I’ve written before about why ex-members need to heal themselves before helping others. Even if they’re not interested in becoming a vocal activist against destructive cults, there are plenty of good reasons to learn about undue influence and work on personal recovery. It still amazes me to encounter incredible ex-member activists who have not done their own learning and healing!
Unless people put the time and effort into educating themselves and doing the healing work needed, I have found that ex-cult members can be carrying around unwanted baggage. They can also be more vulnerable to other forms of undue influence too. Some people have even temporarily returned to their group. Without healing, the “cult identity” can persist. It might find servitude, dominating leaders, comradery, grandiose ideas, and black-and-white thinking familiar and even comfortable. It takes work to restore the part of yourself (what I call the “authentic self”) that craves healthy relationships, freedom, love, and truth.
In 1992, I was asked to travel to Russia to train psychiatrists, psychologists, and guidance counselors so that they could help their communities avoid recruitment into Western cults which were flooding in after the Soviet Union fell. It was really interesting working with people who were essentially ex-members of a state-run political cult. The session with the guidance counselors was particularly surreal when I was told I was the first Westerner they have ever met. I started out by asking them if they had any questions for me. Dead silence. Finally, one person spoke up and said, “We’re not used to asking questions. We’re used to sitting and taking notes and memorizing what the instructor is saying.” Learning how to be curious, to ask questions, to be skeptical, and to seek out new perspectives is a huge part of recovering from a cult that wants you to conform and obey.
In 40 years of working with ex-members coming from a variety of undue influence situations, I have found that the universal problem is a lack of trust in yourself and others. After being deceived, manipulated, and abused, it can be difficult to learn how to negotiate healthy relationships with others. It can also take time and hard work to deal with feelings of worthlessness instilled by the cult.
Cult phobias can remain for decades without even consciously realizing it. I worked with a former Moonie who didn’t know why she was afraid to have children until she remembered that she was told by leaders in the Unification Church that if she left, she might have a stillborn child. Plenty of cults instill phobias in their members which can surface once they leave. More importantly, once these phobias are identified, they can be neutralized!
There are so many other issues that ex-members commonly face: identity confusion, anxiety, depression, sexual dysfunction, eating disorders, sleep disorder, dissociation, PTSD, and more. If they don’t do their healing work, they might be sabotaging their ability to deal with these issues by continuing cult habits, using cult objects, and using loaded language and cult jargon.
For example, Scientologists have their own dictionary of jargon and words to which they’ve given alternative meanings. If you’re an ex-Scientologist, look up these words in a standard dictionary to familiarize yourself with their mainstream definitions. Ask family, friends, and cult-sensitive therapists to point out when you use loaded language and cult jargon.
Ultimately, people want to be free. They want love and they want truth. They don’t want to be exploited by governments, cults, or anyone else. Recovery is hard work, but it is so worth it! Read about different models of mind control. Watch YouTube videos of ex-members talking about their experience. Build a good support network. Work with cult-sensitive mental health professionals. You can regain control over your own mind, and decide to live your life free from undue influence.