The Heart of Cult Recovery: Compassion for the Self

ICSA Today, Vol. 13, No. 2, 2022, 2-9

The Heart of Cult Recovery: Compassion for the Self

Daniel Shaw

I left Siddha Yoga, the religious community I had lived and worked in for more than a decade, in 1994. Almost simultaneously, I began my training for a master’s degree in social work with the aim of becoming a psychotherapist. I asked my psychoanalytic supervisor at my clinical internship for some psychoanalytic reading, and she recommended two books: Alice Miller’s Drama of the Gifted Child,1 and Heinz Kohut’s How Does Analysis Cure?2 In the first book, I began learning about narcissism; in the second, I began learning about empathy. I perceived that the guru I had just left fit the profile of a narcissist, but I wanted to understand more clearly what that meant.

As I studied more, particularly the work of Erich Fromm in The Heart of Man3 and Escape From Freedom,4 I was led to formulate the concept of the traumatizing narcissist, based largely on my observations of my former guru, Gurumayi. Once I had left the cult and begun to reclaim my critical-thinking abilities, Gurumayi became a human being to me, not a deity. What I couldn’t find in her was real compassionate empathy, real unselfish giving.

I believe that the development of compassionate empathy had been aborted in Gurumayi by her guru, the late Swami Muktananda, who has been credibly accused of many abuses of power, including predatory pedophilia and multiple sexual assaults. In the time I spent working for Gurumayi, what I observed in the place where empathy could have been was contempt for whomever she could not control, and contempt disguised as “the grace of the guru”5 for the many people she did control. My first effort to theorize about the traumatizing narcissism of cult leaders—the shame they conceal from themselves and others behind their contempt, and their traumatizing impact on followers—became my final paper for graduate school, titled Traumatic Abuse in Cults: A Psychoanalytic Perspective, which can be accessed on the ICSA website.6

Fast forward to around 2015. My psychotherapy practice was going well, but I realized that my training had not taken me as far as I felt I wanted to go when it came to helping my most severely traumatized clients, some of whom had extreme dissociative symptoms. I began to study the work of contemporary traumatologists, clinicians who are developing trauma treatments informed by research in neuroscience. This research changed everything for those who had been focused on treating PTSD: It informed the work of Judith Herman7 and Bessel van der Kolk,8 Alan Schore’s research linked to psychotherapy,9 Onno van der Hart’s theory of structural dissociation,10 Dan Siegel’s model of the brain and affect regulation,11 Patricia Ogden and Janina Fisher’s Sensorimotor Psychotherapy,12 and Richard Schwartz’s theory of internal family systems.13


My studies of these trauma theories and several others, such as EMDR14 and DBT,15 enabled me to come closer to solving the puzzle I have encountered with every significantly traumatized client I’ve ever worked with—whether abused in a cult or not. I am referring to the puzzle of self-alienation. How is it that people who have suffered serious abuse turn against themselves, with self-denigration and contempt? Some form of self-alienation is always the legacy of any kind of trauma experience with which one has been left alone, without help to process. To become self-alienated is to lose compassion for one’s wounded, victimized self. Without help, traumatized people tend to feel ashamed of their victimization, ashamed of their ongoing emotional dysregulation. They are trying to get over their trauma; they want to be the person who looks and feels strong, not the one who was shattered and humiliated. Ashamed of the wounded part of themselves, they become trapped in a vicious circle of self-blaming and self-loathing. Recognizing and understanding this self-alienation, finding and experiencing compassion for one’s most vulnerable self, is what I think is at the heart of recovery from traumatic abuse in cults.

Cultists have survived extremely stressful conditions, including slave-labor conditions, sleep and nutrition deprivation, and repetitive, trance-inducing practices. Often, they have suffered moral injury and betrayal trauma. These are all issues to be addressed when helping former members recover, but my focus in this essay is on where I think the most traumatic harm is done by cults: to the sense of self.

