Treating Former Members of Cults

  From time to time, a psychotherapist receives a request for help from someone who has recently left a cult. 1 These patients may present symptoms of anxiety and depression, as do many others, but they constitute a group with special problems that require special knowledge on the part of the therapist.

   The story these patients recount is remarkably similar from one to the next, regardless of differing educational, social, or financial backgrounds. They usually tell of joining the cult when they were at a transition point in their lives. Dissatisfied with their ordinary pursuits and relationships and hungry for a meaningful life that would satisfy their spiritual longings, they encountered an attractive, smiling young man or woman who enthusiastically described the happiness to be found in his or her dedicated, loving group and its wonderful, enlightened leader.  They were invited to visit the group and did so. At that first meeting, they were impressed, if not overwhelmed, by the warm attention they received. In addition, they may have been emotionally stirred by singing; meditation, or other activities and may even have entered an altered state of consciousness under the influence of the group's leader. Such impressive experiences were interpreted as proof of both the leader’s advanced spiritual state and the newcomer's readiness to receive initiation. After one or two more meetings, they decided to join.

   Having joined, the new convert's life was immediately filled with work meetings, and exercises that left little time or energy for the life he or she left behind. Even if the convert was married and had a family, the partner and the children were regarded as less important than the avowed mission of the group to benefit all of humanity to save the world. The conflict between group demands amid outside commitments grew steadily sharper until the convert relinquished all relationships with those outside the group or the family broke up as the spouse reached the limit of tolerance. The ally was now totally dependent on the group and the leader for emotional and financial support.

   The group that initially was warm and loving revealed its cold, punitive side whenever a convert questioned the group’s beliefs or criticized the behavior of the leader. Such dissent was labeled “selfish” or “evil,” and group approval was withdrawn and the dissenter isolated. Members were taught, therefore, that what the group had given, the group could take away. Out of fear of such punishment by the group and of humiliation and censure by the leader, converts found themselves engaging in the intimidation and coercion of fellow converts, the deception and seduction of new recruits, and other behaviors that violated ethical standards held before joining the cult. Such actions were rationalized by reference to the overriding importance of the group’s purpose and to the leader’s superior wisdom.

   Eventually, the strain of conforming to the demands of the group became too much, especially it children were involved. The convert protester refused to comply with the latest demands and was dealt with severely. Finally, in desperation, he (or she) left the cult. Immediately, the leader branded him as damned, possessed by Satan, and having lost his soul. At the very least, he had failed the best arid lost his chance at enlightenment. Just as painful, people with whom he had shared his most intimate secrets and felt the greatest acceptance and love now turned their backs and refused to communicate. Feeling totally alone, the ex-cult member experienced a turmoil of feelings: rage at the betrayal, fear of retaliation, horror at the possibility of perpetual damnation, grief at the loss of group support and affection, and. shame at having been duped. At this point, he may turn to a therapist for help.

   The anxiety and depression such patients feel usually is secondary to a bigger problem: a loss of trust in others and, especially loss of trust in their own judgment and spiritual perceptions.    Additionally, they may feel guilt over unethical actions they engaged in to please the group and despair at the loss of time, money, and relationships. To recover from the trauma of their cult experience, these patients need to understand what happened and why, and so does the psychotherapist who treats them.


   People who join cults do so for two principal reasons: (1) They want to lead a meaningful, spiritual life and (2) they want to feel protected, cared for, and guided by someone who knows what to do in. a confusing world. The first motive is conscious and laudable; the second is unconscious or not recognized for what it is. Therein lies the problem: The wish to have a perfect parent and a loving; supportive group lies concealed in the psyche of even the most outwardly independent person. When the opportunity arises to gratify that wish, it powerfully influences judgment and perception and paves the way for exploitation by a cult.

   There is good reason for cults to be associated primarily with religious-spiritual organizations. Religions are based on the belief in a transcendent; supreme power usually characterized along parental lines: God is all-powerful and all-knowing, meting out rewards and punishments according to how well a person has carried out the commandments He has issued. The doctrines vary, but even in nonmonotheistic Eastern traditions; Heaven and Hell in some form are designated as the consequences of good and bad behavior.

