Mental Health
Everything You Need To Know About Cults And High-Control Groups

Everything You Need To Know About Cults And High-Control Groups

5 min read


Guest Author

In the past few years, a number of documentaries and TV shows have profiled different cults and high-control groups, and we have heard from so many of you that you want to understand how to help loved ones who may be drawn to these organizations. We shared your questions with Cathy Harris, LCSW, an expert in recovery from cult membership, complex PTSD and trauma-informed care. We hope this information is supportive for you; if you would like additional support, you can learn more about working with Cathy here.

How does one begin to be connected to a cult or convinced to join?

It is important to know that people don’t “join” these groups. Also, how we define “cult” is instrumental in how we see these groups.

Some dictionary definitions state that a cult is any “new” religious group or one that is uncommon re its teachings and practices. I don’t accept this definition. Instead, I respect Dr. Robert Lifton’s 8 criteria, identified after his study of soldiers who had been subjected to “brainwashing” while imprisoned.

I have worked with people of specific groups and some have had destructive experiences, while others don’t identify their group as a problem. We don’t have to criticize another’s belief system to help them. At the same time, practitioners do not have the right to tell someone that their group membership qualifies as “cultish” or high-control. The art of therapy is necessary, rather than black or white views.

There are many reasons why a person might get involved in an extreme group. Andres and Lane (in Clifford, 1994) characterize persons who are attracted to cults as being “in some type of transition” and they “feel vulnerable, depressed, and under stress”.

Curtis and Curtis (1993) name several factors that may predispose persons toward cult involvement: “generalized ego weakness and emotional vulnerability; propensities toward dissociative states; tenuous, deteriorated, or nonexistent family relations and support systems; inadequate means of dealing with exigencies of survival; history of child abuse and neglect”.  Other sources state that people of high income and high education join. Still others show that many groups are populated by those who are struggling to get by and have no hope for the future. People who feel disenfranchised or isolated seek to belong to something that purports to have a higher purpose.

In reality, anyone can ‘join’ a cultish/high-control group.

The principles that apply to working with those who have been members of such groups are also helpful for those who have been in narcissistic relationships. A “cult” can consist of two people only.

Groups use many methods to recruit new members. The faithful are recruited by religious groups that go door-to-door and college students are invited to retreat weekends; people may buy classes that promote self-help teachings, and, often, people are raised in groups joined by their parents. It’s important to know some of the differences between those who are “first” generation and those who are “second” generation members.

As with other types of relational abuse, violent means are not usually used in the recruitment process. “Love bombing” is typical, and this means that the new member is given a great deal of positive attention and support, at first.

The parable of the boiling frog applies. It says that, if you put a frog into boiling water, it will just hop out. If you use cold water and gradually turn up the heat, the frog will stay in the water.

As the member continues in the group, they are conditioned to accept what was previously unacceptable. A high-ranking former Scientologist (profiled in the Leah Remini series Aftermath) said “you start to rationalize insanity” when leaders engage in outrageous behavior.

This is one reason it’s so important to spend time with the member, as a family member or friend. Time away from other members and talking about light-hearted subjects can be a big part of what makes a person stop and think about their membership.

Is there a way I can prevent someone from joining a cult?

In a word, “no.” However, there are many things that a concerned loved one can do to maintain communication and connection with the group member.

This may be difficult to do but you’ll need to refrain from criticism of your loved one’s beliefs. Trying to convince the person they are in a cult or telling them “I told you so” if they do leave will be alienating and draw them closer (or back) to the group.

How can I get someone out of a cult?

The answer to this question is similar to the answer to “how can I prevent someone from joining?” above. Due to free will and a respect for personal belief, we can’t force someone to our views. Pressuring them in any way will usually backfire.

Keep up the connection and communication, don’t criticize the group, and keep the door open to caring and friendly relationships.

How can I leave a cult?

There are a few counselors, coaches, and therapists who can help. In addition, there are organizations that offer education and support. Two of these are Recovering from Religion (which offers free peer counseling) and the International Cultic Studies Association.

If you are coming to the realization that you have been in a cult, it is important to remember that it takes a great deal of courage and personal integrity to separate yourself from the group. Many people will flood themselves with information and stories of abuse via books, websites and films. Even though it may be an alien concept, basic self-care needs to be your primary focus at this time. Try to eat well, exercise, and talk to people outside the group. Realize that not everyone is going to understand what you have been through. Reclaim music, clothing, and activities you may have given up to become a member of the group. Give yourself opportunities for finding joy in everyday life.

Try to refrain from immediately joining another group or religion. Give yourself time to unpack your experience in the group.

What would you advise if the person wishes to continue in it?

People who are happy in their membership usually aren’t looking for outside advice. However, if you continue to offer a caring relationship rather than cutting them off, you can offer tangible evidence that their group wrongly accuses outsiders of not caring about them.