To understand how the traumatic relationship with the cult turns one against the self, I believe it is important to understand the psychology of the cult leader, which I have discussed in my book Traumatic Narcissism: Relational Systems of Subjugation,16 and in a video in the ICSA video archives entitled The Psychology of Cult Leaders.17 What is the traumatic harm done by cult leaders? The traumatizing-narcissist cult leader demands that followers bestow him with endless respect, admiration, love, and compassion. He demands the right to possess the followers’ hearts, minds, souls, and bodies. What followers are indoctrinated not to see is that this is the only real purpose of the cult: to create a one-way channel on which they send up to the leader all their time and energy, money, and love, in support of nothing more than his endless, narcissistic neediness.

As with all pyramid schemes, nothing real, nothing truly transformative, comes back down from the leader. Instead, the cultist is drained, exhausted, and made to lose trust and faith in her internal resources—her intellect, judgement, and intuition. Cultists are persuaded that their only strength and power comes from the cult and their subjugation to the leader—not from within themselves. Followers are expected to back up the cult leader’s claim that she freely bestows love and compassion on them, that the leader unselfishly bestows meaning and value on people who previously were wasting their lives. “I am grateful to the leader” becomes what Robert Jay Lifton called a “thought-terminating cliché.”18 Coerced gratitude shuts off critical thinking and inhibits awareness of emotions that could meet with the leader’s disapproval. The leader’s so-called “love” is entirely conditional, based on how willing and able the cultists are to gratify him, to give whatever they have that is of value to the leader. And yet the followers, under the influence, believe against all evidence to the contrary that they are receiving. How does that happen?

Intimidation, Belittling, and Humiliation

Cult leaders manipulate followers by alternating between love bombing and magnifying and exploiting the followers’ insecurities—in behavioral psychology this is called intermittent reinforcement. While being intermittently attentive and seductive, the leader destabilizes the followers through three relational behaviors that are the hallmark of the traumatizing narcissist’s modus operandi: intimidation, belittling, and humiliation. If someone repeatedly exhibits these three behaviors in relationships, there’s a strong likelihood that this person is a traumatizing narcissist who will not be willing to be accountable for his destructive, exploitative actions. In cults (and this applies to one-on-one cults, too), these sadistic, controlling behaviors are recast in Orwellian fashion as the “means” the leader must use in order for followers to reach the “end.” The cult’s end is stated in various ways—but it always involves a requirement of purification. Followers must accept the designation of impure; and whatever the end of the cult’s transformation process is said to be, they have no hope of attaining that end until they are deemed purified by the leader. This is the basis on which the leader claims the right to subjugate, control, and exploit them ad infinitum. If the leader is the only legitimate judge of who is and is not pure, there’s a very high likelihood that no follower can or will be pure enough, ever.

“The end justifies the means” is one of Machiavelli’s most famous dictums, and that operating system is diagnostic for cults and for traumatizing narcissists. The belief in the group’s or leader’s perfection and omnipotence is delusional; sustaining this delusion requires followers to join that delusion. Joining a cult’s or leader’s delusion, initially experienced as exhilarating, as giving meaning to one’s own life, turns out to be deeply life-draining. What begins with a sense of expansive, even ecstatic surrender, soon turns into negating, humiliating submission. Followers, often without knowing it, live with the constant underlying fear that the group or person they idolize will do to them what they have witnessed with others: that the group or leader will unexpectedly turn on them and tear them apart for their flaws, usually in front of their peers.

In her book Terror, Love and Brainwashing, Alexandra Stein, a psychologist who specializes in cults and attachment trauma, has made the extremely useful connection to the state of disorganized attachment in her recognition of the state of “fright without solution.”19 that cult followers find themselves in. The more they fear the leader, the more followers must try to cling closer to the leader, who is also their tormenter, and furnish the leader with more and more gratification in hopes of being tormented less. It’s a situation that demands dissociation, which trauma theorists have called “the escape when there is no escape.”20

Leaving the cult and rejecting the leader takes a great deal of strength, as is always the case with toxic attachments. But leaving is no guarantee that you can just let go of the self-doubt and the fear the leader has cultivated in you. If this deeply instilled self-alienation goes unrecognized and untreated, as a former member you may need to remain shut down for fear of retraumatization, or alternatively be unable to cease feeling compelled to be hyper-giving. When you are hyper-giving, you believe your only value is in being as unselfish as possible. Unfortunately, in both one-on-one relationships and in other cults, this perspective makes you vulnerable to falling into relationships with selfish, unaccountable takers. For this and many other reasons, psychoeducation geared toward understanding the psychology and the behavior of the traumatizing-narcissist cult leader, and to the recognition of how self-alienation is instilled and perpetuated, is essential to how I work when helping cult survivors.

