to:
- An ability to be easily hypnotized (implying that they might be highly suggestive)
- High intelligence
- High levels of creativity and resourcefulness
- High sensitivity to emotional pain
- Chronic repression of emotions
- Active fantasy life including fantasy play and imaginary friends 5
who become dissociative have, in effect, successfully created their own system
of protection when no adult intervened to stop the abuse. The alters step in
and take the abuse thereby shielding the core personality from the emotional
and psychological pain. They can also do certain tasks that the core
personality finds distasteful or stressful when her abusers coerce her to
participate in them (i.e., child pornography, satanic rituals, etc.) Finally,
having companions who internally coexist might keep the child from feeling
totally abandoned and isolated.
1 We will consistently use the pronoun she in this chapter since, statistically, females suffer from Dissociative Identity Disorder much more frequently than males do.
2 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Washington D.C.: American Psychiatric Association, 1994, p. 487.
3 Chakraburtty, MD, Amal. "Dissociative Identity Disorder (Multiple Personality Disorder)." Web MD. http://www.webmd.com/mental-health/dissociative-identity-disorder-multiple-personality-disorder?page=3 ( September 2010).
4 While many people can identify with one or more of these factors it does not mean that they have Dissociative Identity Disorder. However, we have identified these aspects in DID clients with whom we have had the privilege of working alongside.
5 While fantasy play and imaginary friends do not necessarily indicate that a child has DID, adults with DID often divulge that they were highly absorbed in such activities as children.
Scriptures for Encouragement
Shunned or persecuted for leaving a cult?
Please reflect on:
Psalm 27:10-13--Though my father and mother forsake me, the LORD will receive me. Teach me your way, O LORD; lead me in a straight path because of my oppressors. Do not turn me over to the desire of my foes, for false witnesses rise up against me, breathing out violence. I am still confident of this: I will see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living.
Psalm 68:3-6--But may the righteous be glad and rejoice before God; may they be happy and joyful. Sing to God, sing praise to his name, extol him who rides on the clouds--his name is the LORD--and rejoice before him. A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling. God sets the lonely in families, he leads forth the prisoners with singing; but the rebellious live in a sun-scorched land.
Mark 10:29-31--"I tell you the truth," Jesus replied, "no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields--and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first."
Matthew 10:34-39--"Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn " `a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law--a man's enemies will be the members of his own household.' "Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
Deuteronomy 32:36--The LORD will judge his people and have compassion on his servants when he sees their strength is gone and no one is left, slave or free.
Psalm 28:6-8--Praise be to the LORD, for he has heard my cry for mercy. The LORD is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in him, and I am helped. My heart leaps for joy and I will give thanks to him in song. The LORD is the strength of his people, a fortress of salvation for his anointed one.
Psalm 46:1 God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.
PS 84:5-7--Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage. As they pass through the Valley of Baca, they make it a place of springs; the autumn rains also cover it with pools. They go from strength to strength, till each appears before God in Zion.
Psalm 118:13-17--I was pushed back and about to fall, but the LORD helped me. The LORD is my strength and my song; He has become my salvation. Shouts of joy and victory resound in the tents of the righteous: "The LORD's right hand has done mighty things! The LORD's right hand is lifted high; the LORD's right hand has done mighty things!" I will not die but live, and will proclaim what the LORD has done.
Isaiah 61:1, 2--The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn,
Romans 8:31-35, 37--What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all--how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died--more than that, who was raised to life--is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
Matthew 5:11, 12--"Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Long before I was ever counseling cult survivors, I was counseling battered women. In those days, I used what is known as the "Power & Control Wheel", put out by the Domestic Abuse Prevention Program in Deluth, MN. When I began counseling cult survivors, I was astounded at the similarities in tactics of both abusers in interpersonal relationships and the abusive leadership within cults. Furthermore, the victims of both sets of circumstances are affected very similarly, both during the time they spend in the situation, and in dealing with the aftermath. Additionally, it appears that individuals fall victim to both situations for very similar reasons.
Below are the parallels I have noted as I have ministered to individuals in both situations. It is my hope that this information will serve the purpose of "red flags" in identifying victims, or potential victims, of abuse and will allow you to understand the issues that result from such abuses.
Why some people get into abusive relationships:
Why some people get involved with cults:
The abuser uses manipulation & control tactics to:
1. Keep the victim under control.
2. Keep the victim from leaving.
3. To satisfy the abuser’s perverse needs.
The cult uses manipulation & control tactics to:
1. Keep members under control.
2. Keep members from leaving.
3. To satisfy the perverse needs of the cult’s leaders.
TACTICS OF ABUSERS & TACTICS OF THE CULTS
These tactics paralyze the victim so that they feel they have no recourse of action and must stay and endure the abuse.
Intimidation, Fear, Coercion, and Threats
THE ABUSER SAYS:
"I can do whatever I want to do to you, so you will do as I say."
"You have nowhere else to go, because no one else will want you."
"You can’t make it without me."
"I’ll kill you if you leave."
"You will lose everything you have if you leave."
Abusers may threaten that they will make the victim leave if they don’t comply with the abuser’s demands.
Abusers may control victims by threatening to take children away or threatening to kill the victims’ loved ones.
Abusers may force victims to do things that are illegal or that contradict their moral values. They also forbid their victims from reporting abuse to authorities.
CULT LEADERS SAY:
"We speak for God, so you will do as we say."
"You have nowhere else to go, because other religions are false, controlled by the devil, etc."
"You can’t be saved without us".
"You will lose your eternal life if you leave."
"You will lose everything you’ve invested if you leave."
Cults, like Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons, threaten members with excommunication if they don’t comply with the cult’s rules or question the leadership. Cults control members, who may desire to leave, with the threat of loss of relationships with loved ones who remain in the cult.
Members may be required to do things that are illegal or that contradict their moral values (i.e. not reporting abuses to authorities; risking a child’s life by refusing needed medical treatments).
Emotional Abuse & Constant Criticism
(used to break the victim’s spirit & self-esteem):
Put-downs & name calling;
Questioning the victim’s loyalty;
Making victims believe there’s something wrong with them;
Using the things the victim loves to manipulate; "Honeymoon" phases (turning on the charm after abusive incidents to "prove" the abuser isn’t the bad guy) reinforces victim’s feeling that abuse is deserved;
Insulting the victim’s intelligence or abilities;
Negatively comparing the victim to others; humiliation;
Unreasonable demands/expectations; expecting perfectionism.
(used to enforce compliance & dependency)
Rule breakers and questioners are labeled: disloyalty to God, rebellious, demonic, "apostate", or mentally unstable. Members risk losing loved ones & everything they’ve invested in the cult.
Defecting members suffer character assassination and may even begin to believe they deserve whatever "discipline" was meted out (false guilt).
Members’ intelligence and independent thinking are denied in favor of complete reliance on the leadership.
Members may be negatively compared with others who are "more faithful" and humiliated in front of the others for being "unfaithful" to God.
Perfect adherence to the cult’s rules are expected.
Systematically controlling what victims do, what they read, where they go, who they see or talk to, etc.;
Severing victims’ relationships with loved ones so that they lack outside support if they decide to leave and convincing victims that these associations are harmful to the relationship;
Controlling access to outside resources (i.e. education, job opportunities, etc.)--keeping victims dependent and unaware of outside opportunities for help. Restricting victims’ ability to inform outsiders of what’s going on, as well as the ability to discover that their lifestyle is not the norm.
Abuser becomes the defining force in the victim’s world.
Dictating what members do, read, where they are allowed to go, who they are to associate with, etc.;
Severing the victim’s relationships with loved ones outside the org. so that they lack outside support if they decide to leave; Convincing members that outside associates are harmful to their relationship with God and the cult;
Controlling access to outside resources (including higher education, type of employment, etc.)--keeping members dependent and unaware of opposing doctrines & views. Restricting their ability to discover that their lifestyle is not the norm, as well as their ability to report abuses to outsiders.
The cult becomes the defining force in the member’s world.
