“How do I know if I’m in a cult?”
I’ve been having a lot of private conversations lately—with quite a few individuals from a wide variety of backgrounds—that have all started with variations of this question.
Now, before I break down the warning signs I’ve been sharing in my private conversations with clients and friends, I have a semi-controversial thing to say, but hear me out:
Cults aren’t necessarily a bad thing.
Maybe you’re already aware of the origins of the word “cult” and the interesting connections we find between the origins of the words “religion,” “cult,” and “family.”
But in case you aren’t, the word “cult” derives from 17th-century French “culte,” or Latin “cultus,” meaning “to worship.”
Today, the word is defined as “great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work (such as a film or book).”
Chances are you’ve belonged to a cult at some point in your life.
The Beyhive? Cult.
The #girlboss/#bossbabe movements? Cult.
The never-miss-an-event Tony Robbins fans? Cult.
The “festival fams” at Coachella, Bonnaroo, and Burning Man every year? Cult.
The rallying cries of President Obama’s “Yes, We Can!” in 2008? Cult.
You get the picture.
Cults can be incredibly beautiful examples of humans assembling into new families wherever they go. They can give people a sense of purpose and direction, a community of like-minded souls, and a place for them to call home.
They’re not always a bad thing. Devotion and faith are empowering—when tapping into something truly positive.
But there’s a big difference between having faith or devotion in something and being involved in what I call a toxic cultic movement.
Now that we’ve addressed that point, I do want to shine a light on some of the red flags that show you’ve been raised in, or have unknowingly joined, a toxic cultic movement:
Restriction of behavior and environment
Many of these kinds of groups will have a set of unbreakable rules or doctrines. Those who break the rules risk being shunned (see point 2)—which, by group members’ standards, would be an equal punishment to death.
In order to follow the rules to the letter of the law, the group itself may have a communal living space for members to live in separation from the “secular” world. If not, then there are likely regular meetings, classes, lectures, and/or daily practices members must do in order to stay in alignment with the group’s core tenets.
If you’re feeling like you can’t do what you want to do or go where you want to go, that’s a sign of being a member of a toxic cultic movement.
Separation from family and friends not “in” the group
Many groups won’t require a new member to cut off friends or family right away
That is, unless a friend or family member speaks out against, questions, or shows concern about their loved ones’ involvement in the group. This tactic, employed by almost every group aimed at controlling its members, works on many psychological levels.
The longer members stay in the group, the more isolated they will become from the world outside the group—even if they’re living their lives in everyday society and aren’t living in a communal environment with other members.
It’s not uncommon to find members being employed by other members or renting property owned by other members. With the member’s world entirely entwined with the group, it makes leaving feel impossible and isolating—especially if the member was “born in” and raised in the group, meaning all of their friends and family are also members.
If you’re acutely aware of the fact that everyone you know and rely on for support is involved in a group, and that you would be cast out of the group if you don’t follow their doctrine/rules/laws, that’s a sign of being a member of a toxic cultic movement.
Promises of truth to be revealed
This one is especially relevant for religious/faith-based groups, but it also applies to many emerging toxic self-help groups.
In order to “dangle the carrot” and keep members actively involved in their elevation within the group, members will find themselves not being told the whole story. That is, having to climb a ladder or hierarchy of some sort to get closer to the truth being promised by the group and its leaders. And for some groups, members may find that they’ll never have access to some information—especially women, in many fundamentalist patriarchial groups.
If you don’t have access to the whole truth that’s promised by a group the moment you walk in the door, that’s a sign of being a member in a toxic cultic movement.
Restriction of access to free information
This is one of the most common signs in any type of toxic group—religious, terrorist, social, political, or otherwise—and the extent to which the restriction is carried out may vary.
For many groups, members will be directly instructed not to go online looking for information about the group. Members are told by leaders that their group is “misunderstood” or even more often “under attack,” and anything members would find would be only lies meant to keep the truth from being revealed. Some groups will be more subtle about the restriction, while others (particularly in communal living groups) will outright remove any ability to access information that isn’t created by the group itself. In every group, you will find the curation of their own media (including newsletters, magazines, news stations, newspapers, and more), and it will do its best to encourage members to stick to group-owned media when they choose to consume new information.