Protector Turned Persecutor

Cults indoctrinate followers to believe that, to improve the self, one must hold one’s precult self in contempt. In this way, cults magnify and exploit self-alienation, regardless to what degree it existed before one’s involvement in the cult. To help clients grasp the meaning of self-alienation, I explain to those I work with that most people naturally have an inner critic, a kind of internal, regulating voice. Freud termed this part of the mind the superego—he related it to the moral conscience. Trauma theorists view this mental activity as stemming from a Protector part of the self, an instinctually protective aspect of the human mind, focused on safety and survival. The Protector is instinctually trying to steer us in the right direction, and steer us away from trouble. So far, so good. But under conditions of extreme stress, such as growing up in a traumatizing, neglectful family or being part of a cult, the lack of safety, whether psychological, bodily, or both, can lead that inner protective voice to become a chronic inner Persecutor. It happens in this way: The voice that wants to protect us by alerting us to actual danger is now, as a result of too much trauma, suggesting that we should be continually hypervigilant, that we should always be expecting the worst. That is basically what we call PTSD: The terrible thing that happened “then’” now feels as though it is about to, or already is, happening all over again. The experience of chronically feeling helpless and terrified, unable to feel in control, produces intense shame, as though the felt weakness is our own fault. This frightened part of the self becomes flooded with shame—the sense of being weak, defective, bad. To be unduly ashamed of one’s self is to be alienated from one’s self.

The Protector/Persecutor concept, developed by Jungian analyst Donald Kalsched,21 and similarly understood in other trauma therapies, helps survivors understand what’s going on in their internal world. Survivors attach a narrative to their PTSD symptoms—their hypervigilance, their fear and mistrust—that ultimately puts the blame for their fear on themselves. The Protector turned Persecutor is self-shaming. This is how the abusive messages instilled by the cult leader controlled them when they were in the cult, and it’s how those shaming messages become self-perpetuating in followers even after leaving. I find that clients are greatly helped when they are taught these ideas and become able to use them as part of learning to self-regulate, to be able to stay consciously present more consistently, and to better tolerate emotional ups and downs.

When you leave a cult, it’s easy to think of yourself as stupid for having been so gullible, for letting yourself be abused and humiliated. It’s easy to feel shamefully bad about yourself for a million different reasons. But it’s not always obvious that, in doing so as a former member, you have internalized exactly what you were indoctrinated to believe: that you deserve to feel intimidated, be belittled, be humiliated. In a sense, as a survivor, you are carrying on the work of breaking down the self that the cult leader didn’t get to finish.

Often, cult survivors believe, sometimes semiconsciously, that they didn’t follow the leader’s teachings well enough, or that they didn’t have the strength to do the work of the group, and that explains why they suffer now after having left. As with children of abusive parents, followers who entered a childlike state of guru worship are sometimes drawn to blaming themselves for their abuse, without realizing that doing so is protecting the abuser. This was the brilliant understanding of psychoanalyst Ronald Fairbairn, who called this The Moral Defense.22 Children of abusive parents instinctively know that, to survive, they must stay attached to the parent. To do so with an abusive and neglectful parent, the child takes on the burden of the badness, making himself guilty and bad, his abusive parent justified and good. Fairbairn put it this way: “it is better to be a sinner in a world ruled by God than to live in a world ruled by the Devil.”23 Cults encourage regression to childlike idealization of leaders, like parent-Gods; and even when followers repudiate the cult, this instinctive tendency to bear the burden of the badness often lingers.