Denying or Minimizing
Abusers typically deny or minimize the existence, severity, or impact of physical, mental, & emotional abuse;
Abusers do not take victims seriously when they voice concerns over the abuse;
Abuser use mind games (i.e. make victims believe they are crazy, delusional, or at fault because they are too weak to defend themselves)
blaming the victim (sociopathic) for provoking the victimization
Cults typically deny the existence, severity, or impact of any abuse allegations, including those inherent in the indoctrination process (spiritual, mental & emotional abuse);
Cults do not acknowledge members’ concerns regarding rules, doctrines, or blatant abuses;
Cults use mind games (i.e. make members believe they are imagining abuses, are demonic, rebellious, weak in faith, or not studying their literature enough).
blaming members for provoking the victimization or "discipline".
Abusers lie, conceal, withhold, or omit information in order to gain the advantage;
Abusers often portray victims as deserving of abuse, while portraying themselves as victims in order to gain sympathy, support, or allies;
Abusers don’t accept blame. They make excuses for their behavior and blame victims for their own abuse.
Cults lie, conceal, withhold, or omit information in order to gain the advantage (i.e. "invisible return" and "Theocratic Warfare" doctrines of JWs);
Cults often portray abused members as deserving of abuse/discipline, while portraying the cult as above reproach. Remaining members remain sympathetic, supportive, and loyal to the cult, while an unsuspecting public adopts a "hands-off" policy.
Cult leaders do not accept blame. They make excuses for their behavior, rules, and doctrinal changes and blame members when things go wrong.
Abusers may use the children in the household to relay messages to victims;
Abusers often use child visitation rights as an excuse to harass their victims once they’ve left the home;
Abusers often use child custody, job, family, friends, etc. as leverage.
Abusers often degrade their victims about outside relationships;
Abusers may physically or sexually abuse the children as leverage against their victims.
Cult leadership often uses other adherents to relay messages to targeted members ;
Cult leadership may harass straying or ex-members & their families at home;
Cults use loved ones as leverage (emotional and mental abuse). Ex-members are often severed from their with loved ones still inside the cult;
Cults often degrading members about outside relationships & encourage members to dissolve them;
Cults sometimes us threats of physical or sexual abuse to enforce compliance.
Using Male Privilege
Abusers painstakingly define men’s v. women’s roles;
Abusers insist on defining what is/isn’t important and enforce these on victims;
Abusers monopolize all decision-making;
Abusers make and enforce self-serving rules;
Abusers consider victims to be inferior and subservient;
Abusers act like they are God: "I have a right to behave this way." "You will obey me."
Most cults are patriarchal, and pain-stakingly define male & female roles. Women are typically denied leadership roles, are not allowed to teach adult males, are expected only to support their husbands’ ministries and are to do what the leadership says to do;
Cult leaders define what is/isn’t important, monopolize all decision-making, enforce self-serving rules, and consider members to be subserviant;
Cult leaders purport to be God or claim to be His spokesmen;
Obedience to cult leadership is equated to obedience to God.
Conceal/deny info. about finances;
Use family assets or finances without victims’ knowledge; Make victims relinquish finances to them;
Prevent victims from taking/ maintaining employment, or obtaining other means of financial independence;
Make victims ask for money or give them an "allowance".
Cult leaders often:
Conceal/deny info. about finances;
Make members relinquish assets or finances to the cult; encourage members to disinherit family and leave estates to the cult,
Withdraw business or boycott business establishments of excommunicated members and defectors.
Demand an exact percentage of members’ income.
Stockholm Syndrome & the Victim of Spiritual Abuse
The abuser convinces the victim that he is protecting her from other relationships and situations that will negatively impact their relationship.
The abuser convinces the victim that outsiders just can’t understand their relationship and will try to rip her from it.
Victims think emotional attachment to the abuser maximizes the probability that he will enable her physical survival. In order to reconcile conflicting feelings, the victim justifies the abuser’s actions and remains loyal to him, in spite of continued danger.
Small "acts of kindness" positively reinforce victim’s choice to remain.
The cult convinces its members that it is a protecting them from adverse relationships and situations in the outside world that would negatively impact their relationship with God.
The cult convinces its members that outsiders just don’t understand them and will persecute them.
Members think emotional attachment to the cult maximizes the probability that it will enable their spiritual and eternal survival. In order to reconcile conflicting feelings, they justify the cult’s actions/beliefs and remain loyal, in spite of continued spiritual or other dangers;
Some beliefs may be very palatable & reinforce the choice to remain.
AFTERMATH FOR THE VICTIM:
Victims internalize the feelings, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that result from the abuser’s tactics.
Abuse becomes a "comfort zone" compared to the fear of the unknown in the outside world. It also fulfills an emotional need in the victim, they fear can’t be fulfilled outside the relationship.
Victims use denial as a defense:
She blames herself for the abuse ("If only I’d been better"; "it’s all my fault").
She justifies the abuser ("He’s got problems, but he’s also good to me"; "He really does love/care for me"; "He’s my husband; I can’t just leave")
Members internalize the feelings, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that result from the cult’s abusive tactics.
The cult provides a "comfort zone" compared to the fear of the unknown in the outside world. It also fulfills the member’s need to have a purpose in life and moral guidance that may have been missing in their lives outside of the cult.
Members use denial as a defense:
They often blame themselves for any "disciplinary action" meted out on them ("If only I’d been more faithful".)
They justifies the cult ("It has some problems, but I agree with most of it and the people are so nice"; "They’re my spiritual family; I can’t just leave".)
Even after escaping, the victim is hard pressed to let go of some of the learned behaviors resulting from the abuse and, often, still defends the abuser:
Low self-image—distrusts her own actions or decision making abilities. Feels worthless—has internalized negative message "tapes". May try to counteract with perfectionism or becoming involved in another abusive relationship.
Fear/Mistrust of individuals, groups, & relationships, in an attempt to protect oneself from future victimization.
Leaving doesn’t always end the abuse nor the dysfunctional attitudes & behaviors typically internalized during the relationship!
Even after escaping, the cultist is hard pressed to let go of some of the learned behaviors resulting from their experience and, often, still defends the cult:
Low self-image—distrust their own actions or decision making abilities. Feels worthless—has internalized negative message "tapes" and errant theology. May try to counteract with perfectionism or becoming involved in another abusive organization.
Fear/Mistrust of individuals, groups, & other religions, in an attempt to protect oneself from future victimization.
Leaving doesn’t always end the victimization nor the dysfunctional attitudes and behaviors internalized during one’s involvement in the cult!
CONCERNED FRIENDS CAN HELP
IF YOU ARE IN EITHER SITUATION:
IF YOU ARE IN A RELIGIOUS CULT/ ORGANIZATION THAT FITS THIS CRITERIA, GET OUT IMMEDIATELY!
IF YOU NEED RECOVERY ASSIST-ANCE AFTER LEAVING A CULT OR AN ABUSIVE RELATIONSHIP, WE CAN HELP!
YOU NEED TO KNOW THAT IT IS NOT GOD’S WILL FOR YOU TO BE VICTIMIZED!!! IT IS HIS WILL THAT YOU BE FREE FROM BONDAGE.
Often, even the most well-meaning people make the mistake of assuming that ex-cult members should be able to get along just fine once they have defected from their former groups. If only it was that simple. The fact is that removal from a cult’s membership roster is not some silver bullet that automatically resolves all of the issues related to cult affiliation. In reality, defection is just the beginning of a long and arduous journey to find closure and recovery. That journey typically includes, but is not necessarily limited to:
- Reclaiming independent and critical thinking abilities
- Reclaiming the true self-identity
- Reintegrating and readapting to outer society
- Building self-esteem
- Grieving losses
- Dealing with emotional and mental health issues
- Learning to deal with real world relationships
- Making amends to those who might have been hurt due to one’s cult affiliation
- Making decisions regarding spirituality
- Building a new life
As discussed in chapter five, for individuals who were born or raised in cults the task is even more monumental. Not only must they learn to deal with life in the outside world for the very first time in their lives, but they have no pre-cult identities to which they can revert. Their fear of the unknown must be conquered. Self-confidence and trust in their abilities to make sound, independent choices must be mustered. Additionally, they must overcome a major handicap in that they frequently have few of the coping and social skills that people usually learn prior to adulthood. What is more, adult children of cult homes who are shunned by their cult loyal families ordinarily begin their journeys all alone.
