sets out to join a cult. No one knowingly wants to give up their
life, their needs, their goals. ''They come to believe they're
improving themselves and improving the world and it is then they
are led into a psychological trap. It could happen to anybody.”
Hassan – Leading American Exit-Counselor
alcoholics, addicts, adult children of alcoholics and co-dependents are
especially susceptible to joining cults or sects. Often anxious, fearful,
lonely, shameful, confused and depressed, we emerge from the fog of
addiction vulnerable, naïve and gullible. We lack the inner resources and
abilities to cope with the world around us. We are lost, seeking help,
feeling abandoned and hopeless. Our sense of self-worth and self-esteem is
abysmally low. We have no clear conception of our selves and a frail and
uncertain sense of self-identity. Very often we are unsure of who we are
or what the purpose of living is. In such a condition our powers of
judgment and decision-making are impaired. Naturally, we follow the advice
of those who seem to have our best interests at heart or have authority
over us. Fearing death from alcohol or drugs, we voluntarily (or sometimes
not) join organizations, which offer help and relief, but at a price. A
price we are not aware of at the time and that we might not agree to if we
new the consequences.
When anyone mentions the word cult or sect, we usually think of
groups like the Moonies, Branch Davidians or Lifespring. Many alcoholics
and addicts fall for these and lesser known groups in desperation when
trying to rid themselves of a miserable life of addiction. However, what
also we fail to see is that many officially accepted recovery groups can
also be cults hiding behind a thin facade of social respectability. Some
psychologists and cult specialists have already raised the question of
whether the 12 Step groups are indeed cults, endangering the long term
psychological well-being of their members. "Groupthink" or
thought control, cloning, mystique, self-confessions, "groupspeak",
veneration of texts and leaders, etc are some of the features of recovery
groups typical also of cults. Indeed, one should also be wary of non-12
Step groups, psychotherapy groups and even secular organizations.
support group does not have to believe in a Higher Power or follow 12
Steps to be in danger of being cult. Groups can be secular and scientific
and still qualify as cults.
If we are lucky the groups we join may help us achieve or maintain some
level of sobriety. However, in return, we may pay with the loss of our
individualism, personality, self-identity and our ability to re-establish
our place in the “real world” as functional, independent,
free-thinking individuals. In the name of recovery members' intrinsic
sense of self-identity is frequently undermined by the methods employed by
a group. In fact, the methods used to keep some of the
members abstinent are often the cause of serious psychological disorders.
Such methods are extreme cult-like pressures to conform, emotional
manipulation, threats and fear, reward and punishment and systematic
deconstruction of the personality and its replacement by a
pseudo-personality consisting of an artificial Cult Self or Sober Self.
It is probable that the limited success of groups like AA
("curing" around only 1 in 5 addicts) has nothing to do with the
use of a therapeutic method and more to do with brain washing. Those 12
Step members who stay sober for long periods probably do so as a result of
the cult discipline and mind control, much in the same way that certain
religious cults achieve periods of enforced celibacy and other acts of
abstinence.12 Step sobriety may be achieved through methods of thought
control and identity destruction, coupled with group coercion, fear,
reward and punishments, isolation, reality distortion, linguistic
programming, indoctrination and threats.
don’t be ridiculous” you’re probably saying. “ My support group
can’t be a cult. It is full of caring, courageous people doing a lot of
good for others and themselves.” That is probably true, but a member of
the Moonies or Branch Davidiians would no doubt say the same thing.
Indeed, all cults deny they are cults and practice exactly the opposite of
what they preach - loving Christians cults practice violence and
destruction; personal growth groups cause personality destruction; ultra
democratic groups practice internal dictatorships, and so on.
