Former Members

Bullet Point Overview

  • Introductory Points to Keep in Mind

    • First-generation former members of cultic groups and relationships developed a personality and identity and had a network of relationships BEFORE their identity and personality were affected by cultic influences.

    • People born or raised in cultic environments developed their personality, identity, and network of relationships IN the environment in which they were raised.

    • First-generation persons have a pre-cult environment to which they may return.

    • Born-or-raised persons enter a new and sometimes frightening world when they leave the cult environment.

    • Some resources on this page are helpful to born-or-raised and first generation. The former should also see ICSA’s Born-or-Raised Collection.

    • Personal accounts can often illuminate subtle aspects of the group experience.

  • Different people will respond differently to similar environments.

  • Therefore, pay respectful attention to the resources on our site, but don't do what you might have been encouraged to do in your group, that is, treat this information as holy writ that cannot be questioned. YOU decide what is relevant to YOUR situation.

  • People who leave cultic environments may experience:

    • A tendency to blame themselves for anything bad that happens

    • Depression and low self-esteem

    • Anxiety

    • Anger

    • Confusion, dissociation, “spacing out”

    • Difficulty concentrating, making decisions, or managing time

    • Black-and-white thinking

    • Loneliness

    • Difficulty relating to other people

    • Sexual conflict

    • Guilt

    • Flashbacks and triggers that may be related to trauma

    • Fear of the group

    • Fear that God will punish them

  • Many, and probably most, people who leave cultic environments can benefit from professional counseling.

  • Talking with other former members and with experts in events, support groups, or informally can also be helpful.

  • Be patient! Full recovery may take a long time.

Recovery in the Era of COVID-19

A Message of Understanding and Hope from

Lorna Goldberg, LCSW, PsyA, Board Member and Past President of ICSA

Bill Goldberg, LCSW, PsyA, Adjunct Professor, Dominican College, Orangeberg, NY

Patrick Rardin, Facilitator, ICSA CT Workshop for Those Born or Raised in Cultic Groups

Dear Friends,

All of us have been severely impacted by the fear caused by the novel coronavirus. Many of us are dealing with ongoing anxiety and a feeling of helplessness when we’re faced with a such a powerful threat, as this one, that we can’t control. Those who have been traumatized in the past are particularly vulnerable to the anxiety caused by this situation. Past traumas are stirred up by present fears; and, when dealing with a new trauma, we can become lost in memories and fantasies that emanate from earlier traumas. We experience our memories of past situations as if they were a part of our present life and our reaction to these memories can undermine our ability to make the most of our lives in the present.

Probably one of the bravest actions that you ever took was to leave your totalitarian and fraudulent environment. While in the cult, you may have believed that your leader or the leader’s doctrine would protect you from frightening things in the non-cult world. When you left, you may have felt that you were risking entry into a more unprotected environment. However, you had the courage to leave the cult despite these troublesome fears.

Since leaving, perhaps you’ve come to understand Steve Hassan’s concept of phobia induction. This phobia induction was the cult leader’s “insurance policy” to keep you from considering the fact that you would be better off without the cult.

In this stressful present situation, which might make you feel vulnerable, you may unconsciously yearn for that feeling of absolute protection that you once convinced yourself you had in the cult. Of course, examining the situation realistically, you recognize that cult members are not protected from the virus by their membership in the cult, but your logical mind doesn’t always overcome the gut-level fear that situations like this one can evoke.

It might help to remind yourself that the leader, whom you were supposed to regard as a protective savior, dealt with his or her own feelings of insecurity and vulnerability by creating a false front of power and invincibility. (If the leader had not been so insecure, he or she would have tolerated disagreement and challenges from the cult’s membership. Despite an outward shell of power, a bully is always a fearful coward who can’t tolerate the thought that someone could be wiser, more spiritual, more popular, or more powerful.) By identifying with the leader’s false shell of power and invulnerability, you may have believed that you didn’t have to deal with the realities of a capricious and, in this case, dangerous universe.

Additionally, and unfortunately, many religious cult leaders also instilled fear into members by creating their version of the Apocalypse, Armageddon, Rapture, etc. In their representations of “end times,” these leaders gave their own interpretations to events such as we are experiencing today. However, these were self-serving interpretations to scare and keep the members in line. Events such as our current one, while rare, have occurred before, and obviously none of them resulted in the end of the world. While the events unfolding now might trigger reminders of leaders’ end-times teachings, they are just as false as the majority of those teachings were.