Despite the challenges, embarking upon the road to recovery is absolutely necessary. Far too often, defected cult members who do not seek therapy during their transitions crumble under the pressure. Some turn to addictions or become involved in other destructive groups or relationships. Others acquiesce and return to their former cults. A few commit suicide. Some find it enormously difficult to adapt to outer society and frequently find themselves in conflict with the law or other social norms. Others suffer silently with serious mental and emotional problems. Many experience prolonged and complicated grief due to loss, chronic depression, post-traumatic stress, or repressed rage. Or, they merely exist without finding any real joy or quality of life. Whatever their situations, newly defected cult members frequently feel bewildered, apprehensive, and distressed.
Most newly defected cult members also have difficulty finding balance in their lives. Having become accustomed to the cult’s extreme ideologies and its black and white thinking they habitually think, feel, and behave radically. Hence, their post-cult lives often feel chaotic, conflicted, and out of control. Some individuals may recognize that this is problematic, but they might not know how to take control of, or balance their lives.
defecting from a cult does not automatically dispense with its denial
programming or cognitive dissonance. Doubts and self-recriminations about
whether they made the right decision can assail ex-cult members for many years
after their defection. Many even worry whether their mortal lives or their
eternal salvations might be in jeopardy. Or, they agonize over whether their
desire to defect was rooted in some personal deficiency, since they have been
indoctrinated with the belief that questioning or doubting the group signifies
disloyalty, sinfulness, rebelliousness, or the devil’s influence. Like adult
survivors of childhood abuse it can be very difficult for former cult members
to direct the blame where it belongs.
defected cult members who frequently find that they are in just as much
psychological, emotional, and spiritual bondage as they were when they were
still affiliated with the cult. Participation in some form of therapeutic
counseling is, therefore, vital. In the counseling setting they can safely
analyze and process their cult experiences and can be helped to move beyond
them. They can unlearn the cult’s indoctrination and can safely discard or modify
its self and world views. They can be offered caring support as they break
through their cult-induced denial and formulate their own identities and
perceptions. They can further benefit from that support as they begin making
decisions based on their new insights. These are just some of the aspects of
cult exit-counseling that can help people to effectively achieve real quality
of life in mainstream society. Sadly, our experience has shown that when
defected cult members do not take advantage of these avenues their paths are
fraught with much difficulty and their recovery processes are needlessly
The Aftermath of Spiritual Abuse
The following are some of the short, medium, and long-term struggles frequently experienced by ex-cult members. These issues are prolonged unnecessarily when survivors do not seek therapy conducive to their recovery:
Short term effects:
· Cognitive Dissonance
· Lack of independent thinking ability
· Stockholm Syndrome and the inability to affect emotional cut-off
· Feelings of shame, guilt, and worthlessness
· Low self-image
· Struggles to understand the concept of conditional love and the treatment they received in the cult
· Grief due to loss (includes the stages of denial, anger, fear, and depression)
· Inability to trust one’s self and one’s own decision-making abilities
· Inability to trust others
· Social anxiety or withdrawal
· Tunnel vision (i.e., inability to realize that things will get better)
· Feeling lost, doomed, hopeless, or helpless
· Significant depression
· Confusion and disorientation
· Feeling anxious and stressed
· Believing that the cult still holds magical powers over them
· Episodic post-traumatic stress (i.e., panic attacks, nightmares, dissociative episodes, etc.)
· Inability to cope in outer society
· Lack of social skills
Moderate term effects (especially without therapy):
· Continued struggles with negative self-image
· Continued struggles to come to terms with and grieve losses
· Continued inability to cope in outer society
· Continued inability to trust self or others
· Rebelliousness and lacks of proper regard for authority
· Relationship difficulties
· Process or other addictions
· Lack of balance or self-control
· Continued struggles with forgiveness
· Prolonged anxiety and post-traumatic stress
· Self-harming and reckless behaviors
· Chronic feelings of hopelessness and depression or suicidal ideation
Long term effects (without therapy):
· On-going struggles with trust and forgiveness of self and/or others
· Complicated grieving
· Chronic depression and feelings of emptiness
· Emotional or mental disorders
· Somatic or anxiety-related illnesses
· Continued inability to cope in outer society (i.e., frequent conflicts with the law or other social norms)
· Inability to break dysfunctional cycles or addictive behaviors
· Dysfunctional relationships
is a process. That is to say it takes time. Like any worthwhile endeavor it
also invariably involves a lot of hard work. The end result, however, is well
worth the effort needed to achieve it since it is the passport to living well.
· Grieving and Loss
Contrary to what many people think, death is not the only occasion when people find themselves coping with grief. In fact, any dramatic life change can generate feelings of loss and sadness. Divorce, job loss or change, and relocation are just a few examples. Even when the change is a personal choice which will improve quality of life, we can still grieve certain losses connected with those changes. For instance, divorce can produce many conflicting feelings. On the one hand, divorcees might be excited at the prospect of beginning a new life particularly if their relationships had been strained or abusive. On the other hand, divorce means the loss of a former lifestyle and married status. Divorcees might also miss being part of their former in-laws’ family circle. Or, they might grieve the loss of friendships that they enjoyed as a couple, but which ended along with the marriage.
The losses that commonly accompany defection from a cult are often strikingly similar to those that accompany divorce. While the change will ultimately be to the cult defector’s benefit, there might be certain aspects of group affiliation that former members will find it necessary to grieve. For example, they might grieve the loss of status that they enjoyed as part of the group particularly if they were in positions of leadership, special favor, or respect. Or, they might miss the loss of community or the busyness of the group’s demanding schedule of meetings and proselytizing activities that once provided them with a purpose in life. Nevertheless, the pain of those losses pales in comparison with the loss that cult shunning policies engender.
Shunning is often the cause of what is commonly referred to as complicated grief. It takes significantly longer to obtain closure from complicated grief than it does from more conventional grief because the pain and sadness are felt much more acutely. We often find that the human tendency to hold on to hope is a frequent source of complicated grief in relation to shunning. Hope presents somewhat of a paradox for persons who are being shunned: While it can motive them to continue reaching for the things that they desire (i.e., re-establishing relationships that were broken due of shunning), it can also be a source of distress when those desires do not come to pass. Consequently, our support group members have often stated that it would be easier had their loved ones died than for them to anticipate being shunned indefinitely. Such statements make a lot of sense to those who understand the grieving process because when people properly grieve the deaths of their loved ones they can eventually come to a place of acceptance. Death is absolute and accepting that reality helps people to eventually put the crisis behind them so that they can get on with the next phase of living. However, in shunning situations people frequently cling to the hope that their loved ones will one day realize that they are intrinsically more valuable than is the cult and its ideologies. They continue to hope that, against all odd, those broken relationships can one day be restored. While such optimism can be helpful for combating temporary bouts of sadness, it invariably prevents people from achieving closure for their losses.
Even in conventional grieving one does not come to a place of acceptance overnight. Grieving is both a part of the recovery process and a process in and of itself. It involves several stages and the duration and intensity of the overall process can vary greatly from one person to the next. Moreover, one does not necessarily advance through the stages in an orderly fashion. In fact, it is not uncommon for people to find that they are revisiting a stage that they thought they had successfully dealt with and put behind them.
During the grieving process, people encounter the following stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Fear, 1 and Depression. These stages must be dealt with before acceptance and closure can take place.
· Forgiveness and Emotional Cut-Off
Forgiveness is not a feeling. It is an individual choice. It is also inextricably tied to the grieving process since it is a most successful resolution to its anger stage. Additionally, since depression is often simply anger turned inward, self-forgiveness can do much to alleviate some of the issues related to depression.