Here is an example: A 30-year-old graphic designer who left his Christian fundamentalist family and community and came to New York to find freedom was plagued with obsessional fears about himself. He described repeated episodes in childhood of being verbally assaulted by his parents and other adults in the name of religion. As a child, he was made to be so terrified of every worldly thing, at home, in church, and in school, that he developed obsessive-compulsive disorder. As an adult, he knew how distorted the worldview of his parents and their church was, but when I expressed compassion for what he had suffered, he would visibly stiffen, and his affect would become hard and cold. One part of him could tell me how rigid, terrifying, and fanatic his parents and others in the church were, while another part of him refused to feel compassion for his child self and refused to have any feelings other than positive ones about the adults who had terrified him. It was only after a weekend during which he had used psychedelic mushrooms, an activity I had not been aware he was pursuing, that he came to our session bursting with self-love and self-compassion. Although his self-compassion did not become stable quickly or easily, the experience had been powerful, and he could now engage more consciously in struggling with his conflicted self-regard. While his psychedelic experience had unexpected results initially, learning to sustain self-compassion was a difficult, challenging, long-term process.

Another client spent many years in a very high position in a cult. While with the guru, she had perfected the techniques of dissociation. She stilled her mind to the point of being able to witness and endure abuse without naming or experiencing it as such, and she was thereby able to firmly maintain her complete and total passivity and submission. As her recovery began and she looked back on all those years of complete, unquestioning submission, it was as if all her dissociation broke loose. She was flooded with a lifetime of suppressed terror and rage. She was frightened that telling the truth about her guru and what had happened would somehow bring retribution; she was frightened that maybe she was wrong, and the guru was right. Outbursts of panicked rage were followed by deep feelings of shame, and by fears that she was irretrievably damaged. After painful emotional dysregulation continued for months, her sense of self shifted when she read the accounts of others who were describing their abuse in the group. Her decision to join those online who had taken a stand, and to begin to tell her story, was a demarcation line for her. Shame and fear began to give way to a sense of herself as part of a healing community in which she could play a meaningful role.

For both these clients, it was easier at first for them to define themselves by the vulnerabilities they experienced and the shame they felt about themselves than to define themselves in a way that acknowledged and honored their very considerable strengths. This outcome was precisely the aim of their traumatic indoctrination: to shatter their trust in the self, and to transfer trust to only the cult, the group, the leader.

Tools for and Components of Healing

Although much of the psychoeducational work I do with cult survivors is about providing information specific to cult recovery, I also want to educate these clients on how to self-reflect and how to self-regulate, because these are the essential tools that can help them create an internal compassionate relationship between their present-day adult self and the traumatized shame and fear parts of the self to which they more readily relate. The present-day adult self is the one who survived the cult and left the cult; but often this strong, healthy part of the self is forgotten because the trauma parts are in the foreground.

I repeatedly point out to these clients that, when they are triggered and their traumatized parts take over, they lose sight of this strong, healthy part. I explain that triggering experiences bring up physical and emotional responses automatically, prereflectively. Rather than use their minds for genuine self-reflection, cult survivors have been led to focus all their attention on the mind of the leader; and in many cases, they have been literally practicing emptying their minds and filling them with images of the leader and the leader’s words and thoughts. They have been anxiously preoccupied with trying to read the leader’s mind, trying to gauge the leader’s current level of approval or disapproval.

Self-reflection is meant to help bring them back to their own minds. Self-reflection allows them to develop an understanding of these triggered responses, which makes self-regulation possible. To help clients learn to know their own minds better, I note with them, as we speak, any moments of affective intensity, or abrupt switches in self-states, subtle or obvious body movements, or gaps in their narrative, and I suggest we slow down and notice what is going on. I’ll say things such as

Can we stay with this moment for a bit? Let’s slow down here. Something happened, I noticed a shift. Can you say what happened? Did something shift in your body? What did it feel like? Let’s stay with that. Do feelings come up? Are you reminded of anything? Let’s be curious about that…

and so on. As clients tell me a story of something that recently happened outside of session, I will run through the same process with them. I describe what we are doing as self-reflection, and I encourage them to use it as often as they can between sessions. When an anxious, frustrated client asks for homework, my answer is to provide (probably not for the first time) detailed information about how they can self-reflect. Clients who are willing to try and try again to be curiously self-reflective, both in and out of the consulting room, begin to understand what triggers their dysregulation. They develop curiosity about and respect for their own thoughts and feelings. They become able to find meaning in what they are experiencing. The words I say over and over with clients are “That’s interesting. Let’s be curious about that.”

However, what most often occurs when a client has newly taken up self-reflection is that he now recognizes triggers and knows what he is feeling, but his reaction is self-contemptuous. “I got triggered,” he’ll say. “I can’t believe what a stupid, whiny baby I am when I’m triggered.”

