Pitfalls To Recovery
Each person suffering from trauma or injury usually has the
capacity to recover. In this chapter, I will point out some pitfalls on the
road to recovery from the trauma of cultic involvement, and then provide some
guidelines for speeding up the recovery process...[I want to state the myths
surrounding the cultic experience] ... because it is very important for
recovering ...[former members] ...to recognize them. If one leaves a cult and
surrounds himself or herself with some well-intended people trying to help but
believing in one or more of these myths, the recovery process may be delayed or
The Six Myths About Cultism
- Ex-cult members do not have psychological problems. Their problems are
- Ex-cult members do have psychological disorders. But these people come
from clearly "non-Christian" cults.
- Both Christians and non-Christian cultic groups can produce
psychological problems, but the people involved must have had prior
psychological problems that would have surfaced regardless of what group they
- While normal non-Christians may get involved with cults, born-again
evangelical Christians will not. Even if they did, their involvement would
not affect them quite so negatively.
- Christians can and do get involved in these aberrational groups, and
they can get hurt emotionally, but all they really need is some good Bible
teaching and a warm, caring Christian fellowship.
- Perhaps the best way for former cult members to receive help is to seek
professional therapy with a psychologist, psychiatrist, or other mental health
As parents ... [or as an
ex-member] ... who has left a cult, it is crucial that you do not subscribe to
these myths. If you or anyone connected with [an ex-member] holds these false
beliefs and communicates them, there will be a double sense of victimization.
The first sense of victimization is from the cult itself. The ... [ex-member]
... feels hurt, betrayed, confused, angry, violated, anxious, and perhaps
depressed as a result of their cult experience. The second sense of
victimization comes when friends, helpers, or family perpetuate the myths about
cultism. These myths work themselves out in everyday conversation in such
questions and comments as:
- I certainly could think of some others who might join a cult,
but you were the last person I would have expected.
- Why go to counseling? You know you were deceived in your
spiritual walk. What you need to do is repent of your sins so that the
deceiver cannot tempt you...
- People who join these groups are troubled or have come from
dysfunctional homes. I guess I was wrong in assuming you didn't have those
When one who has left and is
trying to stay away from a cultic group hears these statements, the message that
comes through is, "Something is wrong with you." "You must have some
psychological problems." ... If the ex-cultist hears and believes these
messages, recovery is all but impossible until the erroneous thinking is
corrected. Regardless of one's spiritual or psychological health, whether one is
weak or strong, cultic involvement can happen to anyone.
Exit Counseling and Confronting Denial
It takes quite some time for
those leaving cults to know what happened to them, and they still operate under
shame and guilt over their cultic involvement. One must realize that cults use
powerful techniques of manipulation. The major problem for those not undergoing
some form of exit counseling is denial. Many continue to believe they were
somehow responsible for their fate. It is difficult for them to accept that
their lives were not always completely under their own control. Denial shows
itself in withdrawal from family and friends, statements that "I'm fine,"
defensiveness about the group's problem, and refusal to seek help. Such denial
must be countered by clearly showing the realities of cult dynamics. Former
cult members need to see how they were lured into the movement, what
vulnerabilities the cult exploited, and how the principles of mind control were
used to keep them in the cult.
Cults lure people for many
reasons, but perhaps primarily because of the relationships that the experience
offers. The involvement is an intensely personal experience. The therapist,
counselor, pastor, and [family] must be able to relate to the ex-member's
emotional needs for acceptance, belonging, friendship, and love. In recovering
from cultic life, one of the things that takes the longest to resolve is the
search for the love, fellowship, and caring that was experienced while in the
group. It is extremely important that a trusting relationship be established
between the former member and the helper. ...[The] tremendous fellowship and
warmth that the ex-member often longs for is an "artificial high." ...group
experience felt great. [Were these highs] really more like the feeling of
euphoria produced by some drugs?
There are many group processes
that can make people feel euphoric. These "highs" can be psychologically and
spiritually unhealthy because the experience produces in the member a strong
sense of dependence on the group and its leaders.
These "highs" are part of what
is known as altered states of consciousness — states between waking and sleeping
"that differ from those usually experienced in the world of everyday reality."
Included are states such as those induced by creative work, meditation, drugs,
sleep, alcohol, and hypnosis. When an ex-cultist returns to the "high" after
leaving a cult, it is called "floating." It is also called "floating" when one
snaps back into the shame-based motivations experienced while in the cult and
believes anew that the cult was right. Floating is handled by discovering what
triggers the episodes and then dealing with the triggers.
Types of triggers include:
- Visual — certain colors, pictures, hand signals, symbols, smiles
- Verbal — songs, jargon, Scripture verses, slogans, types of
laughter, mantras, decrees, prayers, tongues speaking, curses, [rhythmic
- Physical — touches, handshakes, kisses, hugs
- Smell — incense, perfume of leader, foods
- Tastes — foods
The first step in recovery
from floating is to identify these triggers and the loaded language that gives
meaning to the visual trigger. For example, the visual trigger may be a book
that has been forbidden by the cult. Seeing the book causes thoughts like,
"This is the work of the devil." Loaded language is any thought-stopping cliché
that is used in manipulative groups to prevent critical thinking. For example,
simple tiredness is reinterpreted as "running in the flesh" and is used to
discourage people from claiming fatigue or stress. Not wanting to go to every
scheduled meeting is labeled "rebellion" and as possessing an "independent
spirit." Such loaded language is not easily forgotten even after exiting a
cult. It sidetracks critical analysis, disrupts communication, and may produce
confusion, anxiety, terror, and guilt.
Undoing the language of the
cult requires a hard look at what words and phrases mean. The mind must be
taught to rethink the meaning of language. Because cults misuse words and use
loaded language, one ex-cultist recommends concentrating on crossword puzzles
and other word games as an aid to regrounding one's conception of the true sense
of words. In addition, ...[ex-members] ...must learn to challenge the factual
claims of loaded language phrases.
Former cult members must
...[learn to] ...identify such words and phrases that have a special or loaded
meaning to them. One simple way for ex-cultists to help themselves is to look
words up in a dictionary and then compare those meanings with what the cult
taught. The member should be encouraged to spend a good bit of time reading in
areas unrelated to the former cult.
Such exercises are crucial for
any ...[former cult members] ...who feel powerless because they do not know how
language was used to control them. Empowerment and control are essential
ingredients to recovery from cultic involvement.
In coming to grips with what
has happened to the ex-cultist, it is quite helpful to employ the victim or
trauma model. According to this model, victimization and the resulting distress
it causes are due to the shattering of three basic assumptions that the victim
held about the world and the self. These assumptions are the belief in personal
invulnerability, the perception of the world as meaningful, and the perception
of oneself as positive. The former cult member has been traumatized, deceived,
conned, used, and often emotionally and mentally abused while serving the group
or the leader. Like other victims of such things as criminal acts, war
atrocities, rape, and serious illness, ex-cultists often re-experience the
painful memories of their group involvement. Trauma also causes many to lose
interest in the outside world, feel detached from society, and display limited
Excerpted from "Cult Proofing Your Kids" by Dr. Paul R.
Martin (Zondervan). Dr. Martin is the director of Wellspring Retreat and
Resource Center. Reprinted with permission.