“Ah yes” you say “but cults are religious fanatics, with charismatic
gurus – we don’t have any of that”. In fact, a cult doesn’t have
to have a living guru, be fanatically religious, or religious at all. That
is just one cult variation. Cults can be secular, are found in the fields
of psychotherapy, politics, science, business training, self help and new
age movements. A cult can form around an idea, a book, a mission, a
vision, a theory, etc. Often cults form through split aways from
healthy organizations under the excuse of it being degenerate,
insufficiently fundamentalist, or badly organized. This is usually
provoked by the need of the breakaway cult members to find solace in
certainty, black and white thinking and set answers for everything. What
Fromm called the "Escape from Freedom". Moreover, just as nobody
decides to join a cult, cult members never think or admit they are in one.
Cult members like to reassure themselves in collective self-delusion that
they are superior, even denouncing other groups as being cults and/or
congratulating themselves on being the true path, being rational and
objective and even trumpeting their own non-cultism!
Forms of “cultism” can, therefore, vary from group to group and
take on different, special characteristics.
Recognizing a cult is not always easy, especially for the cult member.
Alcoholics, addicts, co-dependents and children of alcoholics in
particular will often defend their groups with the same passion and denial
that they once defended their addiction, their alcoholic family or
partner. Overcoming this is a process of acceptance and acknowledgement,
gathered through increasing awareness.
So, before we start a warning! You will need to have an independent
mind, give honest answers or battle to achieve it, in order to benefit
from this article. Denial is often the first defense reaction to these
issues, especially where you may see no other alternative and where for
recovering alcoholics and addicts and co-dependents, isolation and relapse
can seem to be the only alternative to continuing cult membership. What to
do if you feel you are in a cult is something we will come to at the end.
How then can we recognize and classify a cult?
American Family Foundation defined cults as:
"A group or movement exhibiting great or excessive devotion or
dedication to some person, idea, or thing, and employing unethical
manipulative or coercive techniques of persuasion and control (e.g.
isolation from former friends and family, debilitation, use of special
methods to heighten suggestibility and subservience, powerful group
pressures, information management, suspension of individuality or critical
judgment, promotion of total dependency on the group and fear of leaving
it), designed to advance the goals of the group’s leaders, to the actual
or possible detriment of members, their families or the community."
The sociological definition includes such things as “as
authoritarian leadership patterns, loyalty
and commitment mechanisms, lifestyle characteristics, (and) conformity
patterns (including the use of various sanctions in connection with those
members who deviate)”
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition
in regard to cults in health circles describes them
system for the cure of disease based on dogma set forth by its
promulgator” and in general, as a small group of people characterized by
devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work”
following characteristics of cults and sects are based upon the cult
classification systems of the world’s leading cult experts like, Singer,
Langone Lifton and Hassan. An organization doesn’t have to have all of
these characteristics to be a cult, and variations on the characteristics
are many, it just has to have a good number of them to be a cult or moving
in the direction of becoming one.
stresses that all cults are based firstly on a thought reform
programme. Such programmes aim to dilute people’s individuality, change
their core belief systems and alter their concept of themselves. This is
done by imposing a “totalistic ideology” which “explains
everything” Such groups will say they are “THE WAY”, the “ONLY
WAY” be it in religion, science, self-help, psychotherapy or politics.
Lifton points out that "included in this mystique is a sense of
‘higher purpose’, of ‘having directly perceived some imminent law of
social development’, of being themselves the vanguard of this
development" Consequently, all other groups are charlatans, shams,
impostors, degenerate, etc. Normally they have authoritarian leaders and
lieutenants at all levels and/or they venerate the works of dead leaders
to justify their totalistic ideology and actions. Not choosing the
group’s Way will usually lead to humiliation, damnation or death. To
achieve this they such a phenomenon members undergo what has been called
“brainwashing”, “mind control” in order to achieve
are some key techniques used for achieving this:
1) The cult relies on the vulnerability and naivety of the person, who
is unaware of the indoctrination process being used. Most cult members are
from the educated middle class, including lawyers, doctors, psychologists,
business people etc. A good proportion, though not all come from
dysfunctional families and/or suffer alcohol or drug problems. In general,
new members are usually undergoing a personal crisis and are easy prey for
all-embracing solutions. They are then pressurized to gradually adjust to
their environment so subtlety, that they don’t notice the changes to
themselves or, indeed, when they do, they view those changes as positive
ones. From the beginning they are unwittingly seduced into replacing their
own beliefs and values with those of the group and persuaded that their
everything about their former lives, personality and character before
joining the group was worthless and degenerate.