“No, no, no,” I say; “that’s not how to relate to your triggered trauma states. What if you were understanding and compassionate to those parts of yourself? What would you say then?”

It’s amazing how hard doing this can be for people, how deep the self-negating tendency can be. Many, many repetitions of this kind of exchange are usually required before new, compassionate understanding replaces knee-jerk self-contempt and self-condemnation.

It is important, in my view, for these clients to understand how emotionally dysregulated they were while they were attempting to live according to the norms of their cult. In almost all cults, members are expected to work ceaselessly, with a sense of urgency, to fulfill the leader’s mission—which, as I’ve previously stated, is about the leader’s self-aggrandizement and nothing more.

Cult recovery involves learning to pay attention to your internal states and recognize when you are anxiously driving yourself the way you were driven in the cult; or to recognize when you are numbing, disconnecting, dissociating—and to understand that these states are PTSD symptoms of dysregulation that need your attention. Affect regulation, well summarized in Dan Hill’s book Affect Regulation Theory,24 is the other essential skill I talk about endlessly with trauma clients, and this involves understanding and addressing chronic internal states of distress that are triggered, consciously or unconsciously. Neuroscience research in psychology over the last decades has opened up many new therapeutic strategies that are helpful for chronically dysregulated clients. One way that I choose to help clients understand the regulating action of self-reflection is to introduce them to the concept of the window of tolerance, a term coined by psychiatrist Dan Siegel.25 In the window of tolerance model, Siegel proposes that, between the extremes of hyperarousal (overwhelmed, anxious, and angry, feeling out of control) and hypoarousal (numb, frozen, shut down), there is a window in which a broad range of emotions can be felt, reflected upon, and made meaningful rather than feeling involuntary, meaningless, and out of control. The window of tolerance is represented in Chart A.

I almost always end up sharing this graphic with all my clients. The window-of-tolerance model gives self-reflective clients some insight into their chronic dysregulation. Often, they realize that they spend little or no time in a window of tolerance. They recognize instead that they repeatedly ricochet from hyperarousal to hypoarousal. Excitement leaves the upper end of the window and becomes overwhelming; disappointment, anger, and hurt leave the bottom edge of the window and become numbness or shame. Clients may involve their therapists for long periods of time in listening to grievances and solving present problems, while the client’s chronic, systemic dysregulation, which represents the unconscious memory of the perpetrator’s abuse, and is the source of their feelings of helplessness and self-deprecation, goes unaddressed.

In Closing

To summarize, I approach postcult recovery in general and with my clients as a particular form of PTSD. I incorporate information about how trauma affects the brain and nervous system in my approach, and I especially try to promote self-reflection as the means to recognize self-alienation and achieve self-regulation. The process of cult recovery is a process of emancipation from the subjugating control of the cult. Developing the ability to self-reflect and self-regulate allows survivors to reclaim their innate self-healing resources. Finding access to these internal resources, along with access to external supports and resources, is how it becomes possible for them to heal self-alienation and regain their sense of wholeness, strength, and dignity that was battered and weakened in the cult.

Today, the problem of cults seems vaster and more overwhelming than ever before. This is in large part the result of the unregulated social media and television platforms that give a megaphone to profoundly delusional people, who often label themselves as “influencers” and spread their delusion and often their deliberately disruptive disinformation by way of the undue influence of algorithms that have no regard for anything but profit of one kind or another. I am thankful to ICSA for giving me and other mental-health professionals a platform from which to speak to other professionals. The need for professionals who can understand and treat postcult trauma has never been greater.


[1] Miller, A. (1997, 2007). Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self. (Originally published in German as Das Drama des begabten Kindes, 1979, and in the United States as Prisoners of Childhood, 1981.)

[2] Kohut, H. (1984). How Does Analysis Cure? (Paperback edition published in 2013.)

[3] Fromm, E. (1965). The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil. (Paperback edition published in 2010.)

[4] Fromm, E. (1941, 1969). Escape From Freedom. (First Holt Paperbacks Edition, 1994.)

