Exit counseling for walk aways
By Madeleine Landau Tobias
For those who walk away, get kicked out, or are abandoned by their
cult leaders, it is often a surprise to find that freedom from the
cult is not necessarily freedom from the cult's influence and from
techniques of mind control.
Building a new life, finding work, starting new relationships, learning
to enjoy being yourself, trusting your own judgment, and sorting through
goals and values may seem overwhelming. Even these basic tasks may
be impeded by difficulty in logical thinking, mental confusion, anxiety,
cult-induced phobias, and heightened emotionality. In addition, nightmares,
depression, and a sense of hopelessness lead many to seek therapy
after the cult.
A complication to all of this is that many ex-members have difficulty
finding knowledgeable therapists familiar with cults and mind-control
techniques. Without addressing the particular methods and techniques
used by the group and its belief system, therapy is often prolonged
and unduly complex, and often doesn't address the immediate needs
of the former cult member.
As a therapist working with ex-members, I can explain the various
general elements of cult recruitment and mind control as well as identify
the effects of emotional, physical, and sexual trauma. Even more effective,
I have found that when therapy is combined with the expertise of an
exit counselor familiar with the group or type of group, recovery
can be greatly facilitated. Therapy can then be utilized to address
recovery needs and other issues.
The advantage of exit counseling is that often the ex-member is now
aware of the specific manipulative techniques used in the group. Reconstructing
some of these techniques can be done with the help of an astute therapist,
but often the altered states of consciousness experienced during cult
membership will continue to induce a spontaneous amnesia. In other
words, while chanting, praying, meditating, or using other exercises
during the course of group involvement, altered states (also known
as dissociation) are achieved. Even slight deviations from our normal
waking state of awareness can be enough to make the cult member highly
suggestible and then vulnerable to subtle group influences. These
deviations of consciousness combined with the suggestions, commands,
and subtle influences of the group or leader are often outside of
the person's regular conscious awareness.
The mind naturally attempts to make sense of what is illogical. However,
acceptance of cultic beliefs, influences, and values are often hard
to dispel when they are deeply imbedded in the above manner. Conflicts
and doubts about the group may be sensed, but the source of these
feelings are out of conscious awareness. It is for this reason many
people leave their groups knowing something was very wrong with the
experience, yet have difficulty understanding what happened to them.
Often ex-members blame themselves for not being able to stay in the
group, feeling a sense of personal failure. They do not see the "technology"
church, or the guru as being at fault, but rather somehow they believe
something is deficient in them.
Example 1: In a large mass transformational group, hypnotic trances
are induced throughout the training though never labeled as such.
The instillation of cultic beliefs is done while the individual is
in an altered state of consciousness (hypnotic trance) and is highly
suggestible during various "guided imagery" exercises. Other exercises
or "processes" use highly emotional states whose aftereffects camouflage
and make inaccessible an intelligent and conscious evaluation of the
Example 2: Another common occurrence is the hallucination of demons
or "deities" following prolonged meditation in some Eastern groups
or following indoctrination in certain Bible-based groups. Practitioners
of Eastern groups that promote lengthy meditation on and communication
with these "entities" may have difficulty stopping the hallucinations
after they leave the group. In Messianic and Bible-based groups, fear
of Satan or demons may be deeply instilled to prevent members from
leaving or communicating with those outside the group. Fears of these
"dark forces" may be manifested by extreme distrust of those outside
of the group, fear of oneself, or, in extreme cases, hallucinations
of demons or Satan.
To someone unfamiliar with cultic practices, the effects of those
techniques might be dismissed without appreciating the power they
have over mental processes. The problems of cult-induced hallucinations
and illogical thinking in the above examples may be quite misunderstood
by traditional mental health providers. These are not examples of
psychosis, but of purposely induced cultic phenomena in order to maintain
control of and further separate the member from society.
Without an adequate understanding of what occurred in the group, it
is extremely difficult to separate and distinguish cultic beliefs
and values from previously held ones. Illogical thinking, difficulties
in concentration and decision making, and erratic behaviors and feelings
are difficult to eradicate when their source is unknown. Understanding
the use and misuse of altered states combined with the beliefs of
the group is helpful in making sense of post-cult difficulties.
One option available to ex-members is to find an exit counselor familiar
with your group and arrange for some intensive time of counseling
for yourself. This is not psychotherapy but an informative process
designed to educate you about the specific mind-control techniques
used by your group and their effects; the foundation, fallacies, and
implications of the beliefs of the group; and perhaps information
on legal and ethical issues of the group and its leader. "Magical"
powers and manipulations of the guru or leader can be exposed and
the source of phobias revealed and resolved.
Since there are over 3,000 cults in the United States, it is unreasonable
to expect someone to be familiar with your cult if it is small (less
than 50 members). Cults, however, tend to fall into categories, such
as Eastern meditation, New Age, mass transformational, and psychotherapy,
political, Bible-based, and so on. Thus, finding a counselor with
a special knowledge of your type of group is a reasonable expectation.
Ask other ex-members about their experiences, read as much as you
can about cults and mind control, and then interview several counselors
before choosing one. Make sure you select someone you feel comfortable
with, can afford, and who is familiar with your type of group.
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Copyright 1995 IFAS
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