Contrary to what some people think, forgiveness is not indicative of weakness. Nor does letting something go, mean that the person cannot successfully contend with it. To the contrary, forgiving the abuses of the past can require a great deal of resilience, strength, and determination. After all, it is not easy to choose a positive path when the circumstances and feelings surrounding a situation are predominantly negative. It can also be very empowering when abuse survivors come to the realization that it is completely within their own powers to dispense with the negativity of the past.
Nevertheless, many people refrain from practicing forgiveness because they feel that the abuses committed against them do not warrant gratuity. While that might be true, forgiveness is not about rewarding bad behavior. It is about extending mercy to another person despite the fact that he or she probably does not deserve it. The truth is that people who abuse owe their victims a debt which far exceeds any amount that they could ever repay. On the other hand, bearing a grudge costs the survivor much in emotional, mental, and even physical damage. In the end, it often makes more sense to simply write the charges off as a loss in the way that businesses sometimes do. In essence, forgiveness helps abuse survivors to write off the anger and resentments which are so disruptive to their lives.
Additionally, forgiveness is an important dynamic for ex-cult members who elect to pursue a path to authentic Christianity. Forgiveness is a fundamental Christian value which is inextricably linked to the doctrine of Grace: Christians extend forgiveness to others out of gratitude and appreciation for the fact that God extended His amazing grace to them even while they were yet sinners. Moreover, an attitude of humility prevents humans from thinking that they rather than God have the right to decide who is worthy of forgiveness.
The same can be said when it comes to self-forgiveness. When people have been victimized, they can internalize enormous amounts of guilt and blame. This is particularly true if their abusers coerced them into doing things that they considered morally reprehensible (i.e., soliciting or recruiting for the cult by less than honest means, committing acts of violence, or other illegal activities). It also goes without saying that ritual abuse survivors who have been forced to abuse other victims can be absolutely devastated by their feelings of guilt and shame.
Even when cult members have defected, they can continue to feel overwhelmingly guilty about leaving behind certain individuals whom they had helped to recruit. In addition, as they attempt to rejoin outer society they are often confronted with how they treated their non-cult friends and family when they joined the cult. All of these situations can cause former cult members to worry incessantly over how to right the wrongs they have committed. Unfortunately, making amends is not always possible or feasible and survivors may need to be helped to accept that reality.
Invariably, self-forgiveness can prove to be a much
bigger challenge than extending forgiveness to others can be. Nevertheless,
abuse survivors who become Christians eventually realize that refusing to
forgive their selves is tantamount to thinking that they know better than God,
who has already counted them as worthy of His grace. Looking at the matter in
that light can help survivors to see that refusing to forgive themselves for
the past is a form of pride. Thus, it is every bit as much a sin as is refusing
to forgive another.
Just because people forgive the abusive actions of others does not necessarily mean that they can wipe the events of the past from their memory banks. Moreover, while forgiving might be the healthiest choice that people can make in recovery, forgetting the wrongs that have been committed against them might not be the wisest course. As the saying goes: Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. This is just as true when it comes to peoples’ private histories as it is generally speaking. Indeed, remembering the things that have caused past pain can dissuade people from becoming involved in similar situations in the future. When people can recognize the red flags and heed them, they can usually head off potential disaster. This is also true in regards abusive individuals and it is particularly important to understand that forgiving them does not mean that survivors must continue to put themselves in harm’s way. Many times, keeping a safe distance from people who have been known to abuse is the wisest and most favorable decision that survivors can make in recovery.
This is where emotional cut-off and forgiveness can go hand in hand. Ex-cult members who have friends and family who are still in the cult might find it necessary to keep a safe emotional and perhaps even a physical distance from them. This may need to continue until they are strong enough to contend with those relationships on their own terms and until cognitive dissonance has greatly diminished. This will afford them the time and space they need to find their true selves and to fortify against any pressures their loved ones might bring to influence them to return to the cult. Emotional cut-off can also empower ex-cult members who are dealing with shunning by helping them to procure some control over their situations. For example, they may eventually regard their separation from their loved ones as being by their own healthy choices rather than as something that has been forced upon them. Moreover, shunning can often prove a necessary evil in that it can convince former cult members not to return to groups that sanction emotional cruelty.
For adult children of cult families, post-cult success can be almost entirely dependent upon their abilities to achieve emotional cut-off. When adult children can successfully put some emotional distance between themselves and their families of origin they can:
- Reduce outside stress
- Analyze their unhealthy attachments at a safe distance
- Focus on and resolve their cult issues without outside interference
- Overcome thinking patterns that could result in future victimization
- Implement healthy life changes
- Find opportunities to grow independently
The ability to achieve emotional cut-off can have a huge impact on a cult survivor’s recovery prognosis. Even when defected cult members are convinced that their former groups were deceptive and unhealthy, many cannot make a clean break and are subsequently drawn back to the cult. Others might refrain from direct participation in cult activities but may remain sympathetic to its causes or convinced that it has the truth. Thus, when ex-cult members do not make a clean break they are often still in serious danger. Even if they do not return to their former groups they can spend a great deal of time and energy consumed with self-doubt or fears regarding the future. This prevents them from ever fully moving beyond their cult indoctrination and from getting the most out of their new lives.
· Understanding Cult Conditional Love
Effecting emotional cut-off does not mean that ex-cult members have severed their feelings for their loved ones who remain in the cult. In fact, they are frequently conflicted over those damaged relationships. Often, they want to reach out to their loved ones but they fear that any effort to resolve those conflicts will break whatever links remain. Such conflicted emotions will need to be addressed in counseling and the loss of any relationships must be properly grieved.
At the same time, ex-cult members should not view their shunning as incontrovertible evidence that their loved ones do not care for them. Rather, they need to be aware that their loved ones have been indoctrinated with an entirely different view of love than what most people have. While most people do not give or withhold affection based on their loved ones’ beliefs or behaviors, cult members frequently do so. That is because the cult version of love is conditional. In cults, giving and receiving love is entirely dependent upon the recipient’s ability to operate according to the group’s constraints and the leaders’ directives. Failure to do so is seen as disloyalty and is considered to be a direct threat to the integrity and security of the group and its individual members. The truth is that natural human feelings do not stand a chance against cult mind controls. In fact, when cult leaders can control how their members deal with their flesh and blood they know that their power is absolute.
It is extremely difficult for most people to wrap their minds around the idea of shunning or conditional love. However, cult members are trained to consistently surrender their thoughts and feelings to the group think process. Moreover, long before they ever have to choose between their loved ones and the cult, adherents are programmed to renounce anything and anyone who might divide their loyalties to the group. Consistent indoctrination along with cult coercion tactics ensures their full compliance even when they are not directly under the leaders’ watchful eyes. This predisposition is an aspect of Stockholm Syndrome.
· Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
When people experience severe trauma or abuse it can be very difficult for them to overcome the anxiety associated with those experiences, even after they are safely away from the danger. That anxiety can display as nightmares, sleep disorders, phobias (i.e., irrational fears or aversions), flashbacks, dissociative episodes, panic attacks, depression, and the like. Cult recovery counselors as well as loved ones should be prepared to deal with these symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder since they are extremely common in ex-cult members. Moreover, the power of simple listening should not be underestimated since it can go a long way toward helping former cult members to express and analyze their fears. When they can safely do that, it can help them to understand their fears within the context of cult conditioning. This will help them to compartmentalize those fears so that they will not have to allow them to continue to govern their lives.
Panic attacks can accompany anxiety disorders (i.e., Social Anxiety Disorder, Acute Stress Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, etc.) Panic attacks are characterized by:
A discrete period of intense fear or discomfort, in which four (or more) of the following symptoms develop abruptly and reach a peak within ten minutes:
(1) Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate
(3) Trembling or shaking
(4) Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering
(5) Feeling of choking
(6) Chest pain or discomfort
(7) Nausea and abdominal distress
(8) Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint
(9) Feelings of derealization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (feeling
detached from oneself)
(10) Fear of losing control or going crazy
(11) Fear of dying
(12) Paresthesias (numbness or tingling sensations)
(13) Chills or hot flashes 2
Post-traumatic stress is fueled by the fear of not feeling in control or of losing control in situations that are reminiscent of past traumas. For some trauma survivors it can persist for a clinically significant amount of time and can be classified as a chronic disorder. This is not only true for war veterans, victims of severe physical abuse, or individuals who have had near-death experiences. Anyone who has endured a psychologically traumatic event can experience overwhelming anxiety when internal or external stimuli trigger a memory, feeling, mental picture, or idea that is reminiscent of the trauma.
