Paul R. Martin, Ph.D.
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 sidetracked.
The Six Myths About Cultism
- Ex-cult members do not have psychological problems. Their problems are wholly spiritual.
- 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 joined.
- 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 counselor.
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 problems…
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 speaking, accents]
- 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 emotions.
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.