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Home arrow Leaving a Cult? arrow Counselling People Who Walk Away From a Cult

Counselling People Who Walk Away From a Cult

By Madeleine Landau Tobias

For those who walk away, get kicked out, or are abandoned by their cult leaders, it is often a surprise to find that freedom from the cult is not necessarily freedom from the cult's influence and from techniques of mind control.

Building a new life, finding work, starting new relationships, learning to enjoy being yourself, trusting your own judgment, and sorting through goals and values may seem overwhelming.  Even these basic tasks may be impeded by difficulty in logical thinking, mental confusion, anxiety, cult-induced phobias, and heightened emotionality.  In addition, nightmares, depression, and a sense of hopelessness lead many to seek therapy after the cult.

A complication to all of this is that many ex-members have difficulty finding knowledgeable therapists familiar with cults and mind-control techniques.  Without addressing the particular methods and techniques used by the group and its belief system, therapy is often prolonged and unduly complex, and often doesn't address the immediate needs of the former cult member.

As a therapist working with ex-members, I can explain the various general elements of cult recruitment and mind control as well as identify the effects of emotional, physical, and sexual trauma.  Even more effective, I have found that when therapy is combined with the expertise of an exit counselor familiar with the group or type of group, recovery can be greatly facilitated.  Therapy can then be utilized to address recovery needs and other issues.

The advantage of exit counseling is that often the ex-member is now aware of the specific manipulative techniques used in the group.  Reconstructing some of these techniques can be done with the help of an astute therapist, but often the altered states of consciousness experienced during cult membership will continue to induce a spontaneous amnesia.  In other words, while chanting, praying, meditating, or using other exercises during the course of group involvement, altered states (also known as dissociation) are achieved.  Even slight deviations from our normal waking state of awareness can be enough to make the cult member highly suggestible and then vulnerable to subtle group influences.  These deviations of consciousness combined with the suggestions, commands, and subtle influences of the group or leader are often outside of the person's regular conscious awareness.

The mind naturally attempts to make sense of what is illogical.  However, acceptance of cultic beliefs, influences, and values are often hard to dispel when they are deeply embedded in the above manner.  Conflicts and doubts about the group may be sensed, but the source of these feelings are out of conscious awareness.  It is for this reason many people leave their groups knowing something was very wrong with the experience, yet have difficulty understanding what happened to them.  Often ex-members blame themselves for not being able to stay in the group, feeling a sense of personal failure.  They do not see the "technology" church, or the guru as being at fault, but rather somehow they believe something is deficient in them.

Example 1: In a large mass transformational group, hypnotic trances are induced throughout the training though never labeled as such.  The instillation of cultic beliefs is done while the individual is in an altered state of consciousness (hypnotic trance) and is highly suggestible during various "guided imagery" exercises.  Other exercises or "processes" use highly emotional states whose aftereffects camouflage and make inaccessible an intelligent and conscious evaluation of the experience.

Example 2: Another common occurrence is the hallucination of demons or "deities" following prolonged meditation in some Eastern groups or following indoctrination in certain Bible-based groups.  Practitioners of Eastern groups that promote lengthy meditation on and communication with these "entities" may have difficulty stopping the hallucinations after they leave the group.  In Messianic and Bible-based groups, fear of Satan or demons may be deeply instilled to prevent members from leaving or communicating with those outside the group.  Fears of these "dark forces" may be manifested by extreme distrust of those outside of the group, fear of oneself, or, in extreme cases, hallucinations of demons or Satan.

To someone unfamiliar with cultic practices, the effects of those techniques might be dismissed without appreciating the power they have over mental processes.  The problems of cult-induced hallucinations and illogical thinking in the above examples may be quite misunderstood by traditional mental health providers.  These are not examples of psychosis, but of purposely induced cultic phenomena in order to maintain control of and further separate the member from society.  Without an adequate understanding of what occurred in the group, it is extremely difficult to separate and distinguish cultic beliefs and values from previously held ones.  Illogical thinking, difficulties in concentration and decision making, and erratic behaviors and feelings are difficult to eradicate when their source is unknown.  Understanding the use and misuse of altered states combined with the beliefs of the group is helpful in making sense of post-cult difficulties.

One option available to ex-members is to find an exit counselor familiar with your group and arrange for some intensive time of counseling for yourself.  This is not psychotherapy but an informative process designed to educate you about the specific mind-control techniques used by your group and their effects; the foundation, fallacies, and implications of the beliefs of the group; and perhaps information on legal and ethical issues of the group and its leader.  "Magical" powers and manipulations of the guru or leader can be exposed and the source of phobias revealed and resolved.

Since there are over 3,000 cults in the United States, it is unreasonable to expect someone to be familiar with your cult if it is small (less than 50 members).such as Eastern meditation, New Age, mass transformational, and psychotherapy, political, Bible-based, and so on.  Thus, finding a counselor with a special knowledge of your type of group is a reasonable expectation.

Ask other ex-members about their experiences, read as much as you can about cults and mind control, and then interview several counselors before choosing one.  Make sure you select someone you feel comfortable with, can afford, and who is familiar with your type of group.

Reprinted with permission from Focus News.