People with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder can be so overcome with their anxiety that they disconnect from their surroundings and cease to cognitively function in the moment. They might feel as though they are suspended between two worlds as they re-live the psychic pain of the past trauma in the present. In this state, their surroundings can seem surreal. This is known as having a dissociative episode. 3
Post-Traumatic Stress is a natural response to overwhelming anxiety, which is why it is so common in cult defectors. For one thing, the mind control that continues to exert so much influence over them can be a major source of anxiety. In fact, survivors frequently worry whether they will ever be free from its hold. This is especially true for cult survivors who were taught that the cult would continue to control them through subconsciously implanted suggestions. When these cult-implanted suggestions begin to surface they can cause survivors to feel conflicted and temporarily detached. For example, former members of cults that practice excessive meditation or other consciousness altering methods can slip into trance-like states quite easily. After they defect they can continue to do this involuntarily when triggered by certain associations. If they do not identify this as a habitual behavior that they can learn to control, it can confirm the cult’s power in their minds. Other survivors might believe that the cult or its leaders continue to have mystical power over them. It is important that these clients come to understand that these are nothing more than memories, associations, or subliminal suggestions that were part of the cult’s indoctrination program. In reality, as clients continue to distance themselves from the cult, regain their independent thinking abilities, and learn useful strategies for dealing with stress, these difficulties will also dissipate.
Remember, too, that cult indoctrination deliberately produces immobilizing fears in adherents. Hence, defected members will continue to struggle with their fears for as long as they remain under cult mind control. Additionally, they frequently feel anxiety over whether or not they made the right decision, what the repercussions for that decision will be, and whether they will be able to survive in outer society. These fears can effectively cripple defectors especially early on when self-confidence is still low.
Given the internal and external stressors that cult survivors must contend with, it is understandable that many would suffer from chronic anxiety and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The key to combating these consequences of cult involvement is to attain mastery over the underlying fears by directly confronting them in a safe, therapeutic environment.
Mental health counseling can help survivors to determine if their fears are irrational and can assist them in their management by introducing new coping strategies (i.e., self-talk, desensitization, confidence building, etc.). Furthermore, since many of the symptoms of panic attacks are physiological, survivors can be taught to recognize the onset of an episode. They can then employ anxiety-relieving strategies (i.e., deep breathing exercises, distraction, etc.) before the episode turns into a full-blown attack. These counseling strategies can help survivors to rise above their identifications as victims by helping them to manage and eventually overcome their past traumas.
· Reacquiring Independent Thinking Skills
We have seen how cults control the information to which their members are privy and how they use constant repetition to indoctrinate them with their self and world-views. Cult members are also conditioned to suppress their doubts and questioning the leadership is positively not allowed. Adherents are further taught that their own judgments cannot be trusted so they must rely on the cult’s leaders for constant guidance. They also quickly learn that contemplative thinking has unpleasant consequences.
All of this can make it very difficult for cult members who defect because:
1. They do not know what information from outside the group can be trusted.
2. They still do not trust their own judgments and decision-making abilities.
3. They often still believe in the group’s basic ideology.
4. They often have cognitive difficulties (i.e., poor concentration, inability to focus, short term memory impairment, etc.) because their normal thought processes have been impaired by cult programming.
We find that, on average, it takes between a year and a year and a half for ex-cult members to satisfactorily resolve these concerns. However, the time element is often directly proportionate to the survivor’s willingness to:
1.) Accept valid proof that the cult’s leaders were deliberately deceptive (i.e., twisting the Scriptures to support their agenda, spreading propaganda, etc.)
2.) Accept that their deceptions are evidence that they do not have the truth, and
3.) Accept counseling for issues related to mind control and abuse
Pastors are best equipped to deal with issues related to spiritual abuse and theological deception while pastoral or secular counselors can assist clients with their cognitive issues. By taking advantage of these avenues, cult survivors can hasten the restoration of their independent thinking skills. In turn, this accelerates their overall recovery.
· Acquiring Real-World Social Skills
Children who grow up in cults are indoctrinated with the Us verses Them mentality when they are still very impressionable. They are also raised to believe that they are fundamentally different from children whose families do not belong to the cult. Moreover, when adherents gauge their own behaviors they frequently find substantiation for the cult indoctrinated view that they are fundamentally different from everyone else. Ridicule from outsiders compounds this belief and is a huge problem for cult children who attend public schools. Children can be quite cruel to peers whom they perceive as somehow different from themselves since they do not know how to deal with those differences. Nonetheless, ill treatment by peers negatively impacts a child’s self-esteem and can continue to influence self-image well into adulthood.
It goes without saying that adult children of cults face special issues. A lot of work in therapy will involve helping them to discover their true selves4 and to build confidence and self-esteem. In addition to these important personal issues, there are social issues that must be addressed. Much of this work will focus on the development of real world social skills that will help adult children get the most out of their new lives and relationships. Some of the major issues that should be addressed include, but are not limited to:
- Culture shock: Cults are essentially a sub-culture of larger society. Thus, newly defected cult members can experience a form of culture shock as they attempt to integrate into a world that is completely at odds with their cult-indoctrinated mores and values. Like strangers in a strange land, adult children of cult families are especially confused and intimidated when they are thrust into a society that they never knew. However, this can also be true for adults who once rejected outer society in order to join the cult.
- Eliminating cult argot from the vocabulary: Cult argot can cause an enormous communication barrier between cult defectors and people in outer society. It can also make it difficult for former cult members to sort out and make sense of their own cognitive processes.
- The Decompressed Spring Effect describes the tendency that adult children of cult families often have of “jumping off the deep end” once they have come out of their repressive environments. They may feel the need to make up for lost time or they might be acting out their pent-up frustrations or experimenting with the boundaries of their newly found freedoms. In any case, since they frequently continue to be plagued with cult-instilled guilt, shame, and fear, any behavior that the cult viewed as taboo or immoral can cause these feelings to re-surface. Moreover, behaviors involving sexual exploits, substance use, or other socially unacceptable behaviors can lead to regret or social discomfort. Survivors will need to learn to make sound choices and decisions for themselves. They will need to learn balance, self-control, and how to gauge the consequences of certain behaviors prior to engaging in them. Counseling can provide the information and tools to facilitate healthy and sensible future judgments.
- Attempting to explain their cult involvement can cause any cult survivor significant distress. They will need to learn to be patient and tactfully respond when questioned about their reasons for joining or remaining in the cult for so long. They will also need to understand that society has little understanding of mind control. Moreover, people often express incredulity when a person whom they consider intelligent or “normal” reveals that he has been in a cult.
- The Fishbowl Effect is often used to describe a cult defector’s sense that he is under constant scrutiny by loved ones who are worried that he might return to the cult at any given moment. Any positive expressions or memories pertaining to the cult experience or to the people he left behind can cause the survivor’s family and friends considerable alarm. Survivors must learn to handle such situations delicately and tactfully always remembering that this is a demonstration of care and concern rather than an expectation of failure.
- Cult instilled attitudes, aversions, moral pretensions that are used as a basis to hate or condemn, and prejudice (i.e., Us verses Them): These attitudes are frequently evidenced as condescension, superiority complex, and hyper-criticism. To some extent, they can be resolved as independent thinking skills are developed. Clients can also learn to control their appearance by consistently monitoring their cult-indoctrinated attitudes and striving to change their usual reactions to those attitudes.
- Struggles with trust and fears of commitment in regard to interpersonal relationships, community groups, and larger society: Survivors need to form new attachments and social support networks. This cannot be done without being candid or willing to commit to necessary relationships. However, counselors might want to encourage newly defected persons to restrict their interactions to those involving family, work, and education until they have put some time and distance between themselves and the cult. If they express a desire to belong to a group, counselors can assist them in investigating and selecting groups that can meet their needs without exploiting them.
