From “Captive Hearts, Captive Minds: Freedom and Recovery from Cults and Abusive Relationships”
By Madeleine Tobias and Janja Lalich
Why are some people so damaged by their cult experience while others walk away seemingly unscathed? There are predisposing personality factors and levels of vulnerability that may enhance a person’s continued vulnerability and susceptibility while in the group. All these factors govern the impact of the cult experience on the individual and the potential for subsequent damage. In assessing this impact, three different stages of the cult experience “before, during, and after “need to be examined.
Individual Differences Affecting Recovery
Each person’s experience with a cult is different. Some may dabble with a meditation technique but never get drawn into taking “advanced courses” or moving to an ashram. Others may quickly give up all they have, including college, career, possessions, home, or family, to do missionary work in a foreign country or move into cult lodgings.
After a cult involvement, some people carry on with their live seemingly untouched; more typically, others may encounter a variety of emotional problems and troubling psychological difficulties ranging from inability to sleep, restlessness, and lack of direction to panic attacks, memory loss, and depression. To varying degrees they may feel guilty, ashamed, enraged, lost, confused, betrayed, paranoid, and in a sort of fog.
Vulnerability factors before involvement include a person’s age, prior history of emotional problems, and certain personality characteristics.
Length of time spent in the group: there is quite a difference in the impact a cult will have on a person if she or he is a member for only a few weeks, as compared to months or years. A related factor is the amount of exposure to the indoctrination process and the various levels of control that exist in the group.
Intensity and severity of the thought-reform program.
The intensity and severity of cults’ efforts at conversion and control vary in different groups and in the same group at different times. Members who are in a peripheral, “associate” status may have very different experiences from those who are full-time, inner-core members.
Specific methods will also vary in their effect. An intense training workshop over a week or weekend that includes sleep deprivation, hypnosis, and self-exposure coupled with a high degree of supervision and lack of privacy is likely to produce faster changes in a participant than a group process using more subtle and long-term methods of change.
Poor or inadequate medical treatments
A former cult member’s physical condition and attitude toward physical health may greatly impact post cult adjustments.
Loss of outside support
The availability of a network of family and friends and the amount of outside support certainly will bear on a person’s reintegration after a cult involvement.
Skewed or nonexistent contact with family and former friends tends to increase members’ isolation and susceptibility to the cult’s worldview. The reestablishment of those contacts is important to help offset the loss and loneliness the person will quite naturally feel.
Various factors can hasten healing and lessen post cult difficulties at this stage. Many are related to the psycho-educational process. Former cult members often spend years after leaving a cult in relative isolation, not talking about or dealing with their cult experiences. Shame and silence may increase the harm done by the group and can prevent healing. Understanding the dynamics of cult conversion is essential to healing and making a solid transition to an integrated post cult life.
Engage in a professionally led exit counseling session.
Educate yourself about cults and thought-reform techniques.
Involve family members and old and new friends in reviewing and evaluating your cult experience.
See a mental health professional or a pastoral counselor, preferably someone who is familiar with or is willing to be educated about cults and common post cult problems.
Attend a support group for former cult members
The following sets of questions have proven helpful to former cult members trying to make sense of their experience.
Reviewing your recruitment
What was going on in your life at the time you joined the group or met the person who became your abusive partner?
How and where were you approached?
What was your initial reaction to or feeling about the leader or group?
What first interested you in the group or leader?
How were you misled during recruitment?
What did the group or leader promise you? Did you ever get it?
What didn’t they tell you that might have influenced you not to join had you known?
Why did the group or leader want you?
Understanding the psychological manipulation used in your Group
Which controlling techniques were used by your group or leader: chanting, meditation, sleep deprivation, isolation, drugs, hypnosis, criticism, fear. List each technique and how it served the group’s purpose.
What was the most effective? The least effective?
What technique are you still using that is hard to give up? Are you able to see any effects on you when you practice these?
What are the group’s beliefs and values? How did they come to be your beliefs and values?
Examining your doubts
What are your doubts about the group or leader now?
Do you still believe the group or leader has all or some of the answers?
Are you still afraid to encounter your leader or group members on the street?
Do you ever think of going back? What is going on in your mind when this happens?
Do you believe your group or leader has any supernatural or spiritual power to harm you in any way?
Do you believe you are cursed by God for having left the group?
The Pain of Grief
The following is how former cult members and members of spiritually abusive systems described how they felt when they finally left their group. This may give you some insight into their pain and why there are no easy answers for them. Leaving a cult is like experiencing the death of a close relative or a broken relationship. The feeling is often described as like having been betrayed by someone with whom you were in love. You feel you were simply used.
There is a grieving process to pass through. Whereas most people understand that a person must grieve after a death etc, they find it difficult to understand the same applies in this situation. There is no instant cure for the grief, confusion and pain. Like all grieving periods, time is the healer. Some feel guilty, or wrong about this grief. They shouldn’t — It IS normal. It is NOT wrong to feel confused, uncertain, disillusioned, guilty, angry, untrusting – these are all part of the process. In time the negative feelings will be replaced with clear thinking, joy, peace, and trust.
IT HURTS by Jan Groenveld
to discover you were deceived – that what you thought was the “one true religion,” the “path to total freedom,” or “truth” was in reality a cult.
when you learn that people you trusted implicitly – whom you were taught not to question – were “pulling the wool over your eyes” albeit unwittingly.
when you learn that those you were taught were your “enemies” were telling the truth after all — but you had been told they were liars, deceivers, repressive, satanic etc and not to listen to them.
when you know your faith in God hasn’t changed – only your trust in an organization – yet you are accused of apostasy, being a trouble maker, a “Judas”. It hurts even more when it is your family and friends making these accusations.
to realize their love and acceptance was conditional on you remaining a member of good standing. This cuts so deeply you try and suppress it. All you want to do is forget – but how can you forget your family and friends?
to see the looks of hatred coming from the faces of those you love – to hear the deafening silence when you try and talk to them. It cuts deeply when you try and give your child a hug and they stand like a statue, pretending you aren’t there. It stabs like a knife when you know your spouse looks upon you as demonised and teaches your children to hate you.
to know you must start all over again. You feel you have wasted so much time. You feel betrayed, disillusioned, suspicious of everyone including family, friends and other former members.
when you find yourself feeling guilty or ashamed of what you were – even about leaving them. You feel depressed, confused, lonely. You find it difficult to make decisions. You don’t know what to do with yourself because you have so much time on your hands now – yet you still feel guilty for spending time on recreation.
when you feel as though you have lost touch with reality. You feel as though you are “floating” and wonder if you really are better off and long for the security you had in the organization and yet you know you cannot go back.
when you feel you are all alone – that no one seems to understand what you are feeling. It hurts when you realize your self confidence and self worth are almost non-existent.
when you have to front up to friends and family to hear their “I told you so” whether that statement is verbal or not. It makes you feel even more stupid than you already do – your confidence and self worth plummet even further.
when you realize you gave up everything for the cult – your education, career, finances, time and energy – and now have to seek employment or restart your education. How do you explain all those missing years?
because you know that even though you were deceived, you are responsible for being taken in. All that wasted time …….. at least that is what it seems to you – wasted time.
YES – IT HURTS BUT THE HURTS WILL HEAL WITH TIME, PATIENCE & UNDERSTANDING
There is life after the cult.
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Cult Awareness & Information Centre, PO Box 2444, Mansfield, 4122, Australia