A regime exists where the
individual feels a sense of powerlessness and helplessness and the lack of
other alternatives, under an authoritative or authoritarian system. A
member is told they will be destroyed or corrupted by negative pressures
and that they can maintain their purity within the groups ranks.
prey on human aversion to uncertainty.
The group supplies ready made answers
for everything, thus helping to reduce insecurity and fear. Everything is
seen in terms of black and white, pure and the impure, good and evil.
There are set answers for everything and no room for uncertainty,
controversy, healthy debate or doubt. The member is given a complete
solution. In return, members of the group are expected to be unquestioning
in their commitment to the group’s identity, its ideas and leaders (or
& Time Control
4) The group asserts
increasing control over a member’s time and social and psychological
environment. Members are expected to attend many meetings and involve
themselves in other activities, reducing their contact with the outside
world. Members may be directly encouraged to break relations and social
contact with former friends, acquaintances and even loved ones. Gradually,
it becomes more and more difficult for members to imagine a life outside
5) Other group members work
in meetings and on a private basis to undermine new members’ confidence
in their own perceptions and opinions. A personal mentor may be appointed
to accelerate integration and mind control.
Bad feelings are always the fault of the person and not the group. Only
"good" and "proper" thoughts are encouraged and
“negative” thinking is jumped on. Members are to report their
thoughts, feelings and activities to the group or their mentor. They are
expected to ask permission when taking any major decisions in their lives
and sometimes minor ones, making them less and less able to think or
decide for themselves or function without the group. A person’s ego is
destroyed, they begin to doubt their own judgment and soon there is a loss
of free will.
6) Within cults there is
immense pressure to conform. They use a combination of flattery, threats
and guilt. A system of punishments and rewards is used to encourage group
learning and reduce unwanted behavior. Punishments like isolation,
shunning, “tut-tuts” and humiliation are used to cause fear and
obedience, while, alternatively, recognition, praise and “strokes” are
sparingly awarded by older members for obedience and loyalty to
Groupthink by the newer ones.
7) Group meetings often include confessional sessions where members
admit to past or present sins against the norms of the group - doing bad
deeds, thinking bad thoughts, etc, and in return, they receive both
admonition, warnings and praise for their confessions.
To help cultivate emotional control public exhibitions of emotional highs
and lows are often encouraged and applauded as a form of ritual
8) “Groupspeak” is another feature of all cults. Groups use
what Lifton calls "the thought-terminating cliché”.
Repetitive phrases, clichés, sayings, platitudes
and buzz words
are regularly invoked to describe all situations, and prevent further
analysis or discussion. Any disagreements are usually settled by referring
to the sayings or writings of wise leaders (past or present), rather than
by turning to independent analysis. Members are rewarded for their ability
to regurgitate this “Groupspeak” and for their willingness and talent
for putting down dissenters with cult clichés. Lifton argues that the
effect of is critical to mind control “since language is so central to
all human experience, .. capacities for thinking and feeling are immensely
narrowed" Moreover, the “secret vocabulary” reinforces the idea
of distance from the outside world.
9) Cults "clone" people into smaller versions of the cult
leader(s) and members. Visiting a branch of the same cult in Toronto or
Tokyo will find yourself in the presence of the same “person” or type.
Cults rob people of their individuality, personality and uniqueness and
replaces it with the cult “Self”, which implants a cult personality in
place of the person’s real self.