- Lack of humor and the inability to grasp the incongruities related to humor: Remember that cults think in terms of black and white. Such thinking patterns do not take into account the absurdities of life or the gray areas wherein everything is not so cut and dry. Cult life is also arduous and somber. Thus, humor is gradually phased out of members’ lives and thought processes.
- The inability to feel satisfaction or to have fun or lighten up: Survivors often continue to judge their feelings, associations, and activities according to the cult’s standards and world-view. They might attempt to participate in leisure activities with friends, family, or co-workers, but feel guilty even though the activities or associations are wholesome. This is residual cult indoctrination, which was intended to narrow adherents’ focus so that they would not be distracted from group goals. It is an aspect of cult facilitated religious compulsion that shares many characteristics with workaholism.
- Understanding that attempts to discover the true self as well as consequent changes in thoughts, behavior, and personality, affect interpersonal relationships of all types: Ex-cult members can struggle to sort out their feelings and views regarding dating, sexuality, marriage, and family. Family dynamics can also be expected to change as certain family members leave the cult and discard dysfunctional behavior patterns. Hence, each family member and the family as a unit will need to find ways to adapt to changes in the family system.
When cult defectors are thrust into outer society they must make a choice to either sink or swim. However, a little outside assistance can make all the difference in terms of their survival. Mental health counseling is especially vital for survivors who lack support from family and friends.
Deficiencies in Memory and Cognitive Functioning
Most former cult members are plagued with concerns related to cognitive functioning. For example, some report deficiencies of memory, especially short-term memory. This is a rather common effect of traumatic experience on the human brain. It is also most certainly exacerbated by cult programming.
Cult programming contributes to memory loss through three distinct methodologies:
- Rewriting members’ pre-cult histories
- Redefining members’ pre-cult identities
- Reinterpreting members’ current realities and experiences
These methods work together to facilitate denial in cult adherents. First, cult programming consistently impresses upon members that their lives prior to joining the group were utterly dismal, worthless, and deplorably sinful. Next, it insists that their lives since joining the group have been nothing less than extraordinary. When successful, this form of denial programming ensures that cult members will not want to defect from the group simply so that they can resume their pre-cult lives. Cognitive dissonance enables the programmed denial to remain firmly in place by keeping any information that conflicts with the cult’s reinterpretation of the facts at bay.
This type of denial programming has long lasting side effects that significantly impact survivors’ recovery prognoses. Indeed, it can be months or even years before cult survivors are able to recall the abuses they suffered in their respective cults. Moreover, when survivors are unable to recall significant aspects of their pre-cult identities, this can stymie their efforts to discover their true selves once they defect. In spite of this, our experiences have shown that cult recovery support groups are invaluable tools for breaking through these types of cult programmed memory blocks. As support group members relate the specifics of their spiritual abuse or recall certain aspects of their pre-cult histories and identities, this often sparks similar memories in fellow support group members. As more memories begin to surface, the walls of cult-programmed denial begin to falter.
It is also important to know that human memory is not static. Indeed, it is frequently subject to emotional editing and hindsight. For example, time, subsequent experiences and additional information, and even changing feelings and circumstances can all impact memory. Hence, what we remember, how we remember it, and our overall perception of a particular experience can all be quite subjective. Therefore, while hard data and actual events might serve as the basis for our memories they continue to be shaped by our emotional reactions to those realities. This helps us to understand why cults are so adept at rewriting their members’ past and current realities. It also explains how cult members can sustain cult-facilitated denial regarding their own histories and self-identities, even convincing themselves that certain events from their pasts never happened.
In addition to memory loss, many cult survivors describe feelings of floating, spacing out, difficulty focusing and paying attention, or slipping into trances and other altered states of consciousness. 5 Our support group members have often stated that their greatest difficulties in this regard occur when they are feeling overly stressed or tired, subjected to long or boring meetings (i.e., staff meetings, lectures, seminars, etc.), or performing tedious tasks. In hindsight they realize that these problems began while they were in the cult. Some even recall noting glazed expressions on the faces of fellow cult members. Many now observe it in the faces of their cult-loyal loved ones.
The bad news is that these cognitive issues can significantly impair survivors’ daily functioning even long after they have defected from the cult. The good news is that, in and of themselves, these concerns do not indicate the existence of mental or other types of problems (i.e., demonic oppression), although they are sometimes mistaken as such. The truth is that these difficulties develop over time. Moreover, they are a byproduct of cult mind control techniques that seek to numb the mind so that it will be more receptive to cult indoctrination and less apt to think independently. That means that as the indoctrination begins to loosen its grip on the minds of cult survivors these problems will typically resolve themselves.
Methods for resisting floating episodes:
· Clients can be taught diversion tactics that can be used when they begin to feel a floating episode coming on. An enjoyable activity that sidetracks the cognitive process (i.e., coffee with a friend, taking a walk, going to the movies, shopping, etc.) or one that supplies sensory input (i.e., changes in scenery, comfort foods, playing with a pet, listening to music, etc.) can be quite helpful. Clients can train themselves to remain focused on these other activities or to bring their focus back if it has been interrupted.
· Suppressing the feeling: Survivors can remind themselves that just because some of their feelings are still subject to cult control does not mean that they have to behave in accordance with them. They can also train themselves to push the feelings away. If necessary, the feelings can be redressed at a more opportune time.
· The art of self-talk: Survivors can remind themselves where these feelings are coming from (i.e., I am not crazy. This is just residual cult indoctrination). They can then urge themselves to stay focused on present tasks or recovery goals.
· Journaling about floating episodes: When clients keep journals, this can help them and their counselors gain insight into what kinds of things are triggering the floating episodes. Information about the state of mind at the onset of the episode, what triggered it, how they felt during the episode, and what brought them out of it, and how they felt when it was over, can all be helpful.
Education, Skills Training, and Career Advancement
Cults require painstaking devotion to their groups, beliefs, and causes. Often, they will even disregard the importance of things like secular education, job or skills training, and career advancement. This serves to curtail those distracting influences as well as to further limit adherents’ access to outside information. The Watchtower Society of Jehovah’s Witnesses is one group that frequently urges its members to forego higher education. They also repeatedly admonish their members that they ought to worry less about job advancement and more about the proselytizing work since the end of the world is always imminent. More radical cults like Jonestown may insist that their followers work on isolated cult compounds rather than in the outside community. These are all areas of concern for defected former members who can find themselves at an incredible disadvantage when the time comes for them to support themselves in outer society. Needless to say, such tactics are very useful to cult leaders who endeavor to foster dependency on the group by restricting members’ autonomy.
Additionally, the cognitive impairments which are frequent by-products of cult programming can raise significant hurdles in terms of education, training, employment, and career advancement. For example, reading comprehension levels can be adversely affected when people have difficulties with concentration, focus, and short-term memory. This can affect the ability to learn as well as an individual’s over-all efficiency. Hence, cult survivors often have difficulties sustaining employment. They might miss meetings, fail to meet deadlines, lack focus, and appear to lack initiative or judgment. While working to complete training or educational programs they can become overwhelmed and feel like giving up. Therefore, we recommend that newly defected cult members seek employment in relatively low stress fields and postpone enrollment in higher education programs for at least one year post-defection.
Ex-cult members’ attitudes can also be a major hindrance to sustaining employment. For one thing, ex-cult members who display an attitude of superiority or condescension can repeatedly find themselves in conflict in the workplace. Furthermore, cult survivors can also have an improper view of authority after being subjected to a cult’s restrictive rules and abuses of authority. Hence, some may rebel against any form of authority while others might feel intimidated by it. While rebelling against authority is bound to result in conflicts in the workplace, constantly feeling intimidated can also be problematic since it can stifle initiative, affect productivity, and impede social functioning.
