Different high control groups and systems have different language and details of how they practice their control and coercion. At the same time, there are some general tools and techniques that most cults use to maintain their hold on participant’s minds, emotions, and behavior. (See Cult Recovery Terms )
When people exit a cult they may struggle, sometimes for a long time, to really accept and understand exactly how and to what degree they have been manipulated and abused by the group they left. It is extremely helpful to find support among others who have left your specific group.
Regarding what that undue influence and escape from a particular cult looks like, Steven Hassan said in his book, “Combating Cult Mind Control” (see Resources List), “It often takes someone who has escaped a cult themselves to communicate the message [of what it feels like] with sufficient strength and determination.”
The bottom line is that it is invaluable to find support from other cult survivors.
One important element to “unpacking” cult beliefs is noticing what parts of your “belief system” were created to manipulate and coerce you and which parts you authentically agree with and want to keep. If you joined the group as an adult, there were things about this set of beliefs that authentically spoke to you.
If you were born-in, there are still probably things that resonated for you. Few things are entirely bad and if you were born-in to something, finding the pieces that work for you can be very helpful in making peace with your past, childhood, and family. It definitely was for me.
One recovery belief that was foundational for me was to realize and accept that these triggers and knee-jerk reactions I was experiencing were extremely common for survivors of a cult or high-control situation. This helped me normalize the cult recovery process I was experiencing.
Below is a list of some other core beliefs that, for most cult survivors, will need to be examined at some point in their journey.
The group or organization does not have all the answers.
High control groups or cults generally teach that they have “the one path to salvation” or “the one solution” to all problems. They also generally limit members’ access to outside information, education, and critical thinking skills.
- It is valuable to do some, or a lot of, reality-checking. Educate yourself using multiple sources. Question deeply and explore curiously to decide what you personally believe about the world. It might mean formal education or it might be personal research. Either way, doing your own examination of how the world works and what you believe about it is often an early step in this type of recovery.
- In order to free yourself to do this type of questioning, you are likely going to need to change the belief that your group/organization/leader has all the answers.
What are your personal values?
A cult or high control group tells its members exactly what their values, beliefs, and practices are supposed to be at all times and about everything.
- When someone leaves such a group they may find they feel unanchored and unsure about what their personal values are as an independent person.
- This is especially true for people born-in or raised in a cult. When one does not have a pre-cult set of values or personality to go back to after leaving, it can be very overwhelming to lose the only framework one has ever known.
- If the ex-member who has left a cult does not clarify for themselves what their independent personal values are they are at high risk to return to their cult or to be drawn into another high control organization or relationship.
What community(ies) do you want to join?
Cults generally exercise a lot of control over members’ associations and relationships. Part of that control entails vilifying the outside world and all non-members, including unbelieving family, and especially ex-members. This leads to a lot of fear for many cult survivors after they leave about who, when, and how to safely develop outside relationships.
- When leaving a cult most often ex-members are shunned. This means they lose all of the community they accepted by joining the cult.
- When they joined the cult they were likely required to separate from all past associates and their non-cult family. So when they leave they have already walked away from pre-cult associates and family. Now they are losing everyone they know in the cult.
- If born-in they probably never had a chance to form relationships outside the group. When they leave and are shunned most often they have no support system.
- Additionally they have been taught all their lives that the outside world is completely dangerous and degenerate so they are likely to struggle with who, when, and how to trust others.
- When it comes to other ex-members, who often know best what it is you may have gone through, they are generally the most vilified of all. High control groups have a vested interest in ex-members not supporting each other to compare notes and help in recovery.
What is the purpose/meaning for your life?
One thing that makes cults so attractive is they define a purpose for people. They tell their members exactly what the meaning of life is and how to spend all of their time and energy.
- When people leave they often feel bereft of a purpose. This is particularly true for people who were raised in a high control group.
- To protect against being drawn back to the group they left or being ensnared by another cult or abusive relationship, it is important to explore one’s purpose/meaning and how one wants to invest their life energy.
When I left the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the first thing that came up was an overwhelming flood of emotion realizing I didn’t know what I believed about anything. I sat with, “I have to rethink literally everything I believe about myself and the world.”