Daniel Shaw, in his book Traumatic Narcissism, describes cult leaders as traumatizing narcissists, who take credit for good things but externalize blame for bad things, projecting the blame onto their followers. After leaving a cult, in frightening times, former members might feel a pull towards the fear and self-blame that they experienced while they were in the cult. This pull can occur because the world situation reminds them how they dealt with discomfort while in the cult.

You may unconsciously feel that a pandemic like the coronavirus is punishment for something that the world, or our nation, or society, or you did wrong. Since we are all imperfect human beings and not angels, all of us can find behaviors or thoughts that were far from perfect. You may want to consider Rabbi Harold Kushner’s perception in his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Kushner suggests that God, like us, is troubled by the crises in the world. Rather than holding us responsible for the bad things that happen, Kushner believes that God’s role is to support us during difficult times. If you don’t believe in God, there still remains wisdom in this approach. The salient point is that we all can gain from support during difficult times: from loved ones, therapists, neighbors, or co-workers. Creating a community for ourselves helps us. Life is random and often unfair. Kushner urges us to get beyond the unanswerable question, “Why did this happen?” and instead to concentrate on the question that we can have more control over, “What can I do now that it’s happened?”

People who do well in crises are the ones who take action on their own behalf and on behalf of others to gain some control over the situation. They might find it useful to regulate the powerful emotions that crises elicit by taking deep cleansing breaths and using grounding techniques when experiencing overwhelming anxiety. They might establish reassuring routines and eat and sleep at regular times. Some find it beneficial to take a break from the news if they find the news to be overwhelmingly upsetting. Others find that exercise helps, or a walk in the sunlight when possible. Some use this down time to involve themselves in creative pursuits such as art, music, or writing. Books and movies can provide needed breaks by allowing for temporary escape into different worlds. When feeling isolated, some people reach out to others to receive solace from nurturing relationships or they might find satisfaction in offering help.

Living in this confined and scary world makes it difficult for all of us to be our best selves. This is a time to practice self-acceptance (instead of self-blame). Keep your sense of humor. Most of all, please remember, this frightening time will pass.

Keep safe and take care of yourselves!

Lorna Goldberg

Bill Goldberg

Patrick Rardin

Readings

Books

  • Born and Raised in a Sect: You are Not Alone. Lois Kendall. Book Review.

  • Combating Cult Mind Control: The #1 Best-selling Guide to Protection, Rescue, and Recovery from Destructive Cults. Steven Hassan. Book Review.

  • Cult Recovery: A Clinician’s Guide to Working With Former Members and Families. Editors: Lorna Goldberg, William Goldberg, Rosanne Henry, Michael Langone. Purchase in bookstore. Detailed information on the book.

  • In the House of Friends: Understanding and Healing From Spiritual Abuse in Christian Churches. Kenneth J. Garrett.

  • Recovery from Cults: Help for Victims of Psychological and Spiritual Abuse - Hardcover (Michael Langone, PhD, Editor). Available for $20 in our bookstore. Book Review.

  • Starting Out in Mainstream America. Livia Bardin (This free book provides practical solutions for people with needs like: getting a driver’s license, finding a place to live, finding a job or job training, getting health care, finding your way around the legal system, and information about broader concepts like abuse and neglect, communications skills, relationships, parenting skills, aspects of mainstream culture like music, movies, and sports.)

  • Take Back Your Life: Recovering from Cults and Abusive Relationships. Janja Lalich; Madeleine Tobias. Book Review.

  • Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence – From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. Judith Herman. Book Review.

  • Traumatic Narcissism: Relational Systems of Subjugation. Dan Shaw. Book Review.

  • Understanding Religious Abuse and Recovery: Discovering Essential Principles for Hope and Healing. Patrick J. Knapp.

Videos

For more videos see ICSA's YouTube channel.

ICSA members have access to additional videos from conferences and virtual events.

Leaving and Recovering From Cultic Groups and Relationships. Michael Langone, PhD; Patrick Ryan

Problems Ex-Members and Families Face: An Overview. Lorna Goldberg, MSW, PsyA; William Goldberg, MSW, PsyA

Born or Raised in Cultic Groups. Lorna Goldberg, MSW, PsyA; Leona Furnari, MSW

Spiritual Manipulation in Pseudo-Christian Cults: A Panel Discussion With Former Members. Doug Duncan, MS, LPC; Wendy Duncan, MA, LBSW; Molly Koshatka

Talk to an ICSA Volunteer

The ICSA Membership Support Committee members are available to answer any questions you may have, whether you are an ICSA member, considering membership, looking for help, or simply exploring our resources.

To get started, tell us a bit about yourself by completing the form below. We will contact you as soon as we can.

In the meantime, please become a member and explore the links on this page to readings, videos, and events.