Finally, the average job can seem quite mundane when compared with lofty cult goals such as saving the world or creating a utopia. Thus, it can be a challenge for ex-cult members to maintain interest and enjoyment in secular employment. Herein, it can be helpful for cult exit-counselors to help their clients to see that the cult’s earth-saving goals were quite unrealistic. Moreover, there is no real consensus in any human civilization as to what utopia ought to actually look like. Such vague and elusive goals really serve no purpose other than to keep people in bondage to cults by convincing them to set aside their personal goals in favor of the cult’s agenda.
It goes without saying that total commitment to the cult comes at the personal expense of each member. Nevertheless, neglecting one’s education or job advancement is really just the tip of the iceberg when we consider the toll that such self-sacrifice continues to exact even on former members. We previously discussed how mental health concerns are often completely disregarded within the cults, but this can also be true when it comes to members’ physical health. Moreover, we are not talking about just Christian Scientists or members of radical faith healing cults. As one former Jehovah’s Witness explains:
I became crippled with Ulcerative Colitis at the age if thirteen, in 1970. The only cure for ulcerative colitis is a total proctocolectomy (removal of the entire bowel). 6
He goes on to explain why he continued to suffer with the condition for another twenty-three years despite knowing his medical options:
Due of the Watchtower organization’s promise of a New World, in 1975, my disease was woefully mismanaged. I neglected my health care believing in the bogus false promise that any day I would be in the new system where Jehovah God would cure me forever. 7
As a result, he did not have the surgery until six years after he left the organization and “my bowel finally gave out, in 1998.” 8 Not only did his medical neglect cause unnecessary physical suffering, but he goes on to relate how it affected his personal life. He shares how his condition made him reluctant to become romantically involved for much of his adult life and how it continues to affect his ability to support a family.
His is but one of many cases of a Jehovah’s Witness who put off his own needs because he believed that God would make him well in the paradise earth that was sure to come in 1975. An astounding number of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the early and mid-1970s gave up opportunities to start a family or to obtain higher education, better job security, or much needed medical treatments. Many sold their homes and belongings and took to living in their cars in order to devote themselves exclusively to last minute proselytizing efforts. This is a part of Watchtower Society history that the organization has gone to great lengths to cover up. In fact, the Watchtower Society has even gone so far as to modify and re-issue its old publications that proclaimed Armageddon to be just around the corner.
While many people today are critical of the Watchtower Society’s ban on blood transfusions9, most are completely unaware of some of the other serious health-related issues caused or exacerbated by its errant belief system and mind control methods. In addition to the 1975 fiasco and its current restrictions regarding blood transfusion, the twentieth century also saw the Watchtower Society place bans on other medical procedures such as immunizations and organ transplants--only to later revoke them. While there is no record of just how many people have died because of the Watchtower organization’s medical bans or failed prophecies, there is one thing we do know: Watchtower loyalists who have suffered unnecessarily have received neither restitution nor apology. What is more, individuals who were excommunicated for esteeming their health and lives more than the Watchtower Society’s dictates were not automatically restored to the fold when the organization modified its teachings and repealed those injunctions.
Child Custody Issues
Continued cult involvement on the part of one spouse can also complicate child custody cases. Cult mind controls can make it seem that the children are choosing to stay with the cult-loyal parent and that they do not perceive cult life as repressive or unhappy. Moreover, as discussed previously, cult leaders have sometimes involved themselves in child custody battles. They may testify on behalf of the cult-loyal parent and against the defected parent, perhaps even making false allegations in order to bolster the loyal member’s case.
Even when the defected parent is awarded partial custody, cult controls continually insinuate themselves in that person’s life and in the lives of the children. This can be particularly confusing to the children who are likely to be exposed to two very diverse lifestyles and belief systems as they are shuttled back and forth between the parents. Issues are bound to arise over preferred methods of discipline, particularly if the non-cult parent thinks that the cult parent is overly strict or abusive. The cult parent may also find the defected parent’s new choice of leisure activities, religious beliefs, friends, or a significant other to be alarming. This is because former cult members’ thinking and behavior patterns can change quite drastically as they attempt to rediscover their true selves within outer society. Additionally, the children’s participation in holiday celebrations can be a huge issue in cults like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, which prohibit their members’ from participating in holiday festivities. Child health care can also cause intense conflicts, especially if necessary medical treatments are prohibited by the cult.
1 Some psychologists and grief support groups list “bargaining” instead of fear. However, fear seems more relevant than bargaining in the case of ex-cult members. Some models also include immobilization. However, immobilization can occur during any of the first four stages of the grieving process. When we are in denial about our loss we can be immobilized (unable to take action) until we are able to realistically evaluate what has occurred. Anger can also immobilize if it is so all-consuming that it inhibits our abilities to think rationally and to plan appropriate courses of action. Fear is certainly immobilizing. Depression is also immobilizing which is why people generally commit suicide, not while they are in the thick of depression, but as they are coming out of it. Depression saps us of the motivation required to take action. Once it lifts and some of our motivation returns, then we are able to react.
2 Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Washington D.C.: American Psychiatric Association, 1994, p. 395.
3 The dissociative episodes described here are a feature of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and should not be confused with Dissociative Identity Disorder (discussed in Chapter 6). In Dissociative Identity Disorder, an alter personality emerges to cope with the anxiety-producing event. This is not the case with post-traumatic stress related dissociation.
4 In the case of survivors who join cults as adults, the true self is usually a synthesis of their pre- and post-cult identities. In the case of adult children of cult families, the true self will probably be a synthesis of their learned behaviors and post-cult identities.
5 Slipping into trance-like states can be particularly problematic for former cult members who belonged to groups that practiced repetitive behaviors intended to elicit altered states of consciousness. These behaviors might have included meditation, chanting, singing, etc. Such altered states of consciousness make a person more receptive to the cult’s indoctrination.
6 Read the entire testimony: Haszard, Danny. "Staying Alive Until 1975—My Story of Growing Up a Jehovah Witness with Severe Ulcerative Colitis." www.dannyhaszard.com.
UNDERSTANDING WHAT CULTS DO:
GOALS OF EXIT COUNSELING:
1. To help cult survivors to once again use their minds and reasoning abilities:
2. To help cult survivors to think outside the scope of the cult’s terms and concepts:
A. Use the Bible, if the cult is Bible-based, to:
3. To help cult survivors to once again trust their own experiences and thinking abilities.
4. To help cult survivors to remember their pre-cult histories:
A. Remind cult survivors that family and friends outside the cult still care for them.
B. Help cult survivors to think through the reasons why they became involved with the cult in the beginning.
1. Were the reasons really sound?
2. What transitions were they going through in their lives at the time?
3. Did they investigate the cult fully before becoming involved in it?
4. Help cult survivors to see that life outside their former groups can be happy and fulfilled.
1. Don’t make cult survivors feel vulnerable, intimidated, or coerced.
2. Don’t vilify the organization or its leaders.
3. Help cult survivors to take a closer look at their former groups and the group's leadership.
A. Use the organizations own literature.
B. Use other historical sources.
C. Use any good journalism on the subject (newspaper, magazine articles, books, film documentaries, etc.)
D. Allow cult survivors to challenge the validity of the critical evidence.
4. Don’t assume that all people who believe false doctrines are demon possessed. This is most often NOT the case—demons most often operate by means of deception and closing the mind.
A. Pray that God will open their minds and allow them clear thinking.
B. Remember that the primary task is to work on counteracting the false ideas that have taken root in the mind. Work on the mind!
5. Don’t assume that everyone joins cults out of a genuine interest in serving God. They may have joined for more selfish reasons and are not truly interested in God or the Bible. Respect this and do not preach to them—the Holy Spirit may not be calling them. Just concentrate on helping them to think clearly again. Don’t be dogmatic
6. Give cult survivors space to think for himself.
7. Do calmly challenge the reasons for not believing what is presented. (This approach is appropriate for current cult members, too.)
A. Be prepared to further demonstrate the truthfulness of what has been presented.
B. Don’t allow the person to change the subject until each matter is resolved to some extent.
C. Don’t allow the person to divert the discussion to avoid facing facts.
D. Don’t be aggressive or argumentative. Don’t criticize or accuse him of being brainwashed or stupid. Don’t act like you are trying to force a current member to leave the cult.