[5] The grace of the guru “is essentially a channel for experiencing the divine. In order to experience this, a devotee must surrender completely to the guru, offering pure and unconditional love.” (

[6] See

[7] See Herman, J. L., Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. ( and “Judith Herman and the Formulations of C-PTSD” in Trauma Research and Treatment, July 7, 2012 (available online at https://traumainform.

[8] See van der Kolk, B., The Body Keeps the Score, 2014 (available online at



[9] For more information, see, for example, the interview by David Bullard, Alan Schore on the Science of Psychotherapy (available online at


[10] Discussed, for example, in “Trauma-Related Structural Dissociation of the Personality,” Activitas Nervosa Superior, 52, 1–23 (2010), by Ellert Nijenhuis, Onno van der Hart, and Kathy Steele.

[11] For example, see “Brain in the Palm of Your Hand: Dan Siegel’s Hand Model,” The Behavior Hub, online at

[12] Ogden, P., & Fisher, J. (2015). Sensorimotor Psychotherapy.

[13] Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy, which “draws from structural, strategic, narrative, and Bowenian types of family therapy,” … “is a type of therapy that believes we are all made up of several parts or sub-personalities” (from


[14] “EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is a psychotherapy that enables people to heal from the symptoms and emotional distress that are the result of disturbing life experiences” (

[15] Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) “is a modified type of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)” (

[16] See

[17] Available on YouTube. See


[18] Lifton, R. J. [1989]. See Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of Brainwashing in China (p. 429).

[19] See Hesse, E., & Main, M. (1999). Second-Generation Effects of Unresolved Trauma in Nonmaltreating Parents: Dissociated, Frightened, and Threatening Parental Behavior. Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 19(4), p. 484.

[20] See Putnam, F. (1992). “Discussion: Are Alter Personalities Fragments or Figments?,” Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 12(1), p. 10. DOI:10.1080/07351699209533884

[21] See Kalsched, D., Trauma and the Soul: A Psycho-Spiritual Approach to Human Development and Its Interruption (2013;

=&format=4&depth=1). See also Kalsched, D., “Unlocking the Secrets of the Wounded Psyche,” (interview in two parts with Daniela Sieff, Caduceus, 69, pp. 10–14 and Caduceus, 70, pp. 1–20).

[22] For more about this concept, see introductory verse, “Fairbairn: Ronald, Donald, Carl and Fred,” by Fred M. Rogers (1970) and related text by Ronald D. Fairbairn (as cited in What a Shrink Thinks, Sept. 21, 2015 ( Fairbairn is described on Wikipedia as a “Scottish psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and a central figure in the development of the Object Relations Theory of psychoanalysis” (

[23] Fairbairn, R. (1952). Psychoanalytic Studies of the Personality, pp. 66–67.

[24] Hill, D. (2015). Affect Regulation Theory: A Clinical Model (Norton Series on Interpersonal Biology, illustrated edition).

[25] See Siegel, D. (1999, 2001). The Developing Mind.

About the Author

Daniel Shaw, LCSW, is the author of Traumatic Narcissism: Relational Systems of Subjugation (2013) and Traumatic Narcissism and Recovery: Leaving the Prism of Shame and Fear (2021), both published by Routledge. His affiliations include psychoanalyst, private practice, New York City and Nyack, NY; faculty and clinical supervisor, The National Institute for the Psychotherapies (NIP), New York, NY; and former cochair, Continuing Education Committee, The International Association for Relational Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy. Shaw spent 13 years as a staff member in Siddha Yoga (SYDA Foundation). There he wore many hats, including manager of the residential Manhattan facility, educator, spokesperson, public-relations coordinator, community organizer, and writer/director of public programs. Shaw exited Siddha Yoga in 1994, published an “Open Letter About Siddha Yoga” on the Internet in 1995, and helped create the Leaving Siddha Yoga website, one of the first Internet websites for former cult members. Shaw is the author of “Traumatic Abuse in Cults: A Psychoanalytic Perspective,” published in Cultic Studies Journal (Vol. 2, No. 2, 2003); numerous psychoanalytic papers; and the editor of a special issue on the traumatizing narcissist in ICSA’s International Journal of Cultic Studies (Vol. 5, No. 2, 2014). In 2018, Mr. Shaw received ICSA’s Margaret T. Singer Award. and