Curiosity and willingness to learn (working with former cult members)

‘Practitioners need to find the balance between not being overly neutral when listening to atrocities and being open to people’s feelings of loss and grief ’

Linda Dubrow- Marshall offers advice to therapists working with former cult members.

Establishing a psychotherapeutic or consultative relationship is a special challenge for people whose trust has been betrayed. People who have been in cultic groups and experienced ‘love-bombing’ and pseudo-intimate relationships, where sometimes people pretend to be similar to them in order to influence them, tend to feel that the professional relationship is cold and uncaring. Their experience of feeling special, purposeful, taken care of, and of living with rules stating exactly what to do can mean that clients pressure therapists to be directive. Some of the key tasks in working with current and former cultists are to help them to tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty, and to express and accept a full range of emotions, including existential angst, anger and grief. A return to critical thinking and the ability to make decisions is of paramount importance.

Practitioners need to find the balance between not being overly neutral when listening to atrocities and being open to people’s feelings of loss and grief when they leave the cult. These are the same skills needed to work with survivors of domestic violence where it may alienate the client to demonise their former partner. It is important for psychotherapists to acknowledge the client’s need to express the positive side of their relationships or what they may have learned or enjoyed during an otherwise traumatic experience, and to deal with personal anger and countertransference in supervision and consultation.

Psycho-education is a key element, whether working with individuals or their families, so that people can understand the experience and the principles behind undue influence. Lifton’s model is extremely helpful in explaining the processes of being in a totalistic environment. As family members come to understand the power of undue influence, their anger towards their loved one’s withdrawal or disturbing actions rightly becomes focused on the destructive group.

The field has changed; in the early days there were some forced de-programmings where people’s families kidnapped them in a desperate attempt to get them to listen to another point of view. Voluntary exit counselling has emerged since, often delivered by former members who have a great deal of specific information about the practices of various groups. Exit counsellors can also be called thought reform consultants or mediators, and they may refer clients to mental health professionals if there are signs of psychological difficulties.

It is likely that counsellors will at some point work with people who have been involved in cultic groups. I have not been in a cult, although members of my family have. But I know what it is like to be influenced, manipulated and deceived, and I have done things under group pressure that made me feel uncomfortable. These are universal experiences that can help practitioners to work with individuals and families while displaying the core conditions of empathy, unconditional positive regard and congruence.

Good counselling skills, coupled with curiosity and willingness to learn about the psychology of cultic influence while listening carefully to the specifics of the person’s experience, will enable practitioners to be helpful, and they can refer to specialists for consultation as needed.

Dr Linda Dubrow-Marshall, MBACP (Accred), is an HCPC-registered counselling and clinical psychologist and lecturer in Applied Psychology (Therapies) at the University of Salford. She is co-founder of Re-Entry Therapy, Information & Referral Network.