E. Do be concerned. Assure current cult members that you want to make sure that they are doing the right thing. Assure them that you just want to make sure that they are fully informed.
A. Can he conscientiously remain in the organization, knowing the truth about it?
B. Could he honestly evangelize others into the group now?
4. Remember that an absolute commitment to leave may not be necessary as long as proper follow up is done.
NECESSITY OF FOLLOW-UP:
1. The emotional ties to the cult and the cultist’s friends inside it are still very strong. It is important to know that:
A. Loneliness and disillusionment are strong factors causing a desire to go back .
B. Lingering doubts about their new decision will remain for awhile.
C. There will be some confusion and disorientation about the future.
D. Fear can lead to depression.
While these terms might seem synonymous they are vastly different in theory and in practice. In fact, cult deprogramming has often come under fire and we believe that it is for very good reasons. This section outlines some of the major differences between the two methodologies and gives additional insights into cult exit-counseling approaches.
Cult members’ families can hire cult deprogrammers to covertly initiate contact with their loved ones so as to pressure them into absconding from their cults. Very often, cult members are taken by force (i.e., kidnapped) and sequestered in a motel room or some other undisclosed location for periods lasting anywhere from a few hours to several days. During that time they are regularly harangued and interrogated. They might also be afforded very little sleep so as to weaken their resistance to the deprogrammer’s reverse indoctrination methods.
These methods can include, but are not necessarily limited to:
- Forced detainment
- Exhaustive exposure to anti-cult information or propaganda
- Using horror stories to scare cult members straight
- Inducing humiliation, guilt, or shame regarding their cult affiliation
- Intensive love-bombing or tough love by family and friends
These coercive persuasion tactics exert psychological pressure on the cult adherent in the hope that he will reject the cult and its belief system. Unfortunately, thought reform techniques such as these are not so unlike the ones that cults themselves use. That being the case, they are not at all conductive to the emotional or psychological well being of the person who is subjected to them. The truth is that the ends do not justify the means whenever there is a very real possibility that additional damage could be inflicted on the individual. Moreover, strong-arm tactics by themselves are usually only effective for so long as the individual is subjected to the coercive environment. That means that as soon as he is free to go he will most likely return to the cult, since no real change has taken place in his thinking or attitude. Indeed, such tactics will probably only strengthen his cult indoctrinated persecution complex and Us verses Them world-view.
Another area of grave concern is that cult-deprogramming is not designed to follow up on individual cases. When the time allotted for a particular case has elapsed, the cult member is simply released. At that point, it is completely up to him to decide whether to defect from the cult or to return to it. There is no counselor available who can offer encouragement, support, or guidance once the decision has been made. The cult deprogrammer makes a clean break with the subject and moves on to the next case.
The cult exit-counseling approach vastly differs from the methods used by cult deprogrammers. To begin with, cult victims are the ones who initiate contact with the exit-counselor. The exit-counselor merely makes his self available to individuals who are considering or have already defected from their cults. Furthermore, the exit-counselor does not use strong-arm tactics to pressure his clients to defect. He merely informs them of their options and outlines the pros and cons of various courses of action so that they can make well-informed decisions. Once they have made their own decisions to defect, he then assists them in their transitions and recovery processes. In his dealings with clients, the cult exit-counselor strives to always be truthful, empathetic, dependable, and logical.
Unlike cult deprogramming, the main focus of cult exit-counseling is case by case follow-up. Clients are never left high and dry as they struggle to make decisions or deal with the emotional and psychological impacts of their cult affiliation. The exit-counselor continues to offer support, encouragement, and the tools his clients will need in order to ease their transitions out of their former groups. Follow-up will continue until clients are self-sufficient and feel that therapy is no longer necessary.
· Help the survivor to view this transition as an opportunity for self-discovery and growth.
· Help the survivor to find activities that can provide outlets for their stress and anxiety.
· Encourage the survivor to rekindle pre-cult relationships especially with non-cult family.
· Encourage clients and their loved ones to be patient with the recovery process.
· Encourage the survivor to join an ex-cult support group so that he will know that he is not alone.
· Encourage the survivor to share his testimony with others in order to reinforce what he has learned.
· Encourage the survivor to obtain further counseling specific to any emotional or psychological problems that might have existed prior to cult involvement.
· Continue to stress the dangers of restrictive and controlling groups and relationships.
The therapeutic process begins with hope and ends with peace. This peace is not the quiet passivity of denial that the cults endorse. Nor is it only achievable in some future utopia. This peace is the strength that comes with an ever-increasing capacity to rise above adversity and to feel contentment in spite of it. It is power for living life to the fullest extent possible. It is the tool by which survivors attain mastery over pasts that have enslaved them for far too long.
Here are some basic dos and don’ts for dealing with cult survivors who are still laboring under considerable cult indoctrination. Some of these pointers are particularly important when dealing with cult members who are still ambivalent about leaving their cults.
Do calmly challenge the client’s reasons for not believing what is presented during the counseling session.
Do be prepared to further demonstrate the truthfulness of the information presented.
Do give the client space to consider what has been discussed.
Do remember that the spiritual counselor’s first priority is to help the client discern truth from error.
Do remember that prayer and patience are the spiritual counselor’s best resources.
Do not be aggressive or argumentative.
Do not be dogmatic.
Do not tell the client that he is wrong and simultaneously present him with an alternative truth as this can drive him away.
Do not allow him to divert the topic of discussion in order to avoid facing the facts.
Do not allow him to change the subject until each matter has been resolved to some extent.
Do not rush the process.
It is not necessary to vilify the cult’s leaders or its members in order to get survivors to take a closer look at its policies, abuses of power, heretical theologies, and false prophecies. We have found that the best way to demonstrate a cult’s errors, falsehoods, inconsistencies, double talk, and deceptive methods of argumentation is to use the group’s own literature, provided that there is any. Remember that since cognitive dissonance and the persecution complex can still be strong in some survivors they can be very reluctant to accept what outsiders or defectors reveal about the cult. However, they are often much more inclined to analyze the evidence when it is present from the pages of the cult’s own literature.
The following steps* might be helpful to cult survivors who have given their lives over to Christ, yet still struggle with various issues related to their spiritual abuse.
1. We admitted that on our own we lack the strength and insights needed to recover from our cult experiences and to thrive within outer society (Psalm 119:104-107; Romans 8:37).
2. We came to believe that God’s Word as revealed in the Bible through His Holy Spirit is the sole path to spiritual wellness (John 14:16,17; Acts 4:12).
3. We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to God by accepting Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior (John 14:6, Acts 10:43).
4. Using God’s Word as our guide, we took an honest moral and spiritual inventory of ourselves (2 Timothy 3:16, 17).
5. We admitted to ourselves and to God all the ways that we have fallen short of His Will for our lives (1 John 1:8, 9).
6. We became entirely ready to have Jesus Christ remove our sinful natures and replace them with His nature (2 Corinthians 5:17, 18).
7. We humbly asked God to cleanse us of all unrighteousness and to fill us with His Holy Spirit (Romans 6:11-13).
8. We made a list of all persons we had harmed, especially friends and family we shunned when we were in the cult and Christians who sought to help liberate us, and we asked them and God to forgive us (James 5:16a; 1 John 1:9).
9. We made direct amends to all such people wherever possible exhibiting the Fruits of the Spirit and the love of Jesus Christ (Galatians 5:22, 23; John 13:34, 35).
10. We continued to walk in sanctification by confessing and repenting of our shortcomings in the name of our Mediator, Jesus Christ (Hebrews 4:14-16).
11. We sought to improve our personal relationships with God through prayer and study of His Word, praying for knowledge of His Will for us and His power to carry it out (Joshua 1:8; 1 Timothy 4:15).
12. Having been Born Again as sons and daughters of the Only True and Living God (John 1:12), we accepted His commission to share His Gospel of Grace to others who seek to know Him, especially those who are still in captivity (Matthew 5:14-16; 1 Timothy 4:16; Luke 4:18)._______________