Into personal development? Make sure you learn about cults
Updated: Jul 19
If you’re reading this on my website, chances are that you find the following appealing:
Meaning and purpose
A sense of belonging
A community of like-minded people
Opportunities for personal growth
Some wisdom or great truth that will bring solace or help make sense of the world
A role model or an inspiring figure of some kind
Someone or something that makes you feel special, important, like you matter
Some lofty ideals to work towards (e.g. “What we do here will change the world!”)
Basically, the same things that a lot of people who end up in cults find attractive in the first place. Many of them are smart people who happened to be preyed upon when they’re particularly vulnerable.
NXIVM in the US and Lighthouse in the UK are just some recent high-profile cases of non-religious cults that lured people in with what they purported to be personal development and/or coaching. Like many people, I used to bristle at news like this, thinking, What’s wrong with these people? How could they not know that they’ve joined a cult? How could they have stayed so long?
Turns out I had a lot of misconceptions about cults and didn’t know what I didn’t know. I hadn’t learned about trauma bonds, disorganised attachment, intermittent reinforcement, coercive control, erosion of one’s sense of self, love-bombing, gaslighting, etc. Psychological manipulation is no joke.
In the real world, we don’t often meet clear-cut, cartoon-like villains who are 100% bad, 100% of the time. But if someone is even exploitative 10% of the time, is that not 10% too much? Learning about cults has given me something concrete to identify patterns and evaluate the health of all types of relationships and groups. If you tend to give people the benefit of the doubt and rationalise problematic behaviour, you may find this knowledge helpful too.
What is a cult?
As Janja Lalich and co-author Karla McLaren write in Escaping Utopia: Growing Up in a Cult, Getting Out, and Starting Over:
Cults are not defined by what the cult leader or its members believe. Rather, cults are defined by how those beliefs and goals are transmitted, who is transmitting them, and how much freedom and autonomy group members have.
A cult is group or a relationship that stifles individuality and critical thinking, requires intense commitment and obedience to a person and/or an ideology, and restricts or eliminates personal autonomy in favor of the cult’s worldview and the leader’s wants and needs.
Not gonna lie – that definition reminds me of a not-small number of miserable families in my culture.
Alexandra Stein, in her book Terror, Love and Brainwashing: Attachment in Cults and Totalitarian Systems, defines a cult a little differently, but also highlights the control and the principle of “this authority figure has all the answers”:
A cult is a group of people led and generally exploited by a charismatic and authoritarian leader, who hold an extreme (totalist) set of views. A cult employs brainwashing in its efforts to keep members under its control.
“Charismatic”. All that glitters is not gold.
A cult can be “a political group, a church or other religious group, a meditation or wellness center, a workplace or a personal growth training program”, Stein also notes.
There’s such a thing as a one-on-one cult too, such as an unethical, abusive pseudo-coaching relationship with a guru type.
Are you in a cult-like, high-control group?
It’s common among Agile practitioners to use something called Liberating Structures to facilitate creative exploration. One such structure is called TRIZ. Here’s how it works: Let’s say we want to come up with ways to increase staff morale. Instead of tackling that question directly, we might explore the opposite: “How can we kill morale?” We then come up with a gazillion ways to kill morale, and then answer the sobering question: “How many of these are we currently doing in some shape or form?”
In my experience, learning about cults is kind of like that: the extreme helps us see the commonplace in a different way. Steven Hassan’s BITE Model of Authoritarian Control, for example, is a good list to check against (BITE refers to these four areas of control: behaviour, information, thoughts, and emotions).
Let’s try this: Bring to mind a relationship that makes you feel a bit icky. This could be your workplace, family, self-improvement group, or coaching relationship. The full BITE list is pretty long, so here I’m just going to highlight four items from each area. As you go through each item, ask yourself, ”On a scale of 0 to 10, with 10 being a full-blown cult, to what degree does this person do this?”
Dictate where, how, and with whom the member lives and associates or isolates
Financial exploitation, manipulation or dependence
Rewards and punishments used to modify behaviors, both positive and negative
Impose rigid rules and regulations
Deliberately withhold information
Distort information to make it more acceptable
Keep members busy so they don’t have time to think and investigate
Misquoting statements or using them out of context from non-cult sources
Use of loaded language and clichés which constrict knowledge, stop critical thoughts and reduce complexities into platitudinous buzz words
Encourage only “good and proper” thoughts
Forbid critical questions about leader, doctrine, or policy allowed
Labeling alternative belief systems as illegitimate, evil, or not useful
Manipulate and narrow the range of feelings – some emotions and/or needs are deemed as evil, wrong or selfish
Make the person feel that problems are always their own fault, never the leader’s or the group’s fault
Promote feelings of guilt or unworthiness
Phobia indoctrination: inculcating irrational fears about leaving the group or questioning the leader’s authority ... Never a legitimate reason to leave; those who leave are weak, undisciplined, unspiritual, worldly, brainwashed by family or counselor, or seduced by money, sex, or rock and roll
(Note: If you find that these apply to your family or relationship, which is sadly not uncommon, my heart goes out to you. Please know that help is available. You may also want to look up narcissistic abuse.)
Appendix D in Escaping Utopia: Growing Up in a Cult, Getting Out, and Starting Over is another reference to help you identify toxic influence in groups or relationships. Janja Lalich’s website also has 8 signs to watch out for and 20 questions to evaluate the validity of a group or leader.
I encourage people to have these references in mind when they’re shopping for a coach or self-help group. See what happens when you say no, disagree, ask questions, want to have time to think about things, etc. And if you sense that something is off, if they’re being defensive or evasive or not demonstrating accountability, consider Maya Angelou’s advice: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”
Now, if you’re like many super nice people I know, you might be thinking, That sounds a bit harsh. What if they just had a bad day? What if I just interpreted things wrong? Okay, how about believe them the second time? What evidence of accountability and amends have you seen? We’re talking meaningful behavioural changes – not a one-off thing, not promises, not grand gestures. We get into real, deep trouble when we ignore red flags, double down, and before we know it, become trapped and victimised again, racking up both sunk cost and shame and making it even harder to leave.
Stay safe. You deserve to, and there are enough good people and legitimate sources of support! And if you’re my coachee, you can certainly hold me accountable and evaluate me using these references.
P.S. All GIFs in the post are from Schitt’s Creek. Anyone else love the show and seeing most of the characters grow?