If you’re limited in your ability to get access to news and information—be it physically or by suggestion through group doctrine/law—that’s a sign of being a member of a toxic cultic movement.
Physical, emotional, and mental abuse
This is another point that will be very black and white for some groups, but for a great many of these groups, it’s a sea of gray. It is important to understand that any abuse is abuse, and abuse is not acceptable—especially in the conversation of love, family, and devotion.
Unfortunately, the black and white physical abuse is often done behind closed doors, as well—making it that much more difficult for the group as a whole to accept. When examining a cultic group, it is important to look at things from every angle.
Is their overall message, voice, and doctrine positive? Or, are there a lot of messages of fear, judgment, and shame? How do they treat ex-members and critics of the group—with grace, compassion, and an open door? Or, with harsh words, cold shoulders, and violent suggestions?
Is anyone who expresses sincere devotion or appreciation (or even curiosity) for the group’s core values welcome, or are people who are different (racial background, gender, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, political affiliation, country of origin) considered unwelcome?
If you’re seeing, hearing about, or aware of any kind of abuse or hatred being present in your group? That’s a sign of being a member of a toxic cultic movement—an atmosphere of shame and fear.
When members are first introduced to the group, they’ll likely find themselves being “love bombed.” Similar to abusive relationships, a member’s relationship with the group and people within the group will be extremely upbeat, amiable, and engaging. They’re wooing new members to return; who wouldn’t, when everyone seems so happy to be there?
But as time goes on, and the rules and restrictions start setting in, members may start to feel a sense of fear or anxiousness around what might happen if someone found out they broke a rule. Some ex-cult members have reported feeling fear and anxiety for even thinking about breaking a rule.
If you’re feeling as if your actions and thoughts are owned by someone else, that’s a sign of being a member of a toxic cultic movement.
Economic manipulation and abuse of power
This is almost entirely applicable to every toxic group, of any kind—and it often comes back to one thing: money.
Money is not the root of all evil, whatsoever. It is a neutral resource that is only given power by the person who holds it. In these groups, there will be an emphasis on giving. Members will hear, over and over, that the group is doing humanitarian work, missionary work, or some other kind of effort that requires members to give more and more money and resources to the group. This point in and of itself is not a sign of economic manipulation or abuse of power—and that’s important to distinguish.
It is when the group and its leaders harass, shame, or guilt members into giving that crosses the line. Whether giving is meant to be charitable or to exchange energy for services rendered, the act of handing your money over to someone else is a personal one. There should be no pressure or guilt involved.
If you are feeling uncomfortable or pressured to give your money to someone else and have lost the sense of choice in the matter, that’s a sign of being a member of a toxic cultic movement.
This is not a comprehensive list of warning signs of a toxic cultic movement. Some groups may exhibit all of these signs, while other groups may only have two or three of these points that apply to them.
But I’d like to invite you to take a look at your life, the groups and movements to which you are devoted, and ask yourself a few questions:
>> What attracted me to this group in the first place?
>> When I first joined this group, what did I expect to get or achieve for being part of this movement?
>> Since joining, what have I achieved, and what do I hope to achieve in my future as a member of this group?
>> What have I personally seen or experienced others achieving in the group—not just through testimony, but with my own senses?
>> If there is an ultimate goal or promise made by the group, how long do I expect it will take for me to get there? Have I witnessed anyone else getting there, personally?
If by the end of this, you’re starting to think that you may be involved in a toxic cultic movement, it is important for you to know that you are not alone, that there are good people doing good things in the world, and that there is a whole world beyond the group.
There are good, loving, and devoted people who desire to come together to be their best self and to change the world for good—which was probably exactly where you were when you found your group in the first place.
Have the courage to go find them, but have the wariness to know when one becomes toxic.