Do people who join cults typically suffer from mental health conditions?

A former member may be experiencing depression, anxiety, PTSD, complex PTSD, and other conditions. It is, important to see a professional if a person is seeking a diagnosis. However, pertinent help does not require having a diagnosis.

At the same time, a great deal of wounding (trauma) takes place within groups and relationships of a high-control nature. Besides the group dynamics (as reflected in Lifton’s criteria), they may have suffered physical, emotional, and/or sexual abuse. As with any trauma survivor, take time and care in your recovery when you seek help.

How do I convey that we disagree but that I would like to remain in touch?  

As you would with anyone with whom you disagree, respectfully acknowledge that you disagree but you are still a friend/family member who cares about them.

When we have a loved one about whom we are concerned, it’s important to work on our own need to control others’ behavior and choices. Al-Anon and other support groups can be quite helpful, as the situation is very similar to having a loved one who engages in addictive behavior.

At this time, I am not aware of any generalized groups specific to the needs of those concerned with cult membership. However, there are local groups listed on the International Cult Studies Association website, here.

How does a cult draw people in and get them to stay? What techniques do they use to lure someone in?

It is important to note that a “cult” does not identify as such. In most cases, the leaders and members do not start out intending to be a “cult” (with the exception of L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology).

Commonly utilized strategies for recruiting include:

·      Deception

·      Manipulation: gaslighting, intimidation, imposition, and isolation

·      “Love bombing”

·      Deprivation of sleep, food, and outside contact; undue influence

For those that leave, against their wills or not, how hard is it for them to integrate into society after being manipulated?

For most, it is very difficult. The group has been “all” for them.

If the group practices shunning, the individual will lose all contact with family and friends. They will be on their own for everything now.

Many do not seek support due to the suspicion of “outsiders” and authority figures (including doctors and psychotherapists) that the group instills in them. If the group outlawed going to college or improving oneself, they may have a difficult time just supporting themselves and their family.

I encourage those needing support to try to think outside the box. Survivors may need to use existing resources that don’t have cult membership as a primary focus. Think about the specifics of what you need and utilize what is available in your area or online.

In terms of therapy, what’s the average amount of time it usually takes for an ex-cultist to break whatever habits they had?

It depends on whether the individual was traumatized via abuse and/or neglect in addition to the membership in the group.

It can take anywhere from a few months to a few years (with progressive, trauma-informed therapy) to recover. They are not just breaking bad habits; they are re-wiring their brain to think differently now.

Many therapists unintentionally minimize the effects of destructive group membership and miss asking the right questions to help former members recover. Self-awareness and education are vital.

You have a right to work with a professional that understands your needs. It is helpful to ask specific questions about the practitioner’s philosophy of the work. A trauma-informed therapist, counselor or coach will likely be open to educating themselves, if they need to do that. It’s not your job to educate them, but you can ask them to look at information about your former group online.

What are the similarities between religious groups and cults? What’s the best way to distinguish between the two?

Many cults are religious in nature, but there are also psychological, political, and secular cultish groups that meet Lifton’s criteria. Any religion that claims to be the “only, true” one is in danger of developing into a high-control group.

The first word in “culture” is “cult.” It’s important to remember that we all need community and not all groups are destructive.

What is deprogramming and what is the purpose of it?

Deprogramming is not used much anymore. It was a way of forcing a group member to come to a point of denouncing their former group. It often involved kidnapping (by concerned loved ones and self- appointed “deprogrammers”) and emotional violence, thus, some deprogrammers have been charged with crimes in the US. Deprogramming attempts to reverse the effects of the “brainwashing” of the individual by the “cult.” There is little evidence that it is very successful.

Where can I find additional information?

Here are a few useful resources:

Steve Hassan: Combatting Cult Mind Control

Aftermath: A & E program with Leah Remini exposing Scientology

Dr. Robert Lifton: Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of "Brainwashing" in China

Dr. Margaret Singer: Cults in Our Midst

There are many modern-day biographies, with a focus on specific groups, available on book sale sites.

I offer online individual and group work for ex-members. My approach is trauma-informed and founded on over 25 years’ experience as a psychotherapist, as well as 26 years’ membership in a religious cult. Learn more about my story and approach here.

In addition, I offer training and consultation to professionals who are able to help former members. On January 28, 2022, I offer a 3-hour webinar. Register here.

Contact me at 877.375.7973 or on my website for a free, 20-minute consultation.

Download MyWellbeing's 2024 Mental Health Planner!
Thank you! Your download was sent to your email.
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form. Please try again.
Think this could help someone?
Share it with your network!
Want more helpful content like this sent to your inbox weekly?
Click here to sign up for the MyWellbeing Newsletter!

Recommended Reading

Author's headshot

About the author

Find the right therapist or coach for you

Complete our free, confidential questionnaire to easily and quickly match with 3 personalized coaches or therapists.

Get matched