   Although mystics are unanimous in defining God as incomprehensible and not of this world, human dependency needs require something more approachable and personal: Even in Buddhism, therefore, whose founder declared that concepts of gods and heaven were an illusion, many followers bow to a Buddha idol to invoke Buddha's protection and blessing. But even more satisfying to the wish for a superparent is an actual human with divine, enlightened, or messianic status. The powerful wish to be guided and protected by a superior being can propel a seeker into the arms of a leader who is given that status by his or her followers. Such a surrender to the fantasy of the perfect parent may be accompanied by a feeling of great joy at "coming home."

   This analysis does not imply that the intimations of a larger reality and a larger purpose, sensed by human beings for thousands of are only a fantasy: The problem is that the spiritual dimension and dependency wishes can get badly confused. The patient needs to disentangle the perception of a spiritual dimension from needs less-than-divine longings that have infiltrated, taken over, and distorted what is valid. It is important that the psychiatrist treating an ex-cult member keep this distinction in mind.

   One way to clarify the confusion is to help the patient see clearly the problems that she had hoped "enlightenment", and membership in the group would solve: These problems may include loneliness, low self-esteem, the wish for the admiration of others, fear of intimacy, fear of death, and the wish for invulnerability. Indeed, membership in the group may assuage loneliness and provide the support and closeness that the patient had not experienced previously Memories of such good experiences may occasion acute feelings of loss in the ex-cult member and give rise to doubts concerning whether or not leaving was the best thing to do.

   To look objectively and critically at the cult, experience, the ex-member needs to gain freedom from the "superior leader trap." As indicated earlier, this trap is sprung if there is criticism or questioning of the leader's actions and directives. Basically, it takes the following form: The Leader operates on a higher plane than you or I. Because of that, we are not able to judge the rightness or wrongness of his or her actions. Ordinary, conventional standards do not apply here.

   Although this conclusion may sound reasonable, the leader in fact can be judged by criteria established in the mystical literature. There is a striking consensus in these writings concerning the nature of the spiritual path and the duties of a genuine teacher. The consensus permits one to make judgments of whether the teacher's  actions advance spiritual development or hinder it.

  It is important to realize that the basic activity of the spiritual traditions is to assist spiritual students to "forget the self." The self referred to is what is usually termed the, ego but is better understood as being the psychological processes dedicated to biological survival. That primitive aim is expressed in greed, fear, lust, hatred, and jealousy: the traditional vices. These vices are functional for the intention of survival.  The, mode of consciousness one expertness is functional also, and it is adapted to one's intentions. For example, building a bookcase calls forth a particular form of consciousness — the instrumental — featuring an emphasis on the object characteristics of the world, a reliance on abstract concepts, and a focus on past and future and on differences and boundaries. This mode of consciousness is needed to fulfill the intention of making a useful object. When one wants to receive something from one's surroundings; however, as in relaxing in a tub of steaming hot water or having a massage, one needs a different mode of consciousness — the receptive — featuring an emphasis on sensual experience, a blurring of boundaries, a focus on now; and a sense of connectedness with the environment.

   Ordinary survival aims, therefore, call forth instrumental consciousness: But if it is desired to experience the world in its wholeness, unity, and interconnection — the essence of spiritual consciousness — a different intention must be operative, along with a lessening of control by the survival self . 2

   Keeping in mind this functional relationship of motivation and self to consciousness, one can see that the spiritual traditions use a variety of means to transform the seeker's initial motivations, which are heavily weighted toward greed, dependency, and power; into motivations of service and contemplation. Meditation, teaching stories, service, and the example set by the teacher can be understood as tools for accomplishing a deep shift in basic intention, permitting access to spiritual consciousness.

   This framework provides a means for making a preliminary judgment about people who declare themselves to be spiritual teachers. All one needs to do is observe their behavior and notice the intentions and type of self that is being reinforced. If there is considerable emphasis on what the convert will gain from following the teacher, such as “bliss,” psychic abilities, or the joy of enlightenment, these promises will arouse greed and acquisitive strategies. After all, the desire for bliss is not fundamentally different from the desire for money. If the teacher warns that rejecting the teaching will result in damnation, loss of one's soul, and loss of all hopes of spiritual advancement, fear is aroused and the survival self is activated. Likewise, if the leader makes use of flattery by bestowing attention or praise, this can arouse vanity in the convert and competition in the group members. In all these instances, the teacher is intensifying the operation of the survival self and the form of consciousness it generates. These activities are antispiritual, and leaders that employ, them are not genuine spiritual teachers; they are not entitled to any special deference or trust. 3

   Of course, exploitation of followers for sexual pleasure or financial gain cannot be justified in any manner and testifies to the unenlightened, self-centered state of the teacher. Such exploitation is not to be found in the lives of the great mystics. They operated by even more rigorous standards than those that are imposed by conventional society. This is not to say that mystics are examples of perfect human beings. Perfection is not part of earthly existence for anyone or anything. But financial or sexual exploitation represents a drastic failure of responsibility that disqualifies a teacher from any special consideration. Psychotherapists are well aware of how harmful such violations of trust can be.