10) Not content with creating a false conception of the present, cults
are also not adverse to rewriting history also. Whenever historical fact
or the truth doesn’t fit in with the cult leaders’ designs and
aspirations, they simply change it. As Lifton says “past historical
events are retrospectively altered, wholly rewritten, or ignored, to make
them consistent with the doctrinal logic” The new line “simply
replaces the realities of individual experience..."
11) The cult leader(s) is prepared is to lie blatantly and obscenely
about other individuals or organizations, with total disregard for the
truth or any sense of moral objectivity. A frequent tactic by cult leaders
is to avert attention from their own sins by accusing others inside or
outside their organization of crimes for which they themselves are guilty.
Only those who are group members are truly good, sane, wise or sober.
Since members loose the faculty of critical judgment and the ability to
think for themselves, they never question the lies and distortions of
their leader(s). Members feel total loyalty to those who have “saved
them” and follow in blind obedience.
12) Leading figures, either alive or dead, are honored and venerated.
Statements are often supported by quotations and sayings from sacred
writings or speeches. Predictions of catastrophe or damnation are common.
This can be anything from Armageddon, to madness, persecution or
alcoholic/drug relapse. Very frequently those who have come from crisis
situations are warned that leaving the group will bring certain relapse.
13) The direction of the group comes from a shadowy leadership, rarely
seen and with little or no real democratic controls. There are assurances
about the democratic character of the group and its strident democratic
checks and procedures. Indeed, on paper the cult may appear to be super
democratic, but in practice everything is run by leader(s) and cliques and
committees, and committees within committees, picked from the chosen few
and frequently made up of the same people. The
cult uses a closed system of logic, where no feedback is allowed and
revisions are only made by higher authorities.
often amass personal power, often including wealth and sexual favors.
14) Cults often have an internal aura of mystique in which members
feel they have “a sense of ‘higher purpose’, of ‘having directly
perceived some imminent law of social development’, of being themselves
the vanguard of this development" (Lifton) This includes delusions
about historical roles, being “chosen ones”, the “vanguard”
“pioneers” and leading new, mass social, political, religious or
scientific movements. This gives a sense of purpose in life, for members
who entered feeling their life had no meaning or goal.
15) Cult leaders are often charming, charismatic figures with above
average intelligence. The charismatic charmer is one their personalities
– a pseudo-personality - Many
suffer from borderline, disassociate or multiple personality disorders.
Members feel honored to be with, and be seen, around them. But their
personality can change dramatically in a flash. Cult leaders are always
very disturbed individuals. They are usually victims turned persecutor,
having a history of involvement in other social, political or religious
cults and/or suffering the effects of a traumatic childhood. Behind their
strong and confident exterior (pseudo-personality) they need their leader
position to compensate for a very fragile sense of self-worth, self-esteem
and self-identity. This is also shown be the fact that they cannot
"hack it" in the real world and need to live in a cult/sect
environment to live out their problems. Their past histories show social
marginality and a tendency to drift from one cause to another, one cult to
another, one job to another, one marriage to another, etc. They spend
their lives dedicated to their cause (increasing through the Internet,
also now). They are obsessive-compulsive, fanatical and manipulative.
Nothing will stand in the way of their visions, schemes and
self-glorification - not even the well-being of their partners or
children. They manipulate the minds of vulnerable members, extorting money
and sexual favors and/or abusing them psychologically, physically and/or
damage from cult membership
People who join
cult and sects are often normal, well-educated folks going through
an episodic crisis. Many others may already suffer from problems
inherited from dysfunctional and alcoholic families, as well as
adult psychological, obsessive-compulsive or addictive disorders.
Whatever ones background and condition upon entering a cult/sect,
research shows that most members (including "normal"
people) leave badly damaged psychologically and face great
difficulty coping with their internal and external lives.
