Have you recently started questioning your life and how you are spending your time and money? Have you read a book or article, listened to a podcast, or watched a documentary about a cult such as NXIVM and saw parallels to your own life circumstance? What about engaging with a former member? Perhaps you have felt a growing disillusionment because you have been treated unfairly? Are you beginning to question if it is time to leave a controlling group or relationship? How can you know for sure? There is actually a formula I have come up with that I believe works because it is process-focused and oriented to the person doing their own reality-testing. The focus of all my work is to empower people to think for themselves rather than trying to persuade someone of what they should believe or do. The assumption of my work is that people do not wish to be exploited, abused, or enslaved. They would like to experience a safe environment, trust, honesty, compassion, integrity and not hatred, fear and polarization.
The first step is always to take a “timeout.” I was constantly working 18-21 hours a day, seven days a week when I was a Moonie. When I fell asleep driving the Moonie van, I was so seriously injured that I was in a hospital away from contact with the group. Remember this was 1976- before cell phones or Internet. Today, the issue is people are being recruited and indoctrinated and maintained through their smartphones and media. (My blog on how personal information has been harvested illegally and is being use to target us and influence us was the subject of this blog on three important documentaries.) People, including myself, are literally addicted to the digital platforms we inhabit.
As difficult as it may be, if you really wish to reclaim your personal power and control of your own mind, disconnect from the group or person you suspect is unhealthy. This includes not attending any meetings and putting up a firewall around all information flow that has been reinforcing you point of view. If you can, go be in nature and turn off your cell phone and internet for a minimum of three days (a week is better). If you absolutely cannot totally disconnect, turn off all notifications and make a promise to yourself to not go to the apps or platforms that have kept you in a single information silo.
During this break, take time to recenter yourself. It is important to let your mind decompress. You can do this by spending time out in nature, listening to music, dancing, reading, or just relaxing. I highly recommend downloading and listening to Celeste Headlee’s important book Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking Overdoing and Underliving. She discusses cultural brainwashing of Americans to believe we have to work all the time and to be efficient, rather than creative and productive.
Next, learn about unethical influence. Do some research and review the Influence Continuum. Become informed about mind control by studying different models: Robert Lifton, Margaret Singer, and the BITE Model of Authoritarian Control. Undue influence or unethical mind control refers to a specific set of methods and techniques that influence how a person thinks, feels, and acts with the aim of recruiting a dependent and obedient follower. What helped me start to think for myself was exposure to Lifton’s model which he developed from researching Chinese communist brainwashing–what he preferred to call thought reform.
Then, seek out critics and former members. You see, in an authoritarian group, the ideology always prohibits members from reading critical information or speaking with ex-members. Take the opportunity to decide for yourself if critics and former members have substantive evidence and experience that might prove valuable. The key is to really listen to what they have to say with an open mind, as if you were not personally invested.
Next, reflect on your own experiences and be honest. Do these models of mind control apply to your group? What about what the ex-members’ have to say–in writing, videos and in person?
Ask yourself, “If I go back in my mind to before I joined or accepted what I was taught from childhood, was I lied to? If I knew then what I know now, would I have ever gotten involved or stayed in?” Think back to all of your questions or doubts, disagreements with leadership and personal experiences and use those to compare to what you know now. This may indeed confirm that it is time for you to leave. Why live a lie? Why continue to obey rules that do not make any sense. Why live in fear of being shunned or harassed by true believers?
Making an exit plan needs to be thoughtfully planned and considered. Remember, if you are in an authoritarian group and confide in a fellow member, make them promise to be confidential. Otherwise, they will be expected to report you to leadership and punishment will inevitably follow. Once you decide that you want to leave, it helps to start writing down all of the reasons you no longer believe or wish to belong. This will help anchor you. For those born into a group, there will be extra issues to overcome. Please remember you are not alone. Others have exited before you and can be a source of strength and support.
Some of these people have lived for years or lifetimes under cult influence. This often means, parents, siblings, friends, and others may be unwilling to leave with you. It happens quite often that strong natural bonds are strained and sometimes broken when deciding to leave.
Most authoritarian cults have policies that limit or forbid contact with former members. Defectors are seen as a threat to the group and labeled with names like “apostates” or “suppressive persons.” They are painted as “mentally diseased” and unfit for association. Shunning often follows and the person leaving the cult is cut off from those on the inside.
So often, the black-and-white mentality remains embedded into one’s mind. Physically leaving is an important step but psychologically leaving is a process that takes time and effort. Most people continue to unconsciously believe aspects of the cult programming, Some people continue following the policies of the group even after leaving. Because they know about the punishment of estrangement that is placed on those who leave, many former members resign themselves to having lost their family forever.
While the “exit cost” may appear to be great, with planning and education about mind control, everyone can exit safely and successfully.
The most important thing to keep in mind during the exit process is to take care of yourself before others. Before a flight takes off, passengers are reminded that in the case of an emergency to put on their oxygen mask first before assisting others. This applies here, too. You cannot help others until you help yourself.
As for the exit strategy, make note of what you may lose: community and support system, a place to live, employment, etc. Then actively make plans to overcome these in advance. Do you need to find a place to live? Get a job or change employment? Does this require additional education?
Of utmost importance is to have a lifeline, a support system, in place prior to exiting. Unfortunately, young people who question or disobey might be kicked out and wind up homeless and resourceless. They are easy prey for pimps and traffickers.
Connect with support groups of ex-members, in person or online. Search Facebook, Reddit, and MeetUp. If none exist for your area or group, join ones for similar groups. Reconnect with former members that left before you or family that never joined.
Continue to educate yourself about mind control and unethical influence. Some additional resources include: Freedom of Mind Resource Center blogs, videos, Combating Cult Mind Control and Freedom of Mind. You must learn the “why” to avoid repeating. Deprogram yourself. Understand the difference between a legitimate fear (where there is actual danger) and a phobia (irrational fear) and learn how to reassert your critical thinking and emotional center.
Just know that you are not alone; there are millions of other people, like myself, who have left authoritarian cults. It’s great to be free and true to yourself. You can proudly have your own integrity and develop your own conscience.
With proper support, and therapy, those who have left cults may even feel strong enough to rebuild relationships and save their loved ones from the mind control that they themselves have managed to escape. NOTE: in this pandemic time where there is such terrible economic hardship, cults are recruiting harder than ever as they know people are vulnerable. Be very careful. There are legitimate food pantries and nonprofits to help people. Check things out and protect yourself.