   The behavior of most cult leaders departs widely from the path paid down in the mystical literature and can be seen to be harmful to spiritual development. By employing this functional framework, cult members can judge for themselves the presumed sanctity the leader and, the appropriateness of the leader's behavior.


   Just as it is important to have a means of judging a spiritual teacher, it also is important for the ex-cult member and the therapist to be able to answer the more general question: "Is this group a cult?" Patients need to be able to answer that question to avoid making the same mistake again, and therapists are likely to be asked that question by a worried parent or spouse. Usually, the group in question has obvious cult trappings, but society abounds with groups and organizations that appear normal but have the potential for cultlike behavior: large corporations, political groups, professional organizations, government bodies, and established religions. These sectors of normal society seldom are thought to share characteristics with The People's Temple or the less dramatic groups such as the Moonies and the Krishna devotees collecting money in airports, however, careful study of cults reveals four basic cult behaviors that occur to varying degrees in almost all groups, including those that do not have a strange appearance or engage in bizarre behavior. 4 Identifying these basic behaviors permits one to replace the question, "Is this group a cult?" with the more practical one, "To what extent is cult behavior present?" The latter question is more useful because in the field of the transpersonal, as elsewhere, there is a continuum of groups ranging from the most benign and least cultlike to the most malignant and destructive.


Compliance With the Group

   Everybody is concerned with how he or she is viewed by the people whose opinions matter to, us:, our "reference group." No matter how, outwardly independent and nonconformist we may be, there is, usually a, group of people who share our, values and whose approval we want. Membership, in this group is signaled by conformity in dress, behavior, and speech. People outside of cults may suppress deviant thoughts also, although less obviously, if they believe that their expression could result in loss of status with the people important to them.

   The power of groups has been noted by psychologists beginning with Gustav Le Bon and Sigmund Freud, and analyzed in detail by Wilfred Bion, who proposed that members of groups tend to adopt one of three primitive emotional states: dependency, pairing, or fight-flight. His description of the dependency state is an apt description of cults, but he saw, the process taking place in varying degrees in all groups:

  The essential aim … is to attain security is to attain security through and have its members protected by one individual. It assumes that this is why the group has met. The members act as if they know nothing, as if they are inadequate and immature creatures. Their behavior implies that the leader, by contrast, is omnipotent and omniscient. 5

   It is plausible that natural selection favored individuals who were good at discerning what the group wanted because preservation of their membership in the group gave them the best chance of survival. As a consequence, it is likely that human beings have evolved to be exquisitely sensitive to what the group wants. "Political correctness" probably has a long history.”

Dependence on a Leader

   Leaders draw a power from their followers’ wish for an ideal parent, a wish that is latent in all adults no matter what kind of parent they had. Although cult leaders may be charismatic, they need not be as long as they are believed by the group members to possess superior powers and secrets. Cult leaders are authoritarian, encouraging dependence and discouraging autonomy. Obedience and loyalty are rewarded, and critical thinking is punished. Furthermore, to enhance dependency on the leader, pair bonding is discouraged. The leader must come first; family and lovers come last. The disruption of intimate relationships is accomplished by a variety of means: enforced chastity, separation of parents from children, arranged marriages, long separations, promiscuity, or sexual relations with the leader. All these aspects are counter to healthy leadership, which fosters growth, independence, and mature relationships and has as its aim that the followers will eventually achieve an eye-level relationship with the leader.


  Dissent threatens the group fantasy that the members are being protected and rewarded by a perfect, enlightened leader who can do no wrong. The security provided by that fantasy is the basic attraction that keeps members in the cult despite highly questionable actions by the leader. Questioning the fantasy threatens that security, and for this reason, active dissent is seldom encouraged. To the contrary, dissenters are often declared to be in the grip of Satan. Sometimes they are scapegoated, and hidden, unconscious anger toward the leader is released against the dissenter. Almost all groups derive security from their shared beliefs and readily regard dissenters as irritations, to be gotten rid of. Nevertheless, the mark of a healthy group is a tolerance for dissent and a recognition of its vital role in keeping the group sane. Paranoia develops and grandiosity flourishes when dissent is eliminated and a group isolates itself from outside influence. As recent cult disasters have shown us, grandiose and paranoid cult leaders often self-destruct, taking their group with them.

