Dec 16, 2012

How Can Cults Harm People?

There are a wide variety of cults. Different people respond differently to the same environment. Therefore, not all people who have been in cults are harmed by the experience. But some, perhaps a majority, are harmed. 

The testimonies of the thousands of people who have sought help after a cult experience suggests that the core of their subjective experience is a sense of abuse and betrayal. The group promised them something wonderful, but ultimately they received disillusionment and pain.

Exiting a cult can involve much pain and suffering, in part because the group environment is so demanding and in part because the group becomes a part of the person’s identity.

Departure, then, is a form of psychic trauma. Indeed, many former cult members have been diagnosed with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder).
However, even for those who don’t reach the level of PTSD, the pain can be severe. Among the problems ex-cult members have reported are (adapted from Giambalvo):
  • Sense of purposelessness, of being disconnected.
  • Depression.
  • Grieving for other group members, for a sense of loss in their life.
  • Guilt.
  • Anger.
  • Alienation.
  • Isolation.
  • Distrust.
  • Fear of going crazy.
  • Fear that what the cult said would happen to them if they left actually might happen.
  • Tendency to think in terms of black and white.
  • Tendency to spiritualize everything.
  • Difficulty making decisions.
  • Low self-esteem.
  • Embarrassment
  • Employment and/or career problems.
  • Dissociation.
  • Floating/flashbacks.
  • Nightmares.
  • Family conflicts.
  • Dependency issues.
  • Sexual problems.
  • Spiritual issues.
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Re-emergence of pre-cult emotional or psychological issues.
  • Impatience with the recovery process.
Even with professional help, it is not uncommon for ex-members to require one or two years to work through their problems and re-establish an identity and sense of purpose apart from their group.

Adapted from: How Can Cults Harm People? (