The effect is very similar to PTSD or Post Traumatic Stress
Disorder. This is caused by the overwhelming unseen, but
continuous strain and stress of cult membership on the psyche and
personality. In some cases, it is also caused or compounded by
physical or sexual abuse. Since cult members' lives focus on the
group, they become divorced from the real world and natural
relationships. This together with the constant pressure and
alertness needed to conform and perform as expected puts their
minds and bodies under a persistent and unnatural state of stress.
The pernicious psychological abuse suffered in cults is sufficient
to create a feeling of powerlessness and helplessness in the
face of life events and one's own emotions. Ex-members often feel
unable to cope with life on their own and feel unable to control
their own lives. As a human being they come to feel that they have
been humiliated, degraded and worthless. Those who already suffer
from PTSD as a result of an upbringing in dysfunctional and
alcoholic homes, risk compounding the problems inherited from
their illness and childhood relations. Typical symptoms of cult
membership are :
Loss of Identity
Difficulty taking decisions
Feelings of dread
Negative thinking & imaging cycles
Difficulties in social relations
Fear of losing sanity
Feeling out of control
Suicide, suicidal thoughts or idealization
Emotional and Behavioral constriction
Irritability, excitability & aggressiveness
Cult experience could be
"rape of the personality". Consequently, most
cult members come to suffer from personality disorders like
Dissociative Identity Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder
and Multiple Personality Disorder. They can "float" back
into their cult personalities as a result of external or internal
stressors and triggers.
They may suffer nightmares, flashbacks, depersonalization,
dissociation and out-of-body experiences and disorientation.
Recovery from cults takes time and patience, but can be
successful. People need to find their true selves again and regain
self-awareness, self-worth, self-confidence and a sense of
perspective. Despite everything they experience, research shows
that their true self remains suppressed, but existent, under the
pseudo-personality superimposed by the cult. Healing and growth
needs combined efforts and professional help. Sufferers may need
to enlist the support of the following:
to look for in an Organization
are voluntary associations where people collaborate to work out
their ideas with a shared purpose and specific goal. Everyone is
free to criticize and hold different opinions from that of the
group’s leadership. Differences of opinion are welcomed and
respected. There is no psychological pressure to conform and no
atmosphere of enforced uniformity. Members view themselves as a
part of society in general involved in a group for practical and
limited reasons. Members spend only a reasonable part of their
spare time in group activities and enjoy a completely separate
family, social and professional life. Healthy groups are
democratic in practice and not just in theory. Members are free to
come and go as they please. They participate as they wish, without
feeling excessive guilt or shame for not attending meetings,
donating time or money. Nobody fears any physical or psychological
reprimand for missing meetings or refusing tasks. Members put
their personal needs first and are able to differentiate those
from the needs of the group. They decide for themselves their
relations with the group and are able to reassess their level of
commitment and also leave the group without creating a major
personal crisis or conflict with the group
SOS prides itself on
its anti-cultist and free-thought approach. While no human
organization is free from the dangers of cultist degeneration, SOS
has been happily free of these problems. Where it has emerged,
this has resulted in individuals and small groups splitting away
to form their own groupings. These groups all quickly disappeared
or degenerated into small local fads. One such process is now
taking place with the larger LifeRing group, which we hope does
not degenerate into a secular cult. SOS does not consider itself
"the Way", but only one way to self-help and sobriety.
Indeed, within our ranks we have many different approaches.
SOS has no central apparatus, hierarchical structures or
authoritarian leaderships. Each individual is a leader in his or
her own sobriety. Our philosophy is that each individual is unique
and should therefore find and fashion their own road to sober
living and a full life. We have no interest in members private
beliefs or lifestyles. All groups are independent and work
together as a voluntary association of free-thought groups.
BE YOUR OWN JUDGE !
Find out more about SOS
in control of your own mind includes being in touch with your
feelings, having the ability to think analytically, question,
look at issues from multiple perspectives, having control of
your behavior to take periodic "time-outs" in order to
reflect and be able to have access to information which may be
"negative" to the group leadership.”
Why the 12 Steps work for some