Devaluing the Outsider

  What good is being in a group if membership does not convey some special advantage? In spiritual groups, the members are likely to believe that they have the inside track to enlightenment, to being "saved," or to finding God because of the special sanctity and, spiritual power of the leader. It follows that they must be superior to people outside the group: It is they, the converts, who have the leader's blessing and approval. Devaluation can be detected in the pity or “compassion” they may feel for those outside. This devaluation becomes most marked in the case of someone who elects to leave the group and is thereby considered “lost,” if not damned. The more such devaluation takes place, and the more the group separates itself from the outside world, the greater the danger of cult pathology.

   Devaluing of the outsider is part and parcel of everyday life. Depending on which group we designate as the outsider, our scorn may be directed at “liberals,” “Republicans,” “blacks,” “Jews,” “yuppies,” or “welfare bums”: however the outsider is designated. Such disidentification can authorize unethical, mean, and destructive behavior against the outsider, behavior that otherwise would cause guilt for violating ethical norms. Devaluation of the outsider is tribal behavior and so universal as to suggest a “basic law of groups”: Be one of us and we will love you; leave us and we will kill you.

   Devaluing the outsider reassures the insider that he or she is good, special, and deserving, unlike the outsider. Such a belief is a distortion of reality; if one considers the different circumstances of each person’s development and life context, one is hard put to judge another person to be intrinsically inferior to oneself. Certainly, actions can be judged, but human beings are one species, at eye level with each other.


  The psychotherapist treating an ex-cult member may be tempted to devalue the patient for being duped and exploited and for believing weird doctrines. Especially in the role of expert in human psychology, we therapists wish to be reassured that nothing like that would happen to us because we are too discerning, mature, and sophisticated. As a matter of fact, we are not immune by virtue of our profession; psychotherapists with the best credentials have participated directly in cults. There have even been psychotherapeutic cults led by fully trained and accredited psychoanalysts, 6 and noted psychoanalysts have commented on the cult aspects of psychoanalytic training institutes. 7, 8

  Furthermore, cult behavior is evident within the psychiatric profession as a whole. Perusal of the psychiatric literature indicates a remarkable absence of dissent from the current enthusiasm for biological psychiatry, an enthusiasm not different from the overcommitment to environmental influences that characterized the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Indeed, research that challenges the biological perspective is ignored. 4 The biological-medical consensus is reinforced by economic factors; those working in academic environments experience pressure to shape their research focus and strategy so that they will be funded. Being awarded a research grant usually depends on the approval of the "leading experts" in the field, the very persons who have established, and are committed to, the prevailing theoretical perspective. Furthermore, the same authorities are asked to judge articles submitted for publication to psychiatric journals. Avoidance of dissent and devaluation of the outsider can take the place unnoticed, therefore, through rejection of submitted papers and denial of research funds. To this may be added informal devaluation through unsupported derogatory comments made: at professional gatherings.


  It is important that both the therapist and the ex-cult member be able to see that cult behaviors are endemic in our society. Such awareness can protect the therapist from the influence of such behaviors and allow ex-cult members to realize that they are not freaks, weak and dependent persons, or fools. Rather, they were s led astray by unconscious wishes that they share with all human beings. These wishes were stimulated at a time when they were N especially vulnerable and under circumstances that any person might have found difficult to combat.


  Cult behavior reflects the wish for a loving, accepting sibling group that is protected and cherished by a powerful, omnipotent parent. The problem with such a wish and its accompanying fantasy is that no human being can fill the role of the superparent, and adults can never again be children. To preserve the fantasy, reality must be distorted, because of .this distortion, cult behavior results in a loss of realism. In the more extreme cases, the consequences can be drastic. Diminished realism is a problem in any situation, however, and for this reason, cult behavior is costly no matter where it takes place: affecting business decisions, governmental deliberations, day-to-day relationships in the community, or the practice of psychotherapy. Fortunately, awareness of these cult behaviors offers protection from their influence. Psychotherapists can foster that awareness, benefiting patients, themselves, and society. 

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